Netflix's extraordinary exclusive series Black Mirror recently released its fourth season, and it's premiere episode, "USS Callister", is already being praised around the internet for its spectacular deconstruction of toxic fandom and male-entitlement power fantasies. It deserves every bit of that praise. Jesse Plemons is also deservedly earning plenty of praise for his incredible performance as both a nerdy creeper and for his spot-on Shatner send-up. But Black Mirror, as a series, is so good, in part, because it works on many, many different levels. So I wanted to spend a bit of time praising the episode for some of its other concepts that are getting less attention in the mainstream.

Jesse Plemons puts on a masterful performance as a nerdy office creeper and a spot-on Shatner send-up.

Before I do that, I want to start by saying that I love Black Mirror as a series. It's a modern-day Twilight Zone with a specific focus on the social impacts of technology, and dire warnings about their dangers. Yes, it's pessimistic, but it's bloody brilliant! I haven't sat down to watch every episode yet, and have only seen a handful of episodes from the first three seasons and the season four premiere. That being said, the show's second episode "Fifteen Million Merits" is one of my favorite pieces of television ever. "The Entire History of You", "Be Right Back", and "San Junipero" are also some of my favorites so far.

These episodes (along with "USS Callister") work so well for me because they do such a fantastic job of world-building. These deep, nuanced worlds create many levels of commentary to unpack. "Fifteen Million Merits" focused on reality TV and pervasive advertising, but it also has some scathing warnings about a culture of body-shaming, obsession over digital merits (read: XBox Live and Steam Achievements), and how corporate avarice could turn a post-scarcity economy into an absolute dystopia.

A friend of mine highly recommended "San Junipero" to me on the grounds that it's a more optimistic episode than many of the others -- even having a happy ending. But my takeaway was not a "happy ending" at all. The fairy tale ending hides a sinister metaphysical question that the text of the episode mostly sidesteps: the mind-body problem. Is the avatar of a deceased person living in San Junipero really that same person? Or merely a copy? Are they one power failure away from being snuffed out of existence? Are people committing suicide based on misinformation from a multi-billion dollar corporation promising that they can live forever in a simulated reality?

Black Mirror's exceptionally well-thought-out worlds always leave sinister nuances to unpack.

"USS Callister", on the surface, appears to be entirely about toxic fandom (along with male entitlement). It is absolutely about that, and it does a fantastic job of presenting it. As a Star Trek fan, I also enjoyed the deconstructive elements about Trek tropes and the unrealistic reverence that fans hold for the series and its established canon. As someone who blogs about Star Trek, Star Wars, video games, and other fanboy topics, I am certainly a target of at least some of this episode's criticism.

As someone who works in the software industry, I recognized the episode also taking swipes at the cult of personality attached to tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gabe Newell, and others, and the idea that they may be taking credit and profiting on other people's work, and becoming filthy stinking rich at the expense of the consumers who mindlessly use and venerate their products, all with willful disregard for how those products may be misused. As someone who can't wait to put myself on the waiting list for a Tesla self-driving car, I'm also well within the cross-hairs of that line of commentary...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

Obviously, I love the Sid Meier's Civilization game franchise. I've been playing it since Civ III, and even own the Fantasy Flight board game (which I also really like). This game series has kept me up, one-more-turning, into the wee hours of the morning on many occasions. Despite my love for the games, this series can also really grind my gears sometimes.

One of my persistent frustrations with the Civilization series of games is the way that it handles difficulty levels. Granted, this seems to be a common issue in all strategy games, so Civ is certainly not unique in this frustration. Basically, the higher difficulties don't make the A.I.s play better; rather, it just gives them free stuff at the beginning of the game, and buffs their production, research, and so on. The free stuff includes (depending on the difficulty level selected): extra settlers, extra military units, free workers/builders, free technologies, extra gold, extra population in its starting city, and so forth.

There's three key problems with this design paradigm:

  • It front-loads the challenge in a game that is supposed to have very long play-sessions
  • It limits player options
  • It rushes the pace of the game

The front-loading of frustration

Giving the A.I.s extra stuff at the beginning of the game only makes the game harder by giving the A.I.s a handicap - a head start. It doesn't make the A.I.s better - or the game harder - in the long run. The A.I.s still chose crappy locations for those extra settlers to plant their cities - often putting them in un-productive locations, or (in the case of Civ VI) putting them so close together that they can't fit enough districts in. The A.I. doesn't plan ahead regarding where its districts will be, and it often places those districts in sub-optimal locations. "Sub-optimal" being an understatement.

Civilization VI - A.I. free settlers
The A.I. starting with extra settlers on high difficulties doesn't make the game harder in the long run.

Those free extra units aren't used more effectively either. Even with a few extra warriors, the A.I. still can't plan or execute a city siege, as it's generally inept at handling the one-unit-per-tile, hex-based combat, and they rarely bother to escort their civilian units. The developers can't be completely blamed for this, as A.I. for tactical combat is a very difficult problem to solve. Most games that have A.I.-driven tactical combat either don't have any grand strategy at all (as in Panzer General), or the grand strategy is separated into a completely different layer of gameplay (as in Total War).

Once the human player can get his or her cities up and running, get a sizable military built, and start conquering the A.I., all these free starting units become moot. These extra units can even backfire. A.I. cities can usually easily be captured by the human player. Since the A.I. gets buffs towards population growth, production, and other yields, those cities tend to grow faster than the player's cities anyway. So if they're conquered, then the human player gets better cities than they could have founded on their own, and gets them sooner than if they had spent the time to build their own settlers.

Civilization VI - capturing A.I. cities
It's not hard to capture A.I. cities, which are often larger and more developed
than any city the player could have founded within the same amount of time.

These early hurdles aren't that difficult to overcome, and once the A.I.'s starting advantages have been neutralized, they don't pose much of an increased threat long-term...

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Star Trek: Enterprise

Star Trek: Enterprise is a very divisive topic among Trekkers / Trekkies. Personally, I'm not a big fan. It was a perfectly adequate space adventure TV show, but just never quite worked as hard science fiction for me, let alone as "Star Trek". There were certainly some stand-out good episodes. The haunted space station of "Dead Stop" and the mirror universe antics of "In a Mirror, Darkly" being among my favorites. The annoying thing is that the show made several mistakes at very fundamental levels before it even got off the ground. I could have lived with the show being a prequel, but the efforts to make the show seem both futuristic to the viewing audience, but also less advanced than the (then 40-year-old) original series put the show in an awkward juxtaposition with established series continuity. The hackneyed time travel meta-plot certainly didn't help.

"Juxtaposed" is an excellent way of describing Enterprise as a whole. It's a show that simultaneously seemed ashamed of its "Star Trek" name (remember, it premiered with the title "Enterprise", and "Star Trek" was only stapled back on in later seasons), while also indulging in needless - and sometimes cringe-worthy - fan service (such as the appearance of the Borg, Ferengi, and the entire episode "In A Mirror, Darkly"). It wanted to distance itself from established Trek tropes, but also brought back many of the same technologies, concepts, and character archetypes (simply renaming many of them). It set itself at the cusp of development of advanced science fiction technologies, but completely waffled when it came to telling hard science fiction stories about those technologies. It wanted to be simultaneously a prequel and a sequel via its contrived time travel premise. It was this lack of confidence and true vision that really killed this show.

The science of future technology

The show made the mistake of trying to present a Star Trek setting that was less technologically advanced, but still went ahead and gave the crew access to stand-ins for all the established trek technologies. They tried to make the Enterprise itself feel more like a contemporary submarine with its confined spaces, but it never really felt different. There was "hull polarization" instead of shields, and "phase cannons" instead of phasers. Different names, but same basic concepts that were used in exactly the same manner. The crew didn't start the show using more contemporary-seeming projectile weapons - not even a futuristic projectile weapon like a rail gun - before transitioning to purely energy-based weapons. The Enterprise didn't have to be equipped with any kind of futuristic chaffe in order to misdirect hostile targeting scanners, nor did it use point-defense to destroy incoming missiles.

"Phase pistols" and "polarized hull" were just lazy stand-ins for phasers and shields.

The only pieces of tech that the show really held off on (and were relevant to narrative) were the universal translator and transporters. The translator was rarely an issue since Hoshi was practically a Babel Fish. The transporter was there, but it was not trusted to reliably transport living things - even though it had been verified as safe by the beginning of the first episode and was successfully used in that episode. So for most of the show's run, the crew used shuttle craft for away missions, but the transporter was always there just waiting to act as a deus ex machina to get the crew out of a sticky situation (which, of course, happened on multiple occasions - including the premiere).

The fact that these technologies were already in place made the show feel too similar to other Trek series, even though it desperately wanted to feel distinct. But it also prevented the writers from exploring some of the more interesting issues inherent to the development of these technologies...

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In the comments of a recent post about Silent Hill 2's Otherworld, I had a discussion with a reader about the time period in which the Silent Hill games take place. This is actually an interesting and difficult topic, so I thought that I would dedicate a post specifically to it.

First and foremost, let's remind ourselves of when the games were released:

Game titleOriginal release
Silent Hill coverSilent HillJanuary 1999
Silent Hill 2 coverSilent Hill 2September 2001
Silent Hill 3 coverSilent Hill 3May 2003
Silent Hill 4 coverSilent Hill 4: the RoomSeptember 2004

Contemporary fiction

It is very important to note that no specific dates ever appear in any of the Silent Hill games that were developed by Konami's internal Team Silent studio. If dates are provided, they are either only the month and day (and not the year), or they are time periods relative to the events of the game (such as referring to the "events of 17 years ago" in Silent Hill 3), or it is just the year of an historical event in the past (such as the document about the sinking of the Little Baroness). Even documents that you would expect to have dates (such as newspapers, journals, diaries, patient reports, and police records) are intentionally left dateless (or at least ambiguous).

In Silent Hill 2, there is a point in which James finds newspapers scattered around a hallway. Upon examining the floor or walls, James comments that the newspapers have today's date. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the developers to provide a specific date for the game, if they wanted to. They could have had James read the date on the paper to the player, or the paper itself (with its date) could have been made clearly visible. The developers didn't do this; they left it completely ambiguous.

Silent Hill 2 - labyrinth newspapers
James notes that these newspapers have today's date, but doesn't tell us what the date is.

The developers went out of their way to not provide any specific dates for the games. Why would they do this? Typically, works of fiction that are not set in particular time period are written to be contemporary. Unless otherwise specified, most works of fiction should be assumed to take place now with respect to the consumption of the work by its audience, regardless of when "now" happens to be. if it's not contemporary to consumption, then it's usually contemporary to creation. This is usually pretty obvious if the work contains detailed descriptions of locations, technologies, and events that can be easily dated.

If we look at the original Silent Hill game in a vacuum, then the game provides no internal indication that it takes place at any specific time period. Players in 1999 probably had no reason to believe that the game took place in any year other than 1999. The same is true for Silent Hill 2, 3, and 4: if looked at in a vacuum, they can all be considered to take place in the same year that they were released. And if you didn't even know the year that the game was released, there's very little within the games to indicate that they take place at any time other than now.

However, this assumption falls apart because there is an absolute time difference of seventeen years between the events of the first game and the events of the third game, even though the difference in time between releases of the games was only four years. So we can't assume that each game takes place in the year of its release. At least one game has to be shifted on the timeline. So which game (or games) should be assumed to have taken place when?

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Back to the Future II - dates
"Back to the Future Day" is rapidly approaching.

This fall, expect to see an onslaught of social media posts about how scientists and engineers have failed us because they haven't invented hover boards, self-drying clothes, holographic sharks, or flying cars. These sorts of Back to the Future memes have been showing up on social media every October for the past few years, often with the dates misquoted. These posts also tend to lament the lack of the nifty technologies showcased in Back to the Future.

And it isn't just Back to the Future that makes people get all nostalgic for the science fiction technology of yesteryear. At the turn of the century, people also bemoaned the huge gap between the manned spaceflight program depicted in Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Arthur Clark's classic novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. We also don't have food in the form of pills, or robot butlers, or lightsabers, or holodecks, or wrist phones either. Oh wait, we do have wrist phones, so we can check that one off the list.

But maybe the tech that we do have is actually better than what is depicted in contemporary science fiction movies.

Here's what bothers me: the same people who use their smart phones to post these "Back to the Future Day" memes to Facebook, and demand that scientists get off their lazy butts and build a working hoverboard, often take the technology that we do have for granted...

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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