Saturday October 10, 2015

ARK: Survival Evolved Tree Forts and Dinosaurs

I love playing co-op games with my kids. When I looked at ARK: Survival Evolved (currently in Early Access on Steam) it looked like just such a thing. When I dug into it and learned that I could host a LAN server in my house, and edit The Island to be a bit less deadly and a bit more generous, went all in with my sons.
Before long I had all four of my kids playing with me, and each other.
Currently my girls are the heavy hitters, training mobs of small dinosaurs, and then marching them into harm's way. The game's A.I. spawns some tough beasts, but short of the epic boss battles (which we have not bothered with), and the Alpha T-Rex (which we haven't run into), nothing stands for long against Keliana's swarm of dilophosaurs and dimorphodons, or Gleek's hopping mob of giant frogs.
Keliana and I did run into a bit of trouble with our expedition from the north-east river mouth, but that wasn't her fault. I shall now tell you about it.
We  attempted to bring 24 tamed dinos and one tricked-out crafting raft southwest through narrows and swamps. We discovered, after it was too late to turn around, that the size of our mob and the size of our raft made the trip extremely tedious. It didn't get dangerous until I got fed up and decided on a side trip.
My plan was simple. Ride Terry, my pteranodon who kept fouling the raft's travel, from our mob's location at the western edge of the Eastern Plains east and south to a platform we'd been building in the middle of the Eastern Forest. There he'd be high, dry, and safe. I would then parachute back, timing my glide to get me most of the way to safety. It's a high platform, and I'd seen my son make that kind of glide before.
(Note: The logic that goes "I saw my son do a thing in a game so it is a thing I can now do" has never gotten me into trouble before, I swear.)
A dimorphodon named Zed was following me and Terry. Unfortunately, Zed fell behind, and I forgot he was there. I landed Terry safely, lined up my jump, and leapt back the way we'd come. My chute popped perfectly, and my glide was going to be LONG. Then Zed caught up, flew straight at me, and fouled the lines of my chute.
I dropped fast. Not killed-by-the-fall fast, but definitely short-of-my-goal-by-80% fast. I landed in a boulder-filled vale just to the west of the platform. The vale's only other major feature besides boulders was hungry carnivores. I emptied my shotgun into a 'raptor, then finished it off with a pike only to discover that a carnotaur had stopped quarreling with a pair of sabertooths, and was charging me.
Carnos charge in straight lines, and turn poorly. I used the terrain to my advantage, and attempted to lead him back into his sabertoothed foes. It worked perfectly, except for the part where they decided to share a meal. I now had three carnivores chasing me.  I almost ran headlong into another sabertooth, but it leaped and I ducked, and then I kept running.
"Keliana, where are you?"
"North of that purple light. There's a cliff between me and you. You'll need to go around it."
I turned and checked to see how close pursuit was.
I screamed.
The game does a really good job of getting predators right. They don't roar or screech unless they're fighting. They come at you teeth-first, and quietly.
I had a perfect view of three sabertooths, one carnotaur, and behind them, just starting to take interest, a pair of tyrannosaurs who I may have run a bit too close to without noticing them.
The nice thing about video-game cliffs is that if they're not sheer, sometimes you can cheat them, running sideways and down, and landing without having broken your bones. I did this, knowing that my pursuit could do the same thing.
I splashed through shallows at the base of the cliffs, and then saw that I was being charged from the front by a velociraptor. It was over.
Then I saw that the velociraptor had a saddle on it, and there was a woman in the saddle.
"I've got you, Dad!"
I missed what happened next, because it happened behind me. I did get game alerts telling me that my tribe's pets were killing things, but they went by too fast for me to count. I saw exactly zero flashing red alerts, which meant that Keliana had killed everything chasing me without taking any casualties.
That's my girl.
The title of this post includes the words "Tree" and "Fort." I'll spare you the extended description of the  tree fort my kids and I built on the edge of the Writhing Swamp, and post a nice screencap instead.
Are we playing this game the way it was meant to be played? If the online PVP tournaments are any indication, we're doing it all wrong.
I base-jumped into a pack of carnivores and got rescued by my daughter, who was riding a velociraptor.
Wrong is fine.
(cross-posted from

The Martian

"The movie is never as good as the book."
Actually... not never.
The Martian just cleared that bar.
And in an even more amazing, and seemingly impossible twist on that thing everybody knows, not only is The Martian movie as good as The Martian book, The Martian movie is as good a movie as The Martian book is a book.
I realize that sentence is hard to parse. Maybe go back and re-read it? I've spent 30 minutes on that sentence, trying to communicate that thought but I need to get on with the rest of this post.
Put another way: I declared that The Martian (novel) was the best hard science fiction novel I had ever read. It is not a perfect book, but it is an outstanding book that does "book things" brilliantly.

I'm now declaring that The Martian, (movie) is the best hard science fiction movie I have ever seen. It is not a perfect film, but it is an outstanding film that speaks the way only a film can, and uses the medium in ways that the very best films do.
High praise, I know.
I've never seen book-to-film translation work this well before. I thought it was impossible, frankly. Now I know that it can be done, and I look at it and wish I'd been a part of it. The Martian is a magnificent achievement, and I have to content myself with watching it and gushing over it.
If you haven't read the book, it's a great book. Go read it! Do you want to see the movie first? Go! See the movie! It will not undermine your enjoyment of the book. Sure, whichever one you consume first will provide spoilers, but that doesn't really matter.
Now, back to that "best" claim I made...
We could argue definitions forever. What distinguishes hard science fiction from regular fiction set in believable near-future technological settings? Down that road you'll find only a forest of nitpicks and misery and not much movie-enjoying. When I say The Martian is the best hard SF movie ever, I'm stacking it up against films like Gravity, Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Moon. There are a number of techno-thrillers that also qualify, including this year's Ex Machina, and last year's Transcendence
The Martian is a better hard SF movie than all of those.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a more important movie, and carries a lot of weight, but have you watched it recently? I love the thought of that movie, but can't sit through it.
Gravity is a more daring movie, arguably more artistic for its use of a tiny cast and lots of silence. To my mind it's the closest contender, but the power of The Martian's ensemble cast puts it over the top.
Insterstellar doesn't come close. Cool moments, and I liked what it tried to do, but ultimately it was a preachy time travel paradox story, and as pretty as it was, it lost my interest by the end.
Moon? Powerful, and thought provoking, along with Transcendence and Ex Machina. The Martian says nothing about identity or singularity, but what it says about knowing science to survive speaks louder, at least to me, than the cautionary tales do.
I don't often put this kind of stake in the ground. I'm sure more experienced film critics, students of cinema, and assorted experts by other names will argue convincingly against its placement. I suspect, however, that those experts will better serve their fields by dissecting The Martian in an attempt to determine how great books can be turned into great movies going forward. "Best" is hard to quantify. Answering the question "why did this movie work so well?" is easy, by comparison, and more important to address.
The Martian enters my 2015 rankings at #1, and when I look at the line-up for the rest of the year I'm pretty confident that it will keep that spot.
(cross-posted from
(ADDENDUM: Sandra and I saw The Martian in 3D. It was stunningly beautiful. There were a couple of moments where the 3D render was weird, but Sandra didn't notice them. I wear progressive lenses, so it's possible the issue really was just me.)


I was pretty sure I didn't actually need a cinematic event to convince me not to put climbing  Everest on my bucket list, but I'm extra convinced now.
The film was powerful, and beautiful, and tragic. The various accounts of May 10, 1996's disastrous Everest ascents have appeared in at least half a dozen books, but I doubt the books can convey the story in the way IMAX 3D can. The filmmakers used some cinematic shorthand to make the tale fit a single sitting, of course, but I think they did the story justice.
I came home with a nice feeling regarding my own objectives in life. Climbing to the summit of a really tall mountain is an obvious sort of "look at me" thing, but the overwhelming majority of human people shouldn't need that specific accomplishment to feel complete. It serves as a nice symbol, and let's just leave it at that while we get on with doing the things that are important to us.
Everest's emotional arc pretty much precluded record-setting "fun," but I did enjoy the film. It enters my list at #17.
(cross-posted from
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