Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Castiglione Discusses Star Trek: A Taste of Armageddon

The unknown US army officer who reportedly said of the bombing and shelling of Ben Tre that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” must have been a fan of A Taste of Armageddon. Because that is precisely what Kirk and Spock do during the course of the episode. They run around killing people to prevent them from killing each other (or more accurately, killing themselves). Even Robert Fox, the rather arrogant Federation ambassador who is sent to Eminiar VII to open up diplomatic channels, picks up a disruptor and participates in the bloodletting, pausing to remark: “I've never been a soldier...but I learn very quickly.”

Despite the amount of disruptor fire exchanged in this episode, I don't think any redshirts died. However, judging from the crazy disguises they had to wear, I have a feeling that some of them were wishing for death.

A Taste of Armageddon is a twist on what would become a common theme in Star Trek: The Original Series which is what can go wrong when you let computers run society. In this case, it's what can go wrong when you let computers run your wars, or more specifically, what can go wrong when you literally fight your wars using computers, or computer simulations.

The background of A Taste of Armageddon goes like this: Eminiar VII and Vendikar have been at war for almost 500 years. In order to spare their civilizations from disintegrating in the face of so many centuries of warfare, the two planets have agreed to wage their wars using computer simulations in which citizens who have been declared casualties must report to disintegration stations within twenty-four hours. The result is supposedly war without all the nasty byproducts of war such as disease and the gradual breakdown of the infrastructure necessary for society to run smoothly.

You might ask why the people of Eminiar VII and Vendikar, if they are so horrified by what war has to offer, don't just come to the bargaining table and work out some sort of truce. Well, apparently, they've cynically accepted the fact that they are, to quote:

“A killer first, a builder second. A hunter, a warrior. And let's be honest, a murderer.”

Frankly, this episode raises a lot of questions, the foremost being, if a civilization were to cynically accept that their heritage is that of a predator, why wage war in a way that denies an outlet for those very predatory instincts which serve as a justification to continue waging war? You'd think that instead of waging an antiseptic war via computer simulation, they'd choose to go at it with rocks and sticks.

And the whole premise of waging a war using computers to preserve one's civilization doesn't make sense, either. Wouldn't the constant erosion of the population, not to mention living with the specter of certain death, result in a civilization with a rather large proportion of its population suffering from PTSD? And even if waging war by computer simulation spared the infrastructure from physical damage, wouldn't the deaths of scientists and engineers eventually take its toll on this infrastructure? Wouldn't the deaths of intellectuals, philosophers and artists result in a gradual decline of the warring cultures?

However, the question foremost on my mind is not among those mentioned above but relates to General Order 24, the order to destroy all life on a planet, that Kirk gives to Scotty while being held hostage on Eminiar VII.

Ummm...just why would an organization like Starfleet whose primary responsibility in the original series seems to have been the peaceful search for new life and new civilizations have such a wacky, genocidal standing order?

Perhaps it's best not to dwell too deeply on this question. Heaven knows that other, less potentially disturbing questions, abound in this episode. Questions such as, just how has Starfleet and the Federation avoided a diplomatic incident when their point of first contact with new civilizations, Kirk, has a habit of gazing upon any woman he sees with the sort of barely disguised smoldering animal lust that would make a porn starlet blush. And the fact that Kirk seems to take the revelation of Eminiar VII and Vendikar waging war by computer in stride until he learns that the hottie-of-the-week, Mea 3, has been declared a casualty (and is thus obliged to report for voluntary disintegration) leaves one wondering just where his priorities lie.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Castiglione Kicks It Old-School and Plays 3D Monster Maze

I suppose there are many definitions of what makes a good game. One that I hold to is that a good game must involve meaningful decision making. Another metric that I believe has merit, at least in judging the entertainment value of a game, is whether it is fun whether you win or lose.

Judged by both these measures, Malcolm Evans's 3D Monster Maze certainly qualifies as a good game.

But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself.

First, a little background.

Back in the 80's, I owned an Apple II+. I was convinced of the superiority of the Apple compared to its contemporaries but I was also a little bit curious about what the other computer systems available at the time had to offer.

One platform that I was particularly fascinated by was the Sinclair ZX81.

The ZX81 was physically tiny (it was under 6½” x 7” x 1½”) and its price was tiny as well (about $100, significantly less than the other systems of the day). It only came with 1 KB of memory but this could be expanded to 64 KB. Programs had to be saved and loaded on audio cassette tapes and it had a membrane keyboard on which you “wiped” more than “typed”.

And it had no sound.

It apparently created quite a splash in the UK from where it originated but it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact over on this side of the Atlantic, either in its original form or in the guise of the Timex Sinclair 1000, the North American version of the platform.

High-resolution (256 pixels x 192 pixels) graphics were available but the most common graphics mode used was one in which graphics symbols, which were part of the text character set, were used to “emulate” a 64 pixel x 44 pixel display. You can see the ZX81 graphics symbols below:

As you might have guessed from looking at these symbols, the text display was 32 columns x 22 lines.

That's all I'll say about the ZX81. If you want to learn more about the system, its Wikipedia article is very informative and a pretty fascinating look back at computing in the 80's.

On this computing system, using the default graphics mode, Malcolm Evans managed to create a first-person game that took up less than 16 KB of code.

On such a limited system, what he accomplished was nothing short of heroic.

In 3D Monster Maze, you have to find your way out of a randomly generated 16 x 18 node maze. There's a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the maze with you and, as you might have guessed, bad things will happen if he finds you. Initially, the Tyrannosaurus is at rest but once you start moving around, so does he.

This is survival horror distilled down to its purest form. You're lost and someone (or something) is trying to kill you. In 3D Monster Maze, two of man's most primal fears are captured in digital form to be fodder for our entertainment. Maybe that's why it's so strangely compelling even now despite its crude simplicity. To add a little bit of gravy into this mix of fears, 3D Monster Maze even has a clown in it, albeit only in a “cutscene”.

During the course of the game, you receive clues as to the Tyrannosaurus's location and disposition, ranging from “REX LIES IN WAIT” to “RUN HE IS BEHIND YOU”. In some ways, the game is somewhat like Hunt the Wumpus because of the clues it provides as to the location of your pursuer. However, unlike Hunt the Wumpus, you can't fight back against the Tyrannosaurus and can only flee from it in headlong flight.

Despite the primitive graphics, the lack of sound or even a convincing back-story explaining why you're in a maze with a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the first place, the game can get your heart and adrenal gland going. The lack of sound probably adds to the tension since it forces you to focus on the screen and when those verbal cues of the Tyrannosaurus's location start coming fast and furious, especially when they change from “FOOTSTEPS APPROACHING” to “REX HAS SEEN YOU”, your anxiety level can skyrocket.

How can one play 3D Monster Maze nowadays?

Well, the path I took to play this game was somewhat involved and was almost a quest unto itself:

After having learned about 3D Monster Maze, I found a Java ZX81 emulator running the game here. Unfortunately, it ran rather slowly on my system so I had to abandon it but if you can get decent performance out of it, you may find it helpful to know that STOP, LIST and CONT are mapped to the A, K and C keys, respectively, on the ZX81. If you don't want to bother with the in-game instructions, you should know that the game controls are 5 (turn left), 7 (forward) and 8 (turn right).

I managed to find 3D Monster Maze bundled with vb81, a ZX81 emulator. Unfortunately, I couldn't install vb81 on my ASUS U30Jc-b1 running 64-bit Windows 7 so I then turned to my ASUS 1005HA netbook running Linux, which seemed only fitting in a way since both the ZX81 and my netbook are both tiny computers.

Initially, I tried installing z81, which is possibly the only ZX81 emulator available on Linux. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it to compile so I tried the version of z81 for the X interface called xz81 which did. However, graphical glitches which offended my OCD tendencies occurred when I attempted to run 3D Monster Maze using xz81 so it was back to the drawing board.

I then decided to try EightyOne, a ZX81 emulator for Windows, using Wine, but 3D Monster Maze ran...so...slowly...that it became a de facto turn-based game. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised considering I was using a Windows emulator to run a ZX81 emulator. At that point, I got a flash of inspiration and reverted to vb81 (still using Wine, of course) and was quite pleased to see that 3D Monster Maze ran pretty well.

In the end, I even managed to get 3D Monster Maze working on my U30Jc-b1; it turns out that EightyOne is just fine running in 64-bit Windows 7.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Every Star Trek Movie except The Wrath of Khan Has Sucked

I first posted this article on my web-site in 2010 shortly after the 4th of July. Given my recent post regarding Space Seed, I thought it only fitting to repost this article.

Every Star Trek movie except The Wratch of Khan has sucked.

What about the rebooted Star Trek movie some of you may ask.

That didn't suck, right?

That is true but it is my contention that while the reboot was entertaining, it wasn't Star Trek. If anything, it owes more to Star Wars than the venerable original series. I'll elaborate on this later.

Just why did The Wratch of Khan work while others fell short? Simply put, the film was crafted in such a way that people who weren't Star Trek fans could follow the story line and enjoy the movie while it provided enough continuation and development in the story arcs for beloved characters to satisfy serious fans of the show. Just look at the story. It's fairly simple and basic. Khan Noonien Singh is pissed off at Kirk and wants pay back and woe be to anyone standing in the way of his vengeance. The script rapidly establishes that Khan Noonien Singh is willing to kill innocents to accomplish his goal but also hints at some depth to his character beyond being a homicidal maniac as he blames James T. Kirk for the death of his wife. This is something that someone who hasn't even watched the episode Space Seed or even a single episode of original series can understand and the fact that this is all a build up to an epic cat-and-mouse space battle reminiscent of the battle of wits between Kirk and the Romulan commander in Balance of Terror results in the casual viewer being entertained and feeling that his money was well spent.

As for the die-hard fans, they get to see how James T. Kirk deals with getting old, his new responsibilities as commandant of Star Fleet Academy and then, later, with the consequences of some questionable decisions he made in the past. They get to see Kirk develop and mature and in his interactions with Spock and McCoy, see how they're also dealing with the passing of the years. They also get to see the return of one of the more compelling villains (and there were many) of Star Trek and a resolution of some unfinished business that was begun in Space Seed.

Now that I've discussed why The Wratch of Khan worked, I'll discuss why the other Star Trek movies all sucked. The first movie was nothing more than the original series episode The Changeling except longer and devoid of any action. The first movie's flaws reveal some salient points on how not to go about bringing a television series to the big screen. First of all, what works on a 45 minute television episode will not necessarily work in a 120 minute movie. A story like The Changeling when told in 45 minutes is a tightly paced example of classic science fiction story telling. When stretched out to 120 minutes, it becomes a pretentious mess. It didn't help that the first movie lacked a critical component of original series:


The original series had plenty of action. In the second pilot episode Where No Man Has Gone Before, Kirk and Spock (there is no McCoy, yet) debate on how to deal with a decent man who has acquired god like powers (and a very scary dose of megalomania). However, while there's plenty of philosophizing, there's also plenty of action. Spock, the supposed pacifist, advocates dealing with the problem with a phaser rifle and the episode ends with a knock-down-drag-out brawl involving phasers, boulders, fists and a display of god like powers that would put Emperor Palpatine to shame. In fact, there are numerous points in the original series where Spock argues that logic dictates that they blow shit up! If you don't believe me, watch Balance of Terror, Errand of Mercy and Arena.

But where was I?

Oh yes, the first movie.

No action. Thus, nothing to entertain the non fans. Also, no real development of the main characters, no real continuation of their story arcs. So nothing to entertain the fans of the original series except maybe the thrill of seeing the Enterprise and the cast on the big screen.

What about the movies after The Wratch of Khan?

Well, they all had a number of problems but chief among them was that at that point, the cast had gotten old and with a franchise in which action was an important component, especially when it comes to drawing in the casual viewer, the movies were no longer really "believable".

What about the Next Generation movies? I think they just didn't work because they tried too hard to draw in the casual viewer which resulted in a bunch of generic, somewhat shallow science fiction action films. For the fans of the show, there wasn't any real development of any of the characters and the closest that the Next Generation movies came to recreating some of the magic of The Wratch of Khan was Star Trek: First Contact. However, although it had all the ingredients that The Wratch of Khan had, it seems the screen writers completely missed the point. There was no development of the main characters and Captain Picard acted in a very uncharacteristic manner (possibly to make his normally cerebral character more palatable to the casual viewer) which was explained by a bit of retconning, something which really annoys this viewer.

Instead of development of Picard's character, we have him acting like a completely different character. With this being Star Trek, one could be excused in thinking he was possessed by an alien, but alas, this was not the case. To make things worse, the tone of the movie was inconsistent, with the atmosphere being dark and oppressive on board the Enterprise-E with the crew fighting the Borg for its survival as well as the integrity of the time-line while on Earth, the tone is almost comical, resulting in a movie that's about as schizophrenic as Star Trek Generations. What made Star Trek: First Contact such a frustrating movie was, as I mentioned before, all the ingredients were there to make a movie that could have surpassed The Wratch of Khan. Compelling villain from the show? Check. Action? Check. Character development? Errr...not really. Having a character suddenly act in a manner completely at odds with how he has acted over seven seasons is not character development! And retconning to justify it is cheating! Alas, no one involved in the film (and subsequent Next Generation films for that matter) seemed to have a clue.

Which brings us back to the reboot.

Why wasn't it Star Trek? Because Star Trek, aside from the action, aside from the interaction between the characters, was still pretty good science fiction, that is fiction that deals with the effect of advances in science and technology on the human condition. There was none of that in the new movie. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I suggest you watch a few episodes of the original series and look beyond the knock-down-drag-out fist-and-phaser fights and the interactions between the ensemble of likable characters.

There's some good science fiction in there, something which the reboot didn't have.

And that ends my explanation of why every Star Trek movie except The Wratch of Khan has sucked (except the reboot which didn't suck but doesn't count since it isn't really Star Trek).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Thoughts on Star Trek: Space Seed

This is the episode that established Khan Noonien Singh as a total pimp and Leonard McCoy as possibly the bravest man on the crew of the Enterprise. James T. Kirk comes up a little short when compared to these two but you can't win them all. How can you compete with a superman, a product of selective breeding, who can charm a Starfleet officer into betraying her shipmates, and a man who calmly tells this superman, who has one hand gripped around his throat and another hand holding a knife to his jugular, to either choke him or cut his throat and then proceeds to give him detailed instructions on the most efficient means of doing the latter?!?!

Who is Khan? He and his followers are all genetically engineered supermen who attempted to take over the world and, having failed in this attempt, apparently fled Earth in the late 90's during the Eugenics Wars. Strangely enough, I have no recollection of there ever having been what Spock referred to as “your last so-called World War” in the 90's but I was in graduate school back then and might have been a bit too preoccupied to notice the rise and fall of a Sikh dictator named Khan.

There's a lesson in there somewhere. As a wise man once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Going back to Space Seed, Khan and his followers are found by the crew of the Enterprise aboard the SS Botany Bay. The Botany Bay is a sleeper ship, in case you're wondering how these fugitives from the 90's managed to survive into the 23rd century. To make a long story short, Khan is revived but no one knows who he is, at least not right away, which gives him the chance to read all the Enteprise's engineering manuals and seduce the Enterprise's historian, Marla McGivers, who is intrigued enough by this manly man from the 90's to help him revive his followers and take over the Enterprise.

Khan might have succeeded in his plan to use the Enterprise as a tool for world, or rather, galactic, domination except for some reason, he needed the aid of the Enterprise's crew to keep ol' NCC-1701 running. This makes absolutely no sense at all since he supposedly learned the workings of the ship by speed-reading its manuals, something which his followers could presumably do as well, so what need would he have for the cooperation of the crew? He would have been better served air-locking them except for the fact that Space Seed's narrative established him as being a benevolent dictator when he was in power.

Despite being a “nice” dictator, Khan decides to coerce the crew of the Enterprise into cooperating with him by torturing Kirk to death in the ship's decompression chamber. This serves to throw a much-needed glass of cold water in McGivers's face (metaphorically speaking, of course) and she rescues her Captain, allowing him to retake the ship and beat the crap out of Khan with the 23rd century equivalent of a lead pipe.

What can I say about this episode? Its only flaw as I see it is Khan deciding to torture Kirk. Not only is it supposedly out of character for Khan but it was unnecessary given what we know about him and his followers. Having Kirk thrown into the decompression chamber was basically a convenient excuse for McGivers to have second thoughts about helping Khan. Strangely enough, Khan seemed to be blindsided by McGivers turning on him, which shouldn't really have been all that surprising given that she had already betrayed her shipmates in helping him take over the Enterprise. Even stranger still, he decides to take her with him into exile after he and his followers are marooned by Kirk on Alpha Ceti V and, eventually, as we're told in The Wrath of Khan, even takes her as his wife.

Speaking of The Wrath of Khan, Khan looks strangely pale fifteen years down the road, given that in Space Seed it looks like Ricardo Montalban took a dip in a tub of walnut stain for the role. I guess fifteen years spent wrapped up in robes and living a troglodytic existence (you'll know what I'm talking about if you've seen the movie) will do that to you. And The Wrath of Khan is all one really needs to say when summing up Space Seed. Despite some inconsistencies in Khan's characterization, the fact that Space Seed made The Wrath of Khan possible makes it impossible for me not to forgive this little fault.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hot Tub Time Machine

The following article was first posted on June 29, 2010. It is presented in its entirety.

Hot Tub Time Machine got off to a slow start and I was wondering when it would start to get funny, especially after one of the characters dug a set of keys for a BMW out of a dog's anus (that particular scene induced more gags than laughter in this viewer)...and then it got to the scene where Lou (Rob Corddry) pulled the catheter out of his penis and sprayed Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson) with his urine and the laughs just kept getting bigger and bigger until they reached their climax (har har) when Lou wooed and bedded Adam's sister Kelly (Collette Wolfe), thus allowing her to conceive Jacob (Clark Duke) while maintaining a steady flow of running commentary with Adam and Nick just within earshot.

If you are offended by the sight of naked, shapely female breasts, the unapologetic use of marijuana, magic mushrooms and cocaine, and things like a man being forced to give another man oral sex at gunpoint, and a scene where a crazy nutter smears liquid hand soap on his face to make his buddy think that said buddy just "dropped a load" in his face while unconscious "because that's what friends do", do not see this film.

If you grew up in the 80's where all this stuff (especially the bit about the naked, shapely female breasts) was fair game (well, except for the bit about making your buddy think he "shot ropes" into your face in his sleep), you may like Hot Tub Time Machine. If you ever skied during the 80's, you'll wonder what the @#$% everyone was thinking back then when it came to ski fashion although some of you may also yearn for the return of those stretchy form fitting leggings that the girls used to wear on the slopes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My Thoughts on Incendies

A set of twins receives unusual instructions from their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), from beyond the grave:  According to notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) are to deliver sealed envelopes addressed to their brother and father, respectively. Simple tasks in theory except that Simon and Jeanne didn't know their mother had another child and neither knew their father. The film then follows their journey and as they navigate their way through their mother's past, they slowly discover that they didn't really know her at all.

Incendies jumps back and forth between the present, where Jeanne and Simon retrace the path their mother's life took in Lebanon before she settled in Canada, and the past, which shows us that path.

All I will say in describing that path is that a lot of terrible things happen to Nawal. I'm talking about the sort of terrible things that exist on a scale of terribleness that most of us have never been exposed to. To give you a hint as to what that scale of terribleness is like, most of the film's narrative concerning Nawal's life in Lebanon occurs during the Lebanese Civil War.

To say more would risk spoiling the ending but I would like to say the following:
  1. Although some pretty implausible things happen in Incendies, the setting of the Lebanese Civil War, an extremely chaotic period in Lebanon's history, helps to keep the viewer from dwelling on these implausibilities. At least until after the film's conclusion.
  2. The big revelation which occurs near the end of Incendies had me doing some math in my head in an attempt to figure out whether it actually made sense according to the timeline laid out in the film. Those of you who've seen Incendies will know what I'm talking about. Those who haven't will just have to go and see it.
  3. Seeing Incendies reminded me of why I began to gravitate toward movies like Potiche and the questions raised by this decision: I'm aware that terrible things happen in the world so do I need to see these terrible things when I go out to the movies, especially since I go to the movies to be entertained? And is my avoiding seeing films like Incendies nothing more than my sticking my head in the sand?
  4. The movie made notaries seem to be part of an international brotherhood dedicated to truth and justice, which I found somewhat amusing. If there are any notaries reading this and you are part of an international brotherhood dedicated to truth and justice, please know that I appreciate the work you and your brethren are doing in the shadows to make this world a better place.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Terminator Salvation

Almost a year ago (June 28, 2010), I posted the first of my “Random Thoughts on Movies” on my web-site.

I present to you the post that started it all, my random thoughts and observations on Terminator Salvation:

Today, I saw Terminator Salvation; I was supposed to do other, more pressing things, like work on Starship Troopers: The Roguelike and this web-site but I didn't get much sleep last night, it was darn hot and I felt like vegging.

Overall, I didn't think the film was as bad as I was led to believe. However, it wasn't as good as the first film, which I believe should have begun and ended the entire Terminator story-line.

But I digress.

What I found very jarring about the film was the ending, where Marcus Wright decides to let the dying John Connor have his heart.

No one, save for Williams who voices a brief (and quickly quieted) objection, protests. Now, one could point out that they all see Marcus as a machine but that ignores the following:

  1. At the film's end, he's standing with the other main characters like he's just part of the gang.
  2. He just saved John Connor's life.
All John Connor does as Marcus lays down to be killed (there's no other way to put it) before having his heart plucked from his not yet cold body is nod solemnly at his noble sacrifice.

The whole scene makes John Connor look like a bit of an ingrate and it makes the other characters all look strangely cold blooded. It also makes them look like a bunch of brain-washed cultists who would be willing to do and countenance any action that would save John Connor.

The entire scene still could have worked had it just played out a little bit differently than the rather passive way it did in the movie. Marcus could have announced his intention to let John Connor have his heart. John Connor would have then objected; Marcus is now a man in his eyes, not a machine, and there's no way he's going to let someone else die so that he may live. Williams, would, of course, be a bit more emotional in her objection to his sacrifice instead of just looking soulfully in Marcus's eyes, kissing him and thinking, "Oh, gee, that's too bad. He was cute. Oh well. At least John Connor will live. W00t!" Maybe an argument breaks out with some of the characters all in favor of cutting open Marcus right then and there in order to save Connor.

As everyone is emoting, arguing, etc. and otherwise distracted, Marcus would then grab a side-arm and shoot himself in the head, ending his life and mooting everyone's objections!

Of course, there would be a look of poignant devastation on everyone's face.

But John Connor would be saved. And wouldn't end up looking like an ingrate and a hypocrite.

BTW - I thought the motorcycle terminators were kind of lame. They made no sense at all. Why would you make a terminator that has poor balance and depends on the existence of nicely paved roads in order to go from A to B, especially in light of the fact that everything has been nuked?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Star Trek: The Return of the Archons (or Let's Build a Perfectly Ordered Society Where Everybody Goes Bat-Shit Crazy Once in a While)

The crew of the Enterprise investigates a planet where society is perfectly ordered and the people are fat, dumb and happy. Well, maybe just dumb and happy. And things are not so serene as they appear on the surface because every once in a while, the people just go bonkers and indulge in a twelve-hour binge of rape, vandalism and God knows what else.

It's later revealed that the society is controlled by a computer.

I guess those twelve-hour “festivals” as they're called are supposed to be some sort of safety valve. At least that's my assumption. They don't really explain why everyone just goes crazy and starts breaking things and no one really brings it up except for Lindstrom, the Enterprise's sociologist, who shows admirable concern for the well-being of others coupled with some terrible survival instincts.

This episode contains certain elements which reappear in later episodes (and even later science-fiction series):

  1. The society controlled by a computer.
  2. The hero (Kirk) using logic to induce a computer to shut itself down.
There's even a bit of dialogue that could have been the inspiration for:

“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

Compare that with:

“You will be absorbed. Your individuality will merge into the unity of good. And in your submergence into the common being of the Body, you will find contentment and fulfillment. You will experience the absolute good.”

The similarities between these quotes are striking. Especially since the speaker of the second quote is the villain of this episode, the computer controlling the society. And the society it runs succeeds in “assimulating” Sulu, McCoy and a red-shirt as well as part of the crew of the USS Archon, whose disappearance 100 years before the events of this episode is what prompted the Enterprise to visit this particular planet of the week.

The fact that The Return of the Archons may have been the inspiration (at least partially) for one of the most compelling villains in the Star Trek canon almost makes me forgive the fact that it also probably inspired every episode where the Enterprise encountered a computer-controlled society or in which Kirk talked a computer to death.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Tsk Tsk Tsk – Wumpus Got You!

I finally got around to finishing the Windows executable version of my minimalist survival horror Wumpus Plus.

Calling it a survival horror is probably overstating things a tad. After all, it's really nothing more than a fork of Gregory Yob's original Hunt the Wumpus.

Well, whatever you choose to call it, it is available for download here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Castiglione Discusses Blendo Games (or Should That Be Blendo Games's Games?)


Brendon Chung designs the sort of games that I would design if I had the talent, the time and access to enough weed to cripple Tommy Chong. The man behind the one-man show that is Blendo Games, he's best known for designing Gravity Bone, a first-person adventure that showed us that you don't need photo-realistic graphics to create a compelling narrative, Flotilla, a simultaneous turn-based wargame built on the scaffolding of a choose-your-own adventure that seems to be based on the Myers-Briggs test, and Atom Zombie Smasher, a zombie simulation with evacuation helicopters, snipers and land mines thrown in the mix. The above-mentioned games are marked by the sort of absurdist humor which one usually associates with special brownie binges or extended periods of sleep deprivation. Add into the mix some pretty off-beat choices in music coupled with solid game-play and you've got games which are different.

And I mean that as a compliment.

I first learned about Blendo Games when I stumbled upon Gravity Bone. It's a free down-load and well worth checking out. Using NPC's with giant cube-heads who talk like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons and situations and narrative cut-scenes that border on the surreal, Chung created a game whose climax packs more punch than some commercial releases I've played. I think the final cut-scene in Gravity Bone could be one of the most talked about endings in a computer game. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little but Gravity Bone is something like the computer game analogue of a David Lynch movie: Everybody who's played it has something to say about it and nobody can quite agree on what it means.

Flotilla and Atom Zombie Smasher are almost pedestrian by comparison but they are marked by the same sort of bizarre humor that permeates Gravity Bone.

In Flotilla, you're the captain of a flotilla of starships (hence the title). You've got seven months to live and you're determined to go out with a bang. The game is part solitaire game-book and part tactical puzzle. The player travels from planet to planet and is presented with situations responses to which trigger present and future encounters. There doesn't seem to be a “right” or “wrong” response to many of these; one situation that comes to mind is one where you must choose between helping an old friend cover up a bloody murder or turning him into the authorities.

You get the idea.

Many of these encounters result in space battles, which are played out in a wargame where ships maneuver in three-dimensions in thirty second bites of time and are only vulnerable in their rear and underside (at least against missiles and torpedoes). This translates into plotting out maneuvers to get behind and below your enemies and shaking your fist at the screen as your plans fall apart in real-time.

In Atom Zombie Smasher, the player attempts to stem a zombie outbreak in a fictitious Latin American country in the 1960's. It can best be described as Risk with control over territories being settled not by the roll of the dice but by a mini-game, played on a randomly generated city map, that seems to have been inspired by zombie outbreak simulations. The graphics are rather minimalist. Zombies are purple squares, civilians are yellow squares and scientists are blue squares. Giant zombies are big purple cubes. Despite the simplistic graphics, the action is strangely compelling with lots of nail-biting moments being generated by actors who are just a bunch of colored squares; I guess I shouldn't be surprised, seeing as how Atari 2600 Adventure can still make me jump in my seat..

Besides Chung's bizarre sense of humor, these games share something else in common, which is their length. They're short. Gravity Bone only has two levels and both the adventure in Flotilla and the campaign in Atom Zombie Smasher can be completed in about an hour. Some see this as a shortcoming. Frankly, I think it's better to leave people wanting for more rather than overstaying your welcome.

But that's just me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Castiglione Discusses Star Trek: Court Martial (or Perry Mason in a Star Trek Wrapper)

Court Martial is similar to The Conscience of the King in that it's not really a science-fiction story so much as a tale from another genre, in this case, the courtroom drama. To summarize, Captain Kirk is accused of a crime he didn't commit (murder) and it's up to the crew of the Enterprise to prove that he's innocent. Into the mix are thrown a prosecutor who's an old flame of Kirk's and an old country lawyer who takes on the job of defending Kirk. Kirk proves his innocence through the sort of shenanigans typical of courtroom dramas: He gets the real criminal, in this case his supposed victim, to reveal himself and then in true heroic fashion, single-handedly beats the villain into submission and saves the day. For some reason, the members of his tribunal, all capable Starfleet officers, are just fine with sitting by and letting Kirk face the dangerous psychopath alone.

Court Martial raises some questions, the foremost being just what was Kirk thinking having Lieutenant Commander Finney, the villain of the hour, on his crew? According to Court Martial, Finney was Kirk's senior in Star Fleet until Kirk narced on him for negligently endangering the ship they were serving on. Since then, Finney's career in Star Fleet has been somewhat less than spectacular, at least compared to Kirk's. Since then, he's held a grudge against the intrepid captain and his machinations in Court Martial are intended to destroy James T. Kirk. Of course, the man is clearly mad since his plan involves faking his own death so he's not only destroying Kirk's life but his own since he can't ever surface again without running the risk of proving Kirk innocent. In case we should doubt that he's more than a little touched, when we, the audience, finally see him, he's unshaven and unkempt and from the wild look in his eyes, he's clearly got the crazy.

Going back to Kirk having Finney on the Enterprise crew: If I didn't know any better, I would think he was rubbing his success in the man's face. Of course, this flies in the face of what we know about Kirk (he's not petty) but the alternative implies that he's completely oblivious when it comes to things like human emotions, which we know he's not. If it had been Spock, the half-human/half-Vulcan who is constantly bemused by human behavior, or McCoy, the trusting humanist, making the same decision, it may have been understandable. But Kirk? It's a little bit hard to swallow.

The other question raised by Court Martial is just how old is Finney's daughter, Jamie, supposed to be?!?! Judging by the apparent age of the actress who portrayed her, I would have to guess thirty. Judging from the ridiculous blue sailor outfit she was wearing, I would guess ten. I suppose the only thing to do is to split the difference and peg her age at twenty but I'm not entirely happy with this answer.

Speaking of Jamie, her behavior is a little bit odd in Court Martial. When she first confronts Kirk, she physically assaults him, which is perfectly understandable given that he's suspected of killing her father. However, after some pretty damning evidence surfaces that seems to prove Kirk's culpability in the matter beyond a shadow of a doubt, she's apologetic to the man, citing Finney's many letters home singing Kirk's praises as proof that Kirk couldn't have killed her father.


Besides Kirk's rather convenient (for the plot) lapse in judgement, Jamie Finney's ambiguous age and her rather sudden (and unreasoned) belief in Kirk's innocence, Court Martial is well worth watching. We get to see Kirk being Kirk, cocky to the point of flirting outrageously with an old girlfriend on the eve of the court martial proceedings that could potentially deep-six his Starfleet career. We get to see Spock doing what he does best, using his logic like a scalpel to dissect the plot against his friend, Kirk. And we get to see McCoy voicing both frustration at Spock's logic and exultation at the rewards it reaps. However, as I stated at the beginning of this post, Court Martial is really a courtroom drama. For a real science-fiction story, we'll have to wait until the next episode, The Return of the Archons.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Castiglione Busts a Cap in the Wumpus's A**

While writing my post on Hunt the Wumpus, I stumbled upon this little tidbit of information in Wikipedia: “An interpretation of Wumpus called 'Grand Theft Wumpus' is built up gradually in chapter 8 of Land of Lisp”.

Grand Theft Wumpus?

Needless to say, I was intrigued.

After poking around on the internet, I learned that Land of Lisp is a Lisp text book that was partly inspired by the likes of BASIC Computer Games and More BASIC Computer Games.

I dug around a bit more and as soon as I saw the YouTube ad for the book, I knew I had to get it.

I won't go into how the book rates as a Lisp textbook as there are plenty of reviews available on Amazon and elsewhere for those who may be interested in learning Lisp and are wondering what Land of Lisp has to offer. The only thing I'll say about the book itself is that the binding absolutely sucks. Or at least it did in my copy.

To play Grand Theft Wumpus, all you need, besides Common Lisp installed on your computer, is the game's source code, which is available at the Land of Lisp web-site. Author Conrad Barksi describes Hunt the Wumpus as “the most violent programming example ever put into a textbook”. When he wrote this, he must have had tongue planted firmly in cheek since it's really no more violent than the original Hunt the Wumpus. Orc Battle, which is the game covered in the following chapter, is significantly more violent.

The background story of Grand Theft Wumpus was no doubt inspired by Paypack. You, the player, are the Wumpus's partner-in-crime. Or at least you were until he decided to double-cross you and run off with all the money you two stole in a liquor store robbery. You managed to bust a cap in his ass (or rather, his kidney) before he got away so now he's wounded and laying low in Congestion City. And now you're going to track him down and shoot him dead (because that's just the kind of guy you are), while evading gangs of glowworms and police roadblocks.

Bereft of its nihilistic wrapper, Grand Theft Wumpus is essentially the same game as Hunt the Wumpus. Instead of superbats picking you up and dropping you in random locations, gangs of glowworms serve the same purpose. Instead of bottomless pits, there are police roadblocks. And the Wumpus doesn't eat you when you blunder into him but instead blows you away with a burst from his AK-47. You get the idea. The only real differences are:

  1. The map is larger (30 locations as opposed to 20) and is randomly generated at the start of each game. Unlike the original, each location doesn't necessarily have three exits (streets) and dead-ends/cul-de-sacs are not uncommon.
  2. The Wumpus can be detected two locations away from its location (as opposed to one).
  3. If you blunder upon a gang of glowworms in a particular location, that location is thereafter “safe”, i.e. you can't have your location randomized twice by the same gang.
  4. Police roadblocks don't occupy locations but the “streets” between locations and the number of roadblocks is randomly determined (and unknown) at the beginning of each game.
  5. You only have a pistol with one bullet to exact your brand of street justice on the Wumpus (presumably you put the rest of your bullets in the Wumpus's kidney before he initially got away). In order to kill the Wumpus, you have to “charge” him while firing so you can only kill the Wumpus if you are next to his location. No shooting the Wumpus from five locations away and no crooked bullets. As in the original, once you run out of ammunition, the game is over and you have lost.
  6. The game has an auto-mapping feature. I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it was nice not having to kill trees in order to play the game. On the other hand, going back and forth between the Lisp REPL (read-eval-print loop), to enter the game commands, and a web browser, to view the map, was a bit awkward.
Overall, these differences don't really change the game-play of Grand Theft Wumpus that much from Hunt the Wumpus. Which is a pity because more could have probably been done to update the game besides just slapping on a new theme. For example, while playing the game, it struck me that my biggest concern was not accidentally stumbling upon the Wumpus but running into police roadblocks simply because I didn't know how many there were. How much more would I have worried if these roadblocks actually pursued me as opposed to being static? It's just an idea but something like that could have made the game-play different enough from the original to make Grand Theft Wumpus something more than just Hunt the Wumpus in a nihilistic wrapper. The original was an asymmetrical game of hide-and-seek. Having the police actively hunt the player while the player hunts the Wumpus could have turned the asymmetry up to eleven and added an interesting twist to the game.

Of course, that's pure conjecture.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

My Thoughts on Star Trek: Tomorrow Is Yesterday

Tomorrow Is Yesterday is one of those Star Trek episodes that just leaves me wishing there was some way I could unsee what I've just seen.

It's that bad.

Not only is the episode resolved using technobabble, a pseudo-scientific deus ex machina (I think you all know how I feel about dei ex machina) if you will, it's technobabble that contradicts what we already know about the technology being used (the transporter). To add insult to injury, the actions of the Enterprise crew, especially those of Captain Kirk, are completely inexplicable to the point of being moronic. If this episode didn't involve time travel, that staple of science fiction that induces headaches in writers and readers (or viewers) alike, it wouldn't be so bad. However, Kirk's actions in this episode lead one to suspect that the bulk of the seventeen separate temporal violations for which he's supposedly responsible (according to Lucsly and Dulmur, the humorless agents from Temporal Investigations, in the Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations) occurred in this episode.

If you haven't seen Tomorrow Is Yesterday before, this is what happens:

The Enterprise is thrown back in time to 1969 as a result of a chance encounter with a “black-star” and ends up swanning about in Earth's atmosphere (the Enterprise was headed in the direction of Earth at the time of the accident). The Enterprise is detected by the US Air Force and a fighter is scrambled and intercepts the Enterprise. Kirk responds to this threat by ordering a tractor beam to be locked onto the fighter. Not surprisingly, the flimsy 20th century aircraft breaks up as a result of being manhandled by the tractor beam.

This was probably Kirk's first mistake.

One could argue that it wasn't really a mistake since Spock brought up the possibility that the fighter could have been armed with nuclear missiles so Kirk was merely trying to protect his ship and crew. Fair enough. However, Kirk then compounds this possible error by ordering the pilot to be beamed aboard the Enterprise.

Why do this when the pilot could have ejected from his stricken aircraft? Once the pilot, Captain John Christopher, is brought on board, Kirk proceeds to gives him the grand tour of the Enterprise while admitting he's from the future and providing him with information about said future. What possessed Kirk to do this? As soon as the pilot was brought aboard, he should have been stunned (or at least Vulcan nerve-pinched) and then transported back to the Earth's surface, possibly doused with Romulan ale for good measure to make anyone doubt any stories he might have had about his encounter with “little green men”. Later in the episode, Kirk and Sulu infiltrate Christopher's airbase to recover photographs of the Enterprise that he took before his fighter broke apart, photographs which were recovered from the wreckage of his fighter which leads one to ask the following questions:

First of all, if Christopher's fighter broke apart as a result of the Enterprise's tractor beam, couldn't that same tractor beam have brought the fighter's wreckage on board where the film from its camera could have been removed, sabotaged or swapped out before dumping the crippled aircraft back to Earth?

And if Kirk and Sulu had to infiltrate the airbase, couldn't they have been kitted out with more appropriate clothing like, say, USAF uniforms instead of beaming down in their freaking Starfleet uniforms?

I could go on but my head is already beginning to hurt so I'll have to cut this short. I will say that the means by which the crew of the Enterprise basically “erases” their mistakes is simply bonkers: They go back in time and transport Christopher and a hapless USAF airman, who also got accidentally kidnapped during the episode, on top of their former selves!

Given what we know about transporter technology, the likely result of such a maneuver should have been something like this.

Instead, Christopher and the airman merge with their former selves and lose all recollection of what had happened to them.

And easy peasy, all the mistakes made by Kirk and his crew are erased.

Less said (or thought) the better.

Friday, May 6, 2011

My (Admittedly Random) Thoughts on Potiche

Due to a mix-up in scheduling and a perhaps naïve assumption that films being screened for the San Francisco International Film Festival would be screened in San Francisco and not a completely different city such as, say, Berkeley, I could not see Hospitalite, a film about a Japanese slacker, his exhibitionist Brazilian wife and the high jinks that ensue when they impose on the hospitality of a Japanese family living in a tiny apartment. But I'm not bitter. Because had it not been for this serendipitous turn of events, I probably would have never seen Potiche.

According to Wikipedia, potiche is the French word for “decorative vase” but the word can also apparently be used to describe a trophy wife. In Potiche, the trophy wife in question is Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve). Suzanne leads the somewhat humdrum life of a housewife whose children have long since left the nest, all the while fulfilling her expected role of dutiful wife to philandering and avaricious Robert (Fabrice Luchini), supportive mother to son Laurent (Jeremie Renier) and doting grandmother to the children of daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche), the monotony of her day being broken only when she is occasionally inspired by fornicating rabbits or capering squirrels to write poetry in the little notebook she always seems to carry around with her. She may have lived out the rest of her days being happy, or at least content, with her lot in life except that the workers at the umbrella factory that her husband inherited from her father go on strike one day and when Robert's attempts to negotiate with the strikers break down (when he tries to punch one of them), he is taken hostage. Fortunately for Robert, Suzanne once had a fling with Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), the left-wing politico who has been inciting the strikers, and after she pleads with him to intercede on Robert's behalf, the caustic industrialist is freed but is forced by his doctor to take a break from managing the umbrella factory, leaving Suzanne in charge.

You can probably guess what happens.

If you guessed that Suzanne turns things around at the factory, wins the trust of the workers (including Robert's secretary cum mistress), discovers that she has strengths beyond the domestic and poetic, and that her children, who she brought in to help her out during Robert's convalescence, also grow in the process (although Joelle's growth involves becoming a traitorous weasel), you would be correct. Somewhere during all this, she also reignites her relationship with Babin. Maybe reignite is a poor choice of words since their fling only involved one afternoon of torrid passion and could not really be labeled a relationship. Speaking of which, we, the viewers (and to his chagrin, Babin) eventually learn that her fling with Babin wasn't a one-time weakening of Suzanne's moral fiber but what seems to have been the manifestation of a habit fueled by the sort of randiness that would make a rabbit blush; it seems when she was newly married to Robert, there wasn't anyone of the male persuasion Suzanne wouldn't sleep with.

As you might have guessed, Potiche is a comedy and one I greatly enjoyed. However, it's difficult for me to determine whether my enjoyment stemmed from the story itself or the fact that it was set in 1977, a time when pants were tight and hair was big; half the laughs the film elicited from me were due to the ridiculousness of the clothes and the hair back then; admittedly, as I grew up during that era, my derision was mingled with more than a little nostalgia. There are moments in the film where the film-makers and actors give a nod to cinematic conventions from the 70's, from the melodramatic music playing in the background when a major discovery is made to the rather transparent expressions on the faces of the players involved in said discovery; I guess film-goers weren't very sophisticated back then and needed to be hit over the head in just this manner whenever something significant happened otherwise they wouldn't have realized that something important was transpiring before them. Part political satire, part homage, Potiche more than made up for the fact that I didn't get to see a hot naked Brazilian woman parading around on screen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Castiglione Discusses Taxi

A while ago, I acquired the Taxi DVD on eBay. I had not considered the possible issues stemming from DVD region codes and when I got Taxi, I found I couldn't play it on my DVD player as it was a region 2 DVD. It was possible to play it on my laptop but only if I changed the region code for its DVD player, something which I could only do a limited number of times which made me a bit hesitant to do so. The end result was that my copy of Taxi languished in my DVD collection, mocking my naivete with its very presence.

The recent demise of my DELL XPS M1530 turned out to be a blessing in disguise as one of the advantages of its replacement, my ASUS U30Jc-b1, is that it is capable of playing DVD's regardless of their region code so I was recently able to finally view my copy of Taxi.

I first saw Taxi in Grenoble, France the summer after it was released. Back then, my French wasn't very good (not that it's very good now) but I had no trouble following the story. That, in itself, tells you what kind of movie it is. Taxi was written by Luc Besson, the man who's best known in the US for La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element, films which packed a lot of action into their obligatory ninety minutes or so of running time, and Taxi is no exception to this pattern.

Taxi stars Samy Naceri and Frederic Diefenthal. The stunning Marion Cotillard is also present in what is considered to be her breakthrough role. For those of you who haven't seen the original or its American remake, the story involves Emilien (Frederic Diefenthal), a police detective who has, amazingly, never learned how to drive and Daniel (Samy Naceri), a former pizza delivery boy now working as a taxi driver chauffeuring terrified passengers around Marseille in his souped up Peugeot. Emilien is on the trail of a gang of German bank robbers who seem to have a penchant for using cherry red Mercedes as their getaway cars while shamelessly chewing the scenery. After Daniel gets himself into hot water by flagrantly flouting the local traffic laws with Emilien as his fare, he is blackmailed by the enterprising detective into helping him track down the Germans so he can gain the respect of his peers, especially that of the lovely Petra (Emma Sjoberg) whose very proximity has the tendency to turn Emilien into a babbling idiot. Daniel has girl problems of his own, spending most of his time in the movie (when he's not helping Emilien with his case), trying to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend Lilly (Marion Cotillard) but always managing to get interrupted in the process.

As you may have surmised from my little summary of Taxi, a gritty police procedural it is not. If anything, it is a farcical cartoon brought to life on the big screen, whose real star, it can be argued, is the eponymous taxi itself, which figures prominently in the film's many driving sequences. The first gun battle in the film involves perhaps several thousand rounds being fired with not one person wounded let alone killed. The German villains are only missing the villainous black mustache, monocle and spiked helmet which would have made them at home in a WWI propaganda film. Despite all this, I enjoyed watching Taxi now just as much I enjoyed watching it back in Grenoble in the summer of '98. Perhaps it's the undeniable chemistry between the actors which makes the film so much fun to watch. Maybe I can't help but enjoy movies centered around cars being driven recklessly, a relic, perhaps, of a youth spent watching films like Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Or it may be that a film that has no pretensions of being anything more than what it is is something we should all indulge in from time to time, lest we take everything (including ourselves) too seriously.