Category: science fiction


This post contains spoilers for the plot of the computer game To the Moon.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, play or watch the game!  Otherwise, keep reading.  This post looks a bit more at one of the game’s most interesting characters, River.  (“River” is a popular name in sci-fi, isn’t it?  You also have Firefly‘s River Tam and Doctor Who‘s River Song, both of whom are also very interesting people.)

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To the Moon screenshotThanks for reading my introductory post about the computer game To the Moon!  This post will start to get into the details of the plot in earnest, so only continue reading if you don’t mind finding out what happens in the game.

My girlfriend Megan has already written over a dozen posts reflecting on her reactions to the game and how it relates to Asperger’s syndrome, and they are really neat!  Her posts are a lot less spoilerish than mine, so you can check them out if you want to learn more about the themes of the game without being spoiled about the details of the plot.

Megan seems to have less trouble expressing her thoughts in words than I do; I usually have to have all of the details laid out in front of me before I feel like I can say anything.  With that in mind, the spoilers begin below…

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I recently watched a playthrough of the computer game To the Moon, which I knew nothing about except that it was independently made and that a lot of people were impressed by the depth of its storytelling.  I found it to be a gripping story that managed to use the genre of a video game to draw the player into a tale that was both tragic and beautiful at the same time, while giving the player a lot to think about.

To the Moon screenshotI really can’t talk about how the game does this without giving the story away, so if you want to experience it the way I did, you can download it for Windows computers at http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/ for $10.  Or, you can look for a playthrough of the game on YouTube, preferably one without anyone talking over the game, such as this one.  I was so impressed by the playthrough that I bought a copy of the game to play myself.

There’s actually enough to talk about in To the Moon for a whole series of posts, and I’m afraid I will need to reveal most of the story in order to talk about it.  So I’ll just start with this post for now, and include the following spoiler warning:

If you are the type of person who wants no spoilers at all, then I’m afraid you have to stop reading here and play the game!  Be prepared for tears, though– it’s an emotional story.

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There’s a line in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I always liked.  It’s from the episode “Ensign Ro,” which introduces the character Ro Laren, a young Bajoran Starfleet officer who is a bit of a rebel.  She was serving time in a detention center because of an incident in which she didn’t follow orders and several Starfleet officers died.  Ro is released from detention to help the Enterprise crew with a mission involving the Bajorans.  She’s made to feel less than welcome on the ship, and she’s not thrilled about being there.

Inexplicably, Captain Picard’s old friend, the wise bartender Guinan, decides to become Ro Laren’s friend whether she wants it or not.

Guinan: Am I disturbing you?

Ro:  Yes.

Guinan:  Good. You look like someone who wants to be disturbed.

Ro:  I’d rather be alone.

Guinan:  Oh, no you wouldn’t.

Ro: I beg your pardon?

Guinan: If you wanted to be alone, you would’ve stayed in your quarters. The only reason to come here is to be among people.

Later on, after Ro does hide in her quarters and Guinan still tries to start up another conversation with her, the two women have this exchange:

Ro:  Why is it that every time I tell you something, you tell me I mean the exact opposite?

Guinan: Because you’re one of those people who’s got their poles reversed.

Now, I’m definitely not much like Ensign Ro (I’m pretty far from being a rebel), but I often find Guinan’s assessment of her amusingly fitting for my own life.

As a kid who grew up going to church, Christian school, and a Christian college (all of which I’m thankful for), I’ve had the chance to listen to more than my share of sermons, messages, and advice.  Generally, people want to help warn children away from the things that they think are most likely to mess them up.  So you’re much more likely to hear someone talk about the importance of working hard on your schoolwork than you are to hear them talk about how to make friendships and have fun with people your own age.  Because there are plenty of cases of people regretting not taking their studies seriously, but kids automatically know how to have fun with each other, right?

But what if you “have your poles reversed,” and doing schoolwork comes naturally to you, while making friends is hard?  For a while, you’ll probably think you’re doing even better than most of the people around you!  But eventually, you might feel that you missed out on gaining the social skills and experiences that other people take for granted.

Similarly, it’s common to hear a lot of messages warning against thinking too highly of oneself, of becoming prideful.  But what if your wiring is “backwards,” and the way you fall victim to pride is by tearing yourself down, expecting you will mess something up, and keeping track of your mistakes?  Like an undead enemy in an RPG, what’s meant to be healing can actually poison you (and even weirder, what others think is harmful may actually be what you need most!)  Weird analogy, I know.  🙂

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, because I actually think it’s pretty neat to be this way, now that I understand myself a little better.  Sometimes I feel like laughing, because from where I stand now, the process of maturing mentally, socially, and spiritually is almost like a battle against conventional wisdom.  It’s kind of like my “homework” is to spend time making friends with people, and my “chores” are to look for reasons to be positive about who God made me to be and to enjoy the good things he gives.

I have a hard time complaining about homework and chores like those!

(I have heard that conversations about dreams are one of the most boring things you can talk about.  Be warned; I’m going to be testing that idea in this post!  🙂 )

The world in my dreams is much bigger than the real world.  I mean that in a literal sense.  I often dream about places that are familiar to me, but they are almost always larger and more complex than the places were in real life.  That’s one of the few things I think the movie Inception portrayed accurately about dreaming (at least until they decided to skip the maze concept in favor of an action scene– that was too bad).

Houses go on and on, with room after room opening into one another.  My high school building has twice as many floors as in real life, and there are hallways you can only get to by going through a classroom.  My church has back stairways leading to endless dimmed passages.  My rural college becomes a city college, where instead of walking to class I am driving through traffic over hills and through tunnels.  Everywhere I go, I am finding new places I didn’t know about– professors’ offices in the basement of the library, underground shopping malls that are miles across, museums holding everything imaginable.  The journey from home to grad school takes me over huge mountain passes (even Texas has somehow become Alaska).  Sometimes I dream that I have to drive my way through a tangle of overpasses and underpasses or even jump over a river using an incomplete bridge.

Even things like familiar television shows and video games take on an enlarged, alien appearance in my dreams.  I always recognize them, but after I wake up  I realize I was imaging things that never existed– Star Trek didn’t cover a span of 100,000 years (as much as it may seem to some people!) and there was no Super Mario game with a thousand levels.

These dreams aren’t unpleasant– often I enjoy exploring these places.  As in real life, I don’t usually interact much with other people in these dreams; I either just wander or try to make my way to some appointment.  It’s too bad I can’t remember them very well, because they would make pretty neat settings for stories.

If I had to guess about why I dream this way so much, it probably has something to do with the feeling that the real world is always just a bit more complicated than I can understand, requiring a bit more of me than I feel like I can keep up with.  Maybe my overcautious mind magnifies my circumstances, and I get to see that in my dreams.  Or maybe getting to explore a larger world while I’m asleep makes the real world seem like not as daunting a place.

I was watching this online commercial about how Google pictures its Project Glass working:

 

If this kind of technology became common, one of the positive effects I could see would be for people who struggle with face blindness.  It wouldn’t be a very big leap to create a way to “label” people with their names.  The names could even follow them around like the labels hovering over characters in video games like Minecraft:

My brothers and I exploring the uncharted seas together. (The name labels are too small to read, but you can see they are there.)

 

That’s certainly what I would do with it!  It could also help with executive dysfunction by providing a framework for keeping an organized schedule, kind of like how the guy in the commercial uses it as a dayplanner.  I truly believe that the technology of the Internet has been and can be a tremendous help to people with Asperger’s if it’s used wisely.

 

At the same time, though, I can also see lots of potential drawbacks.  One, of course, is the fact that you have to wear the Star Trek-like headset that might make you look a bit like this:

Did Google make Geordi's VISOR?

 

Or, at least, like this:

Major Kira tests another Google prototype?

 

Of more concern is the fact that other people would have the advantage of using this information too.  A salesman could use it and say, “Oh, here comes a guy named Nathan; my records say he just visited a Star Trek site.  I’ll try to sell him my Star Trek DVDs.”  That would be annoying.

Even more likely is that Google could sell ad space, so if I used this as my dayplanner, it would be yet another way to advertise, this time literally right in my face!  The commercial, after all, is not just targeting ukelele-playing boyfriends– it is also catching the notice of businesses like the bookstore, the concert promoter, and the coffee truck, which all get business from the guy in the commercial thanks to Google’s invention.

It’s also interesting to ponder how such a device could affect the way people think.  One commenter on the news article announcing this project said something like “Goodbye spontaneity.”  It’s true– what might seem freeing to people who struggle with organization and socializing could be very restricting to people who are social by nature.

And if you have a guide to help do something for you, it might cause you to stop exercising the muscle (or in this case, mental facility) that allows you to do it yourself.  The idea is a little amusing to me– could reliance on technology like this make everyone think a little more like an Aspie?

A lot of video games are patterned after movies, with voice acting, cutscenes, and creative use of camera angles.  The goal is to make players feel as if they are controlling the events of the scene they are watching, or even to imagine themselves as a character within the game’s world.  One of the things I love about old video games is that the best of them accomplish this in creative ways, even in a very limited medium.

One of the oldest games on my top 80 list is Air Fortress for the original Nintendo.  The concept is simple, but it combines two different video game “genres” in a clever way and uses music to tell a suspenseful story.

The first thing you’ll see in the video is the poorly translated story of the planet FARMEL, which was having the GLORIEST DAYS before it was attacked by these mysterious AIR FORTRESSES.  In a plot development that gets used more often than you’d think in video games, the leaders decide that because this mission is so dangerous, the best course of action is to send one person to take on the fleet by himself.

That man is the intrepid HAL BAILMAN with his LIGHTBRASNER.  (Based on another version of the game with a better translation, they meant to say “LIGHT-BLASTER.”)

I love those cheesy stories for old video games– they can be hilarious!  Needless to say, this game does its best storytelling without using words.

There are eight levels in the game, one for each Air Fortress in the fleet.  The video shows you level 1, and believe me– the makers of the game were being kind to the player in this level.  Later levels get more difficult very quickly.  I don’t remember if I even made it halfway through this game back when I used to rent it as a kid.

Every level has three basic parts:

1. Approaching the Air Fortress by rocket sled.  This part of the game is a side-scrolling shooter, like Gradius, Defender, and other classic arcade games.  The screen scrolls by itself, and you have to pilot the sled to avoid the walls of the fortress and the enemies that fly around and try to shoot you down.  If you collide with any of these things, your rocket sled is destroyed, and you only have three of them.  It’s crucial at this stage to pick up the energy (E) and bomb (B) power-ups for you to use in the next section.

2. Inside the Air Fortress on foot.  Here, the game turns into more of a standard platforming game, in which you can explore in any direction.  The goal is to find the main power reactor of the Air Fortress and destroy it.  I like the way the energy meter doubles as fuel for your rocket boots in this part of the game.  This means that you have to be careful about how much you use the boots, because draining your energy puts you at more risk of being destroyed by an enemy.  It also places a limit on the amount of flying you can do; if you run low on energy, you will need to stay on the ground for a while as your energy recharges.

3. The escape.  This is where the game really draws you in to the story.  When you destroy the main power reactor, the whole fortress goes dark and quiet, unsettling music begins to play.  The Air Fortress is going to explode in a few minutes, and you need to find your rocket sled and escape before it does!  In the first level, the game designers were feeling generous, so they put the exit right behind the reactor.  But in most of the levels, you have to go searching for it.  You might pass the exit on your way in to the reactor, or it might be in a part of the fortress you haven’t seen yet.

The game doesn’t give you a timer, so you can’t know for sure how much time you have to find the exit. After a while, you start to hear a low rumble and the screen begins to shake.  The shaking gets gradually more severe and the rumble grows louder until it almost drowns out the music.  The screen begins to flash white just before the end until the entire screen is washed out, and — GAME OVER.

The game is great at building tension, and it’s here that you reap the benefits of collecting (E) capsules during the rocket sled section– the more energy you have, the more you can use your rocket boots to hurry through the air fortress.

 

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Hello again!  I decided to try out a different blog theme for this page.  All of the content is the same still.  What do you think?  I like the colors in this one, but the old one had a less complex background and may have been easier to read.

In general, people usually don’t like changes that aren’t necessary, but sometimes people on the autistic spectrum can be bothered by changes that others barely notice.  A couple of months ago, I read a blog entry posted by a mother whose little girl is on the autistic spectrum.  It was about a time she found her daughter struggling to hold back tears, telling herself “Sometimes things change, and that’s okay” in a method she had practiced to calm herself down.  The cause for her distress was that the TV show she was watching had changed its opening sequence for a new season.  She had been expecting the familiar opening that had been there every time, and something different was suddenly in its place.

I found that post very moving, because I can remember going through some of the same things as a young child.  One time, I was watching an episode of Sesame Street that somehow involved a marching band visiting the show.  I can barely remember the episode itself, but I do remember that as the credits rolled, they had the marching band perform the theme instead of using the piano and harmonica recording that had appeared every other time.  I was caught totally unprepared and burst into tears!  On a half-conscious level, I was familiar with each note and time interval in the song, and not only was the band using totally different instruments to play it, but they weren’t hitting all of the notes exactly right!  I just wanted to get away from it.

I had a similar reaction if I was listening to a song and the record or tape speed got messed up and the sound got distorted.  I always found it very disturbing to hear something familiar distorted into a grotesque form, with the essence of the original still there, just… twisted.

I am thankful that, as I have grown up, I have become less sensitive to that sort of sensory input.  I’m not entirely sure what has helped me besides experience, but I suspect that my love of science fiction may have helped me in this area.  Science fiction often uses a distorted or unfamiliar point of view to show readers or viewers something about human nature.  It can use a creature from another world as a mirror for ourselves, or it can show the consequences of our ideas by removing all limitations and showing what kind of future might result.  I’ve come to appreciate how storytellers use the weird and unsettling at times to tell a story of great importance and beauty.

Like anyone, I still worry about unwelcome changes in my life, of course.  But I still have the same thing to cling to as I did when I was a child– God never changes, and he has promised me that I belong to him.  Despite all the things in life that can scare or worry me, God is over them all, and he will not break his promises.

“I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.”

— Malachi 3:6

Hmm– I think I’ll keep this background for a while.  It seems to be helping me to start writing again.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned a couple of games that are near the top and middle of my all-time ranking, but what sort of game is just barely good enough to make it onto my list of 80 favorites?  I’m glad you asked!

The answer is A Boy and His Blob for the original Nintendo, which is at the same time one of the most creative games ever and one of the most poorly made.  The hero in this game is the eponymous unnamed boy, who happens to have a pet blob from another planet.

The pudgy, white blob (named “Blobert”) follows the boy around everywhere, either out of loyalty or because the boy keeps feeding him jellybeans.  He loves jellybeans (unless they are ketchup flavored, and really, who can blame him for that?).

Each flavor of jellybean causes the blob to transform into a different object, which introduces the puzzle aspect of the game.  For example, a licorice jellybean will turn the blob into a ladder, a punch-flavored jellybean will turn him into a hole in the ground (punch a hole; get it?), and a cola jellybean will turn him into a giant bubble.  There are about 15 flavors of jellybeans in all, which is a good thing, because the boy is pretty useless on his own.  He can’t even jump.

What little story exists in the game goes like this:  You need to search the caverns underneath New York City for treasure, which you can then use to buy vitamins at the store.  Then, you can turn the blob into a rocket and travel to his home planet of Blobolonia, which for some reason is overrun by candy-based enemies.  (Hence the need for vitamins, I guess?  The game’s overall position on the “healthy vs. unhealthy” food debate seems a bit murky, since jellybeans, peppermints, and vitamins help you, while marshmallows, cherries, and popcorn kill you.  Besides that, everything makes perfect sense, of course.)

Here’s a sample of the gameplay:

There are some things to like about the game.  The puzzle aspect can be a lot of fun.  Also, it’s cute the way the blob follows you when you whistle.  Especially funny is how the blob’s smile instantly turns into a frown if you throw a jellybean that he can’t catch.  I also like how the game plays little musical stings sometimes when the blob transforms.  (On the other hand, the entire game uses basically the same tune with just a little variation once you reach the blob’s planet.)

But you don’t have to play the game long to realize its flaws.  When confronted with enemies, the boy’s only options are to run past them or die.  Deciding where to punch a hole is a process of trial and error, since there’s no way to know how long a drop there will be aside from painful experience in prior lives.  And it’s way too hard to control that bubble underwater!

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Star Trek

A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.

A young James T. Kirk watches as the U.S.S. Enterprise is built.

Producer J.J. Abrams has brought Star Trek back to life with a film full of action and spectacle that ranks among the best summer popcorn movies for filmgoers looking to have fun at the theater.  But what really makes Star Trek a success is how much its story is grounded in the character qualities of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise.  Don’t let the flashiness and fast pace of the story fool you– this movie works because it recaptures the spirit of the original Star Trek series.  The only major criticism I have is that the plot relies too much on coincidences during the middle of the story.

One of the smartest things that Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did was to wipe the slate clean and retell the story from the beginning.  I love the various Star Trek series and can go on about them for hours, but I don’t have trouble admitting that adhering mechanically to every bit of minutia in the Star Trek Encyclopedia tends to restrict storytelling and drive new fans away.

Take Captain Kirk’s backstory, for example.  Several episodes of the show back in the 60s alluded to Kirk having served on this or that ship, or having lived on a certain colony, in order to give Kirk a personal connection to whatever the story was about.  About the only common thread was that none of these stories matched with what was said about Kirk’s past in any of the other episodes.  (Let’s not even get into how many times old girlfriends of his show up without ever having been mentioned before!)

Of course, Star Trek fans have been able to piece together a coherent story about Kirk’s past from all of these separate little mentions.  And a few of them feared that any movie that didn’t carefully follow that story would somehow mess up Star Trek’s history– even though Kirk’s backstory had never really been intentionally written; it just sort of “grew” out of the work of many different writers!

Mercifully, the new Star Trek movie ignores all of that concern from the very beginning, in a breathtaking battle sequence that drives home the danger of space travel and the nobility expected of a starship captain, and forever reshapes the life of the young James T. Kirk.  The characters are the same, but this is a new story, and anything can happen!

Let me assure you– even if you have never watched any Star Trek before, you won’t be left out of the story– this movie is the beginning, and no Star Trek Encyclopedia is necessary.

There are spoilers in the remainder of my review.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, go see the movie right now! 🙂

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