My Geology Note-blog

A chronicle of my PhD journey and other geology writings

Category: Sci Fi

Nier: Automata – the power of video games and thoughts on existentialist sci-fi in general, I suppose

Dredged from the archives of the “draft” box of my blog, a completely off-topic musing on a video game I first played back in August last year and which still gets me thinking even now. I’m likely to do this a few more times where I dig into the “notebook” of half-formed or simply unpublished blog posts just to get the thoughts finally out there. In this case the text is almost unchanged from August but the images have been added in today.

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I like Philip K. Dick’s books…. well, ok, I didn’t get past half way with Lies, Inc. (The Unteleported Man) because I was not willing to endure reading about an LSD trip for no reason for a good chunk of the book (seriously, P.K.D. what were you thinking?!) but I like his works all the same. Partly because they are weird, see Counter-Clock World as the most extreme example, but within the weird are some excellent sci-fi concepts mostly to do with the nature of the self and being, the apex of which needs no introduction, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or (in film form) Bladerunner (Which is one of my favourite films of all time).

I mention all this because I have just finished 3 of the 5 ending paths of Nier: Automata, Square Enix and Platinum Games latest sci-fi existentialist, android hack-and-slash JRPG offering and I have a lot of feelings.

The original founders of Electronic Arts once asked the question “Can a video game make you cry?”. If the question had been about music or film or literature the response would naturally be an indignant “yes!” but for video games it’s taken a little while longer for such a question to be properly considered as well as examples of such emotional response realised.

The first game I remember crying at the end of was Final Fantasy X. I had already experienced the story via YouTube but somehow playing the game gave me such a connection to the characters that the emotions were so much more raw. I don’t remember if I cried at the end of Bastion but the fear and terror of the final moments of the last level were extremely emotionally draining. Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide left me in something of a dark pit of sorrow for a good few days (I did cry, yes) as I suffered through a brutal look at what it means to create, be understood or, damagingly, misunderstood through your work. (I realise that this paragraph makes me out to be a wet blanket but as there is no shame at crying while watching Forest Gump there should be no shame in crying because of a video game).

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At the start of “The Beginner’s Guide” the game’s creator, Davey, tells us, the player, that we are going to be playing a series of games designed by his friend, Coda. This screenshot makes up part of the moment in the game where some sort of level beyond the 4th wall breaks as “Coda”, the creator of the games within the game, addresses the game’s creator, Davey directly via our, the player’s, screens. 

In the final few scenes of the 3rd “act” Neir: Automata you are presented with a choice, a choice that no other medium can present you with (besides chose your own adventure books, I guess). I sat at my computer, with my hand over my mouth, heartbroken. I didn’t know what consequence my choice would have. Should I side (i.e. play as) a character I have got to know over 3 game cycles and hope that will lead to a positive outcome, or, because of their fractured mental state should I side with the other character who I don’t really know and cannot trust to spare a life or do the right thing? After my choice and the final moments of the story the end credit music struck up and tears filled my eyes.

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This is the moment that made me pause and not want to continue…. this image still gives me chills because you must make a choice to continue the game even if you don’t want to.

The notion that a fiction work can instil such emotion is, logically, absurd. The characters and events do not exist. In the case of Nier: Automata not only do the characters and events not exist but the characters are androids with no human emotions, only the illusion of such. And yet through fiction we gain such incredible moments of empathy that logic is no longer considered. These characters have invaded our consciousness and have become real.

Parallel to this pathos is the characters struggle with their own sense of identity and existence, hence my references to P.K.D.’s work at the start of this piece. Blackrunner‘s replicants, for all intents and purposes, could be biologically human if they had not been so heavily modified to strip them of human traits such as physical frailty, longevity, self-determination, childhood and family. (Yes, I consider physical frailty a human trait, super strength and resistance is inherently superhuman and therefore, not human. Where the line is drawn is naturally up for debate but if a fiction character can do what even the strongest real human cannot, that’s inhuman). Neir: Automata‘s “replicants”, YoRHa units, are full-blown androids, mechanical beings made in humanity’s image but without a scrap of biology at all.

Bridging this gap could be character’s such as the Major in Ghost in the Shell, a cyborg with a human brain but an android body. All of these examples, replicants, cyborgs and YoRHa struggle with a fundamental question, what does it mean to be human? Or perhaps more accurately, what needs to be added to make something or someone human?, or what needs to be taken away to strip a person of humanity?

Now if I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t be writing a blog about it, I’d be off in my fancy Professor of Philosophy house drinking single estate Darjeeling tea but all I can say is that Neir: Automata succeeds in the footsteps of Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell, presenting us with questions of existence and unflinchingly making you look into the dark heart of the results.

So what is this piece about? A recommendation to play a video game? A justification for spending 35 hours of my life playing said video game? An outlet of emotion? A way to name drop classic sci-fi to sound clever? The ramblings of a decongestant fuelled, mad-person? (In order, yes, no, yes, I hope not, and possibly). Ok, here’s a takeaway then, I once saw sci-fi described as being about mad-scientists, robots and space, but I think what sci-fi actually is, is the canvas to explore fundamental questions about humanity through the fantastical but plausible.

I therefore commend Nier: Automata for your approval for being a great game, with great visuals and great music with philosophical themes that turns around and stabs you in the heart with all the emotional force of a katana.

 

Addendum (that is even more off-topic):

As I was looking for images for this post I remembered an exhibition I saw at the Tate Modern in London called “No Ghost, just a shell” which was based around several artists re-imagining and expanding upon the life of a minor character from the “Ghost in the Shell” Manga (may have been TV show, I forget). The image below includes one of the pieces of work which was a cold reading of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” that you could hear with the headphones and see being read by the avatar on the screen. I vaguely remember the bit I heard which I think was the moment when Deckard first meets Rachel in the book (I hadn’t read it at the time).

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The next image is something that is still an avatar that I use on a gaming website, although I’ve not been active, according to the record I checked today, since 20th June 2015. It’s funny that I have a digital self that, a little bit like that art expo’s name has no ghost (no soul) but is a shell left by my prior digital footprint in the net.

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The whole project culminated with the artists who had expanded this minor character’s life and likeness signing the rights of the character back to herself, giving her freedom but dooming her forever to silence. No Ghost, just a shell.

Anyway, just thought it was something interesting to share at the end of this.

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Off-topic: Thoughts on Blade runner 2049

BLADE RUNNER 2049

Like a football match this post is a tale of two halves.

Thoughts

The original “Blade runner” is one of my favourite films. Because of watching it I discovered Philip K. Dick; proper, full on existential science fiction; and films that trust the audience with the intelligence to handle complex ideas presented in an oblique manner. Few scenes in cinema chill me and thrill me in equal measure as the opening view across the endless factories spitting fire while Vangelis’ score strikes up. So with all that said naturally I was nervous when they announced a sequel. How could “Blade runner” of all films have, want or need a sequel?!

But then the reviews of “Blade runner 2049” started to come in, and eager to avoid spoilers I had to trust headlines declaring the film a modern masterpiece and worthy heir to the throne. I feel that “Blade runner” can’t have a sequel in the traditional sense, it can have a follow up or a continuation but after 30 years what “Blade runner 2049” needed to do was recapture the feelings of the original today. It does.

It’s a shame that “Blade runner” is such a cult classic. For one it means that every hard sci fi film has pilthered it’s ascetic or soundscape, colour pallet, tone, musical style, pacing… You get the picture. As a result you could worry that the new film comes off as generic! It doesn’t. Every pause for a sweeping cityscape view with it’s accompanying musical sting thrilled me with cold chills just like the original. They have succeeded in producing a 2 and a half hour mood piece, just like the original.

One thing that struck me is that despite the overcrowded streets and tenement blocks of LA in “2049” there is a palpable isolation in the film. Like sitting in a crowded airport terminal, everyone around you is a stranger. Always. Ryan Gosling’s Detective K spends long stretches of his time flying high above the city, alone, where the city itself is obscured by constant sheets of rain. Other characters are physically isolated and yet ironically these individuals are content in there separation from the outside world, either by choice or circumstance.

The story contains traditional detective noir beats with a splash of, surprisingly, “Children of Men” for good measure. The story is secondary to the plot and themes which once again centre on what it means to be human and whether an artificial life can be.  In a world where the artificial are flesh and blood, born as adults from plastic amniotic sacs complete with implanted memories the question is harder to answer than in most robot-with-feelings flicks.

“2049” makes an interesting contrast to my video game obsession of the year “Nier: Automata” which is about robots questioning their purpose and emerging humanity. “Neir”‘s soundscapes and landscapes are beautiful and melodic, in the distant future, natural has returned in force where as in “2049”, the landscapes are stark, the planet has suffered ecological collapse and a once mighty tree with roots grasping deep into the sterile soil is now held up by guy-ropes.

The reason why this isn’t a review and only thoughts is that my feelings on the original are deeply personal and I think the same will be true of “2049”.

Comment (with minor spoilers)

Before writing this piece I ran a search for the film title because I wanted to read the Wikipedia page now that I had seen it. What I found instead was the first search result, and it caught my eye: “You’ll love the new ‘Blade runner’ – unless you’re a woman”, let’s just say I have feelings on that! [the offending article (ha!) can be found here:  http://nypost.com/2017/10/04/youll-love-the-new-blade-runner-unless-youre-a-woman/ ]

The thrust of the critic’s argument is that the women of the film get the short end of the wedge. This annoys me greatly because it once again presents the argument that women can only care about the fate of other women and that women cannot be active participants in a story but must be protected, held aloof to remain unharmed and blameless. Yes, several women suffer unpleasant fates but these women are all characterised, active players in the plot. One even concedes that her actions can and will put her in danger but she does so anyway despite objections. The choice was her’s to make and she made it. If we want to talk about getting the short end of the wedge let’s talk about the nameless grunts who get mown down by Detective K’s horrifically accurate sharp-shooting.

A central theme of the original could be considered to be fatherhood and this theme is replaced in the new film as one of motherhood. The male characters must grapple with the notion that for all the technology this world has to offer only women can create a “true” human. While a bit on the nose, K even states that he thinks that the human soul is formed through the act of child birth. It’s an interesting thought that without that human process, the pain, the risk of life by mother for child (sacrifice), and slow awakening to consciousness from new born to baby to toddler to child to adolescent etc, the soul cannot form.

The father figures of the piece understand their role in maternity in this future: protector, provider, arbiter but never creator. What are created by men (in this film’s version of the Tyrell Corporation) are treated as disposable, sub-humans precisely because they are literally “man-made”. These artificial humans are, however, thinking and feeling and so this treatment as casually disposable is horrifying.

And yes, the presence of naked female holograms, prostitutes and statues are naturally there to titillate the audience, after all sex sells and a movie wants to sell itself, but it also serves as a reminder that the sexual aspects of the female form are also that which creates and sustains a child.

Anyway, I as a women disagree with that critic’s assertion that my sex will determine my capacity to enjoy a film, this film especially.

To wrap up my thoughts, if anything I’ve said in this piece has sparked your curiosity, go and watch “Blade runner” and/or “Blade runner: 2049”, you won’t regret it.

The author would like to say, for the record, that someone can dislike a film because of their sex/gender. That is a totally valid, personal opinion and I cannot object to someone expressing a personal views even if I disagree (that’s basically the essence of free speech). But make sweeping assertions and speak for all women and we’ll be having words. I have a total disinterest in football but that doesn’t mean I can assert that all women are disinterested in football. Some women are uninterested in football, some are interested and some can explain the off-side rule better than the average bloke-in-pub-on-match-day. 

Thoughts on women in science and the new Ghostbusters film

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So the new Ghostbusters film is pretty silly, low brow, irreverent fun… just like the original. It’s a universe where ghosts are made of the gunk they used to use on the old TV programme Get Your Own Back, it was never going to be on par with Ben Hur. Film doesn’t have to be all worthy all the time, and I can’t only watch Laurence of Arabia, Bladerunner or (appropriately) Ghost in the Shell, sometimes you need the movie equivalent of those hot dogs you get in jars.

Sure, Chris Hemsworth’s turn as quite possibly the worst secretary in film history (worse perhaps than the one in Grease who loses the timetables for an entire year, only to find them by the start of the next) was a bit cringy at times, especially when remembering how blisteringly good he was as James Hunt in Rush; and a few jokes didn’t quite land with me and the CGI looked like it was straight out of the 80’s original but I had fun with it and if I’d been a little kid, I probably would have dug it big time, not unlike what happened with the original Ghostbusters.

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What’s that? Why did I include a picture of Chris Hemsworth looking rather fetching in a shirt and tie? Oh, no reason at all… None… Nope… 

Now I’m not going to address the controversy around the nature of this film as a reboot not a sequal and recasting the Ghostbusters themselves as all women as that’s all in the past. The film’s been made, it’s out, let’s judge what we’ve got not what we don’t, like the remake of The Italian Job I don’t feel like the existence of the new one hurts the old. And what I do want to talk about is the film’s portrayal of academia and scientists.

Academic Institutions

Two broad types of institutions are somewhat satirised in the film, a high brow, well established one who can afford to snear at Princeton and a new upstart College with sloppy management and the willingness to entertain crackpot inventors as long as they stay in the lab. At the former, the prim and proper physicist Erin is angling for tenure until a book on the scientific basis for ghosts she co-wrote with Abby, a researcher at the latter institution, comes back to haunt her (appropriately enough). In light of recent very public missteps from well respected researchers it surprised me that a Ghostbusters film of all things would address how desperate Universities will try and cling to an image or a principle at the expense of valuable researchers.

The Scientific Method

While the original Ghostbusters could only be called scientists in the strictest sense as they’re sole careers surrounded investigating the paranormal the two main scientists of the team, Abby and Erin, are by and large physicists who approach ghosts not as the paranormal but as provable and testable physical phenomena. Their frequent verbal acknowledgement of the scientific method, gathering quantifiable data and testing hypotheses, in between a serious landslide of technobabble (to quote Cpt. Jack Harkness, “a bit of technobabble is good for the soul.”) made me rather pleased.

The team engineer, the off-beat, punk-ish Holtz who worked with Abby at the technical college shows off beautifully the problem solving and equipment development of real research. The proton packs go from a trolly and trailing cables to the iconic backpacks over the course of the film.

Patty, a street smart station manager, who is the non-scientist on the team has a good eye for clues, thinks on her feet, is proactive and makes deductions like a good researcher.

Women who are scientists

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The dynamic dream team

 

The standout of the film and why I will endorse it as a good representation if scientists is that the four leads are well rounded humans (in the context of a blockbuster comedy, remember, it’s not Ben Hur) (Oh, and speaking of shape, it looks like actresses who don’t all look like Natalie Portman do still exist (who incidentally is a published scientist and therefore 20% cooler automatically (let’s see who get’s that reference!)) It’s just nice to see variation in female casting when no one blinks at people like Tommy Lee Jones or Bruce Willis still getting work. Moving swiftly on!)

Erin has a crush on Hemsworth’s character Kevin (well it’s one way of addressing the elephant in the room of hiring Hemsworth) but also still harbours a lot of hurt from the bullying she received at school which is reflected in her need to be taken seriously as a scientist and her attempts of dismiss the existence of ghosts for the sake of her tenure. She is a gentle spirit who takes a while to get into the ‘busting properly and starts off not knowing how to react to Holtz’s oddness before loosening up later in the film and embracing her goofy side (first seen right at the start of the film while she’s practising for a lecture and does an little impromptu dance before someone walks in).

Abby is the slightly disapproving older sister character who rolls her eyes at Erin’s behaviour towards Kevin, has arguments with the take-away delivery guy over wantons in soup, enjoys practical jokes, films and making sarcastic quips  (the best one of which involves an extended gag about Patrick Swayze).

Patty is grounded and savvy, outfitting the ‘busters with a car and workers overalls for the messy job of ghostbusting. She’s the practical mind alongside the blue sky thinkers and even when she feels like she’s in over her head  she stays loyal to the team.

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Holtzmann, quite possibly mad,  undoubtedly rad and definitely dangerous to know. 

And Holtz, dear me, Holtz. I’d say that she’s the closest character to the stereotype of “crackpot” scientist except her frothing, bubbling joy for her work is in stark contrast to the seriousness or melodrama of the scientist stereotype of yester-year. She effervescences when she explains the new pieces of kit to the team, revels in getting stuck in in the field and clearly doesn’t give a monkey’s what you might think of her.

In fact, the joy and wonder that the team is filled with is the most heartening aspect of the film. Science is the exciting, bizarre, confusing, beautiful unknown and it should be a joy.

Who’d have thought a Ghostbusters film would be the film to most illustrate that, hay?

Conclusion

So while you might take or leave the new Ghostbusters film I feel like if it’s inspired just one young person to start a journey into the scientific unknown it is absolved of all it’s sins.

When you need an example of female scientists doing what they love,
Who ya gunna call? GHOSTBUSTERS!

Quotation of the day that is somewhat inspired by the above:

John Green on madness:

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Why yes, he is wearing a T-shirt made of pages and pages of his own signatures… it’s a long story.

The author reminds the reader that her opinions are her own and shouldn’t be grounds to put her in bad standing with her institution, a la Ghostbusters style. 

Spoiler free Star Wars VII review

Prior to seeing the film I’d seen the original launch trailer and read an article on Leia’s promotion so I was going in blind. If Darth Vader had asked me about my feelings leading up to the force awakens he probably would have said “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Vader is right. Star Wars VII is worth your time if just the opening bars of the title theme is enough to bring a smile to your face.

It’s not perfect by any means but as a sequal to the original 3 films it feels like a true ssuccessor. To get the bad out of the way: its not high art, expect it to light the world on fire and cure several types of malaria and you will be disappointed. A few comic beats fall flat, or did for me. You need to suspend your disbelief for some plot points, we’re operating under fairy tale/ fantasy logic. If you’re looking for complexity in the dark/light struggle, look elsewhere, again this is fantasy melodrama, the emotions are big and that’s Star Wars. (So naff off Anakin, there’s no “good is a point of view” in the Star Wars universe. There is the light and the dark sides, one cannot look like the other you mopey, floppy haired nerf).

So, what’s good?

To me and those like me the Galaxy Far, Far Away is not shiny silver Naboo cruisers, towering Jedi temples and flamboyant lightsaber duel. It’s dirty, it’s lived in, it’s the cantena in Mos Eseley, it’s Han Solo whacking the panels above the cockpit door to bring the Falcon to life, it’s the clash of medieval fantasy with futuristic technology. Star Wars VII captures all that.

Secondly, more subtlety, Abram has pulled back from his usual frenetic, lense flare soaked style and clothed himself in the film making of when the originals were released. This again is where the Galaxy of Star Wars lives, not fast edits and CGI but live effects and wide, slow panning shots. Remember how it felt when Leia’s ship flew overhead at the start of IV.  That ship felt huge only to have the Star Destroyer appear, and keep coming, and coming, and coming. That sense of scale is there in The Force Awakens.

Sticking with parts of the film as an entity, John Williams is on form as usual and the return of certain theme songs tugged the heartstrings. It’s also very funny. I said not all the jokes landed but that was because there were scenes I hoped would be serious but seemed to have had levity deliberately added. The humour is that of Episode V, character interactions and quips that build character. No winks to the audience here.

The acting! Harrison Ford IS Han Solo and the double team of him and Chewie once more is lovely. Carrie Fisher has brought Leia, now a General, back to life. I really liked when and how she appeared in the story. The stand outs aren’t the returning cast but the new blood playing our heroes. They fill the archetypical roles but the arrangement of these roles and the character’s place in the story are different from the Han/Luke/Leia dynamic. They are likeable, fleshed out characters who I can’t wait to spend more time with.

Daisy Ridley is the brightest of the shining stars as the savvy scavenger Rey from Jakku (our ‘starting village’ if we were to use the terminology of video games). Her range is fantastic and her interactions with certain characters are the moments that stuck in my mind the most.

A final word which may be considered a spoiler so skip this paragraph if you’re bothered. OK, everyone who don’t want any spoilers have gone. The appearance of a character weilding a blue lightsaber  on the film poster and a red saber in the trailer is a give away for the inevitable duel. It’s a great fight, none of the prequel’s over the top flare, instead it felt in the vain of Luke and Vader’s encounters, y’know, sword fighting with serious stakes. Speaking of Luke, his role was bang on the money.

So that’s my spoiler free thoughts, my next post on the topic will be a commentary and comparison of the new film with the Expanded Universe continuity which will be big on spoilers and esoteric Star Wars trivia, cos like BB-8, that’s how I role.