Star Wars: Hope not so new anymore

So I decided to watch the original Star Wars trilogy.  This was with some trepidation, because though some youthful entertainments hold up (Peanuts, Pogo, Narnia, Mad), others do not (Isaac Asimov, Archie).  I was ready for layers of cheese, and the awfulness of the prequels.

But no, Star Wars is pretty good.  The set design, creatures, and special effects all hold up well— better than most video games, in fact, despite what Lucas later thought about CGI.  Most of the stuff that seemed cool then— hovering cars, light sabers, the holographic chess set, Darth Vader— still does today.  And the film was a real advance in showing its futuristic technology scuffed and dirty; it looked lived-in.

The story is remarkably simple— it’s all foreshadowed in the opening crawl.  Empire has big weapon; Rebels have stolen plans but lost them; they recover the plans; they destroy the big weapon. It functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Lucas is fortunate with both his characters and his actors.  They’re archetypes— the innocent, the rogue, the mentor, the evil lord— but that just means they’re the sort of thing that have worked well for storytellers for eons.  It’s certainly not great art, but it’s good entertainment.

The rest of this posting consists of the notes I took while watching.

  • First flyby of the imperial ship is still cool.  Though Red Dwarf exceeded it in sheer hopeless size.
  • Rebel uniforms: dumb.  Cops + vests + teardrop helmets.
  • Darth has kind of a British accent?
  • The KOTOR droids are nowhere near as varied as those in the scene on the crawler.
  • The first part of the movie is decidedly weird— focussing on two droids, one we can’t even understand, in nearly incomprehensible settings.  Intriguing though.
  • Luke looks so young.  (Mark Hamill was 26, but he looks 19.)
  • KOTOR also has an “Anchorhead”, 4000 years before?  In general KOTOR does nothing to make that lapse of time believable.
  • Something that hasn’t held up so well: Luke’s ’70s hairstyle.
  • Pretty funny to hear Darth Vader told off by a general.
  • Alec Guiness looks like he’s having a great time.
  • “It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs!”  Oh, that ship.  Moral: always look up your technical terms before abusing them.
  • Greedo, the Rodian, looks pretty plastic.  I watched the original, of course, where Han shoots first.  As he should— he’s a rogue, dammit.
  • “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought aboard.”  A particularly excessive Lucas line… though to be fair, it would pass unremarked in the sort of serials and novels he grew up on.
  • The explosion of Alderaan (and the Death Star later) is pretty cheesy.  Whatever process ILM was using looks good for ships exploding; not so good for planet-size masses.  (The little sparks and dregs disappear off the screen in seconds; a quick calculation suggests they’re moving about 28 million km/hr.)
  • Jedi training is uncomfortably close to the exercise of charismatic gifts.  “Use the Force… trust your feelings”… could you be more specific, jerkface?
  • At least twice the adventurers leave the droids alone, despite knowing that one is containing the most important bit of data in the galaxy.
  • You can tell this isn’t a video game, because they don’t need passcards to get through any of the doors, all the way to the detention cells.
  • “We’re all fine now.  How are you?”  …probably the funniest line yet
  • “You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion.”  That doesn’t exactly fit in with the overall mythos… after all, we now know that Mr. Emperor Dude is a Sith Lord.
  • Um, why did you take off your helmets before the firefight?
  • Worst garbage disposal system ever.  And really, what are they doing in the cell blocks that they need to dispose of bricks, metal rods, and muck?
  • Han running yelling at the troopers, then running back madly, is pretty funny.
  • Luke’s blaster rifle technique is completely unconvincing: he thrusts it forward with each shot like a kid playing with plastic guns, and apparently doesn’t need to aim.  Han is only slightly more convincing.  Only Leia holds the guns like they’re weapons.
  • The climactic sword fight is pretty bad.  Alec Guiness holds the light saber like a Punch puppet.
  • The Millennium Falcon looks pretty good… better than the Ebon Hawk in KOTOR.  Designers like to add fancy doodads on their models; the MF has just enough detail to look good, not enough that it looks unaccountable.
  • Leia’s hair buns: very regrettable.
  • Is the rotating chair in the gun turret really necessary?  I guess their video screens are crap, but all the moving parts are an invitation for things to go wrong, and I’d think you’d get dizzy.
  • “You think a princess and a guy like me—” “No.”  It’s the facial expressions that make lines like these work.
  • All of a sudden we’re in a WWII movie.
  • Did the Death Star designers anticipate that people would fly into their trenches like that?  It seems so, since they bothered to put in laser turrets.  The turrets seem to do zilch, though.
  • Last scene: finally Leia gets a better hairdo.  But the medal awarding scene is fairly cheesy.  Still, unlike say LOTR (the movie), the movie wastes little time on denouement.
  • Conlang quibble: how can “Chewbacca” possibly be a word in a language that sounds like animal growls?  So far as I could see his speech didn’t contain a single stop.

Tamriel, Wasteland, galaxy all saved

I just finished Knights of the Old Republic, which, I remind you, is just $10 on Steam.  As you can see, I am one light-sided dame.  I gave in at the end and wore the goofy Jedi robes, losing 4 defense, because I foolishly followed the game’s recommendation and got Force Stasis, which not only doesn’t work with armor, but gets rid of Stun which does.

kotor dao
The Light Side makes you sparkly

The ending is good– mostly intense combat.  (Spoilers ahead.)  I defeated the final battle droids very easily, but to make up for this the fight with Darth Malak was quite hard, since I couldn’t do anything to the imprisoned Jedi, so he had his full nine lives.  I’d still say he was rather overconfident, but Sith managment skills do not emphasize reflection on one’s mistakes, or even frankness from subordinates.

Annoyingly, though so far as I can see I said all the right things to Bastila, she wouldn’t abandon the dark side.  Also Carth just wouldn’t warm up to me, perhaps because his son ended up dead, the poisonous little Sith punk.

Some of the best later dialog is from Jolee, the disgrunted old guy you meet on Kashyyyk.  Mission is fun too.  And perhaps the most interesting decisions to make are found at the Sith Academy.  You’re in a tricky position: to defend the light side you have to not only pose as a Sith but gain prestige in Sithy ways.  On the other hand, I figured that even for the persnickety Jedi, Sith are always in season.

I didn’t try the dark side path, but the game gives you a fairly clever dark side motivation for defeating Malak in pretty much the same ways if you were good: you want to supplant the dude.   It’s certainly a starker and more satisfying choice than the one at the end of Mass Effect.

On the whole the game is well balanced… combat remains fun; the dialogs are well done; the party members are all attractive enough that I wanted to spend some time with each of them.  Some of the non-combat skills are severely under-utilized though.  I used computer a few times, stealth not much, repair almost never.  Hacking was more interesting in Fallout 3, but less annoying than in Mass Effect.

Now I’m tempted to watch the original trilogy again, for the first time since it came out.  You may place your bets now as to whether this will be great fun or a huge disappointment.

Poor Sith management

I can see why KOTOR has such a good reputation.  I’m digging it.  The first two planets were fine, but it really gets rolling in Tatooine.  The creators probably figured they had to get this planet right, and they obviously put their heart into it.  (In memory, much of the charm of the original triology comes from Tatooine as well.  Fantasies are often best in the first chapters, when the heroes are unpromising nobodies and all the strangers are mysterious.)

Then you get captured by the evil admiral himself.  (This being ancient times, they apparently hadn’t yet developed the scary title of Grand Moff.)  Your top characters are all immobilized, so you have to pick one of the others, who is responsible for freeing everyone else.  I chose Mission for this mission since she has high stealth skills.  After getting used to combat with backup and plenty of Force powers, this was a really fun challenge, using the stealth belt, hacking computers, and picking off Sith one by one. 

kotor view
Malak is evil but his office has a nice view

By this point in the game combat is pretty interesting, as you have three characters to manage, generally with different styles and powers, and you rarely rely on the default automatic attacks.  The fight with the admiral is fairly hard as there are seven opponents… you really have to watch those health bars.  Other fights could probably be harder.  Malak, for instance, somewhat foolishly fights alone and is susceptible to grenades.  However, he has the unstoppable power of being able to trigger cutscenes. 

Not that there aren’t oddities.  I wish I had a screenshot of the Evil Door.  I couldn’t unlock it, so I started to bash it… the feedback screen (which pedantically lists all your d20 rolls) said I was whalloping the hell out of it, but its health never went down.  I sent Carth to keep bashing and forgot him for a few minutes; I went back and the poor boy was still firing uselessly at it.  We went around the damn thing. 

Then there’s the bit on Tatooine where you put on Sand People outfits.  They’re taken off when you reach their village.  At first I thought the resulting outfits were the sexy casualwear of the Sand People:

kotor beachwear
KOTOR swimsuit edition

But no, that’s just the characters’ underwear. 

Often it’s the minor quests and characters that offer the most diversion.  The vengeful hunter’s wife was fun, as is the cheerfully dangerous droid HK-47.

I’ve been playing Light Side.  Sure, the Jedi are sometimes annoying… what do they have against romance, emotion, and flashy outfits?  What’s wrong with getting paid for your swashbuckling services?  But, you know, the Dark Lord is just a piss-poor manager and I wouldn’t work for him.  (Spoilers ahoy.)  His reaction to his minions’ losing Bastila on Taris?  Blast the planet into ruins from space.  Not only is this scorched earth policy economically foolish, but it fails in its primary purpose. 

He also commits the standard Evil Overlord mistake of sending his thugs out in small groups, learning nothing when each one is vaporized.  He might think his #2 is hot stuff, but since he knows perfectly well Bastila has allies, wouldn’t it have been more prudent to send, say, twenty Dark Jedi as backup instead of two?  Plus there’s the attacking-alone bit mentioned above– he nearly gets wasted in a corridor of his own flagship. 

After playing KOTOR I can see that Bioware has in some ways kept remaking it.  Mass Effect  is virtually a do-over with fancier graphics, while Jade Empire has some of the same plot structure.  I also lean toward thinking that RPG games should jettison explicit alignments.  The later games try to get away from the pure good/evil business, but I’d prefer to just allow multiple options.  If you act in appalling ways, the game doesn’t have to label you appalling; it’d be better to see the reaction in NPC behavior, new options or enemies appearing, etc.

Home schoolers into birthers

Very interesting article by Frank Schaeffer on how the Religious Right went off the rails:

Schaeffer is the son of Francis Schaeffer, an Evangelical thinker– I’ve read some of his books and didn’t think of him as very extreme.  But Schaeffer père evidently believed in separating from the world, and his followers turned into a cocoon for preparing a frighteningly anti-rational, anti-democratic mass of zealots:

To protect your children from Satan — in other words mainstream, open patriotic and pluralistic America — you either kept them at home where mom and dad could teach the children right from wrong or send them to a cloistered private evangelical/fundamentalist school. At home or in school you used curriculum prepared by the likes of James–beat-your-child-and-dare-to-discipline-Dobson, RJ-slavery-was-a-good-thing-Rushdoony, or many and other right-wing anti-American activists. That curriculum presented “secular America” as downright evil. Hating the USA became next to godliness.

Schaeffer warns that it’s a big mistake to think that these people are done because the GOP lost the last election.  The loss energized the radicals, and they don’t accept it anyway.  They’re not playing by the rules any more.

Cut-rate KOTOR

So, Knights of the Old Republic was on sale for $10 on Steam, and I’ve heard it recommended a lot.  So far it’s a lot of fun.  Bioware gives good RPG.  (It’s also blessedly free of the prequel trilogy– no midichlorians in sight.  It’s supposed to take place 4000 years in the past, so there are also no character cameos.  It looks like clothing style and technology hasn’t changed much in this galaxy far far away between long long ago and even longer ago.)

Strangely, it’s transitional between their D&D roots and the simpler, real-time combat of Jade Empire or Mass Effect.  It looks like real-time combat, but it’s all d20 rolls– there’s none of this hifalutin “aiming”, and you can let your character handle the first fights all by herself (as she doesn’t have any special attacks yet).  Fortunately combat gets more interesting later on, as you direct three characters with varying abilities and special powers, including the Force. 

kotor party
Sith vanquished... by liquor

Battles vary between easy and really annoyingly difficult– it’s good to have a dozen medpacks on hand before addressing anything in the plot.  On the other hand, sometimes you get unexpected help.  I was invited to a Sith party, above.  They commented on the strength of the local liquor, then all of them immediately collapsed.  Bottoms up!

Some bits linger on the wrong side of the difficulty curve, in either direction.  You have to run a “swoop race”, which is absurdly easy (and nowhere near as fun as the races in Beyond Good and Evil).  But I was stymied for awhile by the first space combat, which was all the more annoying because you can’t save the game at that point– if you fail, you have to sit through a whole load of cutscenes again.

The wages of dueling: stomach upset
The wages of dueling: stomach upset

There’s a duelling stage on the first planet; one amusing bit (shown above) is that all the fighters you vanquish hang around afterwards with one hit point, clutching their stomachs.

More strangeness: the introductory tutorial is given by one of the characters; it’s probably meant to be immersive, but it’s anything but as this Republic soldier tells you how to use your mouse.

Probably more reporting to come, because this is a long game.

Many beaux

Conlangers and linguists should enjoy the interesting dialect maps at


Best not to dwell on the Microsoft Paint airbrushing.  I find such maps fascinating; I once started to make a series of them for Verdurian, but never finished them.

What amazes me is the sheer variety in a relatively small area (the width of France is about the same as Illinois + Indiana + Ohio).  And if you compare maps, each lexical item has its own story… the isoglosses don’t match up except in very broad terms (there’s often a northwestern-coastal area and a northeastern area).  It’s also notable that Paris doesn’t seem to influence the patois all that much.  (That is, standard French may replace the patois, but while they exist they retain their own particular words.)

Inbred mutants

No, this isn’t about the birthers; I just finished two of the DLC for Fallout 3: Broken Steel, which extends the main story, and Point Lookout, which adds a new swampy area to explore.  (I got both on disk; fie on GFWL.)

F3 tribal
Tribal gear, accessorized by Pip-Boy and sunglasses.

Point Lookout is great: it’s big, creepy, and refreshingly amoral.  Nothing you do here saves or destroys the world; you have to choose sides in the main quest, but neither combattant is attractive.  (I went with Desmond, the slightly less arrogant one.) 

Fights are surprisingly hard, thanks to a buff all the swampfolk and tribals get: every hit they do gets a 35 hp bonus.  (I learned this from the wiki; I was wondering why they could deal so much hurt with lousy weapons.)  I had to snarf stimpaks like candy; fortunately there’s a load of them around. 

Creepers are butt-ugly, except when they're dying.
Creepers are butt-ugly, except when they're dying.

You get two good weapons here, the microwave emitter and the double-barrelled shotgun, which packs quite a wallop.  It works nicely with the perk that resets your action points if you make a kill.  (VATS can feel like a cheat, but it becomes very attractive on the weapons with long reload times.)

Broken Steel is not as quirky– you have to expect the main quest, with its save-the-world overtones, to be more earnest.  But it’s done better than the ending of the pre-DLC game itself, largely because it focusses on what the player is best suited for– infiltrating missions– rather than large-scale battles alongside more powerful allies.  There are a couple of really difficult fights– one in a cellar filled with deathclaws, one in the Presidential Metro overflowing with very tough ghouls. 

My personal, adorable deathclaw
At one point you get your own personal, adorable deathclaw. Not that useful though.

The final fights against the Enclave are much easier, and that points out some game balance issues as the level cap is raised to 30.  At level 26, with nearly all skills maxed out, and armed with toys like the Gatling Laser, Heavy Incinerator, and my personal standby, A3-21’s plasma rifle, a lot of the challenge drops, especially in non-DLC areas of the game.  It’s nice to be powerful, but the game is always the most interesting, I think, in the single-digit levels.

Interesting family name
Interesting family name

Finally, something for my SpinnWebe pals– note the name on the townhouse above.  Don’t forget to loot the house for DVDs and HeroClix.

Bethesda is apparently now done with Fallout 3 DLC, and hard at work on the next big single-player game, which won’t be Elder Scrolls V either.  As with Valve and Bioware, I trust that everything they do will be well worth it.

Down these mean streets smelling of borsht

Best book I’ve read lately: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  There can’t be many detective stories that have also won the Hugo, to say nothing of passing as high literature, whatever that is.

It falls in the sf category by virtue of being set in an alternate history.  Harold Ickes, Roosevelt’s secretary of the Interior, actually proposed in 1938 to resettle European Jews in Alaska.  Chabon imagines what would have happened if the proposal had passed and two or three million Jews had taken up Ickes’s offer (and Israel failed).  The story also comes out of an essay in which Chabon confronted a Yiddish phrasebook– the same one I quoted here— boggling at the idea of a nation or region somewhere in which touristic life could be conducted entirely in Yiddish.

Perhaps this should have been done by writing in Yiddish; Chabon settles for the next best thing– English slightly flavored by Yiddish:

“Look at the head on that sheygets, the thing has its own atmosphere,” Landsman says.  “Thing has ice caps.”

“Indeed the man has a very big head.”

The setting is itself, perhaps, the hero of the book, and Chabon lavishes considerable attention on making it real– a strange mix of Eastern European Jewry, Alaskan pines, Tlingits, and American noir.  (For exploring a milieu, you can hardly do better than a mystery, which gives you a chance to show off everything from the slums to the honchos.)  The only sf book I know that has as convincing an alternate history, in fact, is Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration.

There are moments of depth and poignancy, but also a quirky humor– very Jewish, you could say; few people are better at using humor just when things are darkest.

My one quibble would be with a part of the resolution… some very nasty villains are set up, and (avoiding spoilers here) they just don’t treat detective Landsman plausibly… these are not men who’d leave a loose end dangling.

SF corridors

A cute post, by Martin Anderson, in celebration of the corridor in SF movies:

Anderson’s quite right that these scenes help establish the futuristic atmosphere.  We’d feel cheated if we saw cinderblock walls or white plaster.  But his word “utilitarian” is wildly off.  These environments are interesting precisely because they’re so lovingly, weirdly overbuilt.

Granted, they evoke things like submarine interiors.  But there’s little call for rows of massive pipes, inscrutable protrusions, and rows of lights in odd places, especially if the thing really is just a hallway.

I’d write more, but I just noticed the teaser at the bottom of the page: the 24 worst special effects of all time!  Got to check that out…