Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What have we learned from sci-fi? (part 3)

Contact with aliens doesn't always work out, if we're to learn anything from science fiction. While programs like SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) are intended to listen for signals in space, are we really prepared for what might happen if we do come into contact with an alien intelligence? In the movie, Species, SETI detected signals from an alien source, first with information about a clean-burning fuel, and then a second signal with an alien DNA code and friendly instructions on how to combine it with humans. The results? A dominant alien species with the potential to wipe us out. Other movies and TV shows have taught us that aliens who show up in big spaceships and park over major cities probably don't have our best interests in mind. Sometimes, they're here for our resources or the planet itself, other times, they intend to enslave us or use us for food (Independence Day, V, Falling Skies, etc.) Sometimes they just want to get inside our heads or they intend to clone us. Other reasons include: terra-forming our planet to suit alien needs, biologically altering our children to become aliens, stealing our water, or even going on a joyride to destroy everything for fun. I'm sure I've missed a few, but science fiction has presented a large variety of reasons why we shouldn't be so eager to make contact with an alien species. Have we really considered and planned for the possibility that their reason for contacting us might not be friendly?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What have we learned from sci-fi? (part 2)

Time travel can get very messy! Is time travel possible, though? Discussing that here would require volumes of information, and we would still walk away wondering, as there are many confusing theories on this topic. However, many do think that time travel is plausible—time dilation, a predicted result of Einstein's theory of general relativity—might be a very realistic result when moving across spacetime. Countless sci-fi movies and TV shows involve time travel, but each one can be seen as a warning: time travel will result in a massive mess. Back to the Future shows how traveling back in time could potentially erase your own existence. Continuum, a TV show currently in its third season, becomes more convoluted with each passing week, demonstrating that multiple timelines, paradoxes, and collapsing realities await even a careful time traveler. Dr. Who, a “time lord,” demonstrates the burden of a time-traveler, constantly trying to fix the universe and prevent major catastrophes. In The Butterfly Effect, even the smallest deviation can erupt in massive changes. And in 12 Monkeys, a man sent back in time to prevent the release of a deadly virus may have inadvertently caused the release of the virus by traveling back in time. If all this isn't enough to make your head spin, one thing should at least be clear—time travel is extremely dangerous!

Monday, April 28, 2014

What have we learned from sci-fi? (part 1)

Be afraid of AI and robots! Isaac Asimov's story, “I, Robot” showed us that, despite programming efforts to encode a set of laws, AI can find a way. “The Terminator” showed us that Skynet, an artificial intelligence defense system, was first built as a "Global Digital Defense Network" and given command over all computerized military hardware and systems. Skynet eventually concluded all humans were a threat, not just those it was programmed to protect, and sent its robots out to destroy the entire human race. In “The Matrix,” the human race has already been subdued by an AI system and forced into unconscious slavery. Yet despite all these and many other great stories and movies, we are still moving steadily ahead on the same path, giving our military drones more and more autonomy, developing AI's to conduct warfare for us, and developing towards the point that AI will become more intelligent than humans by 2029. Haven't we learned anything from sci-fi? We'd better, before it's too late...

Friday, April 25, 2014

What concepts from science fiction are becoming reality? (part 5)

A few other concepts-become-reality: Minority Report's face scanner is now common tech on smartphones and tablet computers. Biometric scans are commonplace today--fingerprint scanners and face recognition technology can be found from the Apple i-phone to Sony's PS4. Most of us are familiar with the “replicators” in the Star Trek series—devices that could generate items out of thin air. Yet today, this isn't as far from reality as we might think, considering the 3D-printing revolution. Just buy the plans for an object online, and your personal 3D-printer can produce the item for you in minutes. Would you like to send a copy of your child's clay sculpture to her grandparents that live on the other side of the country? Just place the object on a scanner, scan, and send the data to their 3D printer. They'll have a physical copy in just minutes. Even houses are being built by 3D printers, and complex objects, like firearms, can also be printed as parts to be assembled. Just imagine what the pirating problem will be like in the future when everyone has one of these!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What concepts from science fiction are becoming reality? (part 4)

In the movie, Prometheus, the ship's crew tosses a few robotic orbs into the corridors of an ancient alien ship. The robotic drones fly through the ship scanning the area to produce a detailed, holographic map. Today, Google has essentially been doing the same thing with Google Street View, sending out cars, bikes, and even snowmobiles to geo-map as much as possible. These images are tied to GPS coordinates, and Google has even mapped the interior of some buildings. However, the movie Prometheus was released after this technology had already been developed, but the concept of geo-mapping robotic drones is still sci-fi, only because it hasn't been done yet with robots. The lasers emitted from the drones in the movie suggest something similar to the lidar used by current satellites to map the topography of glaciers. Essentially, the drones in Prometheus aren't much of a stretch considering current technology, but sci-fi has a way of taking current tech and advancing it just a bit further.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What concepts from science fiction are becoming reality? (part 3)

In “The Avengers,” Iron Man manipulates a number of holographic computer displays with just a few movements of his hand. We also saw this type of technology in “Minority Report.” Today, this technology is being developed, and motion controls already exist through Microsoft's Kinect or Sony's PS-Eye. With the 2012 BMW 3-series, you can see your speed, the posted speed, and an arrow pointing the way for navigation, all displayed on your windshield as a sort of “Heads Up Display” (HUD). HUD's are already used on many fighter planes. To experience personal augmented-reality, Google Glass is the current option—a hands-free smartphone designed as a pair of glasses which responds to voice commands.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What concepts from science fiction are becoming reality? (part 2)

A sci-fi short-story that I wrote back in high school, over 20 years ago, featured a device I called the “PS-TV,” short for “Plexi-Screen TV.” Imagine a fruit roll-up (if you remember those from the 80's) or a thin piece of flexible plastic you could roll easily into a tube. The piece of plastic would actually be a digital display, and in my story, people unrolled the screens to watch TV, then rolled them back up and stuck them in their pockets when finished. This technology has been developed during the last few years--just look up “flexible screen TV's,” “flexible OLED,” or “Willow Glass.” Before high-school in the early 80's, I remember making notes about an idea I had for a 1st-person video game where you could look around you, see your own hands gripping a sword and shield, and embark on an epic adventure from this viewpoint. Today, such things are finally being explored in the video game industry through the Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What concepts from science fiction are becoming reality? (part 1)

One of the main reasons I love reading and writing sci-fi is because, in most cases, it is tied to reality and foretells a plausible future. Many ideas from sci-fi works have already become reality—in 1865, Jules Verne's novel, “From the Earth to the Moon,” tells the story of three people being launched by a “space gun” to arrive on the moon. For his time, Verne's vision was quite impressive, and even his actual calculations weren't far off from reality. In 1990, Paul Verhoven's film, “Total Recall,” featured robotaxis, but today, fully automated taxis exist in Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, and Google is working hard on developing self-driving cars. Science fiction is often an exciting view at what is to come, and I know that when I write (for Solar Echoes or for other sci-fi works,) I often spend a lot of time researching what is being developed and what might become reality.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Influence of Anime on Solar Echoes (part 5)

Bodacious Space Pirates is not exactly an anime title you'd want to brag about watching (regarding the poor title), considering I still get odd looks when mentioning “Cowboy Bebop” to non-otaku. Despite the odd name, though, Bodacious Space Pirates was probably the most realistic space-anime I've seen to date, regarding the extreme attention to details. Though I've read reviews where people actually complained about this, I was actually incredibly immersed in the show because of the realism—the feeling of being out in the expanse of space hunted by an enemy ship that is beyond radar range, the creeping dread of electronic warfare as a rival ship's hacker attempted to blind and disable the ship, and the fear of misjudging just how much thrust is needed to propel a starship properly into docking position. I loved it, and though I saw this anime after Solar Echoes had already released, I was happy when I realized that we had managed to incorporate some of the same elements into our game. Ultimately, during the design phase of Solar Echoes, we often referred to sci-fi or action anime, TV shows, and movies that we liked and said, “That's awesome, let's make sure we can do that in the game!”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Influence of Anime on Solar Echoes (part 4)

Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze, and Ergo Proxy are some of the darker anime shows that I've seen, and concepts from all of these have filtered into Solar Echoes in some way or another. An integrated internet, cyberware as limb replacement, and corruptible robot AI's are all present in the Solar Echoes universe. Hackers and those that assist them must tap into the “Stream” using a neural relay device. Prosthetic, robotic limbs can afford cyber-enhanced individuals greater speed or strength. Robotic specializations can allow skilled engineering-types to defeat robots by sending infectious code across a network to create a personalized, robot army. Though I can't say these concepts were directly taken from the aforementioned anime shows, these worlds aren't entirely disparate. Great sci-fi anime, if nothing else, certainly resonates with similar themes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Influence of Anime on Solar Echoes (part 3)

Outlaw Star was probably the next sci-fi anime I watched after Cowboy Bebop, and though it wasn't as good in my opinion, I still enjoyed it and I believe it also influenced some of my design preferences for Solar Echoes. Not only did it share the same technological approach as Cowboy Bebop (tech was present, but old-world tech was still common as well), it also involved something mysterious: the “caster.” The main character, Gene Starwind, carries this weapon, a gun similar to a shotgun that uses caster-shells for projectiles. The caster gun was a rare antique and the powerful projectiles it fired released magical spells upon impact. While magic spells don't exist in Solar Echoes, the concept of rare and powerful lost technology is something that I've always found very intriguing. Though it was not intentional, one could probably draw a parallel between this concept and the technological relics that can be found in the Voidsea in Solar Echoes. These relics are from a lost race that used powerful technology to violate the known laws of physics. It's not magic, but you might feel a bit like Gene Starwind if you manage to acquire one of the rare Voidsea artifacts in Solar Echoes!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Influence of Anime on Solar Echoes (part 2)

Another feature of several sci-fi anime that probably influenced our preferences in Solar Echoes was the approach to technology. While Solar Echoes technology is advanced (starships travel at FTL speeds, after all!) it is not pristine and unblemished, nor is it prevalent across all worlds. Some worlds in Solar Echoes are very behind-the-times, where fossil-fuels and battered, mechanical systems are still in wide-spread use. Though laser guns exist, many people still carry ballistic firearms, and some even prefer the simple weapons of old—a good katana or throwing knife can be as effective in battle as ever. The world of Solar Echoes is a mixture of futuristic, modern, and even ancient, which made the most sense to us during the design phase of the game. Colonists trying to establish a civilization on a new planet might not have the resources or financial backing to do much more than subsist at first, so a reliance on simple tools and weapons would be much more likely. Anime like Cowboy Bebop involves a similar approach, and this style makes it easier to accept the universe—it isn't such a far stretch from our own reality.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Influence of Anime on Solar Echoes (part 1)

A variety of anime and other TV shows, as well as several movies, had a definite influence upon Solar Echoes. Long before I first started thinking about designing an RPG, I had just started to get into anime. I remember during my childhood when "Voltron" was on TV, and I assumed all anime was the same. I'd tried "Akira," and though I thought it was impressive, the anime bug still hadn't bitten me. A fellow role-playing gamer, convinced I had too narrow a perspective on anime, introduced me to "Cowboy Bebop," and I was suddenly hooked! Many years later, I've watched more anime series than I can count, and I can look back at a few that had a definite influence on the direction of Solar Echoes. Consider the anime Cowboy Bebop, where criminals had more influence than police forces. It always made sense to me that the more we expand across space, the more difficult it would be to govern and police. Though Cowboy Bebop focused on crime fighters that were actually bounty hunters, the concept of a force that operated a little outside the law was appealing, especially when the intent was to stop crime using whatever means necessary. The Union Guard of Solar Echoes are not bounty hunters, but the methods of this special force aren't entirely different—they just have government funding to back them as well.

Friday, April 11, 2014

RPG's and MMORPG's (part 5)

What is the difference between an RPG and an MMORPG? Both are about designing and customizing your own character, from physical appearance to skill choices. However, RPG's typically emphasize deeper character development in regards to personality, background history, dialogue interaction with other players or characters, and the effect your character can have upon the story. In an MMORPG, few players take the time to act out a personality beyond a few simple emotes—it's almost all about the perpetual loot cycle, moving through the quests/chores as quickly as possible to level up faster so that better loot can be gained. As I played Final Fantasy XIV this past weekend, the best time I had was designing my characters during the initial creation stage: I read about and chose the part of the world they came from, the details of their classes, their racial background, and even spent a lot of time designing their physical appearances. But as soon as I entered the immense game world, I recognized the same conventions I've seen in other MMORPG's. Run and run and run to get from here to there (I have jokingly referred to WOW as a “running simulator” when I played it), watch as other players flit about and rarely stop to talk to anyone, and slog through the uninspired, repetitive combat with skills that seem to be recycled from other character classes, differentiated only by sound and graphical effects. I really wanted to like Final Fantasy XIV, but once again, it's clear that MMORPG's are just not for me. I hope those of you that enjoy it have a great experience, and I'm honestly a little jealous that it's fun for you—I really was looking forward to experiencing another Final Fantasy world again. With great disappointment, though, I deleted the demo from my hard drive and won't be buying the game.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

RPG's and MMORPG's (part 4)

But who am I to question a formula that has been incredibly successful? This formula has worked so well that some people have actually lost their jobs because they missed work for WOW, and very sadly, a few people have even died because of their obsessive addiction to this formula (they sat in front of their computers so long that they became severely malnourished and sleep-deprived.) This formula is based upon the carrot-on-a-stick principle, where just one more accomplishment in game will lead you to the next. The success of video games can partly be attributed to this concept: you feel like you've achieved something after expending your effort, and when the game is balanced well, it will feel like just the right amount of effort was made to earn the reward. Everyone likes to feel like they are making progress at something, and video games often provide that satisfaction when perhaps real life is in a holding pattern. However, if too much effort is required, the gamer will become frustrated, give up, and find something else to do, possibly giving up on the game altogether. Too little effort won't satisfy most gamers because we want to believe that we've become skilled at something. MMORPG's feed these (narcissistic?) tendencies. The more time and effort one sinks into an MMORPG, the more visible rewards he achieves for others in the game to observe. I'll admit, I wanted to adorn my character with better clothing and more impressive-looking weaponry, and seeing other players ride around on different mounts (horses, giant cats, and weird creatures) was enticing—especially since so much running around is involved in the game. Customizing or crafting your own equipment sounds exciting in theory, though you must slog through countless repetitive chores to avail these options. In the end, though, all of this is mostly cosmetic appeal.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

RPG's and MMORPG's (part 3)

I love a good story, and I really love the way that Square Enix crafts their worlds. I can lose myself in their ideas, the way they make their game worlds feel huge and involved, with ongoing plots that seem to sweep your seemingly insignificant character up into them until you realize you've become the hero. The series is filled with memorable characters, great dialogue, bizarre adversaries, and something almost magical that just grabs you and never lets go, even long after the game has finished. Great video game stories are about experiences and characters that stay with you and cause you to remember them alongside your real-life memories as if they really happened to you. However, in an MMORPG, I don't feel like I'm really part of the immediate experience. Instead, the game is more of a setting, though the story does supposedly develop slowly once you've completed countless repetitive chores (they're called quests in the game, but kill X amount of Y, or deliver this to so-and-so, etc. amounts to being a chore, in my opinion.) Honestly, though, the story is peripheral to the main objective in an MMORPG: gain more money, possessions, and power so that you can do longer and more difficult chores, and even team up with your friends to do the repetitive chores together! While fighting monsters together can be exhilarating in some games, MMORPG's tend to remove the emphasis on strategy and skillful button combinations, instead reducing the experience to waiting for certain skills to recharge before pressing a single button again, with some running around in between. Perhaps at higher levels strategic choices can be made for which skills to use, but often the choices are obvious—higher level versions of previous skills are all you need.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

RPG's and MMORPG's (part 2)

Right away, I'm certain that MMORPG fans would key into my statement that I only spent a few hours with the Final Fantasy XIV beta, and tell me that I need to spend more time for it to really grab me. Yet I remember hearing the same thing when I was trying to like World of Warcraft—I got into the beta and played it for a month before it was released, and then bought it with the hope that if I just spent more time with it, I'd like it. After the first month of owning the game and spending countless hours to level my character up to level 27, I finally canceled my subscription and deleted the game from my computer. People kept saying things like, “It gets really good after level 10,” “It gets better after level 15,” or was it level 20? I kept trying, I kept hoping, but it never changed enough from its design to keep me going. I've concluded that I just don't like, or maybe I just don't get, MMORPG's. Yet I still keep trying to like them—I spent several hours on the Final Fantasy XIV beta and loved the creative and colorful world they created, the unique creatures, modes of transportation, and character choices available for designing my avatar. For those of you that like MMORPG's, Final Fantasy looks like it has all the characteristics of the most popular offerings on the market today, with the added special blend of world-design that only Square Enix seems to have.

Monday, April 7, 2014

RPG's and MMORPG's (part 1)

Playing games used to be done around a table with a board game or a pack of cards, but gaming has undergone rapid changes in only a single generation. Before video games, table-top role-playing games (RPG's) were in their infancy in the late 1970's, with emerging giants like Dungeons and Dragons taking the lead for almost two straight decades. Many years later, table-top gaming is still alive and well, though statistics show that D&D's new rival, Pathfinder, has been consistently more popular in recent years. Computer and gaming console versions of RPG's have done well in the past, but none so well as their Massive Multiplayer Online iterations (MMORPG for short.) Early MMORPG's such as Everquest were immensely popular and extremely addictive, but the current reigning champion, for several undisputed years, is World of Warcraft. (WOW.) Just this weekend, a new contender has reared its head and entered the ring, at least in beta form: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It will soon be available on PC's, gaming consoles, and will even have dedicated apps for smartphones. What is it about MMORPG's that makes them so addictive and, as a result, so immensely successful? This week I'll share my experience from my weekend and the few hours I spent with the Final Fantasy XIV beta.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Space Travel (part 5)

Although we have not officially proven their existence, wormholes (also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) are hypothetical shortcuts through spacetime. Visualize a flat, two-dimensional surface like a piece of paper, where the openings of the wormhole are on opposite ends of the paper. While it would be an immense distance to traverse (in space) between the two points, imagine the paper being folded in half so the two openings align on top of each other. Traveling through a wormhole would be a nearly instantaneous way to travel a great distance. Though researches currently have no observational evidence for wormholes, equations of the theory of general relativity have solid solutions which point to the existence of wormholes. If we were to discover a wormhole nearby, it would be possible to catapult a starship a vast distance, allowing us to avoid years of listening to the kids in the back seat asking, “Are we there yet?”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Space Travel (part 4)

Obviously, the barrier to interstellar travel is the amount of time it would take to travel such great distances. This is all assuming that we must travel slower than light speed. Faster than light (FTL) speed, however, is said to be a theoretical impossibility, based upon the concept of Special Relativity. This theory was developed by Einstein, and is based on the assumption that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant. It is also based on the assumption that the laws of physics do not vary in all inertial systems. Basically, we are being told that the speed of light is a permanent speed limit! Yet some dispute exists about the assumptions inherent within Special Relativity, and unexpected lower decay rates in the muon decay experiment suggest that conclusions about time dilation might be incorrect--FTL speeds might actually be possible! In the Solar Echoes universe, it was necessary for FTL speeds to exist for many reasons, though the origin of this technology is of great interest to historians--each of the alien races "discovered" this technology within only 100 years of each other!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Space Travel (part 3)

Nuclear propulsion is a theoretical possibility for traveling much faster than ion propulsion or gravitational slingshotting. Project Orion began in 1958, inspired during the early stages of development of the atomic bomb. Interplanetary space travel utilizing the power of pulsed nuclear explosions would provide a huge thrust with a very high specific impulse. Maximum energy could be extracted from a starship's fuel to minimize the cost and maximize the range. This would produce a speed of about 5% the speed of light. Using nuclear propulsion, a starship could travel the 4.3 light year distance from earth to Proxima Centauri in only 85 years! However, Project Orion was canceled when considering that huge amounts of radioactive waste would be pumped into space.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Space Travel (part 2)

What if we really are confined to using ion propulsion or gravitational slingshotting? Obviously, this would seem a dead end because no one would live long enough to experience more than a very small fraction of the journey. Perhaps that is the problem itself, so why not sleep through the entire trip? Cryo-sleep, hyper-sleep, stasis, or suspended animation are sci-fi terms used to describe the concept of slowing down the body to a near-death state, only to resuscitate and restore full functionality at a later date. Currently, experiments are already being performed for medical science, and doctors term “suspended animation” as “emergency preservation and resuscitation.” Basically, the patient's blood is replaced by a cold saline which stops most cellular activity. The body is later thawed by replacing the saline with blood again. So far, this has been successfully tested on pigs and it will soon be tested on 10 human patients that have suffered cardiac arrest due to a traumatic injury. If it works and if the period of suspension can be increased far beyond the current 2 hours, we might be looking at the possibility of interstellar travel. Of course, it's quite possible the space travelers might wake up 19,000 years in the future as the only remnants of the human race!