Sunday, January 23, 2005

Half-Life 2 (PC, ****)

Half-Life 2 was an especially rare shooter for me, in that I finished the game 100% legitimately, with NO turning on cheat mode to temporarily get past a difficult section or just whiz past the endless monotony of blasting people over and over again with different machinery. This is partly thanks to the fact that the difficulty was just about right for me, with no one section getting me so frustrated that I just wanted to ignore the game and see what came next. But it was also a testament to the fact that it was incredibly varied in gameplay, for a FPS. I never really felt like skipping ahead, because what I was doing at the moment always seemed interesting to me.

A few months ago, I posted that playing Doom 3 is like riding on a Disneyland ride, in which all the events are scripted but they give the illusion of freedom.

That is still the case here; HL2 is quite linear and there is definitely one path for you to follow all the time. At one point, I was driving a car along a coast of beach, and I thought "What happens if I jump in the ocean and start swimming?" And the obvious answer was: you get eaten by an infinite number of piranhas, stupid. There's a wall there, it just doesn't look like a wall. Tricks of the Disney Imagineering team: make it look like there's a world out there when there's not.

And yet, when you come down to it, I had much more fun playing Half-Life 2 than Doom 3, or even Half-Life 1. Why?

Because HL2 does something really slick, and really rare in a shooter, which is make each segment of the game have a (mostly) different feel from the other segments.

Examples of the things you will be doing (MINOR SPOILERS):
  • Standard FPS gun and run levels; a few mini-bosses.
  • Levels where you must drive really really fast and dodge all over the place to avoid getting hit by gunfire, mines, etc. Also jumping ramps.
  • Levels where you must drive and blast stuff with turrets.
  • Fighting with a personal army at your back.
  • Going for long stretches with no ammo drops at all. You need to use a specialized weapon and pre-laid traps cleverly to avoid dying.
  • Sneaking across beams on a roof where the floor is swarming with headcrabs.
  • Fighting in and out of a building with a squadron of independent players.
  • Blasting an unlimited supply of guided rockets at a pilot who dodges a lot, before he kills you first.
  • Using an uber-powerful gun that makes it feel like you are in god mode even when you're not.
  • A puzzle level where you have to create your own path through dangerous terrain.
There's just an awful lot of different things to do here, and the pacing is excellent. Every time I started to think "I'm pretty bored of this sequence" a guy would come out and say "Park your car, Dr. Freeman, we have to hurry inside before the Big Bad arrives."

I think I liked Doom 3 more than most reviewers, but here's how a typical game goes:
Shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, JUMP SCARE, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, simple puzzle, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, JUMP SCARE, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, easy puzzle, shoot stuff, shoot stuff, JUMP SCARE, shoot stuff, boss.

Although both games are linear, you can feel the difference in what you are doing between the two games.

I think the difference can be summed up by the fact that HL2 had a lot more entertaining ways to get killed than D3 did. In Doom, if you die it's pretty much because a monster attacked you until all your hit points were gone. And sometimes, you fall down.

In HL2, you can die while trying to pick up a grenade and throw it back to the owner, become lunch for the aforementioned piranhas, total your car off a cliff, get hit by a train, not notice the land mines, make a wrong move that brings in an unbeatable swarm of enemies, step into the wrong transport and head for the incinerator. Idiot.

Also: nice soundtrack. I don't remember any music in Doom 3 at all. If there was some other than the obligatory thrash metal ballad for the closing credits, I must have missed it. Half-Life 2 has mood music all over the place. Not music all the time, but when you're doing something important, you'll definitely know. This makes the game far more cinematic.

Also, lots of HL2 takes place outside. Definitely a good thing. And even when you're inside, you don't just looking at the same boring office textures over and over again. There are a lot of different indoor environments.

Also, good NPC's who don't show up only on TV monitors or when they are about to die. There are people whose only role is "cannon fodder #53". But you also have friends, and you'll feel bad if you let them die.

Also, an interesting villain.

So to sum up my objections to this game: very long load times, and only illusory control over the story or the sequence of events. But overall, thumbs up.

One other thing: people will likely complain about the ending, which feels like a cheap way to not resolve things so that they can leave it open for a sequel. I can't say I disagree, but I read that this was coming, so I didn't care too much.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Yasir Arafat rose from the dead!

Paul makes a reasonable appeal. Believe based on the evidence. If you don't believe that I saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, then ask some of the 500 others who are still living. [1 Corinthians 15:6]
I understand what you're saying. As a matter of fact, last week I saw Yasir Arafat, alive and well, taking a bath in my tub. Naturally, I was surprised. "Yasir!" I exclaimed. "Didn't you just die last month?" "Yes I did," Yasir replied in heavily accented English. "Luckily for me, I came back to life two weeks later and I am now here to relate the experience to you."

Needless to say, I worried that nobody would believe me when I told them that a resurrected Yasir Arafat showed up in my bathtub and walking around. But luckily for me, after he finished his bath, he toweled off, got dressed in his robes, and walked outside. He asked me to drive him downtown, so I did. While we were in downtown Austin, some 900 people noticed us. "Hey, is that Yasir Arafat?" some of them called out. "Yes, my friends!" replied Yasir. "I have returned! Come and touch me if you cannot believe that I am real!"

So Yasir Arafat also returned from the dead. If you don't believe that I saw him, you can ask any of those 900 people who also saw him. Unfortunately I cannot tell you who they were, but I'm sure you'll have no trouble tracking them down yourself.

Question: Do you understand the difference between confidently writing about evidence, and actually producing that evidence?

It's curious that Paul claimed that 500 people witnessed the resurrected Christ, and yet none of those 500 people -- not a single person other than Paul -- saw fit to jot something down about the experience. I hear that the Romans kept excellent historical records. You would think that seeing a dead guy walking around would be an event that was surprising and unusual enough that somebody contemporary, who was not affiliated with the founding of Christianity, would want to get something about it on paper. Seeing Yasir Arafat certainly made me want to write about it.

If any of those 500 people had bothered to write down something independent, that would at least be a start. Multiple corroborated accounts from sources other than the Bible (which you have to admit seems to have an agenda) would be really impressive.
There is a certain aspect of "blind" in it, in that unless you were an eyewitness, well, you didn't see it. But you can have blind faith that a chair you've never sat in before will hold you up, based on inference. That's a reasonable action to take. If a person feels they have enough evidence, they are reasonable when they believe in a creator. It may not be enough evidence for you, or the kind of evidence you require, that is another matter altogether. [Yes, yes, of course people can put their faith in the wrong thing based on faulty evidence or inferences]
Inferring that the chair I want to sit in will hold me up, because other chairs I have sat in also hold me up, is very different from believing something just because somebody tells me so. The evidence that chairs, in general, hold people off the floor can be empirically tested as many times as you may wish.

On the other hand, if somebody told me that you can sit on clouds and they will hold you up just as well as chairs, well, I wouldn't believe them. Even if a million people fervently BELIEVED that you can sit on clouds, I wouldn't believe them. I would ask them, "Can you show me how you sit on a cloud? If not, can you provide an undoctored photo of somebody sitting on a cloud? Can you tell me whether clouds are water vapor, as scientists seem to believe, and if so, how you can sit on water vapor? Why can't I sit on steam or fog? Can you explain why most people in your group, when they try to sit on clouds, seem to fall down and die?" And so on.

This person would be under no obligation to provide me with evidence, but then he shouldn't expect me to hurl myself out of a plane for an afternoon of cloud-sitting fun.

One phrase you might hear occasionally is "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." People sitting on chairs is not an extraordinary event; it happens all the time. If you say "I was sitting on a chair yesterday" then I'm likely to take your word for it without further investigation. If you say "I was sitting on a cloud yesterday" then I'm likely to ask for proof.

"It rained every day last week": not extraordinary.
"It rained every day last week in the Mojave Desert": prove it.
But I digress, sorry for the sermon. My point is only that the case can be made that religious (at least Christian) faith is not entirely expected to be "blind", and certainly not without any evidence.
That's fine. Then in the name of presenting evidence, I would like you to propose any kind of test that could be used to verify the existence of an intelligent creator. If your test fails, you must be willing to see that failure as a point in favor of the disconfirmation of your theory.
Your faith in evolution (my assumption)
is partly blind in that you can't see the major changes taking place (like new organs and new body structure), but you base your trust in it on inference (in part) from available evidence of smaller changes which most people agree are happening today.
Again: there is a DIFFERENCE between believing something that you can observe and demonstrate over and over again (people sitting on chairs) and believing something for which there is no evidence available other than hearsay (people sitting on clouds).
I do accept evidence, but I have a feeling we do not agree on what counts as evidence. If its only empirical, 5-sense evidence you mean, then I don't limit it to that.
Then please suggest another type of evidence that we may use.

We don't have to limit ourselves to the Bible. For instance, let's take another couple of books you may have heard of: The Iliad and the Odyssey.

These books are older than the New Testament. They describe events that, in large part, we are pretty sure really happened. And they have extensive descriptions of multiple gods running around interfering in wars and such. These descriptions are not isolated; the existence of those same gods (Zeus, Athena, Hermes, etc) are also confirmed by the works of Plato, Aristophanes, and many, many others.

Do you believe in Hermes? If not, why not?
The universe itself is evidence; its there (or we are in it), and it fits the definition of naturalistic standards as far as I can tell. To me and many others, the universe is evidence that *something* outside the universe exists, which brought the universe into existence.
Respectfully, the universe is evidence that the universe exists. Beyond that, I can say that the universe is evidence for anything I want to. I could say that the universe is evidence for a transdimensional polka-dotted gopher named Phil. But that doesn't make it true. If I want you to believe in Phil, I should have to produce direct evidence of Phil, instead of waving vaguely at trees and sky and saying "This! All this is evidence for Phil!"

See what I mean?

[This exchange lasted for several days, and finally the Christian asked the following:]
Some of the arguments against the idea of a creator go something like this: "I believe that a purple dragon lives in your garage", or that "Yasser Arafat came back from the dead and talked to me and 900 others" with the implication that you can't prove it, that just saying so doesn't make it true without evidence.

So my question, how do you disprove such claims?
That's an astute question, I'm glad you asked. The answer is: YOU CAN'T.

Really. Truly. You can't.

There is a whole category of claims like that, which just don't open themselves up to disproof. If they were true, they could easily be proved. Produce the dragon, or produce Arafat, and your claim will become true.

But there's no way to DISprove these claims, because Arafat could be really good at hiding. The dragon, though you were standing in front of him, might be invisible, incorporeal, and produce no heat. Throw enough ad hoc claims at the subject, and you simply can't say for certain that something does not exist.

So here's the question you really wanted to ask: "How then shall I choose what to believe and what not to believe?" If you wish, you can choose to believe every single thing that anybody tells you which can't be disproven. Unfortunately, that means that you'll believe a lot of contradictory information ("There is a dragon in your garage, AND there is no dragon in your garage"), which has to be false.

It also means that you'll believe a lot of things that can be very dangerous to you personally. For instance, "I am a famous Nigerian businessman trying to export 900 million dollars out of the country. If you will just send a small fee of $5000 to this address, I can pay the bank's processing fees and get the money. I will gladly send you a 10% cut."

Or: "If you drink this delicious poison, you will not die but be instantly transported onto a spaceship that is currently hiding behind that comet over there."

Or even more mundane claims, like "Buy this product and you'll be really cool and popular and successful!"

You really, honestly cannot prove that the 900 million dollars is not there. Just because there are a lot of stories about Nigerians stealing people's money, or even luring them to their home country and slitting their throats, does not PROVE that this one is not legit.

You really, honestly cannot prove that the spaceship isn't there.

That's why "skepticism" is not just a quality for crotchety, anti-social old men and nasty sinners who desperately want to not believe in God. Skepticism is a virtue, something that you should respect and cultivate.

Skepticism does not mean that you automatically believe the opposite of whatever you're told. It just means that you evaluate the evidence for something and ask yourself "Do I have a good REASON to believe this?" If you don't, then you still don't assume it's false. You just file it away under "no evidence." You recognize that it's something that might turn out to be true in the future, but for the time being, you don't feel particularly compelled to believe it.

If I tell you "Hey, there's a dragon in my garage!" you say "Interesting. Can I see it?" And if I say, "No, it's invisible" you say "Can I touch it?" and so on. If I can't give any good reason to believe in the dragon, then you don't have to believe it. It's as simple as that. You say, "Sure, you MIGHT have an invisible, untouchable, heatless dragon, but so what? It doesn't seem to make any difference whether it's there or not."

"Occam's Razor" is also a really good skeptical tool to keep in mind. Look it up. Occam's Razor says that, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Which is more likely: That a Nigerian businessman would contact a total stranger to move an enormous amount of cash, or that your email came from a garden-variety con man? Which is more likely: That Yasir Arafat is back from the dead, and there are 900 people who can't be contacted, or I am pulling your leg? If you got more evidence of Arafat's miraculous rebirth, you can always change your mind later.

For more along these lines, I highly recommend this essay: