Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Difference Between a Sand Castle and a Real One...

There are common limits imposed upon the human imagination. For instance, when I sat down to write this, I burned about 25 minutes trying to remember the name of a French intellectual that was fascinated by the level of sensory information that the average human processes on any given day. As I recall, he sat down in his study and attempted to write a journal that was as exhaustive as humanly possible. Whether it was descriptive, or completely a work of stream of consciousness, I can't recall, but he gave up a few days later after writing some absurd amount of pages. There was just too much to account for. It was the "a picture is worth a thousand words" kind of dilemma. Anyways, I eventually gave up trying to remember his name. No... the irony isn't lost on me. 

I very much enjoy open world games, and there are several elements that collectively contribute to their rendering authenticity. Geography, for one, must be close to scale. The density of props and interactable objects in the world must be placed with believable randomness. Structures and buildings must be unique, each with distinguishing features. NPCs must move and act in the environment with convincing variation. And transgressing the given social order must be met with a realistic consequence. Few games, if any, have offered something with this degree of detail and specificity. For the majority of titles, it’s just a crude representation of reality.

Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation describes Disneyland (Chapter 1: The Precession of Simulacra. Section 4 - The Hyperreal and the Imaginary) at length, with it’s segmented districts throughout the park, and how each area represents a microcosm of Americana. The folly, of course, is that each zone is a simulacra, a representation in a series of representations, where the land being represented has no relationship to the original reality. Likewise, when game developers synthesize real life locations into an open world gaming experience, the dev team is inevitably relying on a shared conceptual toolbox of degraded signs and simulacra. The result is that something is always amiss. For instance, in games like Assassin‘s Creed: Odyssey the player is able to sail around the entire Mediterranean world, but each island the player can access is just a distillation of the genuine island. It takes 36 minutes by car to travel from The Temple of Apollo on Naxos to reach Mount Zas, but the player can reach the same location in about 5 minutes in-game. Likewise, the island of Crete (Messara and Pephka) in-game can be ran across in under a half hour. In real life, the island is 260 km long.

Naxos IRL

Environments can have both intensive amounts of detail, as well as a complete lack thereof. It's just a matter of perspective of what's important and what our own attention spans can accommodate. If a player was given the task of traveling 2000 miles of real distance in real time, then nothing would get done. Flying from Los Angeles to London, even going 570 miles per hour, takes about 11 hours. Driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas takes approximately 5 hours to traverse almost 300 miles. In the latter example, most of that space is the Mojave Desert with little to no variation in geography and landmarks. As gamers, we hunger for a sense of scope and realism, but I don’t think we consider how vast (and empty) the real world actually is. With this in mind, the above characterization of Naxos is to the gamer's benefit, even if it thwarts true realism. 

Lately with all the work at Electi Studio, I have rediscovered that fantasy and sci-fi literature still evokes a sense of grandeur. Granted, playing a video game involves the player as a participant in a simulated space. A player can pick up items, traverse obstacles, read and recognize visual cues and text, yet the level of immersion is compromised, once something becomes out of place. In books, at least, the author is selectively futzing with the reader's focus, pointing them to different aspects of the world. The reader, however, has the prerogative to fill out the space procedurally with novel contextualization. "A hero walks in to a cave..." Immediately, the reader populates their mind with the image of a cave. "The hero takes a seat on the ground and unpacks a bag of provisions..." The reader then synthesizes the contents of the backpack, along with other environmental objects contained in the cave. This was my nightmare when working on Hobgoblin as a consultant. I would read something that Mike wrote, and the procedural rendering of the scene in my mind would highly differ from his. This is completely normal, obviously, but the work gets complicated when what you see in your head needs to conform to what the author sees in theirs. Mike might describe a colossal cave worm erupting from the ceiling of a cavern, but what recommendations I ultimately make need to conform to Mike's vision. And that's hard, honestly. It's like describing, on a color blind person's behalf, what red looks like to someone who isn't color blind.  

Worldbuilding aside, in the case of video games and the available technology that is used to render approximations of  the real world, the game developers appear on our side at the end of the day. The lack of ideal consistency in the presentation of an "open world" game seems less sinister. It's just pragmatism on the developer's part, so that we can enjoy our jaunt in their world. Even technologies like Unreal Engine 5, which can render details so minute that the proprietary term for it is "Nanite", are just taking clever shortcuts to ensure our self-deception. (Consider the level of detail in this demonstration. It was taken 4 years ago!)

Epic Games

It's my hope that someday we can get something truly "photoreal", although it should include some input from the player. Perhaps a meshing of tech where the player is supplying the aesthetics and the game engine the geometry? That would be nice. Or, a table-top gaming experience that relies on our own imagination to build out an AR game board? One can only dream! 

The future is wild my friends!

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

"Everything must GO!" and Other Federally Mandated Holiday Sales


Juneteenth is a relatively new holiday, which is something else. My usual experience with holidays is that they just exist and that’s the way it’s always been. Since time immemorial, since the foundation of the world. God said, “Let there be light… and great savings this Memorial Day weekend!!!”. It’s strange to welcome to the fold another day in the calendar year where I can look forward to NOT going to work. The strange countenance of holiday cognizance, one could say! (Maybe. I think that’s how words work…)


Holidays remind me of the Sabbath spoken of in the bible. The concept of the sabbath has it’s own unique meaning in Judeo-Christian tradition, but the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East helps to further contextualize the kind of mindset someone had when they entered into sabbath with their deity. For Judeo-Christian adherents, it would have been a time of important reflection. To observe with one’s whole being the establishing of God’s order and dominion over the created order, including all the implications that such a thing implies. It meant that one shouldn’t “work”. Why? Because God provides all one needs to sustain life. The profound act that God “rested” on the 7th day of creation meant that, unlike the pantheon of Gods in the Ancient Near East (who constantly meddled with the affairs of Men and wrestled for our affections and allegiances), God’s creation was self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. He didn’t need shit from us.


Contrast this, however, with our holidays that the federal government sprinkles over the calendar year like Salt Bae.


I think we’ve lost sight of the original intention for the “holiday” in the United States. (I can’t speak for other countries, which have their own history and traditions.) It’s an unfortunate consequence of capitalism, which reduces everything to a dollar value. Holidays become sales events and “days off” to disassociate mentally and physically from the rigors of a 40-hour work week. To claw back control over unraveling responsibilities that lie neglected in whatever crevasse we stuffed them into last. We don’t stop to consider that Labor Day was meant to observe the dignity of workers and the organizations they founded to enshrine the things we take for granted, like 8-hour work days and a two-day weekend. We don’t stop to consider the fallen dead on Memorial Day, or stop to thank a member of the military for their service on Veterans Day. (I’m sure it’s on your mind, but for how long. Do you spend an entire day, thinking about it and reflecting on it?)


Juneteenth is significant to me because it’s a new holiday, and its novelty has not yet yielded to indifference, or overexposure. The origin of the day is also incredibly fucked up. (It should be a moniker of shame that it took a whole two and a half years after the initial Emancipation Proclamation for slaves to actually be set free.) Juneteenth is to be a sobering day, and a time for reflection in general. We must come to terms that people who claimed to know the gospel, profit motivated textile and agricultural industries, and elected officials had to be forced by military action to see people as human beings, not as property.


So, in summary, it’s my hope that we can look more critically at holidays and what they stand for. As we await the Star-Trek future of post scarcity, or bide our time until the collapse of civilization in a resource war*, I will try to do this in earnest, at least. These days should be seen as more than just the sum of their promotional sales or a missed opportunity to clean out the garage.


*That is, unless Jesus returns before either of those things to set all things right in his perfect justice and equity.

Monday, April 1, 2024

The Theology of Star Trek

I would say that I'm a Star Trek fan. 

I grew up watching the TOS original films, as well as the TNG original films, often being dragged to see them by my dad, who seemed to love Star Trek and yet have no concept of the deeper meanings at play in the films. (All things, of course, that my dad was happy to decry while memorizing Rush Limbaugh talking points.) Incidentally, it wasn't until my late 20s that I actually sat down and watched TNG and began to see the layers of social commentary. But with that, also, the reverence for the deep lore that encompassed at least 50 years of pop culture was on display. 

But it naturally presented a crisis to my Christian faith.

Episodes like "Who Watches the Watchers" (S3E4) and "Devil's Due" (S4E13) were easily identified as  critiques of religion, and the power that such systematic ignorance holds over people. But also Picard's own distain for religion  is showcased bit by bit throughout the show in occasional one-off statements. His love of xenoarcheology also emphasizes his fascination with pre-warp culture, but serves to juxtapose the Federation's meritorious, utopian ideals with the wistful contemplation of archaic societies, and where they inevitably went wrong. (Obviously, there are only a handful of explicit critiques of faith and faith statements, but the tone is there.) 

The crisis then came when I started pining for a better world, amidst the insanity of the Trump presidency, and started considering what a world focused on equity and progress would look like. Would Christianity survive the discovery of other life outside of our solar system? Would warp drive be the catalyst that would drive us to the conclusion that our geocentric religions were hopelessly, and cosmologically, narrow? I felt compelled to agree. I even called one of my pastor friends and just broke down crying because I didn't know what to do. 

What was interesting though was, when I took a step back, I started to notice that the Federation shared some aspects of God himself, particularly as an agent of change through immense power and authority. The in-universe lore often indicts the Federation for its complicity in cultural homogenization. As races are inducted into the Federation as charter members, they are required to give up a lot of petty geopolitical squabbles and demonstrate their innate desire to change for the better and embrace cooperation. But in this act of assimilation, aspects of the charter race's society are ultimately diluted. This can be seen as a pragmatic outcome however, because the end result is a net positive one. 

Where the Federation collides with Christianity I found out (through the help of some fellow fans that also happen to be Christian as well), is the "born-again" aspects of conversion, where converts are given new desires and new motivations (empowered by the Holy Spirit's act of regeneration and ongoing sanctification). Much like pre-warp civilizations, which are concerned with sectarian struggles and larger geopolitical conflicts, non-Christians have their own innate cultural biases that drive them. Christians do as well, where our old biases conflict with our new desires to love God with all our mind, body, and soul, and our neighbor as ourself. The difference lies in the reorienting the Federation/God provides when their members lose their way. The Federation is indeed a utopian ideal, but it works alongside a "fallen" galaxy in an effort to demonstrate a better way that emphasizes cooperation and advancement. The reason why the Federation can do this is because of it's symbolic (and literal) power. Even if the Federation "loses," its underlying principals are so self evident that outsiders must concede that the path the Federation strives for is worthy, as exemplified by of all it's charter members. Of course this is an imperfect analogy, but its able to at least broach harder philosophical questions like, "If God is so powerful, why is there still suffering in the world?" (I could reply, "Well, God is working through the agents of his inaugurated Kingdom, which (ideally) endeavor to provide a peace that surpasses all understanding through their ministries.")        

To be honest what spurred this sudden explosion of bad writing was the idea that, eschatologically speaking, I identify more with the Preterist position that the "end times" already has mostly happened (ie. the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD and Nero serving as the historical anti-christ). Additionally, I was trying to conceptualize the idea of we, as Christians, living in the messianic age, but also having to bear witness to all the horrible shit that goes on in the world every day. The United Federation of Planets seemed to fit the framework pretty well. 

Anyways, I hope you all at least mildly enjoyed my exposition. You can tell me how much you disagree in the comments. ;) 


Friday, February 16, 2024

The Unexpected Theology of Vivienne Medrano's Hazbin Hotel


There’s occasions where I watch something and it moves me enough to think about it in excess. Hazbin Hotel is one such show.


The general conceit of the show is one of a deep desire to be redeemed out of habitual sin. It begins following the aftermath of a yearly purge (a la The Purge film franchise) wherein the angelic host of heaven descends into a Dantean like Hell to cull the population of demons that have begun to overcrowd the region. (Fantasy notwithstanding, I was already interested with the idea from a theological perspective, wondering if this was some form of delayed annihilationism.) Charlie Morningstar, the daughter Lucifer Morningstar (Aka Satan), having witnessed this for the umpteenth time, is moved to action and decides to establish a halfway house for sinners desiring salvation. And, of course, there’s lots of singing.  

What I found really remarkable about the show, developed by Vivienne Medrano, was the honesty and authenticity of the characters. In the same vein as her previous YouTube series, Helluva Boss—despite what I, a white, Christian male may think about the character’s choices or actions—there is something inherently magnetic about Charlie’s altruism, Vaggie’s cynicism, Angel Dust’s deviance, and Husk’s standoffishness. They are real and relatable, which, honestly, is the true objective of any kind of creative writing, and the result is fantastic. And while the overtly crass language is unrealistic and distracts from what can be transpiring in the episodes, the overall substance underneath I found compelling.


Theologically speaking, the writers of the show ask very thoughtful questions about the nature of life, or justice, of forgiveness. For instance, in episode 2, when Sir Pentious (essentially cobra commander anthropomorphized as a full sized cobra in steampunk attire) is caught in the act of trying to sabotage the hotel, Charlie encourages him to ask forgiveness. In the musical number that ensues she says “… it starts with ‘sorry.’ That’s your foot in the door. One simple ‘sorry’… The path to forgiveness is a twisting trail of hearts, but ‘sorry’ is where it starts.” Even when Vaggie (Charlie’s girlfriend) and Angel Dust, indicate that they would rather succumb to their desire to just kill Sir Pentious, Charlie insists, “but who hasn’t been in his shoes?” It’s easy to dismiss the show as “satanic” and “depraved” as conservative critics are undoubtedly saying, but as we are all made in the image and likeness of God, our deep inner propensity to want forgiveness and salvation is startlingly on display throughout the show.


In a subsequent episode, “Masquerade,” Angel Dust’s sexual abuse is discussed, where it’s implied that, despite being proud of his overtly erotic disposition, the life that he has been sold into is demeaning and exploitative. Like many of the unknown actresses and actors that work in the adult film industry, His only recourse is to forget his trauma through heavy substance abuse. Although the musical exposition between himself and Husk seems to undercut the same need to reform that Sir Pentious expresses earlier, their conclusion is still something remarkable: that they are damaged and exploited people that need each other to get by in a brutal and desperate world.


My favorite episode, “Welcome to Heaven” was by far the most theologically developed. Charlie and Vaggie are allowed passage in to Heaven to argue their case in an angelic court as to whether a soul can be redeemed out of Hell. When asked what the criterion is for salvation, Adam (of Genesis 3 fame) rather ineptly suggests that it’s to, “act selfless, don’t steal, [and] stick it to the man.” When Angel Dust demonstrates these moral acts mere moments after, it begs the question: what actually earns a soul a trip to heaven? The assumption that it is by some formula of good deeds and virtuous living that allows a soul to migrate to Heaven after death is nothing new. We seem to naturally justify—or wish to justify—that what we do matters. I think that this is because our mortality compels us to make a mark on this world so that our memory outlives us. I myself want to write books, to be incorporated into the cannon of Western Literature. But we are taught by both the Bible and recorded history that this aspiration is the height of folly. The list of famous and well to do figures, forgotten by the passage of time must be staggeringly large, just as 99.9% of all the species that have gone before us are now extinct. That Hazbin Hotel seizes on this ambiguity regarding the requirements to go to heaven, is remarkable, if only because it encourages discussion around the worthiness of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and why something like it would distinguish itself so much from the competing ideologies around justification. It just makes me happy that people who may, or may not, know God have come so far and has expressed a desire to try something different.

Of course, this isn’t a show about Jesus, or why we should be compelled to accept his grace and forgiveness. The cosmology of Heaven and Hell is all wrong. The motivation behind why someone may take part in heaven, or willingly chose hell, isn’t accurately described. The hierarchy of demons, sourced from the Lesser Key of Solomon (based on the Testament of Solomon), is not sourced from the canonical books of the bible, but from dubious extra biblical sources that cannot be reliably dated. And yet, those who wrote the show and brought it to life, are people with dignity and respect, being made in the image and likeness of God. Even though I may not agree with the conclusions, the questions asked are valid and demand a response.

I think it behooves us as Christians and non-Christians to dialogue about these kinds of things more frequently, and it encourages me that someone like Medrano could voice them so creatively and compellingly. I would highly recommend a watch. Be advised however, and understand, that this is certainly not Veggie Tales, but a show about very real people who are closer to the Kingdom of God than they realize.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

More Thoughts on Warren Ellis

 Back in 2020 I found out that Warren Ellis had committed acts of sexual coercion, according to the testimony of several women he had known in his past. Much to his credit, he did come to terms with the women he had had relationships with, mostly facilitated through this website which was launched in 2020. Through a truth-and-reconciliation styled open dialogue, it appears that Ellis was able to sort it all out, although for many I imagine it's hard to forgive and move on.

Since then, I continued to purchase used hardcovers and trades of Ellis' work, secretly hoping for his eventual absolution. (Thankfully, that seems to have happened, generally, in the court of public opinion.) And what I've found is a consistent narrative trend in his work that elevates characters of varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds. While the counter-cultures of LGBTQAI+, Anarchists, Marxists, Punk (Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Raypunk, et al), and others have existed in some niche form or another, I am confident that Ellis involved himself in those circles long before "it was cool" to do so. Of course, I realize that this is suspiciously the equivalent of the "I'm-not-racist-because-I-have-a-black-friend" argument, but credit where credit's due. 

I think I enjoy Ellis' style mostly for it's playfulness. 

There are other writers out there that are very good at this, like Tom King and Patrick Rothfuss. Even Umberto Eco, on occasion, would have some really funny repartee going on between characters in the midst of a long debate about medieval philosophy. Levity in conversation is its own reward, but when the discussion is high and elevated, the shift in tone is a good reminder that, at the end of the day, we are just reading a story somewhere while the real heroes are out saving lives and making sure our transit systems don't derail (figuratively and literally). Ellis exceeds all expectation when he is doing this. For example, Ignition City features this exchange: 

And most of his books feature numerous instances of this. 

In general, he strikes me as someone who has "done the reading," so to speak, when it comes to various topics. For example, in FreakAngels, Ellis frequently discusses aspects of engineering and technology at work in a flooded post-apocalyptic London, such as renewable power generation and rooftop greenhouse farming. While I'm mostly certain that he is not a trained scientist and engineer, the ideas he leverages are based on real ideas and theories. It never seems like technobabble, that is. 

My only gripe with Ellis is his audacity to start a very good story and ultimately never finish it. Ignition City, Trees, and Injection are both such examples. He also has a tendency to abruptly end stories, which can be traumatizing (in the most hyperbolic sense). However, to his credit, he was able to finish Castlevania, which ended rather wholesomely, despite the breadth of material covered in the show. His novel, Gun Machine also had a rather satisfying ending. 

On a whole, despite his past, my appreciation for his unique brand of storytelling has increased. He's consistent and delivers on a regular basis: the dream of all writers and readers.