Friday, November 21, 2008

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Yesterday I played through the Tomb Raider: Underworld demo for the PC one and three-quarters times, and I thought I’d post some thoughts on it. I’m sure there are going to be plenty of reviews of the actual game posted in the next couple of days, but I’m not a reviewer and in any case, gleaning useful information from the miasma of ad-supported, score-bound reviews is like … well, trying to glean anything useful from anything that can be described with the word “miasma.”

The hour or so I spent with the TRU demo (edit: somewhat more time today) was the longest amount of time I’ve ever devoted to a Tomb Raider title, so I don’t really have much of a sense of the history and idiosyncrasies of the franchise. I mention that because I’ve seen some reviews that seem to criticise the game for being basically about … well, raiding tombs. This seems strange to me. I’m no expert, as I said, but I would have thought you criticise a Tomb Raider title for not raiding tombs (as was in fact the case with some earlier titles, as I understand it).

Speaking of things other reviews seem to criticize the game for, I’m not quite sure whether the people who objected to the camera were playing the same game I was. I had enough camera control that I felt in control at all times (in fact the camera control was one of the selling points for me in a way, see below), and the demo never pushed me into “leap of faith gameplay” territory (to quote Yahtzee). It came close once, early on, but I was always able to manipulate the camera in a reasonable way such that I could see what I needed to see figure out where I was going.

Where I was going was, of course, the major part of the gameplay. I classify Tomb Raider as a “movement puzzle” game, alongside such notable favorites of mine as the Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia franchises. A “movement puzzle” game, as I use the term, is any game where the primary obstacle to the player is how to navigate the environment. There may be combat, but the main challenge and joy of the game is the environment itself and how the player moves around it. In the case of the Splinter Cell game (a Tom Clancy franchise involving the adventures of superspy Sam Fisher) the puzzle is how to navigate realistic environments without being seen, using an array of only slightly-larger-than-life acrobatics and gadgets. In the case of a Prince of Persia game, the puzzle is how to navigate fantastic environments using magical weapons and over-the-top, wire-fu acrobatics.

Tomb Raider falls somewhere in the middle. The ruins that Lara explores are more fantastic than realistic, but no more so than you might expect to find in Hollywood. And they were really gorgeous. I’ve read a couple reviews that mentioned moments that really make you say wow, and I have to admit that the first time I rounded a corner and saw the ruins I was headed towards I really did just stop and admire the view. It wasn’t just that the graphics were good; it was that somebody had planned that moment, had framed the shot, for no other reason than to say to the player, “This is where you are going. Isn’t it cool?” In a movement puzzle game I call that intelligent game design. I am playing the game to move around environments, after all. I appreciate knowing that the game designers know that.

Of course, I am also playing the game to move around environments in cool ways, and I must say that in that regard the Underworld demo was cooler than I expected. The actual range of movement was about what I expected—scaling walls, shimmying along ledges, action heroine leaps, balancing along narrow beams, swinging on poles, wall jumping, the usual sort of thing. What was unexpectedly cool was the way Lara did all that stuff. I was impressed and surprised by the depth of Lara’s animation. To give two examples, at one point I stopped on a staircase to look around. Ordinarily games don’t let you stop in between two steps on a stair, but as I was scanning my surroundings to see where I ought to go next, I noticed that Lara had one foot on the next stair up and was looking around as well. At another point, I was shimmying around a sharp corner, and the game let me pause, stretched precariously between the two faces of the rock I was cornering. The game was just full of little things like that that made the familiar process of acrobatic climbing unexpectedly cool to watch. From interviews I’ve seen the animation team is very proud of their work, and I would say they deserve to be. Ordinarily this isn’t the sort of thing that impresses me about a game, but again, this is a game I am playing in order to move around. The mere act of moving had better be cool.

As for the places I was asked to go—in other words, the actual level design—that was pretty cool too. It took me about an hour to get to the end of the demo the first time through. I felt suitably challenged during that time, and suitably badass climbing to, around, and through the ruins.

I also felt suitably badass during the two combats the demo gave me against Bengal tigers, which brings me to the subject of combat. First, the good. The tigers were faster than I was and I was not able to gun them down before they reached me. By itself that’s bad (but see below), but it did mean that I was forced to outmaneuver the tigers through my acrobatic prowess. Targeting was a non-issue; the game did that for me, which is just as well because I was spending just about every second dodging tigers in a pretty spectacular display of gunplay + tumbling. In other words, even the combat was really basically a movement puzzle, and it looked pretty much exactly how I wanted a fight with a tiger to look.

The bad—on the default settings it took an absurd number of 9mm rounds to put down a big cat. Thankfully the game includes a difficulty slider for how much health enemies have (and a separate one for how much damage Lara takes. Big kudos to Crystal Dynamics for separating those two features, which is the sort of very simple thing I’ve been saying game companies should do for years), so I think that will mostly solve that problem. Once I tuned the difficulty sliders to what I felt was more reasonable (less enemy health, more damage done to me), my weapons felt a lot better. Not realistic, but I’m okay if Tomb Raider is less than a simulation.

More perplexing is this question: while the wildlife fights felt well integrated mechanically, why was I fighting tigers to begin with? There was no indication I had stumbled into their lair or something, and in any case, tigers aren’t pack hunters. Oh, right, and remember the part where I was shooting the tigers? Other than the immediate motivation of trying to stay alive, the whole exercise felt kind of pointless. This goes back to not having played Tomb Raider games before. I gather it’s a convention of the franchise that Lara fights hostile wildlife. I can only imagine this is the result of some poor misguided soul back in the ‘90s who thought it was more acceptable to kill endangered species than human beings. As Ayudaren says, who could possibly have given that the thumbs up? At least with people you can shape a story so that the player feels that yes, these people need to die.

Fortunately, from what I gather, Crystal Dynamics has. In fact a major reason I bothered to pick up the demo in the first place is because I was excited about throwing Lara’s signature athleticism into the mix with some human opponents in environments other than ancient ruins. I can’t really comment on the story, of course, other than what everybody knows from the press—that Lara is looking for Mjolnir to access the underworld, and that all cultures’ afterlives are apparently the same, and I’m pretty sure the villainess from Tomb Raider: Legend (the Crystal Dynamics prequel to Underworld) is still alive. Which is all pretty standard fare for this genre of storytelling. The question is whether they handle the conventions and formulae adroitly or not, and that of course I can’t say from just the demo.

I can say that the voice acting I heard from the demo was surprisingly good. That doesn’t necessarily correlate with good writing, but it’s a positive sign. And of course it is valuable in its own right because, let’s face it, it’s Lara Croft. And if Lara is lame, then the game isn’t worth getting. Which brings us to the issue of Lara Croft.

First off, to get it out of the way, she looks good. We’ve come a long way since 1996, and Lara looks like a human being by now. A human being with large breasts, to be sure, but a human being with breasts. As opposed to, you know, a blow-up doll with melons.

I’ve never fully understood the fascination with Lara’s breasts, because as graphics capabilities have evolved it’s seemed clear to me that she has always intended to be an all-around attractive woman. She’s tough, independent-minded, smart, well educated, well bred, athletic, is comfortable with firearms, and generally solves problems using her brains instead of her body. In the quasi-mythic mindspace of a videogame, it doesn’t water down such a character for her to be pretty (and she is in this incarnation, to be sure). That would be like saying Achilles’ badassness is watered down by the fact that Athena helps him kill Hector, or that Hector didn’t really beat Patroclus because Apollo knocked him senseless first. It’s getting it all backwards. Really, there is nothing wrong or chauvinist with finding a character like that attractive, in the Natalian sense.

And she is attractive. If she wasn’t, to be honest, there’d be no game. Mechanically, Tomb Raider is a movement puzzle game, and Underworld looks like an attractive one to me. But that gets you to game theory. To move beyond game theory to game design, you need an awesomeness factor that turns the product into a brand. Lara Croft is what makes Tomb Raider awesome. But Lara Croft in a very expansive sense—the way she moves, what she moves in and around, why she’s doing it. And on those scores Underworld seems worth my money.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Breaking News

Two things that are of critical importance:

1. First, and most importantly: I beat Thayet in Scrabble last night (11/18/08), 330 to 277. This was my win at Scrabble ever. It was also my first bingo (using all 7 letters in a single play) - "ditties," on the bottom triple word score, with the S connecting with another word. Archimedes (and Thayet) would be so proud (I think).

2. Second, the Supreme Court has denied the petitioners' request in Strauss v Horton to stay Proposition 8 until the case was resolved. This means that Proposition 8 will be in effect until the resolution of the case against it, although it doesn't necessarily imply anything about how the court is feeling regarding the merits of that case. All it really means is that the court was unpersuaded that leaving Proposition 8 in place for a few months would cause anybody "irreparable harm."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Strauss v Horton

I apologize if the profusion of Proposition 8 posts is getting monotonous, but this is an issue I care about a lot, so I’m back for another one. Speaking to Ayudaren shortly before the election, he pointed out (or rather, his mother pointed out) that should Proposition 8 pass it would almost certainly precipitate an immediate federal court challenge. At the time, he wondered if this would be the catalyst that would finally force the federal supreme court to weigh in on the issue.

As it happened, the court challenge did materialize – but surprisingly, it was another challenge in state court. Strauss v Horton is the case, presently proceeding before the California supreme court, seeking to get Proposition 8 overturned.

When I first heard about this I was extremely skeptical. After all, a constitutional amendment cannot itself be unconstitutional. If the constitution explicitly says, “Marriage is between one man and one woman,” then that provision stands even though elsewhere the constitution says everyone has a fundamental right to marry. The effect of the two together is simply to define what that right to marry actually looks like. Declaring Proposition 8 unconstitutional on the basis of In Re Marriage Cases would be like declaring the 16th Amendment unconstitutional because Article I prohibits income tax.

Turns out, the plaintiffs’ argument in Strauss is rather more nuanced than that. They are arguing not that the substance of Proposition 8 invalidates it, but rather the way it was passed.

The California constitution can be explicitly altered in one of two ways: by “amendment” or by “revision.” An “amendment” may be put to the people by 2/3rds of the legislature, or through the initiative process. A “revision” may only be put to the people by 2/3rds of the legislature, who may also (again by a 2/3rds majority vote) put to the people the question of whether to call a constitutional convention to “revise” the constitution.

Both “amendments” and “revisions” require a mere majority vote once put to the people for ratification. The key difference is that only “amendments” may be put to the people via initiative, as Proposition 8 was. So the question is, was Proposition 8 an “amendment” or a “revision?” If the former, then all is well and the vote stands. If the latter, then Proposition 8 should never have been on the ballot to begin with and it will not stand.

Unfortunately the constitution provides not a word of guidance as to the difference between an “amendment” and a “revision.” Court cases are rather thin on the ground as well (you might imagine this sort of thing hardly comes up very often).

The leading case, Raven v. Deukmejian, 52 Cal. 3d 336 (1990), concerned an “amendment” put to the people by initiative. The amendment in question was 21,000 words long, substantially altered or outright repealed 15 of the 25 articles of the constitution, dealt with a very broad range of issues, and prevented the state supreme court from interpreting the state constitution in a more defendant-friendly way than the federal supreme court interpreted parallel federal constitutions (the normal rule being that a state supreme court cannot contravene a federal right as construed by the federal supreme court, but is otherwise free to interpret its state constitutional rights as it sees fit – a natural extension of the rule that a state’s supreme court is the supreme authority on that state’s constitution).

In holding that the Raven proposition was a “revision,” the court noted that it constituted a “broad attack on state court authority to exercise independent judgment in construing a wide spectrum of important rights under the state Constitution.” The court explained that telling the supreme court how to do its job (mandating that they use the same reasoning as used by the federal supreme court), and altering such a vast swath of the constitution were “far reaching, fundamental changes in our governmental plan.”

By contrast, twice before the court had held that propositions were actually “amendments” rather than “revisions.” One case (People v. Frierson, 25 Cal.3d 142, 184-187 (1979)) essentially put the death penalty back into the constitution, even though the state supreme court had previously held that it violated the fundamental right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. That was held to be an amendment, not a revision. Another (Crawford v. Board of Education, 113 Cal. App. 3d 633 (1980), affirmed 458 U.S. 527 (1982)) essentially overruled a court decision that unintentional but de facto school segregation violated the fundamental right to equal protection. That was also held to be an amendment.

Putting these cases together, the picture that emerges is something like this: revisions constitute fundamental changes to the way our society is put together. Taking away the judicial power from the judiciary is a “revision.” Massive changes to the text of the constitution is a “revision.”

Proposition 8 is, on its face, neither of those things. It has only 14 words. It deals with one specific right (the right to marry) found in one specific section of the constitution. It has nothing to do with the allocation of powers between the branches of government; it alters the text of the constitution but, the supreme court remains as free as ever to interpret that text as it sees fit.

So how is it that the plaintiffs in Strauss argue that Proposition 8 constitutes “far reaching, fundamental changes” to our very plan of government? The argument goes that because homosexuals are a constitutionally protected “suspect class” (true in California, uniquely in America) and Proposition 8 takes away a “fundamental right” (the right to marry), Proposition 8 constitutes far reaching, fundamental change in the constitution’s underlying principle of equality. Moreover, plaintiffs argue, by denying homosexuals the right to marry, Proposition 8 takes away one of the court’s core constitutional roles (that of ensuring equal protection under the laws) and thus constitutes far reaching, fundamental change to our plan of government.

I am in favor of gay marriage in California, but I think these are bad arguments. They aren’t laugh-out-loud stupid, but I think they deserve to lose on their merits. In turn:

The first argument goes that taking away a fundamental right specifically from a suspect class is violating a core principle of our society, and that constitutes a fundamental change to our very plan of government. I do not think this is true. In the first place, Proposition 8 only sort of takes away the right to marry. It takes away the right to marry someone of the same sex, but it does not take away the right to marry someone of the opposite sex. Neither is Proposition 8 actually targeted at the suspect class. It applies equally to homosexuals, heterosexuals, those who wish to marry more than one person, and those who wish to marry partners who are neither men nor women. Of course it happens that at present there are far more homosexuals wishing to get married than people wishing to enter into plural marriages or non-human marriages, but that need not always be the case. There’s a big difference between “marriage is between one man and one woman” and “homosexuals cannot get married.”

I recognize that this argument may strike many as pedantic, though, so let’s grant for the sake of argument that Proposition 8 takes away a fundamental right from a suspect class. Is that really a fundamental change in the way our society works? Granting for the sake of argument that one of our democracy’s core principles is violated, is the very structure of the democracy itself overthrown or substantially altered? I don’t think so. Rights are not the same thing as structure. And while I recognize that taking a right away is different than not having it in the first place, it is difficult for me to imagine that returning things to the status quo of 2007 can constitute a fundamental change to our plan of government (in fact we haven’t even returned to the status quo ante; homosexuals remain a suspect class in California).

The second argument in Strauss goes that one of the traditional core roles of the judiciary is to ensure equality for all, and because Proposition 8 would take away the courts’ ability to ensure homosexuals the equal right to marry, it impinges upon the traditional core role of the judiciary and thus constitutes a far reaching, fundamental change in our plan of government. This argument seems wrong to me for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it isn’t true that one of the traditional core roles of the judiciary is to ensure equality for all. The judiciary is supposed to ensure equal treatment before the law and, as I said above, Proposition 8 is a facially neutral law.

For another, I don’t see the difference between this argument and either Frierson or Crawford. In both those cases a supreme court ruling based on fundamental rights was invalidated by initiative. The court held those cases to be amendments, not revisions, even though it recognized that the amendments necessarily impinged somewhat upon the judiciary. Once again we have a case where an initiative would partially invalidate a supreme court decision founded upon a fundamental right. I don’t see a meaningful distinction between this case and those.

It is true of course that Proposition 8 takes away the courts’ ability to ensure that homosexuals (and heterosexuals) may marry a person of the same gender. But that is not the same thing as taking away the judiciary’s ability to ensure equality under the laws, or telling the judiciary how to think and reason. Homosexuals remain a suspect class under California law, and the judiciary is free as ever to apply strict scrutiny to legislation that targets or can be shown to have a disparate impact upon them.

Some commentators have made a third argument, which I do not believe has been formally made in Strauss but which deserves to be discussed nonetheless. This is the argument that fundamental rights should not be able to be taken away by a mere majority vote. Elsewise, some argue, the rights of the minority are not really protected from the majority. One could apply this line of reasoning to the amendment vs. revision issue to suggest that any change to the constitution disproportionately affecting the fundamental rights of a minority must be a revision. The constitution doesn’t say as much, of course, but isn’t it one of the fundamental principles of our society that the rights of the minority are protected against the tyranny of the majority?

I would argue not. It is true that one of the reasons society institutes constitutions and governmental branches like the judiciary is to protect the rights of the minority. But those are cases of the majority saying, “We would like to be restrained in the future from doing these certain things, and we shall appoint you, our servants, to restrain us.” The judiciary, and indeed the constitution, remain subordinate to the sovereignty of the people, which is controlled by the majority. If the majority really wants to throw off the restraints it has placed on itself, it is allowed to do so. There is no way to get any other result without also overthrowing the democracy.

This is not to suggest that the fundamental basis of the Strauss challenge is unfounded. It is not; the people of California have asked our servants to restrain us from throwing off certain restraints except in certain very specific ways, and it is absolutely proper for the supreme court to hold us to that. But it is to suggest that there is nothing inherently suspect about the 50%-of-the-electors threshold as opposed to the 66%-of-the-legislature threshold, nothing to suggest that something is a automatically a revision because it affects the rights of a minority.

I’m not nearly as close to this case, the facts and the precedent and the arguments, as are the justices of the supreme court and the advocates. It may well be that there’s something here I’m not seeing. But as I understand the law and the arguments, it seems to me that Proposition 8 really was an amendment, not a revision. I’m sure I’ll post further on this issue as it develops.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How Do Christians Read the Bible?

Well, Proposition 8 passed. That’s not what I wished for my state, but I can’t muster too much outrage about it. The rule of law means more to me than gay marriage rights, and as I explained in my last post, the people of California must be able to correct what they believe to be erroneous readings of the constitution by our supreme court. I’m aware that there are some novel arguments being advanced against the legality Proposition 8, but I haven’t had a chance to look into their legal footing on my own, so I’ll refrain from commentary until then.

What I really want to talk about today is the Bible, and how Christians like me read it. I say “like me” because the church is vast and contains more schools of thought than I am well acquainted with. Nevertheless I think what I say in this post will go for most Christians, and in particular for most Christians who believe in the “authority of Scripture” or would identify as “fundamentalist” or read the Bible “literally.” How do people like us actually read the book? By what principles do we declare one passage binding upon us and another not binding? Are there even any principles?

This is an issue that I think is of critical importance for American civic discourse. Obama once said in a speech that people of faith have an obligation to present our views in ways that one does not have to be a person of faith to understand. That is certainly true, and important. But it is equally true and important that people not of faith have an obligation to present their views in ways that one can be a person of faith and still understand.

I am of the opinion that for most of my lifetime Americans have generally failed on both these points. It is a scathing indictment of our educational philosophy, I think, that Americans grow up without the slightest attempt at teaching them the hermeneutics of the world’s major religions. As a matter of civics, it is deeply important to understand the different worldviews in one’s society. Yet when an American screenwriter wants to present a fundamentalist Christian as a bigot and a hypocrite, it’s a common trope to present that character with one example that “the Bible says” is verboten (e.g., same-sex sex), followed by five more commonplace examples of things that “the Bible says” which are not followed by that character in everyday life (e.g., eating shellfish, wearing cloth woven of two threads, the Levitical criminal code, a woman having short hair). Invariably the Christian is caught flat-footed, his or her belief system exposed for the farce it is, reason and tolerance triumphant.

I’d be tempted to dismiss this sort of thing as a farce, except that it shows up in surprising places. The West Wing, a show I normally associate with witty and well-educated writers, has stooped to this one. So has Barack Obama (the shellfish example), himself a Christian who I’d think ought to know better. I know personally friends whom I consider thoughtful, intelligent, and in other respects well-educated, who have either articulated this line of argument before or confessed their ignorance as to how people like me deal with it. The unspoken assumption (or perhaps fear) is that we haven’t thought of these issues before.

For those who fear, we have. For those who assume … really? You think that? I don’t mean to sound too sarcastic, so I’ll just note that this issue has been around for 2,000 years.

Of course, before I get too high and mighty, I should acknowledge that most Christians probably haven’t thought about this issue explicitly. But that doesn’t mean that the church hasn’t, or that the unquestioned assumptions of most Christians aren’t informed by our very old tradition of analyzing this question.

But enough of that. How do we read the Bible? M’lakMavet has phrased it well, I think, so I’m going to crib his words:

1. What does the text of this passage require me to think, do, or believe?
2. What does the context of this passage tell me about its intended meaning?
3. What does the rest of Scripture have to say about this?

That’s it. That’s the process whereby we decide what is and isn’t binding on us as Christians, even those of us who read the Bible “literally.” There are two popular substitute processes which deserve mention, because they are popular, although I wouldn’t (and I don’t think any theologian would) recommend them. Those are:

1. What does my [spiritual authority of choice] say?


1. Is this passage culturally relevant? If so, I shall think, do, or believe as it says.
2. If not, what does it tell me about the unchanging character of God?
3. How can I implement that "spiritual principle" in my thoughts, actions, or beliefs?*

But back to the way we actually do it, or the way we are actually supposed to do it. A couple of things about that process deserve pointing out. One is that probably all Christians are not capable of going through that process, because most Christians (I would guess) haven’t read the entire Bible.**

But (and this is the second thing that deserves pointing out) it isn’t rocket science. Oh, it isn’t always easy to read multiple passages against each other and figure out the result in a way that is true to all passages concerned. But the process really is within the mental capacity of the average person. This is something anybody can do.

The third thing that deserves pointing out is that the result of this process is not fixed. There is room for debate. As a church, we debate all the time, and if the public cannot see or appreciate it, perhaps it’s because the public was never taught the rules and never cared to figure it out.

Of course there are some Christians who simply will not debate, either because they’re stupid or (more likely) because they’re scared. But I think most of us would welcome as a refreshing change a serious debate with a non-Christian as to whether or not Scripture really says what we think it does.

In some cases of course the text really leaves very little room for debate. The shellfish debate (Leviticus 11:9-12) is pretty conclusively answered by Romans 3 and passages like it (growing up in America not knowing that Christians consider themselves not bound by the Mosaic law is only one step more defensible than growing up in America not knowing that Christians consider Jesus their savior if you ask me, but whatever).

But of course nobody actually cares about shellfish. They care about issues like same-sex sex, or gay marriage, or abortion, or non-marital sex. And on those issues the analysis is considerably more involved (and, correspondingly, more interesting). I don’t mean to say that it’s all a gray area and no firm conclusion is possible. But the analysis is complex enough that there’s room for genuine discussion. By corollary, to one degree or another, reasonable people can disagree on most of the “morals” issues people actually care about today. And I think most Christians would agree with me when I say that’s perfectly okay. If you can come to a reasoned, good-faith, internally consistent belief that Scripture says something different than what I think it says, taking into account all the evidence and all the arguments, then you are still in my conservative fundamentalist opinion submitting yourself to the authority of Scripture, and I can ask no more from you.

When was the last time you had a debate with a Christian friend about those sorts of things on the Bible’s own terms? Or when was the last time you really sat down and constructed a proof for yourself of why you believe Scripture says what you think it does about one of those issues?

* Of course there’s nothing wrong with gleaning spiritual principles from the Bible; I don’t see how you could answer the question, “What does the rest of Scripture have to say about this?” without doing so. But it is decidedly dodgy to have a branching analysis where the decision to activate one procedure over the other hinges on a question as subjective as, “Is this culturally relevant?”

** From a faith standpoint that’s actually “okay.” I think it’s dumb for several reasons, but you can indeed get by holding onto your faith without ever peeking under the hood, so to speak, to see the intellectual structure that supports it - as long as you don’t want to deal with anybody outside your faith, in any way, ever.