Cybercentrism

You're a wizard Wade!

This post contains spoilers for the movie “Ready Player One”

I finally gave in and watched Ready Player One, prompted by seeing the Internet dump on the sequel to the novel. I avoided it before now because the commentary on the novel made it sound like pandering nonsense, and I assumed the movie would be much the same. But, I wanted to see for myself.

Perhaps as a result of those lowered expectations, I actually found it quite entertaining on a surface level. The pop culture references were certainly omnipresent, but maybe not as tiresome as having them explained in writing would be. In movie form, a lot of them that are not plot-relevant just form a visual backdrop that actually help define a plausible metaverse, albeit one with a culture that is inexplicable stuck 30 years in the past.

But on the other hand, the centrality of pop culture to the plot, and why it is central, is also what leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In the universe of Ready Player One, the online world is dominated by a metaverse-like virtual reality game called the OASIS, a game owned and controlled by a single corporation, and ultimately a single man, its creator, James Halliday. When he dies, he decrees that his successor will be decided by a tripartite fetch quest within the virtual world. In a monumental act of narcissism, the quest’s challenges are not based on the skills required to run a massive company or a piece of essential infrastructure, or tests of morality or wisdom, but on intimate knowledge of his own life and his pop cultural obsessions. This might be an interesting setup if Halliday were the antagonist, but he’s not, he’s practically worshipped by the users of the OASIS.

Wow!! Cool Future!!

This movie has the trappings of cyberpunk, but little of the critique. Victory in this story is not the smashing of a corporate monopoly or frustrating of its goals, but the passing of the reins of power from a virtuous benevolent founder to a handful of virtuous disciples, through an absurd faux-meritocratic process where merit means liking the right books and games and movies.

The antagonist, Sorrento, is the CEO of a company that runs debtor’s prisons, yet somehow the movie gives the impression that his greater sin is being a poseur who’s only pretending to “get” the stuff that Halliday liked. The denouement even reveals that Halliday could have used his monopoly power to end the practice of indentured servitude at any time, but apparently chose not to, or just didn’t think to, and this is not framed as a critique of monopoly capitalism, but is just a throwaway line to demonstrate how benevolent the protagonist is in his new role.

Remember Tracer? Remember Chun-Li? Remember various skeletons?

The third act involves an epic battle in the OASIS, with the user-base coming together to fight Sorrento’s forces and prevent them from completing the quest. It’s presented as an empowering grass-roots uprising to save the OASIS from an evil corporation, and fine, they are pretty evil… But the status quo is also intolerable. They’re not fighting for their own empowerment, but merely to keep the unaccountable corporate power that dominates their lives out of even more abusive hands. It’s a pretty uninspiring cause.

The movie’s true feelings on the nature of power, and the relationship of ordinary people to it, is revealed most starkly at its climax. The conflict in the OASIS has spilled over into the real world, with our intrepid heroes being chased through the streets in a van, exposed at every turn by CCTV tracking technology and drones. While Sorrento sets out to confront them personally, they put out a call for aid, for their supporters to gather in the slums and defend them. When Sorrento reaches them, a huge crowd of people stream out of the stacks to oppose him.

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!

For a moment, it seems as though the plot really is going to be resolved by collective direct action. People power, woo! Instead, Sorrento pulls out a gun, and the crowd parts. They could easily disarm him, there are hundreds of them all around him. Instead they gawp uselessly at him, right up to the point where he is threatening to shoot some children in the face. It is only the police arriving that prevents him from committing murder right in front of them.

With Sorrento out of the way thanks to the police, a bunch of lawyers arrive to certify the protagonist’s completion of the quest and acquisition of complete control over the OASIS. The crowd are reduced to placid spectators in a boardroom drama that doesn’t involve them or empower them. This is, I feel, the perfect encapsulation of the movie’s worldview. The crowd are the audience - expected to worship and trust benevolent CEOs, to react strongly in defence of a commodified culture where they are otherwise passive consumers, but to look on silently and not interfere as control over that culture changes hands, maintaining the status quo.

Avocados

Avocados

I’m not very good at doing these art posts in a timely manner; I did this still-life of a couple of avocados for pixel dailies back in September!

Timelapse

Avocados

Anticipation

Anticipation

I was inspired to create this when I won a postcard and sticker pack giveaway on twitter by my friend Stefanie, and I was eagerly waiting for it to arrive! I actually did this a while ago but I forgot to post it here.

Postcard and stickers

Go check out Stefanie’s work, it’s amazing. Thanks for the goodies Stef!

Timelapse

Anticipation

Stars Trek - Failures of Imagination

Where did it all go wrong?

This post contains spoilers for the TV show “Picard”

Star Trek: The Next Generation, and its follow-ups, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, are some of my favourite TV shows. They are set in a future post-scarcity utopia where poverty, disease and war (amongst humans and most of the alien species they encounter, at least) have been largely eliminated.

Although they sometimes deal with deep topics, like the humanity or personhood of artificial intelligences, the economic reality of their universe and how it came about goes largely unexamined. There is no money, we are told (except sometimes, when there is). There is property, apparently, but whether it works the same way as property does today is not discussed. Abundant energy and the technology to conjure most of the essentials of life from thin air mean that nobody goes hungry, but whether everybody can have the opportunity to own a vinyard in France without inheriting one is a question that goes unasked.

The utopianism is usually established instead through a gentle mocking of the preoccupations and vices of present-day society, or lecturing about how humanity has moved past them. A bemused Picard takes a cigarette offered by a 20th century character on the holodeck, and coughs aggressively. Imagine smoking! Even the Ferengi, themselves caricatures of grubby, grasping capitalists, are shocked at our stupidity when they learn about tobacco. Janeway lectures the omnipotent Q about resolving conflicts with diplomacy instead of violence. An arrogant 20th century revival is revealed to be a buffoon when he demands to be allowed to speak to his lawyer. No lawyers here sir - this is the lawyerless utopia of Lionel Hutz’s nightmares.

Occasionally the admonishment is more direct - such as when Sisko time travels to a ghetto in a North American city, in our near future, looks directly into the camera, and says “sort your fucking shit out”.

The point is that in the Star Trek future, society is better than it is today, but its material basis is vague to the point of absurdity. It’s unfortunate, because that would be an interesting topic to explore, but it is what it is - light-hearted science-fantasy more concerned with the personal growth of characters than with the economic basis of their society.

A Shallow Dystopia

Sacre bleu!

Star Trek: Picard, the latest attempt at continuing the Star Trek franchise on television, is set, in contrast to its predecessors, in a fractured, broken society. The Federation has turned inward, failing to live up to its values of diplomatic and humanitarian outreach. Money has returned with a vengeance, and nobody does anything unless they’re getting paid. There’s a disaffected, under-appreciated working class, who apparently don’t even get the same quality of replicators as other sections of society. Where characters in other series’ have interests and hobbies, in Picard they have vices, addictions and psychological damage. One character constantly has a fat cigar hanging out of his mouth and nobody is shocked about it because he looks, just, so cool.

In a show without an established universe, these aspects would be unremarkable - just a different set of assumptions about human nature and the future development of society, and with different stories to tell. In Picard, the departure from the previous utopianism is not examined, much less explained, and it is jarring.

But the above examples are trivialities compared to a problem that is at the very heart of the show. Toiling alongside the human workers are a class of sentient android slaves whose abolition and genocide by the Federation serves as a major plot motivator.

More than a Fistful

Seriously bro?

These are the “Datas on every starship” that Maddox expresses a desire for in the TNG episode “The Measure of a Man”. In that episode (one of the best in the Star Trek canon), Picard defends Data’s personhood and his right to self-determination. He’s ready to sacrifice his career over the possibility that his society would view even one android as property. In Picard, the same character disagrees with the ban on “synthetics”, but hardly comments on their genocide, or their previous condition of slavery. He quits Starfleet over their failure to provide humanitarian aid to the Romulans, not over the fact that the Federation had somehow come to rely on slave labour. Apparently, he would be perfectly happy to return to a situation that he fought to prevent when he was Captain of the Enterprise.

It’s a disappointing missed opportunity. It seems to me that the show wanted to say something about the socio-political situation in America today, but utterly fails to understand that situation, the shows that came before it, or the character of Picard.

If it really wanted to portray the dissolution of a utopia, a crumbling society betraying its ideals, it could have done so by clarifying the nature of the Federation economy, and provided some systemic explanation for the introduction of slave labour, money, and inequality, where those things did not exist before, or at least some believable political force pushing for those things. Picard could have been cast in the role of defending the fundamental rights of the Androids from a society that is determined to exploit them, as he has many times in the past. Perhaps he could even have taken on the new role of defending the rights of human labourers, whatever the reason that they’re suddenly being disenfranchised. It could have been a great opportunity to introduce some economic depth to the Star Trek universe that has long been lacking.

Instead, we get a complete mess where exploitation is ignored, the dissolution of Federation society is apparently due to infiltration by an inherently sinister other, and the androids are the ultimate villain for not being sympathetic to their oppressors or being understanding about the genocide of their race.

Observatory

Observatory

An animation I made for Asteroid day to continue my space-themed art streak! Thanks to my friend Stefanie for the suggestion! Please click that link and check out her absolutely stunning art, you won’t regret it.

Prints

Prints are available through RedBubble, INPRNT and coming soon to Displate.

Timelapse

Observatory Timelapse

Celestial

Celestial 1

Only a few days after the last inspiring pixel dailies prompt, another one appeared that I couldn’t resist - “Celestial”. I had three ideas for it immediately but I only had time to do the one above on the day. I’m glad I spaced them out anyway because I think I achieved a lot with the extra time.

Flyby

The second idea I worked on was originally only a planet-rise over some mountains, but it evolved quite a bit as I worked on it until it was about spaceships racing over a peaceful alien village.

I’m quite pleased with the palette and animation on this one.

Celestial 2

The final concept I only completed yesterday, a view of the night sky through some trees.

Prints

Prints are available through RedBubble (linked individually above), and Displate.

Timelapses

Celestial 1

Flyby

Available from 2020-06-25:

Celestial 2

Cosmic Eye

Cosmic Eye

I got back into the pixel dailies a couple of days this week. I’ve never used them as an actual daily practice, but when I see a theme I like I jump in. This day, the theme was “Eye”, and I really like eyes.

Unfortunately I was pushed for time that day so the result is a bit rough - however, I think it gets the idea across, which is “eyes which are full of stars and made of stars and also stars were there”.

I started this one out with my drawing tablet, which I don’t usually use for pixel art and amn’t very good with. I’m trying to get away from using so many rigid straight lines, and treat pixel art more like regular painting. I had to switch to the mouse towards the end for the finer details, but it’s a start.

Timelapse

Cosmic Eye

Devs - Spirituality as a Service

Subtle

This post contains spoilers for the TV show “Devs”

I liked Devs a lot. It looks at the quasi-religious reverence in which tech entrepreneurs are held in some quarters (most notably amongst themselves, perhaps) and asks, what if this but literally? What if these people were literally gods, or creating a god?

The plot centres on a software engineer named Lily, whose boyfriend is murdered by their boss, Forest, after he attempts to steal some code from the company they work for. The code in question is for the Devs system - a quantum simulator that extrapolates the past and future events of the entire universe from any sample of matter. Lily becomes suspicious of the circumstances of her boyfriend’s death, which is made to look like a suicide, and starts to dig around.

Unfortunately much of the plot, and particularly the climax, rest on a concept that I found it hard to suspend my disbelief about (and I don’t mean the premise of the Devs system).

Several of the main characters are aware of future events, up to a certain point, thanks to their quantum computer’s simulations. They do not attempt to alter their behaviour in even the smallest way, even just to see if it is possible, instead slavishly repeating every word and action they’ve observed.

If it were just Forest, and the lead systems designer, Katie, who acted like this, it might be understood as a consequence of blind faith, or a wilful misunderstanding of causality because reality doesn’t suit their purposes. Forest is single-minded in his pursuit of this technology because he believes it can resurrect his dead daughter - Devs is his church, determinism is the creed, and anything that calls it into question is heresy.

But this notion is dispelled in a scene where a roomful of people are shown a simulation of a few seconds into the future, and mirror it exactly - apparently it is actually a feature of this universe that it is actively difficult to behave contrary to the prediction. I think the reality would be the opposite - it would actually be difficult not to act differently once you were aware of future events. I think you would do so instinctively, and accidentally. It wouldn’t be a violation of causality, because the simulation would also be a cause, with its own effects.

So this concept strains credibility, and works only on a allegorical level - the low-level developers are dazzled by a brief tech demo and its promises while the higher ups are simultaneously in thrall to their own hype and aware of the lies it is based on and the limits of their knowledge.

It also makes the climax of the show absurdly predictable. As soon as we hear that the simulation breaks down at a certain point, and it has something to do with Lily, we know that Lily is going to do something that contradicts the predictions of the simulation. None of the supposedly smart characters in the show demonstrate any awareness of this obvious fact, and it’s frustrating. It is only redeemed because seeing the climax coming reflects the characters’ foreknowledge of the future, in a way.

Lily

Overall, it’s interesting enough and well enough written that these problems are easy to look past. Some of the imagery is fantastic, such as the would-be god-developers working in a giant fractal computer floating in a vacuum, completely isolated from the world they’re trying to understand. It’s also a tonal masterpiece, full of haunting establishing shots, temple-like sets, and an unsettling soundtrack. Worth watching for that reason alone, to be honest.

Ludum Dare 46 Results

The Ludum Dare 46 results were published yesterday, and my game did quite well, placing 109th overall and 14th in the “Mood” category, as well as 120th and 121st in graphics and audio respectively. In the largest ever Ludum Dare, those are pretty decent placings I think, despite not breaking the top 100.

Category Rating Placing Percentile
Overall 4.136 109 96th
Fun 3.523 819 77th
Theme 4.14 279 92nd
Innovation 3.86 247 93rd
Humor 3.656 365 89th
Graphics 4.477 120 96th
Audio 4.102 121 96th
Mood 4.523 14 99th

Graphs

I always feel that the real competition in the Ludum Dare is against myself - just trying to do a little bit better and learn a bit more each time. As such, here’s some indication of my LD result trends over the years.

Ratings Graph Placings Graph Percentiles Graph

Nice upward trends! Note that I was only responsible for the art for “Claustrophobia” and “Rattendorf”, so I can only take partial credit for the overall and mood ratings of those.

The real learning experience this time around was on the audio. I’ve only done the audio for six of the nine Ludum Dares I’ve entered, so I left it out of the graphs above.

Ratings Graph

Looks like I really cranked it up a notch this time after coasting for a long while. Nice.

Moar Gophers

I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to take the game further. I quite like the concept and I certainly have some ideas for it. I’ll probably finish off my gopher renderer and phlog generator before I decide, and then I can do a devphlog for it :D

You can still play the jam version for now, if you missed it.