Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My Thoughts on Star Trek: Arena

Arena introduced Star Trek viewers to the Gorn, a sentient reptilian species with the footspeed of a lame tortoise and a predilection for dressing like Barney Rubble.

Is the Gorn really that slow? Surely, I must be exaggerating.

Well, they're so demonstrably slow that Kirk's Gorn adversary is forced to literally plead with him to stop running away so he can kill him. He even throws Kirk a bone and tells him he'll be merciful.  Gee, what a guy.

What's this about dressing like Barney Rubble?


Barney Rubble

I'll let you come to your own conclusions.

The episode begins with the crew of the Enterprise beaming down to Cestus III as the guests of Commodore Travers, the commander of the outpost situated there. Upon their arrival on the planet's surface, instead of the delectable victuals they were expecting to dine on, they find smoldering ruins and discover that the outpost's inhabitants have been killed with the exception of one survivor. Soon afterward, they come under attack by the beings who are presumably responsible for the massacre. During this battle, we hear mention of the attackers moving from position to position in a bid to outmaneuver the Enterprise men and secure the high ground, suggesting a furtive, tactically adept enemy that is fleet of foot.

The Enterprise crew succeeds in driving off their attackers and they give chase in the Enterprise as the perpetrators of the massacre (later identified as the Gorn) flee in their own vessel.

At this point, both the Enteprise and its quarry run into the Metrons, a race of super-beings who are a bit upset that savages are running loose in their neck of the woods and actually trying to kill each other. Determined to put an end to these shenanigans, the Metrons transport Kirk and his Gorn counterpart to a desolate planet and tell them to have at it and kill each other. Both Kirk and his Gorn adversary are unarmed but the Metrons hint at the possibility of manufacturing a weapon from items found on the planet's surface and inform both gladiators in this crude arena that the survivor (and his crew) will be permitted to go on his way while the loser will, of course, be dead but he won't be lonely for long since the Metrons intend to destroy his crew.

We're then treated to half an hour of Kirk running away from the Gorn, which is revealed to be incredibly strong but also incredibly slow. In fact, the Gorn is so slow that one could envision this “battle” lasting for days if only Kirk's stamina can hold out.

It seems it cannot, so his only chance at survival is building the weapon hinted at by the Metrons, since beating the Gorn to death with the plethora of sticks and stones available on the planet is not possible since the Gorn seems to be able to take whatever the Captain can dish out and then some.

The Metrons appear to possess the sort of sadism that only super-beings in the Star Trek universe seem capable of so they provide the crew of the Enterprise with a ring-side seat in the proceedings, allowing them to observe their captain slowly getting worn down by his adversary's relentless (if sluggish) pursuit.

It is at this point that Spock notes that the ingredients for gunpowder (sulfur, potassium nitrate and coal) are available in plenty on the planet's surface and we get to listen to him creepily intone “Good...good... ” (in a manner foreshadowing Buffalo Bill's rather disturbing delivery of those same words) as he observes Kirk noticing the same thing and taking action to construct a crude fire-arm.

To make a long story short, Kirk builds the gun, shoots the Gorn and then spares its life, thus winning the approval of the Metrons who send a representative in human guise wearing the sort of outfit that usually destroys acting careers to smugly inform Kirk that while his race is still savage, there is hope for humanity, yet.

A Metron, dressed in the height of his (its?) civilization's fashion – WTF?

Frankly, there is much about this episode that just rubbed me the wrong way. With the exception of Kirk, the Enterprise crew doesn't really do anything. McCoy scowls, Spock provides exposition and Uhura screams at the sight of the Gorn, but beyond that, the crew of the Enteprise merely stands by and helplessly observes Kirk's heroics. The behavior of the Metrons was also particularly annoying. If they're the super-beings they're supposed to be, they must realize that less “enlightened” species will often behave in a less than enlightened fashion. What is to be gained by interfering in their affairs and arbitrarily forcing them to take part in what is, for lack of a better word, a cockfight?

For a bunch of super-beings they're a lot closer to the “savages” that they so smugly disparage than one would think.

Maybe that, in itself, is the point of the episode.

Monday, April 18, 2011

… Oops! Bumped a Wumpus!

In a previous post, I discussed the classic computer game Hunt the Wumpus, provided links where one could download versions of the original game for Linux and Windows and pointed out what I felt were problems in its gameplay. To summarize, these were:

  1. The map was the same each game. Given that I derived much of my enjoyment from Hunt the Wumpus from mapping, this was a problem.
  2. It was possible to start the game in a situation where you could die without having received enough clues to make an informed decision to avoid this fate.
  3. The Wumpus just sat there and waited for you to shoot it. I believe this is a legacy from Wumpus's origins as an “answer” to the plethora of grid-based “hide-and-seek” games that were all the rage at the time of its inception.
Well, dear reader, I've addressed these problems and I proudly present to you “Wumpus Plus”. So far, only the Linux version is available but a Windows version is forthcoming. In “Wumpus Plus”, the map is randomly generated at the start of each game; the map obeys the same “rules” as the map in the original game, i.e. each room has three exits. Initial game configurations which result in the player starting one room away from pits and bats and two rooms away from the Wumpus (more on this later) are thrown out. So no more starting the game next to two pits and bemoaning the fact that 2 out of 3 moves will result in you plummeting to your death.

The biggest change I've made in the game is the fact that the Wumpus is no longer asleep. Unless you startle it by running into the room it's currently occupying or shooting an arrow (and missing), there is a 25% chance that the Wumpus will move into an adjacent room (when the Wumpus is startled, the chance of the Wumpus moving increases to 75%, as in the original game). The active nature of the Wumpus necessitated a major change in the game; the Wumpus can now be detected up to TWO rooms away from the player. I had wanted to keep the game as faithful as possible to the original Gregory Yob program but if the Wumpus could only be detected one room away from the player, there was a small but finite chance (1 out of 36) that the player could move and end up in the same room as the Wumpus (and lose the game) if the Wumpus was two rooms away. At first, I tried to tell myself that this was acceptable given the small probability of this happening but the one time it did happen during playtesting, I knew this wasn't the case; I felt cheated when I got eaten by the Wumpus in this fashion and I knew others would as well.

I was initially concerned that being able to detect the Wumpus from two rooms away would make the game too easy but it added a bit of ambiguity regarding its location and solved a problem which had crept up during playtesting; with the Wumpus detectable from only one room away, it was possible to enter a room, be warned of the Wumpus's proximity but be unsure of which room it was in and then back away from the Wumpus and have it follow you, thus removing any doubt as to its whereabouts and pretty much sealing its fate. The two room Wumpus detection distance and the ambiguity it lent to the Wumpus's location also made the ability to shoot arrows up to five rooms away (which wasn't very useful in the original game) an indispensable Wumpus-killing tool. There is also the very real possibility that you may actually miss when shooting at the Wumpus, something which rarely happened, as far as I could surmise, in the original game.

So make those arrows count.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

My (Random) Thoughts on Star Trek: The Squire of Gothos

Last year, I acquired the Star Trek: The Original Series (Remastered Edition) DVD's and for awhile, I was watching the episodes and posting my observations on my web-site. However, it occurred to me that a blog was probably a better venue for my rather random thoughts about the original Star Trek series.

But then real life concerns began to take priority over watching and commenting on Star Trek episodes.

But now I'm back.

So without further ado, I present to you, dear reader, my commentary on The Squire of Gothos.

I've observed before that the writers of the original Star Trek seemed to be scared shitless of children. One need only look at Charlie X and Miri, both of which spun cautionary tales of what could happen to children deprived of any sort of guidance in their formative years. If that wasn't scary enough, Charlie X had superhuman powers while the children in Miri had the weight of numbers on their side.

In The Squire of Gothos, the writers of Star Trek returned to the concept of the child with superhuman powers running amuck. This time, however, the child in question wasn't an orphan left to fend for himself on a hostile planet. His parents were just too oblivious to realize how much havoc a child with superhuman powers could wreak and blithely left him to play by himself unsupervised. I'm going to sound like a hypocrite here because while I was growing up, I enjoyed quite a bit of unsupervised playtime. The benefits of living in a small town. It's definitely something I think every child should experience. However, I draw the line at children with godlike powers. They should be watched closely lest they do something spectacularly naughty. You'd think a race of super-beings would know better.

For those who haven't seen The Squire of Gothos, the child in question is Trelane, who appears as an adult to the crew of the Enterprise. The story-line basically involves Trelane torturing his “pets”, the Enterprise crew. Just when things are about to look dire for Captain Kirk, he manages to stop Trelane in his tracks by slapping him a couple of times in the face after being cornered by the homicidal brat. One can only surmise what might have happened next had Trelane been allowed to have his way (given that Trelane had superhuman powers, I think Kirk's moment of triumph would have been brief and followed by the sort of cruelty and sadism that can only come from the mind of a child) except Trelane's parents arrive to tell him that he can't play any more and that he's got to come inside.

Frankly, this episode just perplexes me. I found it pretty unsatisfying that Kirk was basically saved by the deus ex machina of Trelane's parents arriving to send the naughty boy to bed without his supper. The revelation that Trelane is nothing more than a boy running wild during unsupervised playtime also robs him of much of his original menace. But going back to the deus ex machina; it's just not a gratifying way to conclude a story. But that is, unfortunately, the danger one runs into when the villain has super powers. How else is he going to be brought to heel by mere mortals?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I Smell a Wumpus!

Before I begin the second post of my blog, I must apologize for having been so remiss as to have not even introduced myself in my inaugural post.

I am castiglione.

Thank you for reading my blog.

A while back, I found the contents of More BASIC Computer Games on the internet.

I actually owned this book when I was a child and spent many hours typing in and playing these games on my old Apple II+. Looking at some of these games now, I'm left wondering what I ever saw in them. To be honest, there are some real dogs in there. For example, I played (and enjoyed) Camel a lot but looking at the game and its source code now, I have to ask myself “where's the game?” Where's the meaningful decision making? Frankly, Camel, Safe and Warfish leave me wondering if the “gee whiz” factor of playing a game on an honest-to-goodness computer was enough to distract players from the fact that there wasn't much there in the way of actual gameplay when you got past the beguiling flashing lights. I suppose things haven't changed that much since the days of Camel except that the beguiling flashing lights have been replaced by better graphics.

Anyway, for some reason, I never got around to typing in and playing the classic game, Wumpus, on my Apple II+ and searching around on the internet, I couldn't find any downloadable versions of the game that resembled Gregory Yob's original program. I found browser based versions of Wumpus as well as the TI-99/4A graphical version and its descendents but nothing that I could download and play except for a version available for Linux users called wump that's bundled with a bunch of other classic text games in bsdgames but it's a little bit different from the original version.

So, after a flurry of coding, I present to you Gregory Yob's hit game of 1972 “Hunt the Wumpus”. Versions for Linux and Windows are available. These are fairly faithful recreations of the original game except I did away with the all-caps format as it is a little bit hard on the eyes.

Give it a try.

Overall, I think it's pretty fun, sort of like a precursor to Minesweeper. The object of the game is to pinpoint the location of the evil Wumpus in a network of caves and tunnels using various clues and then shoot it to death with a magically guided arrow. For me, much of the joy of the game comes from mapping out the Wumpus's lair.

Which results in a bit of a problem. As I've stated, mapping out the caves and tunnels is, at least for me, one of the more enjoyable aspects of playing the game. However, there is only one cave network and once you've mapped it out, there's no need to do so again. No more mapping, no more fun. What to do? The sequel to Wumpus presented more maps to play in but all that does is delay the end of the need for (and the joy of) mapping.

Another flaw in the game is that it could hypothetically begin with the player in a position where he could die on his first move without having received enough clues to make an informed decision to attempt to avoid his doom. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to just start another game but it's a little bit annoying.

The final flaw of Wumpus is that because the game begins with the the eponymous monster being “asleep”, the hunt for this scourge of the land, this ferocious beast, ends up feeling more like a canned hunt rather than a valiant quest. Frankly, that doesn't sit well with me.

Fortunately, I think Wumpus could easily be “fixed” with some changes. My proposed fixes are:

  1. Randomly generate a new map with each game. The version of Wumpus available in bsdgames actually does this.
  2. Toss out starting conditions which result in the player being next to one of the three hazards (bats, pits and the Wumpus) in the game.
  3. Not only is the player hunting the Wumpus but the Wumpus should also be hunting him. Or at least not sitting there dozing waiting to get shot.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I've Been Living like an Animal! Or Help! My Laptop Has Fallen and Now I Can't Get the Internet Up!

It was my intention when I set up this blog to limit my discussions to movies, games, novels, perhaps some TV shows. However, recent events have superseded my original goals for this blog and I now find myself writing about an experience which I will not soon forget.

Recently, my still young (aged 2.5 years) laptop gave up the ghost. During the time between when I realized my DELL XPS M1530 was no more and when I received its replacement (an ASUS U30Jc-b1, in case you're interested), I found myself with only my old DELL Inspiron 3500, on which I wrote my dissertation, to fall back on as my entertainment center and my lifeline to the internet.

I quickly discovered that my DELL Inspiron 3500 wasn't quite up to snuff. To give you an idea of how old it is, permit me to regale you, dear reader, with certain details of its specifications such as its hard drive capacity (a whopping 6 GB), its memory (an even more diminutive 64 MB of RAM) or its processing speed (anywhere between 300 MHz to 400 MHz, depending on the specific model). It was running Windows 98 (second edition) and the last web browser I had installed on it was Internet Explorer 6, which meant that I wasn't able to access many web sites due to the not inconsiderable age of that browser. Attempts to install the latest browsers resulted in the rather arch response that my old Inspiron didn't meet the minimum requirements to run them!

Fortunately, I was still able to access my Yahoo! Mail account but for a harrowing couple of weeks, I was hurled back to a simpler, more quaint time during which I had to come to terms with the profound feeling of loss that I was feeling, something which I imagined being akin to how it must feel to lose a limb.

Time after work that I would have spent mindlessly surfing the internet or streaming my favorite television shows (just before my M1530 had expired, I had terminated my cable TV service) I spent catching up on my reading and for a few days, I was transported back to my childhood when the hours could be whiled away simply by sitting down with a good book.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the urge to game began to gnaw at me. In desperation, I feverishly installed The Zork Anthology, the CD-ROMs of which I had recently acquired on eBay, on my Inspiron 3500 and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that we're becoming addicts of our technology, so dependent on our sundry geegaws that when they are denied to us, we are at a loss as to what to do. To avoid having to depend on my woefully obsolescent 3500 in the event of a future laptop breakdown, after I got my replacement laptop, I immediately picked up an ASUS 1005HA netbook on eBay with the intention of using it as my backup computer in case my new laptop should up and die like my M1530. To forestall the onset of obsolescence which had effectively mooted my Inspiron 3500, I installed Linux on my 1005HA, spending hours configuring my netbook and, ironically, given its intended role as a backup, spending more time on it, as opposed to my new laptop, during the days immediately after my having received it.

A common theme in science-fiction movies when I was growing up was how man is in danger of being destroyed by his technology and it has occurred to me more than once that this may be happening right now, although on a more subtle (and possibly more dangerous) level than that popularly depicted in TV and film. Instead of being pursued and exterminated by killer robots, we're willingly embracing the technology that may destroy us, in some cases following its edicts to the point of becoming cybernetic lemmings.

Although it had not been my original intent when starting this blog to rail at the danger of becoming slaves of our technology, I suppose it is fitting and not so surprising, given the title of my blog (Stranger in a Strange Land), that I should do so while living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley.

And on that note, I end the inaugural post of this blog.