Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tall Poppy or Just Bad Writer?

Although I've never joined his ever-so-slightly-creepy fan forum and have only emailed him twice I consider myself something of a fan of Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw, amateur adventure games developer, internet comedian, part-time blogger, artist and self-proclaimed grumpy young man.

Well... actually I just realised then that I'm mostly a fan of his writing, because he didn't really make any good games until Odysseus Kent (ironically released after his 'retirement' from the gaming scene, after which he made seven more games that have generally been of very high quality) and my dial-up makes webcomics and what-not a terrible waste of time. But anyway, back at the dawn of his internet existence he ran some column at adventuredevelopers.com where he essentially picked a random amateur game and talked about how shit it was in a humourous way - which would cause a heap of complaints from the people who actually spent their spare time working on them, unsurprisingly enough and often provoke one of the most sarcastic apologies that you will ever read. I feel honour bound to point out that this was still some seriously funny stuff.

Somewhat interestingly this is essentially the same trick that he's become famous for with Zero Punctuation, except now there are more gay jokes and his bile is directed at professional games, which amateurs now find galvanising instead of heart-breaking. His criticism also seems more relevant now that the latest game of his isn't Perry and Fuckface: One Dimensional 'Paranormal Investigators' Recycle Old Sketch Show Humour and Nothing Happens as I believe it was called (Again, I feel honour bound to speak in his defense - he clearly didn't like the game either because it was never finished), one of the few games that had me counting the wasted time in downloading it in the first place..

Anyway, the point of all this is that generally, I like Yahtzee's work. But I am a bit concerned that his newfound celebrity status (Yes, internet celebrity status. He has one of the most-watched internet videos out there, which is now being televised, and is shaping up to be one of the most visible gaming personality out there) is having a terrible effect on his ego. Especially considering the leviathan status of his ego when all he was doing was ripping off Red Dwarf for Christ's sake! The insults directed at his fanbase seem to be growing exponentially at a rate that makes Zimbabwe's inflation rate seem quite acceptable, and any sort of complaint with regards to anything he does is met with an accusation of inbreeding, retardation, homosexuality, or all three.

At the same time, though, I'd hate to think I was being jealous. After all, Yahtzee makes a living from internet videos. Motherfucker or what? I envy that, I do not, I cannot, deny that. And 'Tall Poppy Syndrome' is quite a serious problem in society, according to the newspapers especially here in Australia. So I'd hate to think I've lost my objectivity, so here's the question...

Is this story shit or what?

When he said he'd written a short story in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment universe, I was somewhat pleased at the prospect, agreeing with Yahtzee that it's probably the best game that he's done but... well, I'll leave it to whoever's reading but all I got was stodgy, bland prose and clumsy exposition - the sort of writing that's deliberately dull to emphasise the jokes... except it's not funny. There are only a couple of bits with what felt like jokey moments and they don't fall flat - they don't even land.

Again, I feel I should get an impartial opinion on this, before declaring Crates of Babies complete shit. But here's a bit, interestingly that Yahtzee chose to feature on his homepage to emphasise how GREAT the story was, that I think makes it's problems quite clear:

Contrary to popular belief, the interior of a space vessel does not jostle every time the vessel’s exterior is fired upon (unless the artificial gravity is damaged but that takes a pretty accurate shot on most ships), nor do showers of sparks explode from random consoles. There isn’t even a distant rumbling sound. The only way the crew would know that, say, a photon missile had disabled the hydrogen ram scoop, was by reading some flashing words on Dan’s console.

“A photon missile just disabled the hydrogen ram scoop!” yelled Dan.


Setting aside the fact that this is a load of crap (reasons to follow shortly, so as not to taint this slightly review-y rant with filthy science), it is very jarring to have a piece of writing that attacks science-fiction 'cliche', whilst the story itself is drenched in it anyway. I guess the crew are a sort of deliberate pastiche on sci-fi stereotypes but.. I dunno, if you want to take the piss out of ludicrous science-fiction cliches, isn't centering on a community of freelance smugglers and mercenaries with their own tooled-up ships a step backwards?


Anyway, here is

The Physics Rant About How Sci-Fi Actually Makes Sense! - avoid if you dislike science-y stuff

Let's see that brief diatribe again:

the interior of a space vessel does not jostle every time the vessel’s exterior is fired upon (unless the artificial gravity is damaged but that takes a pretty accurate shot on most ships), nor do showers of sparks explode from random consoles. There isn’t even a distant rumbling sound. The only way the crew would know that, say, a photon missile had disabled the hydrogen ram scoop, was by reading some flashing words on Dan’s console.

Firstly, the odds are that a spaceship would be built with an alarm system saying "FUCK! PEOPLE SHOOTING AT US!" That's what I'd do at least, and I don't have the level of expertise required to design spaceships.

Secondly, the implication that there is no sound in space is correct. You would not hear the explosion of the missile on the outer shell of the spaceship. Sound travels from vibration and compression of matter, though, and there is a lot of that after an explosive impact - the internal hull of a spaceship in all probability will resonate and broadcast a lot of sound. Given the designs of most sci-fi spaceships the acoustics from the shape and material would also likely make it quite easy to hear a major impact.

Thirdly... well, I guess the sparks-from-random-consoles is sort of a good point. If we can space-travel we probably have more advanced fuse systems and a ship that expects to be attacked would probably have UPS to maintain electrical stability in the bridge or, at the very least, an auxilliary set of wiring less likely to be damaged.

But the big point is the idea that the crew will not be 'jostled'. I'm really curious about where this idea came from, actually, because it's directly contradicted by the single most famous law of physics ever: Newton's Third. Even if you don't know it by name, you know what it is - For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If anything hits a spaceship, or anything else for that matter, there is a force exerted. If it is something tiny, say a piece of space debris, the force will be mirrored straight back at itself upon impact and it will simply bounce off.

If something large, say a missile with an explosive payload, moving at an impressive velocity (as missiles do) will exert an incredible amount of force - especially considering that a key element of the design is that the missile itself disintegrates, thus preventing any force to be reflected onto itself and the added force of the explosion.

The argument against this would most likely be "Yeah, well spaceships are big and really strong" That's true. But in space, that's irrelevant. Without the constant anchoring effect of gravity, space is the one element that allows for pure Newtonian physics. Which means that if a spaceship is hit by something going faster than it is, it is definitely going to move. And if it's hit by a missile, it will move a lot.

The standard sci-fi 'jostle' is to stumble backwards, often against a wall, before slumping forwards onto your face again. Back and forth. Whether by accident or design this makes sense, because if we assume the ship has some function that automatically corrects the course after a displacement from an impact, that's precisely what the crew would experience - a jolt sending them backwards, then an equal and opposite jolt propelling them the other way.

It's easy to see why this is seen as some sort of misconception, as it seems that the entire modern idea of space battles came from Star Trek and that mostly came from Horatio Hornblower - it's no coincidence that space battles seem to greatly resemble naval encounters in their depiction (Revenge of the Sith giving probably the most blatant example ever) and I can see why people assume that this would be inaccurate. But water, with its lightweight composition, is something of a 'dampener' for gravity - according to NASA it's the best possible substance to use for emulating outer space. And I think they know what they're talking about.

The other slight point of contention is the suggestion that the artificial gravity is responsible for cancelling out this 'jostling'. This is actually quite an ironic suggestion as the artificial gravity would be responsible - without it there would be no force connecting the crewmembers to the spaceship, which is why they would experience the ships reaction to an impact. Without artifical gravity - assuming the crew weren't in contact with any part of the hull - the ship would actually move around them.

To give him his dues he's right that if the artificial gravity shorts out, then there are problems. But that seems a little obvious.

3 comments:

Youth of Australia said...

fullyramblomatic.com...

Sweet Sycorax saliva! What defective came up with THAT name?!

'Dreamy steps'? 'Sentient babies? ALL babies are sentient! This is awful! AWFULLY awful!

I agree wholeheartedly with your essay on the physics of space travel. As for all the sparking, well, since this problem always makes me think of Scorpio or Starbug, the fact 'ship is piece of crap and prone to breakdown' explained that.

On the otherhand, perhaps all the sparks are a deliberate safety system that prevents EMP damage to computer/guidance systems. True, it uses up some oxygen, but so does the crew screaming "PUT THE FORCE FIELD UP!"

This is agreeable with the fact no matter how many short outs are shown, the ship promptly doesn't go offline and or explode a second later.

Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

Sweet Sycorax saliva! What defective came up with THAT name?!

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw... the guy who I just spent an entire entry talking about.

I must admit I thought the name wa funny for a little while. Then I realised that it wasn't actually a pun for anything at all...

'Dreamy steps'? 'Sentient babies? ALL babies are sentient! This is awful! AWFULLY awful!

Phew. I'd hate to be infected with Tall Poppy... I'm long overdue for my vaccination.

It did seem really bad when I read it, though. I figured I'd need a real major case of envy to read it that way..

As for all the sparking, well, since this problem always makes me think of Scorpio or Starbug, the fact 'ship is piece of crap and prone to breakdown' explained that.

Hmm, that is a fairly solid explanation. Doesn't work for Star Trek, though, which is what I assume most people equate the cliche with.

On the otherhand, perhaps all the sparks are a deliberate safety system that prevents EMP damage to computer/guidance systems.

I was thinking of a similar thing - with an explanation being used in a sci-fi (slightly tongue-in-cheek) that the cut-outs are built into the design to remind the crew that they're in a battle situation and trigger their survival instincts.

Youth of Australia said...

I always thought that the Enterprise was full of little packets of nitro-9 so the unions could justify all those engineers. I mean, what do they do when the Klingons AREN'T trying to blow them up or some living god is sucking the life out of their turbines? I remember one ep where one of those engineers decides 'screw this' and locks himself in the holodeck instead of going to work. No one notices.