Monday, 10 August 2015

Queen Elizabeth I's Execution Confusion [Scratch game]

Something different: my first Scratch-programmed game, inspired by what may be history's worst ever paperwork nightmare - that occasion when Queen Elizabeth I accidentally signed the death warrant for Mary Queen of Scots, as it was mixed up with all her other documents. I know, happens to me all the time. At least, that's her story - while it's frankly a rubbish excuse for an execution, it's a great excuse for a game...

As your ministers place their warrants before you, sign those deserving of death with your quill, - but beware! beheading the more popular celebrities of your reign will dent your popularity, so make sure you don't sign them, and some treacherous ministers might try to trick you into signing your own warrant.

Remember to dip your quill in the inkwell whenever it runs out.

Although Scratch is a fantastic BASIC-style programming system, for the moment it is Flash-based which means PC only. Apologies to Apple users - but hopefully there will be an HTML-5 version sometime.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Dig For Victory [Review: Waking Mars]

"Amani, this is Liang. I've been exploring these Martian caverns for ten hours now and I'm reaching a conclusion about the nature of this game. The discovery of a smooth-walled vertical cavern running through many layers of the map confirms my hypothesis: this is not a naturally occurring structure but a tribute to the classic BBC Micro era game Exile."

Waking Mars is a game for mobiles, tablets etc. with impressive scope. As astronaut Liang, you explore a network of caves with your jetpack, searching for a missing robot and discovering an ancient ecosystem as you go. In order to progress, you'll need to understand the relationships between the different life forms (your computer assistant, ART, is keen to point out that they are not technically plants or animals), and use this knowledge to increase the biomass in each area.

Gameplay video by Youtube user 1Retrodroid

The gameplay area is huge, and after you've taken the first few steps the game becomes non-linear, allowing open exploration and free travel between areas of the map you've visited. There's something new to discover in most zones, and plenty of memorable moments. The non linear play also means it's possible to "complete" the game, reaching one of the alternate endings, without making all the possible discoveries, and different players will have different experiences. That said, in about 15-20 hours of play I think I was able to explore the entire map and as far as I know I have found all the discoveries and possible endings.

Physically the game plays like Exile in terms of exploring a 2D cave system by jetpack, avoiding hazards such as molten lava, rockfalls and some of the more vicious plants. However the game mechanism of solving puzzles through planting seeds and managing ecosystems - third person gardener? grow-em-up? - is perhaps unique. I love the fact that while some puzzles are scripted or set up, some arise naturally from your own actions and mistakes. You can introduce a species of plant to an area that rapidly colonises and kills other species, and regaining control can be hard work.

There's some decent characterisation too. Liang, your character is cynical and prone to silence. He is assisted from base by Amani who is much more chatty and open minded, leading to some great Mulder-and-Scully banter. ART provides a comic element - he communicates through smiles (a little like GERTY) and suffers from a malfunctioning language module, as well as a habit of stating the obvious.

For comparison, gameplay video of the original Exile (BBC Master version) with comments by YouTube user Lord Triax

It's good to see that epic computer games are still being made, even if mobile gaming as a whole is skewed towards casual games. Yes, Crossy Road, I'm talking to you. There have been other exceptions - I previously reviewed the excellent Deep: Submarine Odyssey here - and of course there are newer gameplay styles such as Minecraft that reward longer play in different ways.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Living Doll [Humans]

The end is in sight for Humans - possibly in more ways than one, as the final episode approaches tonight. My thoughts: The quality of the drama in this series has been superb throughout - acting, script, characterisation - and I've really been drawn into the story.

Ruth Bradley as DI Karen Voss

The focus has been on the human drama rather than the technology, and the themes of slavery and individuality have continued. I was worried at the beginning that Humans was just a mash-up of other android movies or TV series but this has just been the background allowing a particular story to be told.

There have been plenty of plot twists and revelations, some predictable but some unexpected. I look forward to the ending even though I suspect it will not be a happy one, and once it's over I will be looking for the original Swedish series Real Humans to compare while I wait for series 2.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Reach For The Stars

An unusual star system containing five stars has been found by the WASP astronomy project, as reported on the BBC News website here. Multiple star systems occur in two classic science-fiction works. Isaac Asimov's novella Nightfall is set on a world with six suns - as a result night falls only once every few thousand years. Liu Cixin's novel The Three Body Problem, translated from the original Chinese, features a virtual world with three suns in irregular and unpredictable orbits.

Both stories explore the impact of these star systems on the civilizations below - in Nightfall, the inhabitants cannot detect stars beyond their system so cannot grasp the size or nature of the Universe, and they have a deep-rooted fear of the dark. The aliens on Liu Cixin's world also struggle to make sense of the Universe, and are striving to find a way to predict their suns' movements so they can prepare for the deadly hot or cold spells that occur when the suns get too close or too far away.

On our own world, we had it easy. All the clues were within easy reach - a single, stable sun, a clear view of the other stars, our own Moon and other planet/moon systems visible through simple optical devices, and it still took us centuries to work it all out, burning heretics along the way.

Friday, 3 July 2015

She's Always A Woman [Review: Ex Machina]

Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to spend a week with his company's mega-rich and secretive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). On arrival at the remote and ridiculously expensive location, inhabited only by Nathan and his housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Caleb discovers his real purpose - to Turing-test Nathan's secret pet project, an artificial intelligence in a humanoid robot called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander).

Alicia Vikander as Ava

I love it when this happens: a film is promoted as if it is an effects-laden, action-heavy Hollywood blockbuster, posters on buses and everything, but when you get to see it, it turns out to be a low-key, four-handed character-driven stage play. Brilliant! There's plenty of darkness, drama, threat and revelations for all four characters, but not a single fireball.

Alex Garland's involvement probably boosted the promotional budget, but rightly or wrongly, it's probably the iconic look of Ava's transparent robot body that has mis-sold the movie. I do think, once again, that roboticists should think twice before designing their robots to resemble attractive women - have they not seen The Machine, Humans, Battlestar Galactica, or (especially) Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery? The warnings were all there. Robots need to look like robots, or there'll be so much trouble.

When the Singularity comes, it will look like this...

Monday, 29 June 2015

Bright Eyes [Review: Humans episode 3]

I'm enjoying Humans more with each episode. I like the easy Asimov references. I like the way different characters get to show new depths or aspects of their personality each week - and the way, each week, we get a more disturbing version of what synths can do, whether limited to their original programme like NHS droid Vera (Rebecca Front) or whether illegally modded or freed like Niska (Emily Berrington). Last week Niska discovered she could kill - this week she makes her bid for freedom and starts to explore the world. It turns out she has some scruples, or at least limits on what she's prepared to do.

Emily Berrington as Niska

Anita (Gemma Chan) is still the central character. It's becoming clear how good she is at lying and manipulating her owners - but she's different from the other synths, and when Mattie (Lucy Carless) tries to hack into her system, just for a few seconds we get a hint of what she really is. It's compelling viewing, gradually building into a classy sci-fi drama with the emphasis strongly on the drama.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Sci-Fi Gene Music Video Playlist

I present The Sci-Fi Gene music video playlist: a carefully curated museum of music videos that have caught my attention, inspired or amused me, plus a few of my own productions thrown in for good measure. The list will be updated from time to time whenever I come across new music videos that make the grade.