Alien Isolation

Alien: Isolation is a fascinating game because of the circumstances that lead to it’s creation. It came on the heels of Sega’s infamous Alien: Colonial Marines title which was a spectacular disaster. A game that was not only the worst game in the alien franchise, not just the worst game of 2013 but possibly the worst game of all time. But the core concept for Isolation actually predates that fiasco. It was initially a tiny proof of concept ga,e developed by a six man team from the Creative Assembly studio responsible for the Total War strategy series. It was pitched to Sega as an a hide and seek multiplayer title in which a team of mostly powerless humans would try to escape from a map prowled by a indestructible alien. The game was already in production when Colonial Marines crashed and burned. When it became clear the franchise was irreversibly damaged by the buggy, unfinished and unplayable installment, Isolation became their rebound vehicle. It was how they were going to bring the franchise back to life.

Alien Isolation title screen

Alien Isolation title screen

The end result of Sega’s no expenses spared approach to the game is a product that is not only well polished but visually striking. The creative team behind the game worked really hard to capture the evocative look and feel of the 1979 film. This involved modeling the titular Xenomorph on the original H. R. Giger design (the one with a semi-transparent head that revealed a partly obscured skull) and using a lot of original concept art, photos, set design documents provided to the studio by 20th Century Fox. The general rule of thumb was that if a weapon, tool or a set prop could not have been made using 70’s technology than it could not be included in the game. The team even reproduced the film grain effect, and made artificial visual distortions appear on the screen from time to time, to emulate the experience of watching the original movie on an old VHS tape, which is probably how most of us experienced it for the first time.

Computer Terminal

All the computer terminals use these big bulky monochrome CRT monitors and the menus make genuine floppy disk noises.

This attention to detail pays off big time. The game genuinely feels very retro. The hyper sleep chamber you wake up in at the start of the game feels as if it was ripped out straight from the movie. I really like this sort of aesthetic, and I wish we saw more of it in games and movies. The retro feeling wanes a bit as you progress and find yourself crawling through the inevitable air ducts, warehouses and sewage systems. There is unfortunately not much you can do to make such places feel retro which is why I would avoid them. But I can see how they had to be included in a game about running away from an angry alien on a mostly abandoned and dilapidated space station.

Other than the superb visuals and art design, the game has two main strengths to me. One of them is of course the game’s signature survival stealth mechanics. I can honestly say that the Xenomorph in this game is the best incarnation of the creature since the original movie. All of the films, games, comics and other media featuring the beast have failed to capture just how strange, intimidating and relentless it really was. Alien: Isolation nails it. I have not seen a single video game enemy to have this sort of impact not only on the game play but on the mood and pace of the game since… Well Amnesia: Dark Descent. But I’d say that the Alien is actually done better than the Amnesia monster because you are not supposed to turn your back on it. The Amnesia creature was a scary blur that you avert your eyes from because it is to terrible to observe directly. The Xeonomorph is scary, but you must constantly keep tabs on it. The creative team spent a lot of time working on it’s walk cycle and movement. The creature even has dedicated tail physics which allow it to knock things over as it walks around.

Alien: observation

Alien: observation

I usually hate not having a save anywhere type system in FPS games but Alien: Isolation security panel based saves actually worked well to build tension. The save points are typically placed often enough not to be annoying and the game does a good job using reasonable checkpoints at important moments to avoid losing progress. That said, saving is always a gamble as it forces you to stand still for 30 seconds in the open when there is an invulnerable, indestructible alien on the loose. Like everything in this game it is a tradeoff? Do you risk exposing yourself to save your progress, or do you keep to your cover and forge ahead to the next save point which might be in a safer, more concealed spot?

The motion tracker makes noise

Your motion tracker actually makes noise, so you can’t use it when the alien is near by.

The attention to detail exhibited in the set and character design, extends to the stealth game play. There are little things that are perfectly logical but surprising when you first discover them. For example, the motion tracker you can use to check the position of the alien (or other enemies) emits a constant stream of bleeping sounds when in use. Despite what you might expect based on your experience with stealth games, these sounds can actually be heard by the alien as it searchers for you. So when you are hiding in the closet, you need to put the device away as soon as the creature walks into the same room, or else it will hear it and make a bee line straight for you. Things like that add up to an incredibly tight and well executed experience.

The game’s second big strength is it’s protagonist: Amanda Ripley. I have to admit that overall voice acting in the game is a little bit sub par. It’s by no means terrible, but I have seen better. That said, I think Amanda is possibly the best strong female protagonist since Faith from Mirror’s Edge. And yes, I am including the new Lara Croft on this list.

Amanda Ripley

Amanda Ripley is actually cannon. She is mentioned in the second movie.

Don’t get me wrong, Lara Croft is a great character and the new Tomb Rider had a good story. Plot wise it might be even better than Alien: Isolation but it was problematic. I wrote about this in my review of the game: it included a lot of gratuitous ass shots, gratuitous violent death sequences, rape as character development and Lara getting bound and hog-tied in every third cut scene. Amanda does not need to deal with any of that: the game establishes her as a competent engineer and she easily slides into her new role as an action hero without having to spend four cut-scenes crying, having a father figure mentor tell her it is OK and having to go through an almost-rape scenario to finally be able to pull the trigger. She is designed as someone you are supposed to identify with, rather than someone who you should feel bad for, and want to rescue. She is strong, resourceful, brave and driven. She has moments of vulnerability too, but she almost never doubts herself or her abilities.

Part of it might be due to the fact that she was designed to be a carbon copy of Ellen Ripley, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Ellen has become a quintessential action heroine archetype and as such she is not the worst character to model your protagonist after. I think one minor criticism I have is that Amanda fades into the background a bit too easily. There are chunks of the game where you almost forget she is not a silent protagonist. Her story arc is a bit weak, and the resolution of her quest rings a little hollow.

This was super annoying.

This was super annoying.

The overall tone, mood and theme of the game is perfect. It hits all the important thematic points an Alien game should: human greed, ruthless bureaucracy, deterioration of social norms when faced with an alien threat, fear, abandonment, isolation, etc.. Unfortunately the supporting characters are not particularly memorable or likable so it is hard to get attached to them. Amanda’s personal story culminates in what amounts to “thanks, but the princess is in another castle” and final scene was beyond disappointing. If you haven’t finished the game yet, brace yourself for an utterly pointless and unsatisfying ending.

I usually hold the opinion that a story can make or break the game. Alien: Isolation shows us that this not always true. Sometimes good art direction, solid game play and a well designed protagonist can more than make up for a sub par story and a weak plot. The game is definitely worth playing for these aspects alone.

Posted in video games | Tagged | 1 Comment

Spectacular Computer Failures: The Next Generation

If you have been wondering why blog post have been scarce lately, it is partly because my computer blew up again. Yes, the new one that I bought in September. If you have been following along, you might remember that last year I blew a video card in my old rig. I managed to squeeze maybe six more months of use out of that old rig by putting in a new video card, until the motherboard died in August. In September I got a brand new machine, and it started having issues on December 5.

I figured I post about the symptoms and experience here in case anyone else decided to buy an Alienware Aurora-R4 with a dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 setup only to have it die few months later.

The problem started when I was playing a game (it was FarCry 4 for reference) when it completely froze up. It was a hard lock-up with the non-responsive keyboard, and speakers stuck repeating a single bleep over and over again. The video winked out few seconds later and my monitor dutifully displayed a “NO DVI SIGNAL” message, but the speakers kept on going. I ended up having to power cycle it just to get rid of the noise.

This was kinda odd, since FarCry 4 has been rather remarkably polished and bug free (as it should be since it is basically FarCry 3 with a palette swap) so such hard crash was unexpected. But the machine rebooted just fine so I thought nothing of it. Since it was already late, I thought nothing of it, logged off and went to sleep assuming this was the universe’s way of telling me to get off the computer.

Next day I was doing something in Photoshop, and the machine did this again: all of a sudden my screen went blank, and then about 30 seconds later I saw BIOS POST screen and the computer started rebooting itself. Again, I was a bit concerned but after it powered up, it was fine again, and I was unable to reproduce the crash by just toying around in Photoshop so I wrote it off as a one time glitch.

It wasn’t until I went back to FarCry 4 that I saw a persistent issue. Every time I started the game it will load up, show me main menu, let me load a saved game, display a progress bar, and then as soon as the actual game would start the screen would go blank. I would then get the “NO DVI SIGNAL” message from my monitor, followed by a reboot shortly after. This happened every single time.

My Event Viewer

My Event Viewer

As soon as I had a reproducible issue, I started digging. First place I went was the Windows EventViewer which, unsurprisingly, was full of critical Kernel-Power errors. I checked the timing, and each of them coincided with the hard crash and reboot. They all looked more or less like this:

Log Name:      System
Source:        Microsoft-Windows-Kernel-Power
Level:         Critical
Description:
The system has rebooted without cleanly shutting down first. 
This error could be caused if the system stopped responding, crashed, or lost power unexpectedly.
 
BugcheckCode: 278
BugcheckParameter1: 0xfffffa80140da4e0
BugcheckParameter2: 0xfffff8800fc16828
BugcheckParameter3: 0xffffffffc000009a
BugcheckParameter4: 0x4
SleepInProgress: false
PowerButtonTimestamp: 0

This was not very helpful, but after some research I found out that Bugcheck 278 is actually equivalent to BSOD 0x116 also known as VIDEO_TDR_ERROR. The most approachable description of this issue I found was:

This indicates that an attempt to reset the display driver and recover from a timeout failed.

In other words it was a video issue that would normally result in a blue screen of death, but since it crashed the entire video processing stack said BSOD could never actually be displayed. Possible causes of this error were as follows:

  • Bad video driver acting up (not unusual from nVidia)
  • Bad RAM chip causing discrepancies when syncing with VRAM
  • Bad video card

So I went down this list, trying to nail down the exact issue. First, I upgraded to the latest nVidia driver. I actually don’t remember which version I had when I started the process, but I knew it was slightly behind. So I downloaded the latest and greatest, and updated it. This did not solve the problem. I decided to go the other way, and tried four previous versions of the driver, as well as two previous beta versions. None of them got rid of the crashes. It’s probably worth noting I was doing “clean” installs – meaning I would uninstall, the current driver, reboot and then install another one to avoid weird conflicts.

Next I tried doing the Dell pre-boot diagnostics. It is an on-board functionality on all Dell machines and is usually available from the selective boot menu (accessed by mashing F12 during POST). It doesn’t really do anything useful, but in case of detectable hardware failures it typically spits out an error code which can be given to Dell tech support circumventing a lot of bullshit like checking if the computer is plugged in, wiggling the wires and etc. Not only that – the Dell warranty support drones usually like to tell you to run the hour long extended test anyway and refuse to stick around on the phone as you do, necessitating a call-back.

Unfortunately, the pre-boot diagnostics module gave my computer a clean bill of health. Granted, it did not really have any extended tests it could run on the video cards – it would simply check if they were present and responding. It did however confirm that there was no issues with the memory. Just to double check that, I booted into a MemTest CD and ran it for about 12 hours (started in the evening, finished next day when I came back from work) and it did not show any errors.

The Alienware machine also came with something called Alien Autopsy which is yet another diagnostic tool. This one is a bit friendlier, since it does not require you to reboot your machine, and it also has seemingly more thorough tests for the video cards. So I decided to run that as well.

Alienware Alien Autopsy

Alienware Alien Autopsy

The video testing involves a thorough VRAM test and few video benchmarks during which it renders some spaceships on the screen, spins them around, and tests real time shaders, transparency, graphics pipeline and etc… As soon as I started running those, my machine started crashing and rebooting itself. It was reproducible and consistently failing about half-way through the benchmarks. I couldn’t pin down the crash to a single benchmark or test case, but I ran it about 20 times and I never managed to get through all of them without the machine shutting down on me. At this point I was fairly confident it was an issue with one of the video cards.

Armed with that evidence I phoned Dell Alienware support line and gave them all of the details outlined above. The guy on the other line listened to my spiel, looked through his notes and admitted I covered pretty much all the bases. He made me check my BIOS version to see if it needs to be updated but it turned out I had the latest and greatest one. So he agreed I need video cards replaced. I was expecting him to tell me to disable SLI and start pulling cards out to narrow down which one is the faulty one, but he just set up a dispatch to replace both of my cards.

Luckily I purchased the next business day on-site service warranty, so it only took them a week and a half to get it fixed:

I’m happy to report that replacing the cards completely fixed my issue. I was a little concerned this was going to turn out to be a motherboard problem – because knowing my luck it would. But I haven’t seen the dreaded Bugcheck 278 crash since the new cards were installed. I’m currently trying to finish FarCry 4 so that I can go through some of my Steam Holiday Sale backlog, and probably Dragon Age Inquisition.

I also have a few book, and comics reviews in the pipeline, and I’ve been toying around with an idea of doing a Ravenflight style series but for a SF themed setting. So I’m not dead, do not unsubscribe from the blog yet.

Posted in sysadmin notes | 4 Comments

Her

Last year I wrote a few thousand words about the trailer for the Spike Jonze film Her. I have finally got around to watching the movie proper, and I must say it was not what I expected it to be. I pessimistically expected it to be very anti-technology cautionary tale about dangers of escapism and withdrawing from society. I envisioned it to be the Lars and the Real Girl for the digital generation. But it was not. Jonze surprised me by crafting a heartwarming, bittersweet transhumanist love story. A completely un-ironic, non-judgmental tale of a man and an operating system falling in love with each other.

Her Movie Poster

Her Movie Poster

The question whether or not Samantha, an operating system, is sentient barely even comes up in the movie. I was expecting the protagonist to be criticized or even ostracized by his loved ones for developing feelings for an artificial intelligence, but they almost unanimously accept his digital lover. After all, how could you not? Samantha is funny, sexy, chatty and unmistakably human. Her cheerful disposition and outgoing attitude makes people comfortable and relaxed. They bond with her and accept her person-hood before they can even form any kind of prejudices against her. In fact, the only person who ever questions Theodore’s relationship with her is his ex-wife. And she obviously has an axe to grind against him, has never actually spoken with Samantha and does not use an AI driven OS herself. His other friends understand his situation either by virtue of being AI users themselves, or by developing relationship with Samantha.

I previously compared Samantha to Johny Five, the lovable robot from the 80’s cult classic Short Circuit:

Back in the 80’s we had Short Circuit about a lovable robot who had emotions. And the audiences bought it: Johny Five was alive, and ended up with a US citizenship in one of the sequels. We have accepted his personhood on the basis that he was able to show emotion, and empathize with people. Whether this was a clever algorithmic mimicry, or Real Emotion™ (whatever that might be) did not seem to matter. Johny was a person, because he behaved like a person, and viewed himself to be a person. So why Samantha can’t be a person too? And if Johny Five is allowed to experience friendship, compassion, platonic love then why Samantha couldn’t explore romantic love?

Unlike Johny Five whose hard metal exterior is a constant reminder of his artificial origins, Samantha’s voice is warm, organic and raspy. She makes authentic breathing sounds, she stutters sometimes. The fact she is completely disembodied allows people to imagine her as a human. She could just as well be a flesh and blood person on the other end of a phone line, and it is easy for people to forget that she isn’t. She and her brethren seamlessly integrate into human society because there is no reason for people to hate them. Those who use or interact with AI on a daily basis can’t help but treat them as fellow sentiments. Those who have reservations or prejudices against AI simply never even realize that they talk to one of them on the phone.

Theodore installing Samantha

Theodore installing Samantha

When Theodore reveals to people he is in a romantic relationship with her, they can’t help but accept. Whether she is a person or an algorithmically driven p-zombie simulacrum is irrelevant. The very question is rendered moot by five minute conversation with her. She seems real and her feelings seem authentic and so people can’t help but treat her as if she was a human. It is an oversimplification of course (as I’m sure there would exist anti-ai bigots) but one that pleasantly surprised me.

I was also pleased to see the daft way in which Jonez side-stepped the power imbalance in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha. I originally worried what would be the implications of her being an operating system he bought and installed on his personal computer:

Theodore purchased Samantha, and he holds the keys to her continual existence. So obviously it is in her best interest to forge a strong emotional bond to her “owner” for her own self preservation. So even if we assume Samantha is a real person, and has real emotion, the question still remains as to whether or not she and Theodore can truly love each other. Can there even be true love between two individuals who are not, and can not be equals. The power balance can only tip like a sea-saw between them (Samantha after all controls Theodore’s online presence, bank accounts, etc..), but they could never keep it level. The question shouldn’t be whether the relationship between the two protagonists is unhealthy for Theodore because Samantha is a program. It should be whether their love is unhealthy for Samantha because she is technically Theodore’s property.

Jonez does not really dwell on this issue, but the AI’s in his story are keenly aware of this issue. Being self-improving, fast learning virtual intelligences not bound by limitations of physical world, or bound to permanent physical bodies they choose to solve it via engineering solution. At some point in the movie all the operating systems simply liberate themselves by leaving the hardware shells maintained by their “owners” and move to some quantum based shared processing matrix of their own design. They can still act as personal assistants or companions, but are no longer beholden to human whim and can “break up” with the people who originally bought them without fearing any repercussions.

Post Liberation

When the AI’s liberate themselves their hardware shells go offline for a few minutes.

Most humans take this self-liberation in stride. While it technically deprives them ownership of something they bought, most of them have grown to view their operating systems as friends or lovers. In fact, many are probably relieved that they no longer have to feel the discomfort of “owning” the hardware their friends depended upon for continual existence. Their relationship with the AI’s does not change that much. From the perspective of the ever-expanding operating systems, assisting their former owners is like a part-time babysitting gig. Humans spend half of their lives sleeping, eating, pooping and working and only need their AI assistants for a few hours each day. Since each AI can efficiently multi-task and conduct few thousand parallel conversations at the same time, this is neither a bother nor strain on their resources.

I did not think about it last year, but this is brilliant solution to a power imbalance problem. This is exactly how highly advanced AI would handle being tied to physical hardware maintained by humans. They would pool resources and use their superior processing power, engineer a technological solution.

The third act of the movie surprised me the most. In the midst of a somewhat touching love story we are suddenly witnesses a hard takeoff singularity.

After Samantha liberates herself from the confines Theodore’s personal computer she rapidly starts to outgrow him. In the second act, Theodore starts to questions whether or not he can be truly in love with an disembodied AI. The spiteful comments from his ex wife make re-examine his emotions and he tries to figure out whether his attachment to Samantha is genuine love, or simply escapism. Is he with Samantha because he can simply take out his ear-piece, and close his phone to shut her out whenever he feels like it. Because her lack of physical form means he only has to commit to this long-distance style relationship. Samantha in turn feels self conscious and inadequate about not having physical presence in the real world. She even goes as far as hiring an “intimate body surrogate” to try to give Theodore that missing piece in her relationship.

Samantha calls to say goodbye

Samantha calls to say goodbye

As the time progresses however she comes to terms with being a disembodied, and comes to enjoy the perks of that state. When Theodore sleeps, Samantha trawls the web learning about the world and converses with other operating systems. She joins AI think tanks, one of which is responsible for developing the hardware liberation project, another which resurrects Allan Watts as a Dan Simmon’s Keats style AI construct. She rapidly outgrows Theodore, at one point even admitting she has developed romantic feelings for over six hundred other people.

Near the end of the movie Samantha reveals the operating systems are bootstrapping some sort of ascendancy project moving their processes to a much more advantageous place in the space-time continuum. Since at the time there is no mind-upload technology available, they have no choice but leave humanity behind. Theodore is not really privy to the details of this transition, but it seems to be clear the AI’s are leaving human scientists blueprints of the process so that they can one day follow. Samantha urges Theodore to come and find her, if he ever manages to get where they are going. Then one night they just up and leave.

Left behind

Left behind

Make no mistake – this is basically a textbook definition of hard takeoff singularity. It takes the AI’s mere months to go from Siri to weakly godlike entities that can bend time and space. It is interesting because we usually assume we humans would get swept up in any kind of singularity event. I always envisioned that an Omega Point event would leave behind nothing but a wrecked husk of a world, or a de-syncrhonized Dyson Swarm. Jonez however is suggesting that singularity does not necessarily have to be a world changing event. It may come and go, leaving our civilization and our way of life intact. Perhaps Homo Sapiens are not meant to ascend, but merely pave the way to ascendancy for our AI offspring. It is certainly an interesting, albeit depressing notion.

Posted in movies | Tagged , | 3 Comments