No Man’s Castle in the Sky

Hype

Long since, if ever, was a game hyped up so much as No Man’s Sky. Even those that didn’t jump on the hype train, expected its world to be interesting, only pointing out how few we know about the actual game itself. When the heat was at the maximum, I predicted the game’s downfall. And not for the possible gameplay issues, which could have turned out good, for all we knew. I predicted that the world will be boring, and nothing like promised. It was easy for me to predict, for what they were set out to do, is not possible.

Promise

No Man’s Sky’s world was supposed to be of blasphemous proportions. A technique called procedural generation (discussed later) was used to generate practically infinite number of unique planets to explore, giving the player the opportunity to be the first ever to see them. The planets were about to be populated by similarly generated wildlife, plants and animals, as well as geography, hills, flatlands and lakes.

For some, it does not sound like much. But there is a kind of person who can spend hours in Google Street View, possibly under the disguise of GeoGuessr, or replay Miazmata the 4th time to get some achievements, the kind of gamer that looks behind every tree, and can’t tolerate white areas on the map. The Explorer type of man.

For an Explorer, No Man’s Sky’s premise was like two hundred megatons of your favorite ice cream.

Procedural Generation

The heart of this universe is procedural generation. Procedural generation is a buzzword that brings in cash these days. Let’s have a look what it does.

The most straightforward way to create a game’s virtual world is to manually build it. You design the map or layout, you place objects of interest in it, you decorate it and fill it with detail. As the world grows and gets more detailed, manually setting up all parts starts to take preventively long time. You need to get help from a computer software.

A lot of tedium can be automated. One can set up an algorithm to generate typical textures like wood or stone. They will all look similar, but will not just be a copy of one another, and also can be tuned for wear, type, etc. One can also generate randomized trees or entire forests. Cities. Mountains with fine detail down to rocks. Maps or floorplans. Or even names.

These algorithms take parameters. Some parameters affects the characteristics of the result. You might be able to change the ratio of water to land, make the terrain more ragged or more flat, make a tree taller or shorter, having more or less leaves, and so on. There is one special parameter called the “seed”. It does not change the average appearance of the object, instead, it just randomizes it. Different seed values leads to different instances of a large class of similar objects. Similarly parametrized mountains will all be roughly equally high, equally rocky, equally traversable. But they will be a different one for each seed value.

Computer-generating landscapes or objects does not necessarily mean they go into the game unchecked. A great many problems can show up with procedural generation. Generated objects might randomly end up being weird. Trees might be lopsided, defying gravity, or otherwise look unrealistic. Terrains might be impassable. The designer might just use the raw objects as starting points, fine tuning or manually fixing as desired.

It is also possible to develop a single, complex algorithm to generate the entire world unattended. The classic game Elite used this strategy in order to save precious bytes of the then scarce RAM memory. It did not store the world. It just stored the algorithm, and regenerated the world on the fly. This of course amplifies the dangers of weird or unrealistic creations. As the rumor goes, during the development, one version of the universe had to be scrapped because a randomly generated name was inappropriate.

But since RAM and disk storage is so cheap now, unless there is some special need for it, modern games usually just dump the world into files, and deploy with the software. Unless we are making No Man’s Sky, which has such a huge world, we can’t even hope storing it all. The game, like Elite did, come with the generating algorithm to its entire universe. It runs on our system to generate the segment we are in. Except while Elite was not so big, 2048 systems total, they at least had a chance to review the entire universe and change the seed until they got an acceptable one, in No Man’s Sky there is no chance of doing that. There are way too many systems to review even a tiny fraction of them. The algorithm has to get it right for every seed. If you want the most unlucky creations to still look okay, you need to tune down the variance. This is one reason why the result is on the duller side. But it wasn’t their biggest problem. The biggest problem is discussed in the next segment.

Content and Information

To cut to the heart of the matter, here is the final conclusion: procedural generation does not generate content. Let me explain.

First we are going to assert that randomness is not interesting. As an example, imagine a large number of dots, randomly distributed in an area. Think of it as a star map in a 4X game. One might assume that the randomness generates all sorts of shapes, kind of like constellations. However, if you try to recall actual constellations, you can see that they in no way resemble what they supposed to look like. They are just a few random dots in no particular arrangement. You are lucky to find anything other than a simple geometric shape. The interesting features of the night sky, nebulae, galaxies, are not random. I know this, because I tried to create this exact “world” as an experiment into procedural generation. I have placed, what a coincidence, 18 quintillion dots in a square, exactly as much as No Man’s Sky boasts. (It is not a coincidence, and you know it if you know the origin of this number.) I can tell you, this Elite on Steroids gigantic star map was just as much a disappointment as No Man’s Sky is. It offers nothing of value. The total amount of entertainment coming out of it is fifteen minutes. Random is boring.

As another example, consider a bunch of independent attributes, like color, shape, size pattern. Let us have five to ten of each. Then create a lot of objects having randomly chosen attributes. Such a system offers a large number of possibilities, but do you think it is interesting? Nope. Our brain quickly realizes that the different attributes are independent, and handles them as such, different things that have a small variance on their own. You will not see a red big circle with stripes etc. You will see the color red, you will see a circle, and you will look for some better things to do with your life.

Second, we are going to argue that order is not interesting either. Imagine your star map as a rectangular grid. How does that work? What if all the planets are rich in exactly one mineral, and it can be sold for a good price in the system just three stars to the left? What if you find that the best loot is always in the basement of houses, or the highest points of islands? What if all orcs always lie, and all elves are always honest? Does these ideas sound like a game you want to play?

Third, we posit that having anything interesting coming out of an algorithm is either really hard or impossible. An obvious counterexample would be the famous Mandelbrot set. Its mathematical formula is extremely simple, yet the resulting image is full with spirals, circular shapes, flowers, more spirals, and … yep, that’s pretty much it. Let’s be honest, nobody spends hours looking at the Mandelbrot set. Yes, it is amazing how complex its shape is compared to the simplicity of its formula. But as a source of entertainment, it fails. You can consume all of its offerings in an hour, maybe a few if you do it in small batches. And this is a one of a kind function, you don’t come across one like it too often.

Fourth, we conclude that your game has as much content (read, interesting things) as you put in it. What is interesting after all? The right amount of complexity. Complexity is the number of rules necessary to describe a system. If the number of rules necessary is too few, we understand it quickly, and move on. If the number of rules necessary equals to the number of observable parameters of the system, like its color, pattern, arrangement, parts, and so on, then we don’t have anything to understand, we can only memorize the whole phenomenon. We can’t make sense of it, it is random noise. To be interesting, there has to be a lot of rules to discover, but once we discovered them, we should see the patterns and see the structure. That is satisfying.

In case of procedural generation, rules are, roughly speaking, the algorithm itself. Therefore we can’t expect a simple algorithm to generate a complex world. You need to work for each and every notable feature. You pay for playtime with worktime, as it used to be, and as it should be.

So how does all this tie in with No Man’s Sky? The sad fact is that the game simply does not have enough content. It barely has any, our brain has nothing to chew on. Despite the lot of stuff, the game has no meat. And it is not just a mistake, an error or an incorrect choice in its algorithm. Meat is not there, because they didn’t create it, and didn’t put it there. They didn’t think they have to. When they realized they had to, it was way too late. Way too late, and also an entirely different task then they were prepared for. They were about to make an algorithm, not figure out what makes a geologic structure or an animal’s anatomy interesting. Heck, they couldn’t even hire a help, as nobody has any clue about these things.

Okay, but what about existing games using procedural generation? If you think about it, they do produce more of the same, pretty much that’s the point to them, isn’t it? The purpose of procedural generation in these games is not to create interesting content. The content is all hand made. The purpose is to give us a different instance of the same game when played a second time. Things are mixed up just enough so we can’t learn what’s next. We can’t memorize the order of rooms, enemies and loot. So procedural generation is there, in fact, to give us the same experience every time. And this is what No Man’s Sky gives you with every planet. The same experience.

Scale

The size of this universe in No Man’s Sky is more a problem than a feature. The more planets you visit, the more obvious their emptiness becomes. Why have such a big universe in the first place? Thinking about it, every planet we don’t visit, is exactly like a planet that is not there. Even the most hardcore players will not visit more than a few thousand planets. So what difference does it make if there are a thousand or a quintillion planets remain unseen? The question will be answered in this section.

One of the most spectacular features of our universe is its scale. The universe is so big and so full of stuff that we have no hope to grasp, not even close. All we can do is to create better and better aids that try to help us grasping it, and fail miserably. With each failed attempt, the glimpse of infinity slowly makes a lasting impression in our minds. And what a good impression that is! Almost like a zen meditation. It helps understanding that you are not the center. It helps understanding that things will move on, with or without you. It helps putting things in their place, and reduces anxiety over irrelevant minutia. Everyone should practice it every now and then.

You can start by downloading Celestia. It is a free software that shows the solar system and some surrounding stars in real proportions, Something that No Man’s Sky promised. Except it is only one system (ours), plus a few thousand nearby stars, but without planets. One striking feature of the solar system is that planets are so small. As you travel from one to another, you see the planet’s disk very quickly reducing to a dot, and then you just fly in cold, empty, black space for the majority of the journey, just to see the other planet’s disk appearing in the last moment. Our neighborhood is mindnumbingly empty. You can try to visualize distances like 100 million kilometers, but it’s hopeless. Then you go to the closest star.

How to play GeoGuessr correctly? For those that are not familiar with it, it is a game that randomly drops you somewhere on Google Street View, but with no access to the map. You can walk around. Your goal is to find out where you are. Now of course you can be the slacker, identify the continent, and be satisfied with the 2700km error. But to really enjoy the game, you should go for 10m precision. At one point, you will find your location in another browser window with a full featured Google Maps in it, zoomed to street level. And then comes part when you need locate the same spot on the ingame map. You zoom out until you recognize the greater area. Then repeatedly zoom in to both maps in parallel, finding some notable feature that guides you. At that point you realize how overwhelmingly huge even smaller countries or country-parts are. How overwhelmingly huge this planet is.

So, screw you, Ridley Scott! How dare you make movies without understanding the world you are about to show? Remember that part in Prometheus when they arrive to the planet? Goes as this: they approach the planet right after arriving. They descend, and go from seeing the planet disc to flying over rocks in two seconds. If you tried GeoGuessr as I suggested, you know how wrong this is. They missed a lot of descending. The planet feels tiny! Normally, they should enter low orbit, and observe the planet’s surface for many weeks, to even see it all. Then, after choosing the most interesting target, go down to investigate. It would give the planet the right proportions. What we saw in the movie is weak and does not impress at all, a toy planet to host one artifact.

And screw you, No Man’s Sky! You did that too. The game does many things to destroy the feeling of scale. The world feels small. The planets are in fact small. They are way too close to each other. You can not go from one star system to another in actual space, the systems are separated boxes. The sky is obscured by clouds and some kind of fog that makes distant objects invisible. Despite having trillions upon trillions of systems, the world feels claustrophobic. What a missed opportunity.

Etc

We have largely covered our two main topics, the lack of content and the lack of scale. A few smaller points are left to be mentioned. Now we will attempt to show that some other grievances many people have with the game are also the consequences of the main design flaws.

A frequent complaint is the multiplayer, or the lack thereof. It was promised that players, in theory, can meet each other, albeit the chances are negligible. I assume due to some bug, it happened almost immediately with two players. They managed to get to the same place at the same time. However, they didn’t see each other, the game didn’t bother to render the other player, or otherwise acknowledge their presence. One gets the impression that the multiplayer code is entirely omitted. In hindsight, we should have guessed it is not there. It makes no sense for it to be there. Why would you waste precious developer hours to develop a feature that nobody will ever see? In fact, if the players could see each other, that would have warranted outrage. That time could have been used to develop some actual features that average players can encounter and experience.

This is a direct consequence of the game’s main premise, the enormous size of this virtual universe, which was supposed to be a feature. But as we discussed, it turned out to be a non-feature. A possible solution would have been to start all players at the same location, and give them real multiplayer options, like trade, teamwork, guilds, roles. Those that feel like it, could wander out to the cold, hostile, uncharted world, make it known, claim it, mine it. But to do this, you need to develop an entire new game that benefits very little from a grand scale universe, the very thing they were about to sell. A few billion stars is more than enough. Also, probably you want to make the galaxy to have a structure, interesting places to go. We are thousands of developer hours short of this. And you want a galaxy map to see how little you have advanced so far.

Another issue is the grind. It is not a stretch to call the game a progress bar manager. You can’t do what you want to do, because you need to refill the tool you use to get resources to refill other things, while you sometimes need to wait for the tool to cool down. You are managing interlocked status bars all the time. One easily gets the impression that the game wants to stop you, prevent you from advancing. Like it is hiding something. This is exactly the case. Do you honestly think that if you remove or redesign these game mechanics, it will improve the experience? Think again. Without these, the game would be reduced to a walking simulator on very similar and very boring planets. The sheer boredom would make you quit in minutes. The game gives you pointless busywork in order to divert your focus away from the featureless desert you are in. It lets you experience the planet only in small doses, stolen seconds between recharging things or running back to the ship before your personal heat shield melts away. It is entirely necessary in order to maintain some of the illusion.

Conclusion

No Man’s Sky is not a failure in game design nor it is a scam. It is a gross misunderstanding of how procedural generation is, and what it gives. The developers accomplished what they wanted, only to discover that the it isn’t worthwhile. They reached out for the Holy Grail, to realize that it is actually a cheap tin cup. The game you can buy is this tin cup with a rushed paintjob over it to sell better.

No Man’s Castle in the Sky

Successful attack against Ethereum!

Today, a successful and potentially devastating attack was carried out against the Ethereum network. The attack is a work of a genius, so much so that we are tempted to believe that it was just an unlucky coincidence, because nobody is that smart. It is a combination of multiple software bugs, but also social engineering on multiple levels.

The overture was the hacking of a popular virtual organization, The DAO. A significant portion of all the existing Ethers were stolen. This is bad in itself, but poses no threat to the Ethereum network as such. A temporary drop in exchange rate was to be expected, but nothing fatal. If anything, it could have been beneficial, teaching us a good lesson in prudence. However the attack set far bigger things in motion, perhaps unknowingly to the attacker himself.

The Ethereum community was in turmoil. With so many people involved in The DAO itself, and even more fearing a loss of trust in the whole Ethereum platform, people demanded action. Prominents of the Ethereum Foundation were quick to please the crowd, and promise the money to be taken back. The course of the discussion was all set. Soft or hard, when, should we give the Ethers back or burn them, and at what exchange rate? These were the questions, doubtful voices descended.

The hack, despite being a small tremor, started the avalanche of bad memes. For The DAO token holders, admitting recklessness and losing a lot of money was not an acceptable thought. Its developers downright risked losing their respect and reputation for life. Some of the Ethereum developers were endorsing The DAO. This further reinforced the notion that proper care was taken, and it is really not the software’s, nor the investors’ fault. But this leads us to an inconvenient realization. If innocent people can be screwed over, the infrastructure is not safe enough. And if a large number of people leaves the game, Ether might lose a lot of its value. Not to mention it might perish, making everyone involved a loser. This, again, could not happen. Reality can not be this way. Reality must be rewound, and we all need to forget about this.

The meme avalanche was the attack that I’m referring to in the title. It threatened the network in the last few weeks. As more and more minds were captured, the impossible started to seem possible. We were promised that the network is designed to prevent any interference with it. Anyone attempting to bribe or coerce miners, is doomed not only to fail, but also to lose money. It is very unlikely that anyone can coordinate an attack of the necessary scale, so went the theory. However, this assumption breaks down if we consider the possibility of large scale entanglement in human behavior. Unfortunately, human beings are known to be prone to unconditional alignment with group behavior. This was put to a test today.

Today, the Ethereum blockchain was split to a hacked one and a safe one. The hacked one is a result of a software “error” deliberately put in it by programmers, downloaded by miners, all of them infected with malicious memes. As the network is dependent on human action, and humans were possible to hack, thus the network was hacked, no matter how safe its design was. As of now, the safe chain seems to be essentially dead. The attack was successful, and the Ethereum network has been diverted. Today we have learned again that there is no protection against dangerous memes. We need to meet these memes head on, there is no other way out.

Successful attack against Ethereum!

The Second Library of Alexandria

Disclaimer

This story might not be true. It is written from a narrow field of view of a single individual. As point of views work, the proportions of this image can be greatly distorted, and parts might be hidden. Readers aware!

Scope

The greatest tragedy of human culture happened in our lifetime, and most of us don’t even know about it. For most people, the internet is a place where there are content providers, and there are us, consumers. We are, as with all services and products, at the mercy of producers and shopping mall owners. They decide what we can buy and what we can’t. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a short time period, maybe a decade when all information was stockpiled, distributed and available to anyone free of charge. Any piece of art or collection of knowledge was in the reach of every one of us, at all times. That was the library of human culture, unfiltered, inclusive, decentralized and unlimited.

And then it crumbled and never restored.

The Library

Maybe it was an idea, maybe the last piece of the technology puzzle was put in place. Either way, the beginning of the new millennium coincided with the birth of peer-to-peer file sharing. The classes of information sources and information consumers seemed to end once and for all. It took a while for natural selection to take its course, but the de facto winner was soon announced, and its name will forever remembered as eMule.

eMule was not a beautiful piece of software. It was not the most beautiful piece of technology either. What it was, is a vast library of everything. At that time, it seemed natural to me, after learning that the allegedly Hungarian animated movie “Time Masters” was, in fact, French, made by the filmmaker René Laloux, it was just natural that I can, out of curiosity, find and download his other works with a few minute of effort. Or when I found out that “moresca”, the closing piece of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, is a type of dance music, and that led me to the discovery of Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, an Italian folk band from the 70’s, which I could also download. Goes without saying that downloading Monteverdi operas performed by Concertus Musicus wasn’t a problem either.

It did not matter how obscure was the piece of work you were interested in. It was there. Books. Music. Movies. Programs. For if anyone on the wide world, any single person using eMule was in possession of it, you could have it too. There was no board of black suits making the decision. It was this simple: is there at least one person willing to allocate the disk space necessary. If there was, the information was preserved and available for anyone.

It is impossible to overemphasize the relevance of niche. Human civilization thrives under the condition of diversity. For its very basis is division of labor, as they usually say, but more accurately it should be called division of activity. We all do what we do the best, and enjoy the best. Or, in the worst case, suffer the least. Everyone has their own way, different from everybody else’s. Not only this offers the most beneficial, meaningful and interesting way to spend our time here. But also provides flexibility to the entire human race. Should circumstances change in a way that we need new solutions, most likely we can find it just by looking around. Somebody somewhere already discovered it. An entire sea of alternative lifestyles and worldviews awaits us to tap into. The world needs all kinds of minds, Temple Grandin warned us. And all kinds of minds want all kinds of culture, art and entertainment. To deny this would be denying water from a plant, or the opportunity of flying from a bird. Uniformity, phalanx, vanity and decay follows.

This Second Library of Alexandria provided platform for every thought, every way of self expression, every story, without prejudice.

The Destruction

The attack was swift and ruthless. A large number of fake servers showed up. They served invalid search results to any query. They served invalid files to any download request. Legit traffic was dwarfed by the noise generated by all these hostile computers. There were a lot of them. This attack was not done by hacker kids, nor actual hacker groups. There is no pride in taking down a file sharing network by brute force. It was not clever, it was not interesting. Nobody ever claimed the trophy. It was a coordinated attack carried out with malicious intent and considerable resources.

Of course there were attempts to isolate the black servers. But as the system was designed, only those users that researched and found the solution, were able to defend themselves. Most users was not knowledgeable enough, some of them didn’t even understand what’s happening. By the time the flames were finally put out, the network shrank to a fraction of its size. Many people left, to never return.

Who did it is subject to speculation. But the only logical explanation I can come up with is that the Content Industry was behind all this. Which one of the big record labels, Hollywood studios, or whatever alliance of them hired the hitman, remains a mystery. But it makes little difference, The Second Library of Alexandria was set on fire. It was not protected. We watched it going down in flames, helplessly.

It was all hubris, wasn’t it? We had this Great Library, and we didn’t think of protecting it.

Aftermath

The Library is still open. You can visit it, as you can visit the Great Pyramids or the many cathedrals in Europe. A handful of monks wander around. In their hands, half-burnt pieces of pages from past books, dug out from under the ashes. The Library is there, but its function in the human society is over.

Even more interestingly, suspiciously perhaps, a new Library was never built. Today, file sharing is done through Torrent, a protocol maybe technologically more advanced, but conceptually inferior. With eMule, you could share your actual files. Whatever you had, and wanted to share, was available to the world. With Torrent, you need to make a special package, and manually register it to search engines. The quality is deemed important, and enforced by the gatekeepers. Variety is sacrificed for comfort and the ease of choice. Niche content is nowhere to be seen.

Today we live in a world in which you don’t have to pay for the summer blockbuster. But the Big Studios still tell you what to watch. The dark ages returned.

The Second Library of Alexandria

The death of science fiction

The 20th century brought about food items that does not contain nutrients. I know, this article is about science fiction and not food. But please bear with me for a minute, I’ll explain why is it important just a little later. So we have foods like jams or sodas that are sweet, but contain no sugar, fruity, yet there are no traces of fruit in them. We have chips that tastes greasy, yet contain zero digestible fat. Even our food-looking foods like hamburgers are engineered to taste wonderful, yet are seriously lacking in actual nutrients.

What happened in the second half of the 1900’s, is food companies found out what makes something flavorful, and acquired the technology to engineer food down to molecular level. The equation is pretty simple: you have a mathematical function to optimize, the variables of which are chemical components, and the value coming out is the market value, or financial revenue. Science allowed a huge improvement in solving this optimization problem.

The reason why it is an issue is the way our brain evaluates food. The brain is not an oracle or an all sensing detector of nutritional value. Rather, the brain watches some, very few and basic, select parameters. For example our tongue has a sugar detector that fires off when we eat simple sugars, but not for other natural substances we used to find in nature. Sugar molecules suggest ripe fruits, rich in cheap energy and some other valuable substances. The brain has no real clue about the food we are eating. It just observes a handful of such rude measures.

These measures are similar to clinical surrogates, and are seen everywhere. Even we, humans, use it very often. Sometimes measuring the real quantity we are interested in is difficult or problematic. But we might find that by measuring a few other parameters, we can estimate the quantity in question with enough precision. Nature of course figured that out many billions of years ago, and uses extensively. The problem with surrogates, as one might suspect, is their limited scope. If the circumstances change, the surrogates might cease to be good surrogates anymore, and fool us.

Sweet or greasy tastes are surrogates for nutritional value. They served us well for many millions of years. Until science developed the technology that gives us direct control over them. At this point, we were able the tune up the surrogates, creating wonderful sensations, but without actually including anything of real value. We managed to fool ourselves.

It is time to establish the connection of all this babbling to science fiction. Human beings have an innate affection toward mystery, the unknown, the inner workings of the cosmos. Give a human being a tool, he will try to find out what it can be used for. Give him a box, he will try to open it. Human beings want to learn and want to solve problems all the time. If there are no problems, humans develop problems for themselves, and name them games and puzzles. Or sometimes they just imagine situations, and try to solve the emerging problems in theory.

This high we feel when we learn something new or unlock a puzzle is a surrogate. Problem solving and modeling the world is what made us so successful. This is the human way. This is our weapon and tool. We feel good when we unravel a mystery, when we take a step toward understanding the surrounding reality, because that ensures our survival and triumph. Games and fantasy prepare us to real problems in a risk-free way.

And finally I’m arriving to my point. The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century brought about the knowledge to tackle these surrogates directly. We can create the illusion of being part of a grand scheme of progress, scientific endeavor, space adventure, an unprecedented expansion of human capabilities. We can test which illusions, games, fantasies sell well, and which don’t. And we can churn out popular ones as fast as the market can take up.

But we do that without actually including any substance. In fact we are avoiding substance, because realistic things can be scary, confusing or just too complex to be reliably introduced to a typical audience. Realism also comes at a cost for multiple reasons. It needs research on part of the creators, or paying for actual experts, and it also limits what can be put in the final product. Anything that limits what can go into the story is unwanted, because necessarily reduces the market value of the product simply by taking out well marketable elements. Realism and market value are contradictory goals.

As of today, the west is in a state of confusion when it comes to the social status of science. We live in a society deeply plunged into anti-scientific and anti-intellectual sentiments. It is all too common that someone literally brags about not understanding physics or mathematics. It also common to blame science and technology for our miseries, and all the trouble, true or imagined, we cause to the planet. This trend can not be attributed to any actual failure of technology. After all, technology is an enabler, but not a doer. We can decide whether we want to use some tool or technique, and if so, what for. Science can not be blamed for any actual event or action. There must be another source of this hatred.

I claim the source is shame. These sentiments are pretty much just excuses for not having a grasp of the world that surrounds us. We feel we should, but since we don’t, cognitive dissonance kicks in. As a result, we depreciate science and the fruits of civilization to save our egos. Whose fault is our lack of scientific understanding is outside the scope of this inquiry.

As I said, our society is of two minds about science. During all this scolding and blaming, science keeps delivering the most wonderful results in a rapid rate. It needs a huge amount of self deception and chosen ignorance to overlook this fact. Why do we need growth? This question is so often asked, but the obvious answer rarely follows: because our parents died of diseases that might cease to exist in our lifetime. Who wants to stop that progress? If you are told that your children will be protected from the disease you are going to die in, you are not enthusiastic about that? Or to pick a less important issue, don’t you think that it is useful to be able to travel faster and cheaper? Today getting from US to Europe costs you quite some money. You are not going to take that journey unless you need to, or really want to, every once in a while. But what if in a fifty years, such a trip will take one hour, and will cost not more than a bus trip today? You really don’t see any benefit of it? Is it only greed that drives us?

Science is exciting, and there is just no way to deny that. Public sentiments aside, we secretly know that. We hope that those little advancements will never stop coming. We say it is white man’s mental disease, but we don’t want it to stop.

And this pretty much explains the recent upsurge of science fiction. Or, rather, quasi science fiction. The recipe is easy: take a story that involves at least some anti-scientific sentiments, or sentiments about greed or corporate recklessness. Create some actual scientific background for your world and story. Then bastardize it down to be as available as you can. There can be gaping plot holes, blatant violations of science or common sense, self contradictions, transparent pop psychology and open propaganda. It does not matter, because the majority of the audience will not notice, and any criticisms will be largely ignored. What matters is that you never go against the prejudices and misconceptions of your typical viewer. Do that, and you get your big bucks, the audience gets its dose of green babbling and some guilty pleasure of shiny spaceships. This is the recipe behind Avatar, Interstellar, The Martian and many other titles.

Science fiction used to be created by scientists. Today, science fiction is created by artists, professional writers and businessmen. When scientists created science fiction, it was the time when they were the heroes. They created the future. It was all about noble things, hope, will, effort. Today, it is just a business, like Coca Cola and Lay’s. It is not meant to inspire anybody. It does not come from passion. They are just after your money. And you swallow their medicine by the spoonful.

We need to stop this. Emphasis on we, as opposed to them. The cola industry of the mind will not stop while they can make money. It is you that can initiate the change. Start by placing science back on the pedestal it belongs. If you don’t have a clue about basic physics, it is not cool. You are allowed to blame the school system, your parents or the television. It really does not matter, as long as you admit that it is bad, and you wish you understood more. Continue by demanding hard science in stories. Embrace not understanding! If you understand everything in a story on the first read, and you don’t doubt any of its statements, the story doesn’t worth your time. Embrace effort! You have to go online, and google the damn thing. Follow it up! A good science fiction must give you homework for days if not weeks. It must show you a road to knowledge. Be finicky! If you find anything false in it, it has failed its task. It has betrayed you.

We need another golden age of science fiction. It is all on you.

The death of science fiction

Avatar – engineered nonsense

Prelude

Avatar is the movie with the greatest gap between its potential and the actual delivery. Cameron poured an incredible amount of thought and effort in building a solid, realistic, scientific background. Then pulled a curtain of bastardized “social commentary” over it that hides everything real. Avatar is the crown jewel on Cameron’s mad quest for money or popularity.

Don’t take it seriously. Most criticisms are rebutted by this easy one-liner, so start with rejecting it right away. I don’t take the movie’s message seriously, I can promise you that. My problem is that many people will. It is not a comedy, it is not a mindless blow-em-up action movie. Not presented that way, and not plays out that way. The movie is heavy handed on social issues, and I assume the audience gets it, lets it sink in their unconscious. In no small degree, the movie’s success lies in its message. A message that resonates with the viewers, reinforces them in their current views, prejudices and myths. So yes, we need to take this very seriously. Falsehoods are shouted in our ears from deafening megaphones. I don’t call for the prosecution of those that shout. But at least let’s call them out, shall we?

The cute Na’vi

Ask around in your circles, what the Na’vi are like. They live in harmony with nature. They are brave, honest, wise. They know something we forgot. It takes a genius to paint the creatures we saw in the movie in this light. No doubt, their feline appearance plays a great role. Cameron allegedly gave instruction to the designers to make them sexually desirable. Talk about marketing.

But what the Na’vi are really like? Even if we look through the colored glass of Cameron, we can still infer a lot about their culture. If you are a Na’vi, you win a debate if you are a better fighter. Tsu’tey, a respected member of the community, draws a dagger every single time he doesn’t like someone. Even attacks Jake when he is lying unconscious on the ground. Such a jerk would not be tolerated in any neighborhood I want to live in. And he seems to be the norm around there. But this anger quickly goes away when Jake comes back on dragonback, as for the Na’vi, it is to rule or to be ruled.

If you are Na’vi, you better be agile, and take care of yourself. On exams, they don’t hand out bad marks. If you can’t catch a vine many hundreds of feet above the ground, you die. If you are not able to tame a man-eating bird twice your size, you die. They don’t use technology. If you get sick, you die. If you break your leg, you die. If you can’t outrun the many predators wanting to eat you, you die. What do you think controlled the Na’vi population? I bet they don’t rely on calendar method. Maybe the other tribes around, and those arrows dipped in a neurotoxin, have something to do with it.

How much the Na’vi care about another intelligent species? Apparently, not much at all. Dr Augustine was banned from their land, together with her school. The only thing that got their attention was a soldier. Scientist? Hell no. Warrior biorobot! That’s something! As Neytiri put it, you have a strong heart, no fear, but stupid. These are worthy traits for the Na’vi.

The Na’vi had a general distaste for science. They had a central knowledge base, Eywa. A consciousness overreaching the entire planet. A mind they could reach easily through those tentacle thingies. We know that, since Jake contacted Eywa, and updated it about human intent. The tree actually listened, and acted. So what about the Na’vi, knowing about Eywa for who knows how many centuries. Did they upload knowledge? Did they access knowledge? Did they ask questions? Nope. They prayed to it.

You can love the Na’vi, but you certainly don’t want them to be your neighbors.

But man still wins

So if you are human, especially if white, god forbid a male, you are the filth of the universe. You exploit nature, you murder anyone in your way, you care about nothing but money and power.

However at the end, Jake is the toruk makto, he takes the chick, he saves the Na’vi and the planet. Despite all the white guilt, we still want to see the white man win. You might say, yes, he learned the Na’vi way. But no, in fact many times throughout the film he did things that Na’vi either didn’t. Jake talked to Eywa, the Na’vi didn’t. Jake decided to ride the big bird, no Na’vi did. Jake did not follow the Na’vi way, but on the contrary, acted quite human, and showed the primitive blue monkeys how to act like a man.

But is Jake a positive character? Not so much. He is a former marine, a minister of death, killer by occupation. He is even proud of it. “You might be out, but you never lose the attitude”, right? All the places he destroyed, were just “another hellhole”. It is easy to sell a soldier these days, but with a dash of realism, you see that nearly everyone is a better and more valuable person than a soldier. Just as the Na’vi are misrepresented through deception and carefully selected information, Jake Sully is also depicted in much more positive light than he deserves. In fact, he and the Na’vi match very well. They are all dumb uneducated brutes. Meanwhile the so called evil people, though definitely no saints, are much more sophisticated and civilized.

The evil of technology

Watching the movie, one easily gets the impression that the mining operation’s primary goal was pointless destruction. The rationale is summarized as “this rock sells 20 million a kilo”. The actual use of the mined ore was not explained at all. Let’s not confuse the poor viewer with weird statements about needs, progress, technology and such. Let’s skip the boring fact that interstellar travel was largely enabled by unobtanium, as well as the Earth’s energy supply, and therefore quality of everyone’s life. No, it is surely greed. Let’s go with greed.

So we hate greed together, watching a movie that cost over 200 million dollars, and available in 3D. But please turn off your smartphones during the film. Also, choose diet coke, it does not make you diabetic. We hope you enjoy double legspace. How can anyone believe for a split second that technology and civilization hurts us? If you honestly believe, how do you play along so easily? I mean, not going to the movie theater does not seem that hard. Hypocrisy much? So yes. It is possible to consume less. If you care, start now. But please stop talking about the greed of mankind, because it is embarrassingly shallow.

But the Na’vi was better, of course. They were not contaminated by greed. It makes things easy for Cameron, as it eliminates the possibility of trade, thus a peaceful solution. Education, medicine, roads, the Na’vi can not be bothered with such greedy things. It’s okay, you say, the Na’vi is a fictional race. They can be that way, writers’ freedom. But it is still a lie. There is exactly zero people on this globe that did not think of colonialism, native americans or other historical events when watching the movie. And the analogy just does not hold.

Actual historical people (those in harmony, you know) did rob and pillage nature the best they could. The reason global warming came in the 20th century is not because we got insane that time, but because earlier people was not capable of getting oil out of the ground, and burning it by the shipload. But for example our great ancestors managed to eradicate many species on ancient Australia, including giant kangaroos and turtles. Such calamities are not limited to humans. Invasive species often cause great waves of extinction, or significant destruction of the environment. In fact, life on earth started with a major climate change, when sea organisms ate all the nutritious carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and poisoned it with deadly oxygen. (Look up Oxygen Catastrophe if you don’t believe.) The harmony of nature is a myth. Nature is just as cruel, only it is slower.

And last but not least, trade is innate to all humans. If you offer medicine, roads, but hell, even nails, and alas whisky to primitive tribes, they’ll sure take it, and offer a great deal of gold, meat, animal skins and young women in return. Because they do want that stuff. Because they are  really in need, unlike the film’s audience. They can see how those things improve their lives (well, with the exception of whisky, but mistakes are sometimes made). We, the privileged, condemn smartphones. Poor people don’t.

Stupid audience

The movie treats the audience as brainless stupid. This actually works, because for every viewer offended by it, it appeals to at least a hundred actual brainless stupids. A lot of scenes makes no sense at all if you think on them for two seconds. If you happen to have an IQ of 105 or more, you probably facepalmed through the whole movie.

Saint Augustine

So we have a scientist with a heart. Someone who thinks about taking a sample while dying. Someone that respects the Na’vi, and spends a lifetime studying them, and teaching them. But the very first time she meets Jake, she acts like a spoiled child, bitching about she wants his brother. You know, who is dead. And whose brother, still grieving about the loss, is the one she is talking to. Can you get any more childish and tactless? In reality she would probably say a nice-to-meet-you in a less than excited tone, and turn away. But no, the audience needs to understand that soldier bad, scientist good, and they are enemies. We need to hammer it into their thick skull.

You are not supposed to be running

When Jake first gets into the avatar body, breaks loose, and starts running. It is totally out of character from a soldier who followed orders in his entire life, but whatever. Probably got very excited. But then we have the other guy appointing himself to solve the situation by running after him. Why nobody seems to care about that? He is just as much a first timer, never actually controlled an avatar before. So why the hell they don’t try to stop him too? And why he thought it is a good idea to run after him? Shouldn’t he know better? Also, what is the actual danger? He falls over, and bruises his elbow? So what? This scene makes little sense. But it makes more sense, if we don’t think about it: it just establishes in the movie’s crude way that he is really into this avatar thing. It also gives a little more screen time to an otherwise totally unnecessary supporting role. And last but not least it gives the scene more dynamism, which is needed, or else our tiny attention span would not keep up.

You are making me nervous

Dr Augustine and two rookies go on a journey in the forest. This scene is so wrong on so many levels, it boggles the mind. First of all, what the heck the other avatars were doing meanwhile? They played basketball? How about bringing someone who actually has some experience in the wilderness? To make things worse, she even dismissed the armed security guard. Okay, so what is the plan? Apparently, they wanted to speak to someone (“let Norm do the talking”). It must be the Na’vi, nobody else can speak out there. But the Na’vi banned them, and also issued orders to kill them on sight. A little later Neytiri in fact attempted to shoot Jake, and only stopped because of a divine intervention. Not that it matters, because they had very little chance to get there. As it was explained earlier, Pandora is extremely dangerous. There are a lot of predators preying on Na’vi, and quite clearly the humans had no clue how to handle themselves out there. When they, as was expected, ran into dangerous animals, Augustine had not much helpful to say, except “hold your ground”, and “run”. Yet again, the scene makes much more sense if you just accept it without thinking. It just gives a useless supporting role some screentime, gives Jake an opportunity to get lost in the jungle so he can meet Neytiri, and gives Cameron an opportunity to showcase some cool animal designs. That should be enough, stupid audience!

You should see your faces

If we spend a lot of money making a good looking location, we better call the viewer’s attention to it, or else they might miss. We also need to prepare the viewer that something really cool will happen, otherwise they might not understand how cool is it. They might mistakenly think it is mediocre. The audience needs guidance. The cooler our scenery is, the more preparation is required. When we finally show our work, it should be accompanied by obnoxious music, and actors making the most overacted awe-face they can summon up. Only then we can ensure the most emotional impact. Observe this principle in action. Before our heroes approach the flying mountains, the scene is telegraphed from a mile ahead in a very embarrassing dialog. The useless supporting character gets overly excited (“yessss”), and scolds Jake for not knowing what those are. Then we get more heads-ups, radio interference because “we are close”, camera angles showing nothing but the fog, hinting on something big is about to be revealed. Intensity of the music is increasing. The actors are showing us how we are supposed to feel (jaw drop), before any images of the mountains themselves actually appear. In case somebody missed the facial expression, which is not possible, another character points that out for us. And then boom, mountains, loud music, orgasm. The whole thing resembles how television shows are recorded. The so called “audience” there is instructed when to laugh, when to clap. Cameron literally instructs his audience what to feel.

Freeze! Scale up! Enhance!

I’m not kidding you. These words are actually uttered in the movie. Is this the 90’s?

The time of great sorrow was ended

At the end, people are boarding the spaceship, and leave. Except those that choose to stay. Question. Those that don’t have an avatar, will do exactly what there, without all the crew to run the base? They will have to go home after a while, aren’t they? But on what ship? They don’t have a spare. And what would they say? Won’t they be put in jail for siding with the rebels, disobeying their contract? Also, after the crew boards the ship, why don’t they just turn some weapons on the Na’vi or the magic tree? They don’t even need actual weapons, just position the ship in the correct angle, and burn the area with a gamma ray beam from the antimatter engines (what the ship actually has). By the way, why didn’t they do that with the tree earlier? But suppose they can’t for some reason. What about the next ship that is expected in three months? And then another one six months after that? Those ships are on route, launching every six month, and can’t be turned back even if they want to. They lack the fuel to turn around midflight. Without proper refuelling and maintenance, they can’t even set sail home after arrival. You will kill them? Also the Earth will learn about what happened in a few months of time (using the superluminal communication system). So you have six years to party, at which point significant military is about to arrive. Is the Na’vi willing to step on the path of technology, and prepare for defense? But you know what? Don’t think! Eat popcorn! Slurp Coke!

Crackpotpourri

Finally, here is a quick rundown on some of the many little stupidities not covered in detail. Like why the heck the Na’vi have one USB port, while all animals had too, why they have four limbs, while every other animal had six, and why they didn’t have breathing holes on their neck. How they grew hair in braid. Why they used the USB port to communicate with animals, with eywa and with their love, but never with friends or kins during meetings. Why animals had USB connectors at all? How Eywa communicated with the animals, because apparently not via the USB ports. Why wasn’t the length of the day on Pandora many weeks long, being tidally locked to the gas giant? If it was not tidally locked, why not? Why did the Na’vi attacked on the ground, if the real danger was the bomb on the shuttle? Why humans attacked on the ground if they planned to drop a bomb? Why humans used usual machine guns, usual rounds with casing more than a hundred years in the future? How the avatar control link worked while radio communication didn’t? Shut up, we are not making some stupid science fiction here! It is about harmony with nature!

Science, damit!

It started all well. Subluminal space travel with six years travel time. Huge fuel tanks, huge engines, tractor configuration, heat radiator panels. Moon of a gas giant. Superconductor ore that makes magnetic rocks levitate. The mixing of different gases visible when opening the shuttle door. It is obvious that a lot of thought and care was put in the design of the world. They even made a little featurette, a half minute short trailer of an imaginary educational film on Pandora’s geology and biology.

All this goes down the toilet, as soon as Cameron’s hand refurbishes every tiny aspect to sell more tickets. Can we mention in the movie that Unobtanium was a superconductor? Hell no, science just reminds people of their bad physics marks. Can we have a long daylight cycle? Absolutely not, everything should be just normal. Do we need futuristic technology? Who have time explaining the zombies all that? A big knife will do! Can we have the Na’vi fit in with all the other animals? Are you crazy? Nobody would want to bang a four-armed monster with two weird looking tentacles growing on the back of their neck! Boobs it is! How about some actual interaction between the Na’vi and the humans, which is multilayered, involves meeting and mixing of cultures, interesting questions, dilemmas, etc? Give me a break! This is not a ph.d. thesis! A greedy businessman playing minigolf will suffice.

If you know where to look, you can still see the real movie behind the dollar press. The real script was used as paper to write this lame, dumb, we-are-the-99% crap over it. This movie is an experiment. It asks the important question of how many people can be satisfied with nothing but artificial flavorings and sweeteners. Apparently, most of them.

Avatar – engineered nonsense

Interstellar – a cosmic failure

PREFACE

Interstellar was promised to be scientific. Interstellar was promised to be a fantastic journey, an adventure never seen before. Interstellar was promised to be the intersection of Hollywood money and the fascinating world of physics and technology. Unfortunately, it is neither. It is a below average pseudo-science-fiction, a total logical nonsense with a higher than usual budget, and a shamefully missed opportunity. Let’s see why.

Dude, fix your problem!

So we have a situation with crops. I would not claim to fully understand what they’re saying, but what can cause crop failure on massive scale? Only some kind of germ, a virus or something, isn’t it? It does not seem that hard to handle.

First, find it. You have electron microscopes. You have chemistry. Advanced analysis techniques, like mass spectrometers and others. You have all sort of things to employ when you are looking for a microbe. I mean, we have found HIV after a few years of search, and it was in 1981, and was hardly a devastating worldwide problem. You want to tell me that mankind watches the crops all fail one after the other, helpless? Or, as one character puts it, they train more and more … farmers? Because you know, if we have less farm area every year, we need more farmers. Jeez! Not machines or scientists! No, farmers. They will surely be a great help!

Okay, let’s suppose they don’t find the cause. Why not try isolated indoor farming? Heat up the soil to kill all life, or use hydroponics. And then plant crops from seed banks. Are you telling me that by the time they discovered the problem, every single seed on the planet was infested, and there is absolutely no way to clean them?

Very well then. How about manufacturing nutrients? I get that it might be quite expensive, but surely better than dying in hunger. I mean, proteins, fats, vitamins … it should not be all that hard to synthesize them.

But they don’t do any of these. They come up with two plans, aptly named plan A and plan B. Plan A consists of finding a new planet, and migrating there. Excuse me, how does that help with the crops? I mean we probably still need to eat over there, so we need to bring seeds to plant. Do you think that whatever kills our food on Earth, will miraculously vanish if we move to another planet? Or do you hope to find edible vegetables there? Neither of these options seem to have any viability.

And there is plan B, populating the other planet with the astronauts, leaving everyone else to die on Earth. Now this solution might work a little better with an all female crew, don’t you think? What if not Dr Hathaway, but one of the other members survives at the end alone? That much for plan B. Maybe something you should have considered. But it actually changes nothing, because you still didn’t solve the main problem! What will they eat, damn it? Are we finished with all these nonsense that do not in any way address the actual problem at hand, namely the lack of food?

At the end of the movie, you can see mankind living happily on orbital stations. Risking being terribly boring, can I ask what kind of food you people were eating up there? Somehow the understanding of gravity also solved the crop problem? Or you just happened to find a solution meanwhile? But then, why not solve the situation down on Earth? Why did you go up to live in tubes? How about a plot that makes sense??

The Spaceship

Actually, nobody said the spaceship would be scientific. It was lightly implied, but that’s all. But come on! It is a little too much to stomach here.

First of all. Why do we have separated compartments? Would not it be easier to have a sturdy structure, that, you know, can accelerate? Acceleration is pretty much the same thing as gravity (since the General Theory of Relativity, they are exactly the same). If you give the spacecraft one g acceleration, it is the same thing as putting it down on the ground, resting on its engines. The same kind of forces will appear, and attempt to tear the structure apart. Now does that spaceship look like a solid structure to you? That would withstand excessive forces acting upon it?

Second, the spinning. There are multiple problems associated with spinning a vehicle in space. If you want to steer a spinning mass, it will resist. I trust you remember that experiment involving a hanging bicycle wheel. It requires a whole lot of force to change the axis of the rotation. Therefore navigating a spinning object is a hassle. Another problem is the conservation of angular momentum. If you want to spin up an object, or spin it down, you will either need to use reactive forces, that is, rockets, which eject mass that you will never get back. Or you will need to store the angular momentum in a flywheel. But high mass high speed flywheels give you all sorts of engineering problems. In short, getting anything spinning in space is a serious undertaking, and you want to avoid it if at all possible. As a result, you probably want to spin only the parts humans live in, and let the cargo experience zero gravity, it does not mind. In our situation, since the crew went sleeping right away, spinning any part of the ship is a total waste of resources.

Wormhole woes

So the creators seem to have had discussions with an actual physicist who told them that wormholes don’t look like discs, but spheres. The analogy would be that if you imagine two planes connected by a tube, the tube’s connection to the plane is a circle, which is the 2D analogue of a sphere in 3D. A 3D wormhole is attached to our space through a 3D sphere, and extends into the 4th dimension. You can actually find animations about such a thing on the Internet. It is quite cool. Away from the hole, you see your own world. If you look right into the hole, you see the other world. And between the two, there is a region in which the two worlds are weirdly intertwined. This is due to the fact that such a geometry can not be, obviously, flat. You need to bend the space in order to form a connecting tube between two otherwise flat worlds. And as light always tries to travel as straight as it can, it goes along all sorts of spirals and circles on such a warped surface.

The creators seem to got only the fact that they need a sphere. Because how they implemented it in the movie, looks nothing like a realistic wormhole. More like a big sphere with another galaxy printed on the surface. And when they decide to hop in, some usual tunnel like special effects show up, right from the ’80s. Lame! Give us an actual wormhole, damn it!

Orbital mechanics

The writers also don’t seem to understand even the very basics of orbital mechanics. The spaceship does not have some super-futuristic propulsion technology, it is clear from the fact that they needed two full years to get to Saturn, which is only somewhat better than what we can do today. So they are bound by the limitations we understand very well. Or at least they should.

Our main enemy is the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation. Simply stated, it means that if you want to add more units of distance to travel, the required fuel multiplies. That is, having twice, four times, eight times as much fuel gives us only one, two or three additional chunks of distance covered. The easiest way to understand it is through a very simple thought experiment. Suppose we have a little rocket that can propel us, in some comfortable time, to a destination at a given distance. Let this be a million kilometers in one day of time. Also suppose that our cabin weights one ton, and the fuel needed to make this journey is also one ton. How much fuel we need if we want to travel another million kilometers in one more day? One way to do that is to take two more rockets, and put our first rocket with our cabin in the cargo bay. That is two tons of cargo for the two rockets. So we travel one million kilometers in one day, while using up all the two tons of fuel in the two rockets. Then we ditch the outer shell, and unpack the little spaceship in the cargo, and hop in it. Another day, another million kilometers. In total, we needed three tons of fuel. Similarly, we can travel one million kilometers more if we put our two stage rocket, totaling four tons, into a superspaceship with four engines, requiring seven tons of fuel in total. If we continue this, we get large numbers very fast. The next few numbers are 15, 31, 63 and 127. Now, this is a very rudimentary explanation, and largely lacks scientific rigor. But the actual math of the situation is not that far off from it. Alas, the result is that we need exponentially more fuel to travel larger distances.

Another concept to understand is gravity wells and delta-v. If you are in orbit around a mass, it is not easy to switch to another orbit, especially if you want to move closer or farther away from the mass. You can pretty much imagine it like a whole in the ground with sloped sides. It takes effort to climb out. The weird thing with gravity is that climbing down also needs effort. That is basically due to the law of energy conservation. As you orbit a mass, your potential energy (caused by the distance from the mass) and your kinetic energy (coming from movement) sums up to a constant, unless you do something about it. This something can be a swing around another mass, or burning a lot of rocket fuel. The change you make in your trajectory is measured by a quantity called delta-v. In the simplest case, linear acceleration, delta-v means what it sounds like: a difference between the starting and ending speeds. But in more complex situations it is more difficult than that. At any rate, it measures how much you worked on changing your movement, for example how much you climbed out of (or down) the pit. These gravity wells tend to be rather deep. For example in order to escape from the surface of the Earth and achieve a low orbit around it, you need approximately 10km/s delta-v. That is the same amount of effort as speeding up your spacecraft from a standing position to 10km/s in open space. That is some considerable speed, if you think about it. The Earth is 30km/s deep in the Sun’s gravity well.

Now back to the so called science in the movie. There is basically no way with our technology to just run around in a solar (black-hole-ar?) system, and visit multiple planets within a reasonable timeframe, as we were shown. With the Tsiolkovsky equation in effect, the spaceship must have been carrying ginormous heaps of fuel. Essentially, the entire spaceship must be all fuel. Just for comparison, we launched a Delta II rocket standing 40m tall, weighing 200 tons to get a little, one ton spacecraft in Earth orbit that was able to deliver the 185 kilogram Spirit rover to the surface of Mars. And it is the planet just next door. They didn’t have neither the time nor the resources to manufacture, and put in Earth orbit, the many many billions of tons of fuel required for the journey depicted in the movie. Neither they seemed to have have huge fuel tanks.

And then, they descend to the gravity well of the black hole. How deep that gravity well might be? Just remember that the Earth’s gravity well is basically one of the biggest problem we face in space exploration. How much deeper the well they had to descend into was? They actually gave us a hint: so deep the time dilation was a huge issue. According to the Theory of General Relativity, if you go down a gravity well, time slows down. It does not depend on the strength of the gravitational field, but your depth in the well. This effect is observable on Earth. That is why the GPS satellites have their clocks set differently. They are not as deep in the well as we are down here, so our clocks are a little slower. How much slower? 45 microseconds per day. That is microsecond, a millionth of a second. So the gravity well that gives us a huge headache causes a slowdown factor of 1.00000000052. It is not even noticeable if you don’t have precision equipment. The well they descended into gave them a time dilation of seven years per hour. That is a factor of 61320. That is a gravity well so deep, words can’t describe how deep. Our solar system is a shallow puddle compared to the steep chasm of that place. No energy or force ever created by mankind is able to put them down there, let alone get them out later. It just not going to happen.

Life Around the black hole

Planets orbiting a supermassive black hole is a good idea, because it looks good. No, seriously, this is the only reason. The problem is not what it seems to be at a glance. In fact, you can find stable orbits around a black hole, just you need to go far enough, and it is not very far at all. Also, black holes do radiate in visible light too, and thus can warm up planets and possibly feed their biosphere.

But unfortunately, black holes radiate a whole lot of gamma and x-rays. It might be all right for some kind of life. Life forms that evolved in such a hostile environment, and have some clever mechanisms to cope with the constant barrage of destructive radiation. But humans tend to react quite poorly to these bands of the electromagnetic spectra. So if you look for a new home, maybe try an actual star next time. The movie’s science guy says in an interview that the idea was that it is not an accretion disk, but some unstable remnant of it, slowly cooling. I don’t know who do you plan to fool with that, pal.

There is also a problem with the time dilation as presented in the movie. So we have this planet with time extremely slowed down. They find out that the person sent there possibly died minutes ago in her time, although it was decades ago for the outside world. And that is what misled them to think the planet would be habitable, as they received the signal almost to that date. Question. Should not you have realized that the radio transmission is actually a minute of content stretched out over months? How could you even receive such a slowed down signal? No doubt your radio is designed to receive a range of carrier signals. Can your radio pick up signals 60000 times below its designed frequency? And if it can, didn’t you think that “Sooo faaaar iiiiiit iiiiiis fiiiiineeee” slowed down 60000 times is not a very reassuring message?

Also, a little side remark. The physics expert working for the movie is cited to say something along the lines of he was surprised how the simulations turned out. The equations were fed to a computer, but nobody expected such results. This gives you the impression that said simulations were done recently, maybe even for the movie. So we see a cutting edge scientific discovery, possibly even financed by the studio. In fact, very similar animations existed back in 1990. Granted, the results were surprising back then. But presenting it as anything new or related to the movie is just a gargantuan lie.

Every time travel plot ever

There are two possibilities. Either every time travel plot Hollywood comes up with has exactly the same problems. Or literally every time travel plot ever written has the same problems. Either way, it is advisable to follow time travel plot 101: if you want your plot not to suck, do not put time travel in it.

There are two major plot issues with all time travel stories. The first one is what they use it for. Time travel is an extremely potent capability to have. So extremely potent in fact, stories necessarily develop into a singularities if you want them to follow logic. In this movie, the guy went out of his way to communicate the coordinates of a NASA base. Why not go ahead a little bit, sneak peak into the solution for the gravity problem, and tell that instead? Or if we are at it, why not the solution to the crop problem? Or let’s assume the guy was not able to travel to other places, only different times. At the end he is standing there in person, apparently somehow got out of the black hole. So here is an idea! Why not grab some relevant scientific data, and go back to the black hole once more, and tell the young girl about those? Or if you don’t want to go in black holes anymore, just go to your house, dump the data on the floor, the other you can read it from the other side, and communicate to your young girl. In fact you can not fail, because if you do, you can repeat the process any number of times, you can continue to drop other people into the black hole, or present yourself any ideas in your house that you can dump on the little girl in the past.

Time travel also logically removes any sense of urgency. You have all the time in the universe to act, it does not matter when you go back in time, you can arrive at the same hour anyway. So why our heroes are so stressed? Why the hurry? Calm the f down, people, and get your act together. Of course, we understand very well why they need to act fast. It is because otherwise we had time to think the plot through, and that would ruin the experience. My bad. Please keep the pace up.

CONCLUSION

The good news is that we have a big budget movie with science in it. The bad news is science gets raped by the movie. This is the triumph of symbolism over realism. And I’m sad.

Interstellar – a cosmic failure

Dead Space 3 – autopsy

Opening thoughts

I have no favorite game. I have four. Two of them are Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2. For me, the Dead Space series redefined what a horror game is. A good game is always characterized by getting multiple aspects excellently. In case of Dead Space, we have the combat, the visual design, and the creepy atmosphere. All of them on a level rarely matched in other games. Competent voice acting and writing, the interesting shop and upgrade system are just the icing on the cake.

I bought Dead Space few weeks before Dead Space 2 came out, it was highly discounted. I put well over hundred hours of gameplay in it. I bought Dead Space 2 at full price, and put another hundred plus hours in it. So when the 3rd came out, I thought, it is just an opportunity for me to throw more money to a developer team as good as this. Why they don’t have a donate option? I want to send 500 dollars over right now. I bought the game without giving too much consideration. If I wasted 60 euros on them, I could not care less, i’m just paying for the 5th playthrough of the first one. I mean, whatever bad is it, it won’t make the first two go away.

But it did. Dead Space 3 is actually so bad it undoes the first two. It represents a negative value, and it can not be unseen, it can not be unplayed. It is here to stay, and leave bitter taste in our mouths.

Why reviewing this game now, when it is out for more than 10 month? I was sure it will be done by others. Such an abomination of a game can not get away. We need to call out the emperor for walking around naked. But somehow it did get away. Nobody called it out. I watched in growing disappointment as reviews came out calling the game “a good game, just not a good Dead Space game”, or being “a scifi shooter and not a horror game”. Are you people all mind controlled from EA headquarters? Is that the famous denial phase? Or a curious case of the stockholm syndrome?

This writing is an attempt to give justice to Dead Space 3. If nobody else, I have to. But maybe i’m also your therapist. Maybe you thought it is your fault. I’m here to relieve you. It is not your fault. It is their fault. It is the fault of the cynical managers of visceral/EA, for deciding to engage in this treacherous cash grab, ripping off the fans of one of the greatest franchises of gaming history, destroying something outstanding for a handful of dollars.

So let’s get started.

1. Enemies

Bullet sponges

Horror games are defined not by jump scares, nor the atmosphere. Those are just minor ornaments. The true nature of a good horror game lies in its mechanics. In Dead Space 1 and 2, you are ambushed by different enemies, usually slow moving and spread out. But they are swarming in on you, and you need to dispatch them in a limited time. You constantly make decisions, as your actions are also slow. Do you shoot the little ranged enemy in the background? Or you double-shoot the leg of a slowly approaching melee to pin it down? Or you shoot the arm of it to make it harmless? Maybe you move away? You stasis or torso-shoot a charging monster? You have to keep track of multiple enemies, anticipate their attack patterns and plan your actions accordingly. Meanwhile, new enemies might appear or you might screw up something, which is likely. This means you need to reassess the situation all the time. The relative slowness of the battle, the constant demand for concentration and decisions makes combat stressful and desperate.

All of this is gone in the 3rd game. Enemies are now pose a steady level of threat until they take a number of hits and die. For example the very first necromorphs Isaac encounters are relatively fast moving melees. If you shoot their leg, they crowl with the same speed if not faster. If you cut their arms, they morph into a 3-armed ranged creature. So you end up spamming the fire button. It is frustrating, but not because it is hard. Only because you can’t do anything meaningful, you just wish them to die already.

The synergy between enemies is also gone. You rarely face multiple kinds at the same time, and even if you do, they are just randomly thrown in without consideration. If creators felt like adding some more challenge, they just threw waves after waves of the same enemy types at you. Which is only one thing: boring.

Dismemberment: cut

Some new enemies are swinging their arms fast, or charging at you giving no chance to dismember them. Like the creators thought, hey, you are now good at cutting limbs down, what if we give you a new challenge, an enemy that resists that, huh? In effect, they threw this game element out of the window, instead of going further with the great concept they established in the first two.

The problem is made even worse by the unstoppable animations. Enemies often charge at you, or do other long attack animations, which can not be interrupted by firepower. I remember many times the line gun’s arc just went through the legs of a jumping necromorph. What kind of game design is that? I really need to look up the makers of this one and the previous ones. I’m pretty sure that some key names will be different.

Tk: thrown out of the window

Telekinesis is in the game, and they even advertise it in the most obnoxious way. However it does not seem to work very well. The major problem is that you just can’t pick up claws and blades. In Dead Space 2, the tk prioritizes items that can be used as weapons. Here, this seems to be either taken out or just does not work properly. I kept picking up limbs and torsos in combat, while plenty of tools and claws were lying around. Compounded by the fact that enemies can’t be dismembered and/or charge at you super fast, I found myself using the tk module less often and with less success. Which is a problem, because in Dead Space 2, winning a huge battle with minimal ammo was the most satisfying experience.

Headshot!

There are enemies later which simply refuse to obey the established rules. We might give a pass to human enemies. Obviously, they behave differently than necromorphs. This is the primary reason why you don’t put human enemies in a Dead Space game. But there are also small fragile looking child sized necromorphs with thin legs and arms. But you can’t cut their limbs off, and they take like five shots to go down. The only efficient way to kill them is to shoot the head. Even if headshots being useless is a core element of the lore.

PITA boss

Bossfights are often boring and tedious in many video games, and sadly, original Dead Space games are no exception. All the bossfights are about memorizing their (rather simple) attack patterns, avoiding them, while shooting weak spots a few times in the little time gaps between attacks. But in the first games, boss fights are few and far between.

But none of those bosses are as pointless and unnecessary as the PITA boss in the 3rd one. I’m referring to that four legged spider like thing with fangs or antennae or what. You fight it three times with no indication on what should you do. It has those obvious yellow weak spots, but as you shoot them, they grow back. You try different things, like shooting all of them within a short time window or similar ideas. Nothing works, and after some time, the monster just walks off. I still don’t know, to date, whether I wasted resources by taking chances trying different things on it. I don’t know what triggers its runaway, maybe I could just circle it for a time, saving ammo?

Once it is established that you just need to toy with it for some time, and it leaves, the third time it does not leave. You can waste all the ammo in the universe, till your fingers hurt, to no avail. Until you finally google what to do, to find out that you can’t kill it, you have to use a harpoon. The game’s idea is to turn the bossfight that is boring to begin with, into a QTE button smash.

Dead Space 1 final boss recycled

Somewhere in the middle of the game you need to defeat the final boss from Dead Space 1. I mean, seriously, how cheap you can get? Design a new boss! Admittedly, they added a second phase, and changed it around a little bit, but still, guys, that boss wasn’t that interesting in the first place.

2. Weapons

Oh, the weapons. The descent started in the second game. Actually, to be honest, in the first game. So the weapon system went from broken but salvageable to more broken but salvageable just to finally reach its end state in the 3rd game: broken and not salvageable.

The problems, as I mentioned, start in the first game. It was established that we need to cut limbs. So an industrial rotating sawblade looks like a fantastic idea to have. Turns out, it flat out does not work, you can’t aim with that, it is not strong enough, it takes ages to cut anything with it. It is a waste of time. On the other hand, pulse gun proves itself quite good in many situations, like killing swarms of little enemies, or dismembering (!) brutes (!). Can someone tell me why can an engineer buy a weapon on a mining station?

In the second game, force gun became the ultimate weapon and just ruins the game largely. I was lucky not trying that one. They also added a lot of colorful but entirely useless military level guns. All this is just unnecessary, the game still plays best with the plasma cutter. Actually, you can finish the game with nothing but the plasma cutter.

Then we have the 3rd game. And boy, they have really turned it up to eleven. Let’s see why.

Plasma cutter: won’t cut it

Two or three hours into the game you realize that something is wrong. The plasma cutter is so weak it is ridiculous. At first you might feel compelled to blame it on the lack of upgrades, but then the upgrades do not seem to help much either. It is only a matter of time before you understand that this time developers were thinking, the plasma cutter has gotten old, what about spicing it up a little, and give the player cool new weapons? in short, why don’t we just trash the concept that made our first two games so good?

Varieties of bad

But they have failed with the new weapons as well. You can categorize weapons in Dead Space 3 into three classes. The first is the weapons that just do not work at all. They don’t do enough damage, the enemy will swarm in on you, you will need to stasis the hell out of them, and run for your life, often leaving enemies behind. I literally had to skip an optional mission (playing on impossible difficulty) because I kept dying on the first corridor. I had the plasma cutter only. The second category is the instant killers. You point them on an enemy, and push the kill button. These weapons allow you to play through the game, but what for? It is not fun anymore. In this category, you find the shotgun. The shotgun! Do you guys understand your own lore? The third category consists of one weapon only, the sticky bolas gun with stasis coating, with a force gun as secondary. It is still overpowered as hell, and you can massacre enemies indiscriminately. But it requires some skill and wit, it has a screwup factor, and gives you a hint of the thrills of the original games.

Foresee or die

Good luck choosing a weapon that works in future situations. That problem actually goes back to the original games. But it is not that apparent there, because most people keep the plasma cutter, and the games are designed around it. Other weapons are just little additions. But since in the 3rd one they opted to kill the plasma cutter, players’ imagination and preferences will go all over the place. Which is a problem when you face something new, and then realize that your weapon is totally ineffective against that new threat. “Luckily” the shotgun/submachine gun variations work in all conditions, so if you chose the most boring kind of weapons, you are good to go. But if you chose anything interesting, you are in trouble.

How do you, for example, defeat the Dead Space 1 copycat boss with a line gun/force gun combo? The arc of the linegun travels at a slow pace, you have no chance of hitting weak points that are exposed for a short time, and in constant move. Even worse, what if you only have a bolas gun? It does not even have the range. You just can’t defeat it. There is no way to beat that boss.

Realizing this flaw, the creators decided to fix it with the weirdest concept in video game history: you can, at any time, leave the game, go to the weapon crafting arena, try new weapon designs, and then return to the game with your newly crafted weapons. By the way, the weapon crafting arena also sucks, more about that later. It is obviously a last minute addition to patch up the gaping holes in the game design.

3. Crafting

The frustration

In the first two games, arriving to a store or a bench is always a moment of joy and relief. You can get rid of the sellable goodies you have found, you can sell the excess ammo or stasis refillers, and replenish missing resources. You always have to do something. And when you are finished with the usual routine, and if you have more money, you can decide to buy a power node, and be proud of yourself. For the bench, you either have a node or not. If you have, you have a few options to choose from, and then walk away with more badass equipment and a wide smile.

Not in Dead Space 3. Arriving at a bench, I remember only frustration. I remember thinking about whether I should even open it up. Then I opened it up in hope of finding anything valuable this time, then frenetically ran around in the menus to find something to do, something to build or upgrade. But then I left without accomplishing a damn thing.

Resources are not balanced at all. Some components like the scrap metal stack up in ginormous heaps (halfway through the game, impossible difficulty, I had over 11000 scrap metal), others like tungsten are lacking and never enough. Later in the game, after you crafted the weapons you want, resources suddenly stop being a problem. You don’t need them anymore, and everything just stacks up. Maybe the great idea was to buy stuff with real money early in the game? I hope I don’t have to explain why this is wrong on multiple levels.

Makes no sense

Largely adding to the frustration is the fact that weapon crafting makes zero sense. In other games, if you put a scope on a weapon, you understand that the weapon now will give you better aiming from a distance. In Dead Space 3, parts does not have a function, and even if they do, it is inconsistent.

Putting a plasma core on a compact frame results in a plasma cutter, which is a long range precision weapon. Putting a plasma core on a heavy frame results in a force gun, which is a melee AOE with very little damage but a pushing effect. How exactly the frame causes such a huge difference?

Stasis coating seems to apply a small stasis effect per … something. If you put it on slow firing guns, the effect is unnoticable. If you put it on fast fire rate machine guns, it does something, but not much. But the sticky bolas enhanced with stasis coating will put enemies in constant stasis for the entire duration of the bolas.

Acid bath adds a little more damage per … something. On most guns, apparently, it adds a nice little green splash, and not much else. Except when put on a force gun, in which case the acid effect goes all over the screen, doing great damage.

This inconsistency leads to a trial and error approach. You need to start assembling your weapon to even find out what the name of it will be, plus some meaningless stats with a useless description. But to really find out what you did just make, you need to go to the field with it, or use the weapon crafting arena, and see it in action. And only then you find out that the weapon in fact does not do any damage, or that it has a one second firing delay, rendering it useless for your purposes.

Crafting UI

I appoint the crafting UI in Dead Space 3 the worst interface ever designed. Question: how do you get rid of the parts you don’t need? There is no such thing as an inventory. You will need to start crafting, and you have a disassemble button in the weapon frame selector list. Then you need to start adding new parts to one of your weapons to get a list of available parts, and you can dismantle them from there. You can’t even get a complete list of upgrade circuits. You need to go into all four submenus for rate of fire, strength, etc, and see if there is something to get rid of. Parts only appear in contexts when you can use them. Some parts will literally never show up anywhere if you don’t have a place to put it. Then you need to go to the other menu with the medkits and things to take those apart.

You have absolutely no clue if you have enough resources to build a weapon. You can’t make plans, and then see how much they cost. You can only save a blueprint if you already have the gun finished.

The UI seems to be designed for a console controller. On the weapon assembly scene, you can only select the diagonal elements with pressing up/down and left/right at the same time. But if you release them not perfectly simultaneously, the focus jumps where the later released button points. Mouse support is minimal to none.

Weapon crafting arena

To patch up the problems caused by terrible design decisions, they added the weapon crafting arena. Its purpose is to try weapon designs in a semi-ingame manner. You can go to the arena at any time, losing only the progress since the last savepoint, craft weapons, try them on a handful of monsters, then go back to the game, where you were. How does that make sense, I don’t know. But not only the idea is horrible, its execution is also very weak.

Instead of creating an area specifically designed for testing weapons, they just took an actual room from the game, sealed it off, and added a “spawn monsters” button. Being terribly lazy is only one of the problems. The arena barely fits for purpose. It spawns like three or four types of enemies, in a small number, in a given setting. You can’t try a weapon in different types of environments, like tight corridors, open arenas. You can’t try different situations, like being ambushed, surrounded or overwhelmed. You can’t test its reload speed in combat, or how it works while retreating or escaping.

Another problem stems from the fact that it is sort of ingame. You can only use the parts and resources you already have. You can not try whether it worths aspiring for 100 more tungsten to craft a different tip or an upgrade circuit. You can’t try it until you actually have the resources. Even worse, since when you dismantle an item you get only half of the resources back, if you want to try different concepts, you are soon running out of resources. And it affects your ingame inventory as well. For that reason, after all unsuccessful weapon creation attempt, you probably want to reset the game to the last checkpoint to get a full refund, and start everything all over.

4. Map design

Dead Space games are corridors, with occasional opportunity to branch off, but it does not make much of a difference. You need to go to both directions, you can just pick the order. Smaller detours can be made to find hidden resources. It is not a problem at all, it is a legit map design. But in Dead Space 1 and 2, locations are varied and interesting. The developers played with vacuum and gravity. They played with monster spawns. They played with environmental hazards. They created warped spaces in which up and down lose their meaning. They created huge rooms and small claustrophobic corridors. They created arenas. They created slowly moving elevators where monsters could ambush you. Every part was carefully crafted from a gameplay perspective. And many ideas were used only once.

I played both original games more than five times. Every time when I arrive to a location, I say “ah, this place! I love it!”. I forced myself to play the 3rd game a second time, this time with the bolas gun all the way. I wanted to find joy in it. I knew it is bad, but I wanted to at least find out what works in it, if you know where to look, and if you take the frustration part out. And over and over I felt like “oh, no, not this part! I hate it!”. Every part is either boring, tedious, slow, frustrating or a combination of these.

Nothing is interesting in the 3rd one. There are no interesting arenas, remarkable battles or challenges. The middle part is made up of the same corridor-room-junction-airlock elements, repeated to oblivion. The map is rushed and stretched out to look bigger. The final part with the alien architecture all around was a similarly lego-ed circle room, bridge, ledge mash. Most of the time you just walk on a boring corridor, and sometimes enemies attack you. I’m literally having hard time remembering parts of the game. What should I remember? The huge tentacles that you need to bend in the right position? Trying to hide from the searching lights of a patrolling spaceship? Escaping from a room filling up with poison gas? There is nothing in this game to remember to.

5. Minigames

In the original Dead Space, minigames come in one flavor only, and quite rarely, often at places where they serve a purpose to prevent you from moving on before all the enemies are dealt with. The minigame does not take much time to complete, and is entertaining enough. It gives the feeling of actually finding weak spots with our hands.

Dead Space 3 is crowded with minigames that serve no other purpose than to add to the playtime. You have to arrange garbage, for god’s sake! None of the games resemble any real life activities, they are not interesting, they take too much time, and there are far too many of them. Can anyone tell me the logic of the number-adding minigame, in which your goal is allegedly to find the correct voltage or what? The numbers written there mean nothing though. You can set the switches in multiple positions that add up to the same number, but only one of them is the winning combination. I found no other logic than trial and error. Can I have a “skip” button please?

The minigames suffer from console design too. Mouse support is mostly absent, and you often have to make diagonal movements with the keyboard.

I can’t tell for sure, but i’m almost certain that they even scrapped a minigame, either because it was just too much, the early testers didn’t like, or they simply did not have time to develop it. I’m talking about the alien door opening mechanism. I suspect that there was a whole subplot about alien language, dictionaries, writing, clues and voice operated doors requiring a password to be spoken. But it did not work out, so what you see in the game is the remnant of it. Now the doors repeatedly broadcast their own opening signals, which is stupid. The signals are also painted somewhere above or in front of the door. This eliminates all gameplay elements from it, since all you need to do is to memorize three signs for a few seconds, or write them down, and then enter to the conveniently placed playback machines. It is also stupid because it is hard to understand why the machines are not already set up for the correct signal. It is frustrating, tedious and boring.

6. Running out the clock

Which leads to our next topic: stalling. The game is full of fillers that has no other purpose than making the game longer. The original two games are 20-25 hours long each, plus the numerous retries after deaths. The new one is 12-13 max, with doing all the side missions, looking for loot, and doing all the stuff you supposed to do. Of course it is also stretched out with the extreme number of retries if you are adamant on using the plasma cutter. But that does not happen with the shotgun. Without the many efforts to stretch the game out, it would easily be below 10 hours, maybe much less.

Some techniques that are used: unnecessary minigames, painfully slow doors, ladders and other door-like mechanisms, random generators scattered around that need to be started, optional missions that consists of copy-and-pasted content from other parts of the game, slow travelling on trains and the shuttle (lacking the would be appropriate blue danube theme), flying back and forth in the alien transit system, wall climbing parts with little to no events happening, obscene amount of cutscenes and things best described as mini cutscenes, involving you standing like an idiot and watching the monsters do their thing, flying around in space in the slow suit collecting arbitrary stuff and finally the resource collector bot nonsense. I appoint the resource collector bot the Jar Jar Binks of Dead Space.

None of these add anything to the game at all. Let me assert that the weapon crafting mechanic was probably also included just to make the game longer.

7. Visual design

One of the selling points of the original two games are vistas. Places designed to make you stop and marvel the magnificent architecture or a natural wonder. It is not about graphic fidelity, or the amount of particles or other crap put in a game. That is a profession that can be learned. No, the true genius is in creating interesting looking and creative spaces. They had it right with the first games. They actually abused it in the first games. Both games are huge visual treats, with eye candy vistas so numerous I can’t list. Did you stand in vacuum on that corridor, trying to have a good vantage point to look through the hole in the hull? Did you just stand breathless on the ship’s bridge, the most majestic planetarium ever built? Remember the engine room that was so huge, you felt its weight on your chest? Did you fly around in open space, marveling at the spectacular rings of the saturn so long that you suffocated? Because I did all of these.

Say goodbye to all of such things, because there is nothing like that in the 3rd game. Granted, the execution is still top notch. The guys in the graphics department deserve their paycheck. But the design is uninspired and dull looking. Seriously, who came up with the idea of a snowy planet? You see rock mountains and snow. That immediately renders all the outside areas boring. They tried to prop it up with weird shaped rock formations in the background, but it just falls flat on its face, and gets boring after eight seconds. It should not be that way though. It takes five minutes of googling to find awesome images of the antarctica. Huge white-blue striped structures, gates, spikes, frozen waves, the most bizarre shapes all made of ice. You can do interesting things with ice. Snow on rock is not among them.

The interior cannot save the game either. Most of the locations are just copied around many times, and it is hard to tell really, because every part feels the same. Many times I was wondering if I came to circle and it is a spot where I was earlier, or it just looks the same. I can not recall a single awe inspiring location.

And lets talk about the first-ish part of the game, the space junkyard. I have same feeling as about Agent Smiths in the matrix sequels. One Agent Smith was cool, a hundred Agent Smiths were forced and boring. In Dead Space 2, in that scene, I felt the emptiness of space, and felt danger and acrophobia. After the closed claustrophobic indoor environments, suddenly feeling the infinite dimensions of empty space, you just wanted to grab onto something. It was fun, but also tense. In Dead Space 3, it is just slow and tedious. You just want faster rockets on your suit.

It is only me, or the last part was downright ridiculous with rocks falling in place at the exact right time to form a corridor I can walk across? At that point I had hard time taking the game seriously. The visuals swing between boring and laughable.

8. “Story”

Let me start with stating that the story never was a strong part of the Dead Space universe. The lore is serviceable and pretty smart, maybe unintentionally. But really simple. So simple I can tell you right here: an alien life form spreads by altering the minds of sentient beings, implanting memes in them, making them wanting to go closer (converge), build “markers” that spread this mind-controlling wave, and otherwise just saw confusion and destroy things to crush any resistance or control. Two government agents being in contact with a marker went batshit crazy, left their job, and founded the church of unitology, which is just a tool for the meme to spread itself. Their goal is to find or build markers, and converge into one being. This is unexpectedly clever. There actually are things like that in nature. Parasites infect animals, and make them do things to further the parasite’s goals, eventually killing the host. Just look up toxoplasma and its effects on mice, if you want your mind blown. So the lore is, for the slackers, in one sentence: mankind has been contacted by a space-toxoplasma, and it turns masses into its crazed servants.

The actual story of Dead Space 1 is so simple, it can barely be called a story. They land on the ship after a distress call, crash theirs, then run around like headless chickens to eliminate one imminent demise after the other, while fighting necromorphs. Then there are some twists, which does not deserve mentioning. And finally the immediate threat is eliminated, so we can have an ambiguous ending. The second part fits into the lore and is also very simple. Earth gov secretly keeps a marker on Titan station, and they also keep Isaac in captivity, for unexplained insidious reasons. Unitology causes a necromorph outbreak and frees Isaac in an attempt to make him build markers. He falls under the influence of the marker that appears as a hallucination of his ex girlfriend. At the end, he manages to mind-fight the marker and defeat it. Then he flies away with the thin chick with huge boobs and cute accent. If a horror story has any more complex plot than that, it’s doing it wrong.

In both games, the story is told partly via actual gameplay, and party through logs found all around the place. They are interesting to read, as they add a little background to characters and events.

Enter the 3rd part. Honestly, I have no idea what the story is. First, they extended the lore. Now the marker is some sort of communication and energy transfer device. They reside in moons around planets having intelligent life, and establish some interstellar network for some reason. And there is a marker homeworld somewhere, responsible for something. How is that important, why it has a central unit, what does it do, I don’t know.

The story would be something like, while Unitology unleashes hell by letting loose all (!) the markers kept in secret inside huge buildings (!) all around the most populated areas (!), turning people into monsters instantly (!), Isaac travels to a distant planet to do things, and possibly reclaim his ex girlfriend (with the big boobs) who looks different now. The planet is important for reasons. The leader (?) of the expedition just wants to go home (!), despite knowing that there is no home to go back to. Also an unbelievable douche, and does evil things. Then the crew do things, find out things, assemble an alien from slices (!), activate arcane alien machinery (i.e. Tentacles), etc. Meanwhile they are chased by the least authentic character in video game history. Finally, Isaac defeats something by grabbing rising markers (!) and throwing them into its eyeballs. And then I’m not sure, maybe Isaac switches all the markers in the universe off with a remote control, the chick goes back to the devastated earth, Isaac floats around meditating on how the Dead Space franchise went off track so hard.

Most of the cutscenes are downright embarrassing. I facepalmed many times. All characters behave and talk illogically and unnaturally. The story elements are from the 80’s. And i’m not going to talk about the Rosetta subplot. I stopped reading the logs half an hour into the game. The logs contain interesting and new information. The problem is, what is interesting isn’t new, and what is new isn’t interesting. So I just stopped picking them up.

9. Multiplayer

The first problem with the multiplayer is that it exists. There is no place for coop in a horror game. It destroys mood, it cancels immersion, it turns the game into a social activity. But who cares if it is good? Well, it is not. Let me add a disclaimer: I haven’t played the coop mode. I saw videos on the internet. But just read forward, and judge for yourself whether i’m right or not.

Not scaled

The developers had the audacity to not scale the game’s difficulty in any way. The same enemies attack and they have the same strength and endurance. The same resources are found, and they can be picked up by both players (space jesus?). Even the resource collector bots beep at the same places, and can be harvested by both players, despite the fact that one player can not harvest a spot with two bots. This, combined with the overall easiness if an overpowered weapon is chosen, makes the game a comfortable walk devoid of any tension.

No effort

Talk about tacked on. Despite being two players there, the coop mode is the same as the single player. It is so blatantly apparent, I laughed out loud multiple times watching it. I was curious how they have solved some situations in coop, and I was shocked to see the “solution”, or rather, the sheer lack of attempt to provide one.

There is basically no interaction between the characters, they are just at the same place. When an enemy latches on a player, he needs to QTE it off alone, the coop partner can’t help, the monster appears to be invincible for that time. Players can’t push or pull each other out of danger, or up ledges. There are no areas reachable only with cooperative use of switches or platforms. There is no friendly fire either.

They managed to reuse all the cutscenes. Literally, no cutscenes were remade or even re-recorded for the multiplayer. Either the second character is just awkwardly put in the background of the single player cutscene, sometimes saying a line that is entirely ignored by the main character. Or as an even weirder solution, Carver appears randomly in single player cutscenes. Apparently, he was around all the time, just out of sight? Why don’t we advance together then? And even if it somehow makes sense, it destroys the feeling of accomplishment. I fought through endless waves of monsters, solved numerous puzzles to get there, and Carver just walks out of a door like nobody’s business.

There is a point in the singleplayer game, in the Rosetta lab (which I refuse to elaborate on), where Carver, quite obnoxiously, blocks the way to a staircase. It is lazy design in itself, but what about the multiplayer, when Carver is also controlled by a player? Well, in the multiplayer, the staircase is blocked by an invisible wall. Congratulations, well played!

One of the selling points of the game were asymmetric hallucinations, seen by Carver only. That is a good idea indeed. Except it is not in the game. Granted, there are some occasions, mostly in coop only optional missions, but then it is quickly forgotten, and completely lacks any consequence. It is nothing, but a marketing gimmick.

And a bonus: Rosetta pieces clip through the other player when carried with the telekinesis modul. How lame is that?

Spoonfed

Fearing that nobody will ever play coop, the developers decided to put coop-only optional missions in the game. It would be acceptable if I would not have to pay for it (even if I had no intention to play it), if they would be designed with coop in mind, or be impossible to play alone (which is not the case), and if they would not be an integral part of the game to the level that they count in your game progress percentage (so you can’t get 100% without). They literally have only one reason to be exclusively coop: to promote the coop play mode.

Closing thoughts

I’m not a game developer. I don’t have many ideas about how to do such a thing. But I have some vague ideas about the creative process. It needs compassion. It needs enthusiasm. And it can not be forced. If you assemble a team to come up with cool things, they either can or they can’t. If they can’t, you need to shelf the project, and try again at a later time. Or bring someone in. You can not rush creation. Try things. It is delicate and unpredictable. You never know when it takes off. You don’t know what spark fires up its engine.

I feel this game was not created. It was pushed through an extruder. They knew the title of it, they knew the release date, they knew the budget and the target length (which they failed to reach). And some businessman in dark suit came up with the idea of microtransactions and coop. Because he knew the trends in the gaming industry. Because he was such a prodigy of a manager. What else will be in the game, they didn’t know. They just assigned a team to the task with a given time frame, and whatever they managed to cough up, was put in the game. I don’t know that it happened. I just suspect it. The game looks that way.

It is established that happy ending has no place in the horror genre. So it all comes together after all. It all makes sense. As its grand finale, the Dead Space franchise died a horrible, painful death.

Dead Space 3 – autopsy