The Physics of Space Battles

Those battles in Star Wars and Star Trek look pretty cool, but It’s Okay To Be Smart explains how the real thing wouldn’t quite be so flashy.

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Tomodachi Life Review

“Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby…”

When it was first unveiled, Tomodachi Life was considered one of the strangest things Nintendo had ever made. The idea was simple enough: create an entire community of Mii townsfolk, give them basic necessities, and let them have their own day-to-day adventures. It’s rather telling that a wacky life simulator with customizable characters is weirder than things like Fire Flowers, Metroids, or Tingle. The game’s selling point wasn’t just that you could create anyone you wanted; it was the ability to turn the mundane – eating breakfast, having dreams, going out to the park, etc. – into the bizarre. At a glance, it’s easy to believe Tomodachi Life accomplishes everything it promises. But once you get into the daily grind, you’ll realize this simulation is far more tedious and unrewarding than it looks.

Oh, it seems fine at first. You’re tasked with populating your island, either by creating new Mii avatars, importing from your 3DS system, or downloading QR codes from an online database. The initial options are taken straight out of the 3DS’s Mii Maker; you’re given several choices of head shape, facial features, eye and skin color, and hairstyles. It’s not until you access the voice programming that things get interesting. Not only can every character speak, but their voices can be tweaked for age range, speed, pitch, tone, accent, and even intonation. By no means does it perfectly mimic human speech, but it’s far better than what you’d expect from a handheld game. The designers also had the foresight to include customizable pronunciation, just in case the computer doesn’t understand your inputs. The most impressive aspect, however, is the personality builder. You’re given spectra in which to measure a character’s movement speed, politeness, expressiveness, attitude, and even quirkiness. Much like in real life, these aspects make a huge impact in how the Miis operate and interact. For example, my personal Mii is quick, direct, somewhat expressive, mostly serious, and absolutely weird. She’s designated as a Confident Adventurer. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is slow, deadpan, and takes himself way too seriously.

Yeah, you read that right. Darth Vader is my Mii’s next door neighbor. When you can program anyone into your game, such wackiness is inevitable. The majority of Tomodachi Life’s humor comes from those slice of life interactions among unlikely friends. Bowser didn’t even look at Princess Peach; he fell in love with Bayonetta and married her within a week. They even have a child now – they named him Jason – who has his mother’s hair and his father’s fangs. Captain Picard thinks I’m his BFF, and it’s only a matter of time before Batman proposes to me. Gordon Freeman occasionally goes out for coffee with Luigi and Travis Touchdown. Though managing up to 100 residents might seem daunting, the game’s info displays make it easy to keep track of friendships and romances. You’re tasked with introducing characters and manipulating the major points of their relationships, giving you ample opportunities to partake in the drama. It’s like reading bad fan fiction, only with more control over the characters’ choices.

Regardless of who you put on the island, the objective remains the same: make them happy. When you look at the apartment building, flashing icons indicate a problem needing to be resolved. It’s usually something simple, like feeding someone or giving them new clothes and advice. Sometimes they’ll ask for fancier things, like a bath set, camera, a new room background, or a specific item. You’ve got to be careful, though; if you give them stuff they hate or bad advice, they’ll end up even more miserable. If the Miis get enough of whatever they need, they’ll reward you with money, items, and expensive gifts that can be sold for more cash. The characters’ happiness ratings level up individually, allowing you to give them presents to expand on their hobbies and social lives. Most are practical, like books, laptops, and sports equipment, while things like the Wii U and the metal detector are more for laughs. Then again, watching Ganondorf practicing the Hula is pretty entertaining in itself. If you don’t want to spoil the characters too much, the leveling system can be used to teach them new phrases and songs, and change their apartment interior. The more stuff the Miis have, the more they’ll interact with each other and develop their relationships.

It’d be a great concept, if the game actually made it fun.

The whole cycle of buying supplies, leveling up happiness, and getting cash gets old within minutes. You’ll spend most of the time just staring at the apartment complex and visiting whoever needs help. There’s very little variety in terms of problems and how they’re phrased. Everyone seems to love “practicing their funny faces” and vocally impersonating their friends. Others just want the same bath time, have identical stomach problems, etc. Even special items get stale fast; I’ve used several travel tickets, but my Miis often end up on the same vacations. The game tries to hide the repetitiveness with a small selection of touch screen-based mini-games. These usually involve catching falling items, matching icons from memory, and identifying items in pixelated or silhouetted images. That last one is particularly overused; after the first dozen or so games, you’ll likely have memorized most of the answers! It’s not like any of the mini-games are particularly difficult or rewarding, either. Success merely grants you another sellable trinket, and the sheer amount of opportunities to play takes the sting out of failure. Even the interactive dreams – some of which are admittedly hilarious – lose their appeal after repeated viewings. How many times can you watch someone dream they’re a Super Sentai character, race like snails, or chase a plate of food on a string?

Things get slightly better once you leave the apartment complex. There are nearly 20 locations on your virtual island, each with their own activities and features. However, most of them are strictly for utility; you’ll only have to visit the clothing shops, apartment interiors, and grocery store once a day. Even the town hall, which could’ve been used for all kinds of social functions, serves as little more than a Mii creator and index. The rankings board and its extensive amount of information would’ve been great if you actually, you know, cared about the characters. The beach, observation tower, and amusement park are utterly disappointing. Oh sure, you can watch your Miis run along the shore or ride a roller coaster…but that’s all you can do. You can’t change the camera angle, let alone do anything beyond taking funny screenshots. There’s no exploration, no details, nothing at all to keep you interested for more than a few seconds. There’s an optional NES-style RPG with turn-based combat mechanics, but it lacks customizable stats based on Miis’ clothes, optional weapons, leveling, or anything else resembling depth. Even the cafe, in which characters indulge in Seinfeldian conversations, gets repetitive after the first few minutes. You’ll hear the same tales of someone buying a pirate ship, hair problems, their latest obsessions, and bribing professional singers with cake. Let them go long enough, and someone will point out how they always talk about the same things. When the characters notice how repetitive things have gotten, it’s a bad sign.

While nearly all the attractions on the island are one-dimensional, the concert hall is the only thing remotely interesting. Miis can learn to sing eight song styles, such as metal, pop, opera, and techno. Though every song has a default tune already programmed, you’re allowed to change the lyrics. Even if you’re not going for a parody, watching your Miis trying to reenact Broadway-style musicals is hilarious. The animations are a little jerky, but whoever programmed those vocals and dance moves did an impressive job. The same can be said for the customization in general; you might not have much interactivity with your characters, but you can certainly make them look nice. There are hundreds of potential outfits and accessories, ranging from simple t-shirts and bandanas to gothic dresses and suits of armor. The various apartment backgrounds got the most love, though. Your Miis can live in the middle of movie theaters, Japanese arcades, golden temples, ice palaces, star-studded galaxies, and dozens more. Some of them are absolutely dazzling, tempting you into believing that buying all of them is worth it. But no matter how well you dress it up, you’ll still be confronted with the same lackluster gameplay.

The shallow design becomes especially apparent once you activate StreetPass. You can send and receive Miis – but only the children of married couples – along with special items and accessories. Aside from selecting the single export for your island, the wireless functionality serves no purpose. There are no additional mini-games or activity beyond greeting your visitors. This is a gargantuan oversight in terms of the game’s design; rather than just importing and exporting an item through chance meetings, it would’ve made more sense to develop it around an online multiplayer experience. Islands could’ve been used as hubs for gamers to visit and exchange goods. There could’ve been an option to design and sell clothes, or put rarer items up for auction. How about playable volleyball at the beach? Rather than just watch characters enjoy the amusement park, there could’ve been a way for you to develop and customize the attractions to appeal to other gamers. Instead of featuring bland, repetitive chunks of fake dialogue, the cafe could’ve used the 3DS’s microphone to let gamers hold live conversations. The sheer amount of missed opportunities is mind-boggling.

I wanted to like Tomodachi Life. Really, I thought it had a lot of potential. The concept is clever. The ability to customize voices and personality is an impressive accomplishment; it’s far more extensive than what you’d find in Animal Crossing or similarly-designed games. Despite such advancements, the game loses sight of the most fundamental aspects of gameplay: making something fun, and giving players a reason to care about its characters. Rather than having a fully fleshed-out world, this is nothing but a bare-bones collection of repetitive mini-games. It doesn’t even bother trying to hide it, either. There’s no satisfaction in shoving food and trinkets into an avatar in attempt to level up their happiness; <i>true</i> gaming satisfaction should come from building a little world for yourself from scratch and enjoying the results. Tomodachi Life demonstrates the real problem with life simulators; regardless of humor and bizarre situations, they’re limited to their programming. In the end, real life will always be better.

*Originally posted here.

Happy Belated Free Comic Book Day!

Hey, folks. Yesterday, North American comic fans celebrated the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you could go to a participating comic book store and receive a bag of free samplers (or a selection of stuff on display) while enjoying whatever other promotions or sales going on. Since I live within reasonable traveling distance – the BART subway system has proven immensely useful – I decided to take the plunge for the first time. I don’t like being in huge crowds, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. Besides, the weather was perfect for a little urban exploration.

I got to Fantastic Comics in Berkeley around 11:15, and the line was out the door and almost to the street corner.  It was a drastic change compared to my previous visit; last year I ducked in there for the Graphic Canon, and bought it seconds later. The wait this time was made bearable by the swift pace of the foot traffic, as well as all the awkward, sleepy kids in their little super hero costumes. There were also some cosplayers:

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Things were a little more hectic inside. The setup was simple: the incoming line hugged the wall, browsing the shelves until reaching the counter at the back. Everyone was given a plastic bag filled with comics, then a choice of four other assorted comics on display. Once that was done, people could split off from the line and explore the store for more stuff. And man, did they have a lot:

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^That’s only about half the store. The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, Marvel Compendiums, Game of Thrones, Batman, Ghostbusters, My Little Pony, Gundam, Dexter’s Lab, Usagi Yojimbo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar…pretty much every graphic novel you could possibly think of. A shame they didn’t have any of the Street Fighter art books, though. I ended up settling on Battle Royale; I’ve been meaning to pick it up for a while, and I’d like to see how it influenced The Hunger Games.

From there, I browsed a couple more stores on the block, particularly Half Price Books and Games of Berkeley. One of the local sandwich shops apparently broke bad for the occasion:

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I got back on BART and headed to Collector’s Haven in downtown Oakland. Due to its location, most people would probably miss it. I certainly did; I had to double check the address just to make sure. It’s sandwiched within the vicinity of a tattoo parlor and a psychic, and at the top of a narrow flight of stairs. It was much smaller and quieter – there were maybe 4 people, including the staff – but they had a good selection of figurines and had an X-Men cartoon playing. I got a few free volumes that I missed at the previous store, then got back on the train. My next destination: San Francisco. Today was supposedly California Book Store Day, but the Alexander Book Company didn’t seem to have anything special going on…I left without getting anything, then ducked into the Cartoon Art Museum. The selection certainly changed since last year; they had Studio Ghibli art books for some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films! I ended up getting the Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, then promptly left before temptation could overwhelm me. I wandered around the city for a couple more hours, then finally made the trip home.

So, final count for Free Comic Book Day:

Battle Royale

Art of Howl’s Moving Castle
Mega Man Archie Comics #36: The Trial of Doctor Wily (including what has to be a Phoenix Wright knockoff at the beginning!)
A promotional pamphlet for The Clear Case by Stephanie Edd

Free comics/previews/samplers for:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Rocket Raccoon
  • Mega Man X/Sonic The Hedgehog (Snatched this up the second I saw it)
  • Street Fighter (I’m a huge SF fan, so this was a very nice surprise!)
  • New 52: Futures End
  • Teen Titans Go
  • Far From Wonder: Volume 1
  • Uncle $crooge and Donald Duck: A Matter of Some Gravity
  • Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan
  • Les Miserables: The Fall of Fantine (Art by SunNeko Lee. Dunno how I feel about Les Mis manga-style…)
  • Entropy
  • Courtney Crumrin

That’s aside from walking four or five miles, getting 28 tags on my 3DS StreetPass, and having a much-needed day out in the city. Now that I’m back home, I know I’m going to regret all this activity in the morning. But at least I’ll have plenty to read…

What I Learned From Lawrence of Arabia

So, I watched Lawrence of Arabia last Saturday night.

For the first time.

No, seriously. I lived nearly three decades without seeing one of the greatest films ever. Yeah, yeah, feel free to laugh. I don’t blame you. That’s like not seeing Star Wars or The Shining. But I’ve always been more into literature than movies, and until a few days ago, I’d never had the time or enough interest to watch it. And man, I didn’t know what I was missing. I could wax poetic about the acting, cinematography, score…everything. It’s impossible to not get swept up in it. The image of a burning match and a desert sunrise is still etched in my mind. After 222 minutes of epic storytelling, I went to bed knowing that I had seen something special.

The next morning, Peter O’Toole died.

I was stunned. Not twelve hours before, I’d seen him willingly ride back into the desert to save his comrade. Nothing is written, he had shouted defiantly. I’d been drawn in by those piercing blue eyes, and those iconic white robes. I cheered at his victories, and saddened at his losses.  And now this man – someone who managed to bring to life a character larger than life itself – is gone. However, the lessons of that story are not. Lawrence of Arabia may be over 50 years old, but its messages are timeless.

What makes the movie so fascinating is just how little it seems like one. Compared to modern films, anyway. Hey, quick question: What’s your favorite epic adventure and/or action flick? Is it Raiders of the Lost Ark? The Matrix? The Lord of the Rings Trilogy? They’re all great, but why are they loved so much? It’s because they give us just the right amount of escapism and entertainment we need. We revel in violence and explosions, and stare in slack-jawed wonder at the style and majesty of the exotic settings. They’re great distractions from the lacking character development. Think about it. Why do you like Indiana Jones? It’s because you like seeing him traveling the world and punching bad guys, isn’t it?  Come on, be honest. Do you actually care about Indy as a character? Probably not. The same goes for every Neo, John McClane, and Terminator out there. They’re phenomenal action heroes, but their character depth is sacrificed for the sake of pacing and appeal.

***SPOILERS FOR A 50+ YEAR OLD MOVIE JUST IN CASE***

Lawrence of Arabia averts this by examining what would really happen to such a heroic figure. I’m not sure if it’s a ridiculous amount of foreshadowing, or just common sense. If you’re reasonably-versed in the real T.E. Lawrence’s exploits, you know how things end up. But even if you’re going into the film blind, it’s pretty obvious how things are going to play out once the realistic tone is set. Lawrence seems like an eccentric, but undeniably brave and charismatic leader. He gets various desert tribes to work together, goes native, forms a small army, and proceeds to wreak epic havoc all over the Turks. Lawrence seems like a typical action hero…until the first time he has to kill someone. He doesn’t say a badass one-liner; he hesitates, his hands and voice tremble, and he throws the gun away afterwards. It’s not just because he feels horrified about committing murder, but because he knows he enjoys it. Compare that scene with the massacre at Tafas; Lawrence goes on a killing spree, and the manic look on his face is chilling. Not only does he willingly shoot a gun, but he quickly runs out of bullets and pulls out his dagger. By the end of the battle, his arms – and his once-white robes – are drenched in blood. Dozens of bodies are left to rot in the sun. No one applauds, there is no victory fanfare. Only horror and disgust. Sherif Ali stares at Lawrence and says with a broken, bitter voice:

“Does it surprise you, Mr. Bentley? Surely, you know the Arabs are a barbarous people. Barbarous and cruel. Who but they! Who but they!

At its core, Lawrence’s story is nothing new. It’s of the oldest Aesops around: pride and vanity can be dangerous. Basically, he buys too much into his own hype. It’s easy to understand why; for the first half of the movie, he seems unstoppable. He willingly went back alone into one of the deadliest places on Earth just to save someone, and survived! Who wouldn’t want to follow him? However, it becomes clear that he doesn’t fully consider the consequences of his actions. The two comic relief servants die because of his needlessly risky planning. While he’s enjoying a private moment of victory at the shores of the Red Sea, his army is plundering Aqaba and destroying his only method of long-range communication with the British. Lawrence believes himself to be untouchable, yet is shot during a raid. He tries to brush the injury off with some boasting, but is left scarred. Not only does it further demonstrate Lawrence’s carelessness, but hints that he’s still vulnerable beneath the bold exterior.

His scouting expedition into Daraa results with more blatant and damaging consequences. Lawrence – a blond, blue-eyed Brit – thinks he can pass for an Arab tribesman. Sherif Ali knows what a stupid idea it is, but accompanies his friend anyway. Reality ensues; Lawrence is immediately caught by the guards, and sent to be interrogated by the Turkish Bey. That scene isn’t visually graphic in its violence, but its subtext and implications are. The Bey doesn’t just hit Lawrence; he takes the time to strip him down, examine his body, and creepily fondle his chest. Then the torture and implied off-screen rape commences. It’s in this scene that we – and Lawrence himself – realize that he isn’t untouchable. It’s hard to watch. Unlike other action heroes who survive that kind of punishment and get their revenge, he is left a shattered, defeated remnant of his former self. He finally understands that he is just a man, and not a prophet.

The British authorities have to shamelessly appeal to his vanity to get him back into the fray. He is essential to their plan for Damascus, after all. The Tafas massacre aside, it’s obvious that something’s gone wrong with Lawrence of Arabia. He’s not smiling anymore. The twinkle in his eye has given way to a stone-cold stare. He naively assumes the Arabs will come for his sake rather than money, yet hires mercenaries that don’t care about his cause. It’s clear he understands the difference – Sherif Ali calls him on it point-blank – but doesn’t seem too concerned. For Lawrence, the conquest of Damascus is his chance to heal his wounded pride and regain any semblance of dignity. And for a second, it looks like he succeeds;  his forces take the city and set up the Arab National Council. But in typical fashion, he overlooks the obvious:

They don’t know how to run a modern city.

The tribes represent a culture steeped in centuries of tradition…in the desert. That doesn’t change overnight; there’s just a mountain of new problems. When the fighting is over, a civil engineer is way more useful than a swordsman. The image of Lawrence desperately trying to get water out a disconnected faucet is sad and pathetic; for all his charisma and bravado, he can’t save the thousands of injured and dying in the streets. We even get to see our hero slapped by a disgusted army medical officer! With no options, he relinquishes control to the British, the only players left in this scenario with resources and practical skills. What’s most telling is the return of Prince Faisal, the real leader of the Arabs; while Lawrence was gallivanting all over the desert, Faisal was preparing for his inevitable negotiations with the British. Not only is he much savvier, but it’s clear he kept Lawrence around for only as long as necessary:

“Aurens is a sword with two edges. We are equally glad to be rid of him, are we not?”

Thus, Lawrence is given an appropriate end: He’s sent home. That’s it. The job is done. He did amazing, death-defying things and helped change the course of a nation. The adventure was incredible, but it broke him physically, mentally, and spiritually. In the beginning, he rode confidently into the desert on a camel and connected with people. In the end, he’s lost all connections and is despondently driven out of the desert in a jeep. There’s nothing epic or romantic left. Once he’s completed his role, no one has any more use for his heroics; all he gets to look forward to is a lack of purpose and the legions of fans who know nothing about him on as a person.

That’s what really happens to an action hero.

So, what can we learn from Lawrence of Arabia? It’s not just about the epic adventure or the political intrigue. It’s a moral about not letting yourself be consumed by your flaws. Your idols and role models are people, too. Pride and vanity are powerful things, and they can be used creatively and destructively. It’s great to be brave and ambitious, but you have to think things through to be effective. You need heroism and common sense. If you define yourself by just your fame and exploits, you risk not only your identity, but the lives and happiness of the people you care about. Never forget why and for whom you do something. Your choices have consequences, and irresponsibility leads to suffering. For better or worse, your actions are your only legacy. Make it a good one.

So it is written.

May The Verse Be With You!

Hey, folks. Have a Star Wars and/or literature geek like me on your holiday list? You might want to check out William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.

No, seriously. This does exist, and it is awesome. It’s the entirety of A New Hope rewritten to look like The Bard of Avon’s writing, right down to the iambic pentameter, chorus, and stage play formatting. Everything is there, from Han Solo shooting Greedo to the duel between Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. Not to mention the dramatic musings of R2-D2:

“This golden droid has been a friend, ’tis true,/ And yet I wish to still his prating tongue!/ An imp, he calleth me? I’ll be reveng’d,/ And merry pranks aplenty I shall play/ Upon this pompous droid C-3PO!/ Yet not in language shall my pranks be done:/ Around both humans and droids I must/ Be seen to make such errant beeps and squeaks/ That they shall think me simple. Truly, though,/ Although with sounds obilque I speak to them, I clearly see how I shall play my part,/ And how a vast rebellion shall succeed/ by wit and wisdom of a simple droid.”

Zounds.