Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Technicolor Time Machine by Harry Harrison - Book Review

Do you like stories about time travel? Who doesn't, am I right? Without sounding superfluous, I would like to say it's one of those genres of literature that must be simultaneously the easiest and the toughest to write about. On the one hand time travel could be anything you want it to be, since we have no reality to compare it to. On the other hand it's so easy to write yourself into mind-bending paradoxes that make the reader just think you're being silly now. If you're trying to do it seriously it must be an impossibility to keep every timeline clean from scrutiny. I am sure even the most serious creator gives up at some point and realizes that some things are just not going to be explainable.

If you want to read something very educating and interesting about "real" time travel, as we understand it today, I can really recommend Kip Thorne's "Black Holes and Time Warps". Kip Thorne was also scientific consultant on the movie Interstellar, which shows how some of the theoretical ideas from the book could work.

A cover that captures the essence.

I really think I don't come across time travel often enough in literature, please point me to some good works if you know of any. Maybe that is why I enjoy sci-fi on TV where this seems to be explored at a regular basis, my go-to Star Trek has delivered on so many I'd be hard pressed to even say my favorites (but it is probably telling that both The Voyage Home and First Contact rank among my favorite Star Trek movies).

H.G Well The Time Machine is interesting from a history of literature (or history of sci-fi) point of view, but it's not very entertaining to read. Because good time travel stories seem few and far between in literature, I was very happy to come across Harry Harrison's "The Technicolor Time Machine" from 1967. It's one of those deliciously funny stories that takes the time travel story and runs with it to its furthest reaches.

- Ottar has signed the contract. I was very surprised to find an Icelandish notarius publicus here...
- You can find anything in Hollywood.

The concept of the book is as funny as it is silly. Time is money. So if you're a movie company and have no money but a time machine, couldn't you save a lot of money by simply time traveling? Let's just say, it's not going to be that easy. 

The main character, director Barney Hendrickson, works for a movie company that is just about to go bust. It has about as much money needed to make one last movie, but no time to make it before the banks come and take it all away. Because of reasons, Barney happens to know a professor who has invented a working time machine. Barney decides to use it to jump back to the time of the Vikings (around year 1000) to shoot a movie about the Vikings "discovering" the Americas, which they called Vinland. The idea is based on the very real theory that Vikings briefly settled on the Canadian coast, way before Columbus ever set foot there.

- There is a hostile guard. You need to sneak up there and kill him just like if this was for real.
- But why?
- Why? What kind of question is that, Ottar...?

The time traveling works fine, but it turns out that the practicalities of shooting a movie aren't removed because you suddenly have all the time in the world. Barney has to make the most out of the fact that the time machine can allow you to spend any amount of time in history and still only use one second of time in the "now". In the "present" Barney only has a weekend to finish the whole movie so he constantly needs to make sure no one spends any time there. He sends off the script writer to Trilobite-time to finish the script. He has to send off the lead actor to a different time because of an injury. They forget one of the actors in-between jumps (one second in present time, a year in Viking-time) which has life-altering implications for her. They leave the old-norse language historian in Viking time for months so that he can teach the lead Viking actor to speak English. 

That's not even to mention the ordeals of getting the native time-inhabitants to cooperate with a project they don't understand on any level. Nor the fact that they have to deal with hostile forces that literally want to kill them. Barney takes it all in stride and makes the most out of it. When he fails to get the native Indians to "act" in the movie he decides to use the very real attack on the settlement in the movie instead.

- I didn't want to bother you while you were eating, she said.
- Why not? After what I just ate my digestion will never be the same. Do you know what a Trilobite is?

The end result is nothing but a romp, in the best of ways. It gets to the right kind of confusing and hilarious, like a slice of something out of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It always feels like a miracle that Barney can keep track of where everyone is on the timeline and most importantly how much pay they are due (an ever constant argument with the company owner, who keeps arguing that only mere hours have passed in the present and everyone should get paid accordingly). 

The Swedish version called "Barney the Time Traveler Saga". I don't think the cover artist has read the book.

Because it is a book about time travel it wouldn't be a proper ending without a twist, one that I foresaw pretty early on but which was nonetheless clever and thought-provoking.

The Technicolor Time Machine is the kind of book that is created when someone has an interesting idea over a cup of coffee somewhere and they go "what would happen if...". Harrison brings it all together marvelously. It has some flaws, there are some not so well aged, "to be expected of the time"- caricatures (anyone who isn't a white male is horribly stereotype, I tried to read it as a parody), and my Swedish copy (from 1982) is a pretty bad translation. But it doesn't remove from the fact that the overall concept and execution works to entertain. 

This was my first book by Harry Harrison and I am eager to find more. I am actually surprised this hasn't been turned into an actual movie, because the book reads like one, and I think it would be brilliant in the right hands.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Zinn Plays - Cultures (PC)

One of my favorite games ever is Settlers 2, or Die Siedler as the original German version is called and which my optimistic German grandma gifted my then 8 year old something little brother back in the late 90's. I can see her reasoning, Settlers 2 is seemingly a game about building rather than killing and destroying, during a time when DOOM and all their clones were flooding the market this must've seemed like a boon to all the wanna-do-good grandparents around, and overall grandma was correct. Although there is the possibility to kill enemies in Settlers 2, the majority of the game is spent building, crafting and balancing resources. 

My 8 year old brother had zero interest in that concept however, but I did. At first I played entirely without enemies, probably unknowingly exactly the way my grandma would've wanted, and it turned out to be a great way to learn the basics of the game without the stress of being killed. When something stopped working I could slowly figure out why.

Knowing how much fun I'd had with Settlers 2 throughout the years made me curious to check out Cultures, originally released in 2000. Starting it up I was immediately greeted with the possibility to play a tutorial, but I decided to opt out figuring that a well designed game would make me understand while playing, the same way I had with Settlers 2 all those years back.

My first impression was at once that it reminded me a lot of Settlers 2, which meant Cultures was off to a good start. And interestingly enough Cultures was also designed by a German developer, Funatics, just like Settlers 2, Blue Byte. In fact, the people who started Funatics were ex-Blue Byte personnel. There was even an expansion to Settlers 2 produced by Funatics called "Settlers 2 - Rise of Cultures" released in 2008. It doesn't feel like a long-shot to claim that the Settlers-series worked as a heavy influencer to the Cultures-series. Maybe someone had ideas that weren't realized in the Settlers series and decided to explore them themselves?

Because there are some notable differences between the series. While the Settlers series (at least the ones I have played) focuses on the gathering of resources for the building of structures, Cultures leans a lot more heavily on population management. In Settlers 2 any and all humans needed for a job just spawn out of nowhere like an endless resource. In Cultures, your people are a resource to be managed as well and the most crucial one by far.

In Cultures your men need to be born, told where to live, told which job to do, learn it well over time (or go to school and learn it well a bit faster), get a wife, have children with her and the new child continues the loop. The women on the other hand need to be born, marry, have children and cook for their family. You can imagine the big sigh I let out when I realized this. I decided to not let it ruin my fun however.

Every person (and they all have their own names) in your little settlement needs food but not all people create food, meaning there is an important tactical choice every time you choose to give someone a more secondary useful job like shoemaker rather than a huntsman. Will the rest of the population be able to sustain this shoemaker? Maybe they will all walk a bit faster because of their new and improves shoes which will increase food-production over time (I am actually not entire sure what shoes do to improve the population). Where should my new Huntsman work and will the women be able to reach his tent fast enough to be able to cook for their families? It is just the right amount of annoying when you see an alert that someone is going around hungry, when you know one of your Fishermen Huts is filled with fish. 

Everything moving along nicely.

Because so much focus has been put on the population management in Cultures, some other things have been made considerably easier. For instance, unlike in Settlers 2, most resources in Cultures seem to last either forever or at least way longer. Hunters don't seem to be able to run out of wildlife to kill nor can the fishermen overfish their waters. Once you've assigned someone to their job they seem to be able to go at it forever, giving you all the time you need to manage your people, right?

The controls are easy to grasp, especially if you have previous knowledge of this genre, and it didn't take me too long to figure out roughly how I needed to move along to keep everyone happy. Knowing and doing are two different things however, and I find myself tweaking my micro-managing in just the same fun ways I did with Settlers 2. Every now and then the game throws a wrench in my works, like someone not being able to pathfind their way back to their home (working as intended) or me realizing that in my eagerness to create men that work the fields I've not birthed enough women that do the hidden work, slowly making my civilization crash before my eyes (almost an apt political statement from the creators).

Just like Settlers 2 this proves to be an incredibly more-ish concept. It is very satisfying to try to figure out the balance between your resources and making sure not to tip the scale the wrong way. It is fun to realize that by trying to solve a problem by adding a new worker I just actually added to my problems. When I look down on my little settlement and see everyone working like little cogs in a machinery, I'm almost afraid to add any little thing to it, lest it sets off a cascade of issues. Problem-solving these kind of issues has always been one of the things that have attracted me to the genre.

Because Cultures is about the lives of people it is slow work though. I haven't checked if this game has a "speed-up"-button like Settlers 2 (I some times played entire sittings with speed-up activated), but in either case you've got to be prepared for a whole lot of leaning back in your chair and read a good book while waiting for things to happen. One of the most common occurring themes in reviews for this game was how slow it was, and I can definitely agree with that. But not in a bad way and never to the point where it gets boring. A lot of these city-building games, and maybe it was something about the times they were made as well, are designed in the way where you set up an amount of orders, wait for it to happen and then reap/repair accordingly. Set up your next amount of orders, rinse and repeat over and over. 

Even if waiting for someone to grow up so that you finally can get that really needed Merchant can sound like the dullest concept for a game, and despite what I just claimed above, in reality you're rarely absolutely out of things to do. If nothing else there is still a lot of thinking to do, about things you are going to have to do, about things that look like they might not work for much longer and are going to need fixing etc.

That is the charm with these kind of games and as much as Settlers 2 made me love it for it, Cultures is doing a great job in capturing the same essence with a similar but quite different take on it. Part of the appeal here is the meditative state they put me in and things just kind of trudging along and the world around you disappears. It's not stressful, and extremely rewarding when you get things right.

My 8 year old brother had no interest in Settlers 2, but my 8 year old at home showed great interest in Cultures. After having tried it for a while on his own though he seemed to think things didn't go so well and we decided it would be the most fun to play together. And any game that can get a modern kid away from Minecraft is at least doing something right.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Zinn Plays - Might & Magic Book One: Secret of the Inner Sanctum (MS-DOS)

The only thing more depressing than my huge backlog of books I want to read (I've got literal piles of books around my apartment) is my huge backlog of games I want to play (fortunately mostly digital copies). I've already come to terms with the fact that I can't reasonably get through the hundreds of games in my catalogue during my lifetime, unless I focus on nothing but gaming when I retire. Not an altogether horrible prospect in all fairness.

Whenever I feel ready to give a new game a go I usually try to select it by some random means, so that I will be surprised and unbiased to my choice. This time the RNG-powers landed me on Might & Magic Book One: Secret of the Inner Sanctum (or MM1 as I will call it henceforth, don't get it confused with MegaMan).

MM1 was released for computer-devices back in 1986, making it just about as old as I am. It's definitely not the kind of game I grew up playing or have had much experience with at any point in my life. I've played a couple of retro computer games though (late 80's through the 90's) and my general assessment is that they haven't aged too well, especially in the accessibility-department. Unlike video games from the same time, computer games seem marred in confusing and obscure control schemes, some so outdated as to make games almost unplayable. By control schemes I don't just mean the literal means of controlling your character/s, but all aspects of the game in which you try to control it - menus, navigating, combat etc. 

Let's just say it was with some trepidation I started up MM1. 

You're instantly greeted with that seems to be the only little bit of music the game is going to offer, it's sweet and short. The constant sweep-effect of the start screen is confusing and a bit nauseating, but fortunately doesn't last longer than you allow it to.

I've got to say I love the way the game asks me if I am ready. Games don't do this anymore, why?

The game allows you to create your own characters from the start, and originally I had no idea that there was any option to this. I randomly roll a few and the game suggests classes based on the stats I get. I know that in these older D&D based games some classes can be basically useless, some get really strong eventually and some are essential to have. But I have no idea if MM1 is going to be one of those games, nor which classes I need to bring, nor really what any of the classes do (though some are fairly self-explanatory, like the Cleric). It takes me a little while to figure out how to launch my party from the Inn at the starting city of Sorpigal, but then off we go.

Everything in MM1 looks like a labyrinth and I realize very soon that without some sort of map I am going to be hopelessly lost. The GoG version I am running has maps as a downloadable extra, but for some reason they don't work for me. Fortunately I live in the time of the friendly internet and finding a map of Sorpigal doesn't take long. Running around the corridors I come across enemies and battle ensues.

The combat system of MM1 turns out to be quite straightforward and I am grateful. You press different commands not unlike something from a Final Fantasy game, minus the animations since combat in MM1 is purely text based. At this point however I have no idea how to cast spells with my casters making them essentially useless. It doesn't help that my self-crafted characters are naked and wielding nothing but their hairy hands to fight with. Needless to say I don't last long even against the weakest enemies.

The sprites are well annoying.

After a few failed runs I try to figure out what I can do to survive. To regain health you can either cast healing spells or you can choose to rest. You can rest wherever, but it requires food and if you rest in an unsafe area you can be attacked by enemies while sleeping. Buying more food costs money, of course. I don't seem to have any money and the few mobs I have managed to kill don't seem to reward any. How can I continue? 

Restarting from the Inn yet again I notice that I can choose premade characters over my own one. Thinking that they hardly can suck more than the ones I have already tried, I start out with the "OG"-team of MM1; Crag, Sir Galand, Zenon, Swifty, Serena and Wizz. It's a nice mix of classes and I also notice that for some unfair reason this bunch gets to start with a pretty nice sum of money, with which I immediately set off to buy myself some gear.

It all makes perfect sense.

Now I also go and do something I should've done from the start - I read the manual. The main reason is to learn how to cast spells, which I still haven't been able to figure out. While the casters have the command "cast" to do, then I get prompted for "level" and "what number". I don't know? At first I interpret "what number" as meaning "how many". I keep typing "one" because I only want to cast one of whatever it is I am casting. That is not how casting works at all, it turns out. Clerics and Sorcerers have levels of spells, depending on character level. At first you only know level 1 spells, of which there are 8 and range from putting people to sleep, throwing fire arrows at them or blessing accuracy on your party. Once you know it it's very simple to grasp and easy to use.

Now that I have characters with gear and kind of know how to use all my skills, nothing should be able to stand in my way. I make my way into Sorpigal once again.

If these walls could talk...

Sorpigal is a pretty hellish city. You can force yourself through locked doors, which is really nice. Less nice are the horrible traps that always spring in your face and there is somehow always some sort of enemy hiding behind the doors. I understand why they keep them locked now. 

Even worse are the pitch black areas, where all you can see on your screen are the words "darkness" or "solid!" if you happen to be bashing your head into a wall. I figure that I should be able to solve it with a torch or two so I run back to the shop to buy some. Fortunately they are very cheap. Unfortunately they are absolutely useless. Using a torch lights up one frame, and the next step you take everything goes dark again. Same thing if you use your spells to illuminate the area. Going into dark areas are currently not really a viable option to me and I wonder if there is some button I need to activate somewhere to turn on the lights?

Feeling like I had hit a dead end in Sorpigal I try to go out into the woods. Without a map. I get lost faster than anyone can say "blathering blatherskite" and even though I hold out well against the snakes and orcs of the forest I finally succumb right at the doorstep of Sorpigal which I had just rediscovered...

That's the world of MM1, unforgiving. But also oddly more-ish. Moving around, doing combat and gaining experience is so easy that I always feel that if I only take it a bit more carefully I could definitely make it around the next corner. You run out, fight some enemies, run back, restock and recuperate. Rinse and repeat. 

If there is some deep narrative hidden somewhere in this game I have yet to come across it. Other than shop-keepers I have spoken to no one and the most mysterious thing I've found were curiously inscribed statues with messages so obscure as to be pointless to me at this point in the game. But I don't mind. I am perfectly happy with just seeing if I can make it around the next corner.