Until Dawn: Mourning What Almost Was

The following post contains spoilers for Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn. While not all parts cover specific story points, going into this game blind about the nature of the mechanics will probably make the experience more enjoyable. 

I’ll start with a disclosure: I really love ‘interactive story’ games. People have often been heavy on the criticism for David Cage’s work with Quantic Dream, but I loved Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. So I went in to Until Dawn as one of the most receptive customers.

I was warned at the beginning of the game that my decisions had consequences, and that I could kill the characters in any combination, and that I could finish the game with everyone dead. I approached the game with a cautious demeanour following this warning. Treating every QTE (Quick Time Event) as a life or death scenario, gently pacing through the various creepy corridors and forests with caution in case I stumbled across an important moment that I would need to react to. I scoured the environment for clues and totems, hoping that I could make the most of them to solve the mystery around.

I was fully invested in the game and the story, even ignoring aspects that bother me even within films of this genre (like people sneakily following others with torches, as the light would be super bloody obvious in the otherwise pitch blackness), and when I got to the end I felt pretty content with what I had done. I enjoyed the experience, the tension and the scares, and even though some people died due to stupid mistakes by me, I acknowledged the ending for what it was.

Seeing how all of my butterfly effects fluttered through my story was quite interesting. Small acts rippled through in odd and interesting ways. Some oddly inconsequential acts at the time had relatively important effects on the story. Choosing to give the flare away lead to confrontation that may have not occurred without that choice. But the ‘may have not‘ is important because the ramifications of our actions don’t seem to be as significant as we were lead to believe.

No matter your actions, the story progresses in a relatively similar manner right up until the end. The same places will be visited, by more or less the same people, to make more or less the same conclusions. Your autonomy is surprisingly restricted given the constant rhetoric about how your choices matter. The game has an opening sequence showing the veins of a butterfly’s wing, telling us that our actions will change the course of the game. A scene between Chris and Sam continues to beat you over the head with the concept of the butterfly effect by telling us how Chris and Josh met, and how without that small act someone entirely different could be sitting where Chris was (which in my playthrough, may have been better for Chris…). The game tries to set this as a narrative and a reality for the game universe, but what we actually have is a story with a few terminal points, but a mostly forgiving meander of tension. Going back with this knowledge poses a threat to the replayability, and to the potential of a truly consequential game.

An extraordinarily tense encounter in your first playthrough

After completing the game you can look up the Trophy list, and see that there are only a few highly significant moments that will change the direction of the game. You can look up all the death scenes, and see that there are surprisingly few possibilities. One character only has a single death scene. Knowing that can really dampen the experience on a replay, as you begin to see how your actions really don’t add up to much. Obviously, some choices are bigger than others, with some having very surprising revelations (e.g. Ashley Snaps) but most actions only make small changes.

In one of the earlier chapters you are left as Sam to escape from the Psycho. In an initial playthrough, with no idea of what is actually going on this is a moment of genuine terror. Rapidly trying to successfully navigate all the QTEs, and make all the right choices with what to do next, only to make a victorious escape… or you screw up and get captured, to free yourself or freed later on. The actual choices you make don’t matter because the game needs to get through to the other side of that chapter. Knowing this can really sap the tension from a scene.

By limiting the autonomy of a player Until Dawn actually diminishes it’s replayability. I am going to replay the game, but rather than to explore all the different things I can do, mine will be focused on getting the ‘ending I wanted, not the one I got‘ and on getting various Trophies. I do look forward to going through the game with other people, and seeing how everyone reacts, but from a persona; experience, I’ve seen what there is to see.

Until Dawn was a fantastic experience, and kept me glued to my screen until the wee hours of the morning creeping myself out as Silent Hill-style fog rolled in on my apartment, but it is one that I can’t help feel missed that little bit more autonomy. That little extra could have turned it from a thoroughly great experience, to one that would have truly been paradigm shifting.

Why #EdexcelMaths shows we’re failing students.

News broke yesterday with another scandal within the GCSE exams, with it being the turn of Edexcel’s Mathematics paper to take the brunt of ‘unfair exam’ statuses and updates. Students filed with outrage at the question that they deemed too challenging or unfair to attempt. The question itself is fairly innocuous, but with interesting wording

There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow.

Hannah takes a sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet.

‘The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that n²-n-90=0

The solution is very straight forward, and involves no maths they wouldn’t have been exposed to after year 10. It also follows complaints about an AS Physics exam that asked students to find the internal resistance of a potato, and an infamous Biology exam from 2010.

I actually took that Biology exam back in 2010, I remember the whole classroom being furious after the event, but I was pretty thankful. It was the first year they had moved away from knowledge recall lto testing your application of knowledge. It also happened to be the first year of the new syllabus and the example papers gave no indication of this.

The complaints that year cried the same thing about stupid exams, and unfair questions (the claim being we were unable to answer them), and very few claims that the exam board had been deceptive in their positioning. The latter was the only one that really mattered. We’d be set up for an exam about memory recall and got when about application. The exam wasn’t too hard, but it set up a false assumption about what was going to happen.

What these do show however is that either exam boards are failing to communicate their intentions to students and teachers, or the demands on schools to produce students who can learn by rote all the things needed to get the grades and marks required to make the school look good enough. When schools live or die by getting the grades for the most students, educating becomes secondary to teaching exam techniques and chunks of information.

All the above maths question requires you to do is think about what it is asking you to do, rather than panicking about the final result. It’s a very simple decision tree/probability question once you get to the root of it, and people missed that due to having to gather that information from words.

It was the same with the potato question, it was the same with my biology paper. We just aren’t taught how to rationally approach problems, instead just the exact protocol that the exam board wanted to get marks. Within physics A Level papers there are small essay questions, but the marks are given for such a narrow range of possibilities, that kids are taught how to answer exactly as the mark scheme wishes. Failure to do so means that correct knowledge will not be marked so. This unfair and foolish position has lead to schools maximising on exam technique, and now it is biting them.

Examining bodies can not have it both ways, because it puts burdens on schools that are ineffective, and schools cannot continue to punish schools for failing to hit minimum grade requirements. Some form of evaluation is needed but the way it acts currently is abysmal. Schools can, and do, put kids who they fear won’t get the C at GCSE and put them in the BTEC as soon as possible, effectively removing any possibilities for these children to engage in the subject at any point in the future.

A system that actually encourages engagement with the subject, and boards that have competent markers, and flexible mark schemes that don’t punish informed answers that deviate from the few accepted answers.

The #EdexcelMaths outrage is just indicative of a further problem that is becoming increasingly common as schools fight for rankings in a system that doesn’t even know what it wants to be.

Review: Last Kind Words

Before I get on with the rest of the review I feel it is worth watching the trailer, it’s pretty important context for the rest of this post.

And now that you have watched the trailer you don’t need to watch the film. I’ve just saved you an about an hour and a half of your life. As a result I will be using spoilers throughout my review, though the trailer itself covers most of them.

A fundamental issue with this film is how it was marketed, as when you position a film as being in the horror genre, and then go on to ignore the core concepts that make something a horror film you are going to annoy some people. The trailer itself utterly misconstrues the tone and feel of the movie, and the posters give a much darker feel, and a far more ‘core horror’ feel. It is a complete bait and switch, extremely deceptive. 

But even without this deceptive strategy the film still comes away as a disappointment. The film begins in a pretty standard set up, a family has moved to a farm in Kentucky, owned by a family friend, to make a living. The father is a depressive, abusive alcoholic, the mother lives in fear of her husband, and the son, Eli, is a dull and expressionless teenager with utterly confused motivations. The background of abuse in the family, that we only get a small amount of information about, is treated quite poorly. Within the film there is a part where Eli (the protagonist of this slow motion train wreck) is out on a night walk, after his father through a lamp at him in a drunken rage. Eli bumps into his mother hiding in the barn, who expresses politely that she is staying in the barn because ‘you know what you dad is like when he’s drinking’. As a result the mother, and the father come across as utterly flat characters, devoid of any motivations.

And the main plot is a disappointment too. It follows Eli, who comes across a girl, Amanda, wandering through the woods near his trailer. They sort of hit it off, through a series of awkward conversation and skinny dipping (which includes a delightfully weird scene where he attempts to avert his eyes because staring would make Jesus sad), before beginning some sort of romantic actions. They come across a fenced off section which Amanda tells Eli he shouldn’t cross. 

So he crosses the fence. At night. With only a shitty flash light for protection. What you learn during this film is that Eli is neither particularly interesting, or particularly bright. This is the one of the two parts of the film that actually resembles horror, but Eli discovers a body hanging from a tree, works out that it is Amanda’s body, and she then screams at him for visiting the forest.

Eli then begins what one could consider an investigation into Amanda. An investigation in which he asks two people one question, and then happily walks away as if they have given him a satisfactory answer. Eli is told that Amanda is dangerous and that he must stay away from her. The audience is obviously curious as to what is known about her, but Eli being a brilliant detective wanders away happy with that answer, and then he goes to find Amanda to carry on kissing and holding hands down by the creek. 

This premise meanders through an hour of blank staring and visually attractive pans of the surrounding countryside. Within this hour the story barely progresses forward. We learn that Eli’s childhood friends has the hots for him and wants him to run away with her. Amanda wants Eli to protect her against something really bad, but we don’t know what that is and Eli never bothers to ask. And after staggering through this bog of poor direction it arrives to the conclusion that the farm owner was her brother, who hanged from the tree because he didn’t want her to leave, and now he is going to hand himself to so he can be with her. 

Eli must now save the day by cutting down the body, which in this Universe makes the ghosts go away, of the farmer. But oh no! Both bodies are on the same bit of rope, so he must kill Amanda to save her from the terror of her brother. This would have made a whole lot more sense if they had been tied to the same rope, but in the film it is very clear to see that they are not.

Eli cuts them both down, both now disappear, the farm goes to his mother because why the hell not, and Eli hangs himself from the same tree. 

Yep, that is how it ends. Eli hangs himself from the magic tree that he has pretty good evidence to suggest makes you into a ghost. That scene was the pinnacle of the problems with this film. That the motivation of all the characters was impossible to ascertain. Eli looks constantly stoned, speaking in monosyllabic grunts that don’t convey any level of character, but two girls are desperately vying for his attention. Amanda apparently just wants to be loved by Eli, and doesn’t want him to leave her, though they have only known each other a few days. The farm owner has an interesting backstory of crippling debt but apparently that leads directly to incestual behaviour.

So when Eli makes all these stupid comments about never wanting to leave Amanda you groan at his childishness, but can at least appreciate a vague idea of what he wants. But when Amanda is dead, and Eli then hangs himself you just give up with the film. He knows that you are trapped to wandering the forest alone, not a particularly good afterlife, and he has no one to spend it with. He leaves his now widowed mother to manage the farm by herself, and chooses to stalk jailbait 30 years in the future instead.

It just didn’t follow any logical behaviour, and due to Eli never expressing any form of emotion in either his face or words, you are just left cursing at him for being a stupid teenager.

The film had a neat concept, but failed to deliver on the idea in a way which felt real or important. It tried to play two genres, supernatural thriller and coming-of-age story, and missed both, leaving it flailing in a no mans land of commercial failure.

Though even with all that criticism I don’t hate the film. I don’t like it, but I don’t think it is utterly irredeemable. It has moments that show a talented director lies behind the lense, and that the actors do actually know how to do the acting thing, but these are few and far between. This film could have been a nice neat 35 minute short played a film festivals around the globe and it probably would have done very well for it, but there was not enough material to fill the run time it demanded of us. 

A Letter: An Addition to the ‘No Platform’ Policy

To those of you who know me personally, and know of my general views, the following may not come as to much of a shock: I am attempting to create an addition to the Union’s ‘No Platform’ policy which would not allow science denialist speakers to be given a position to speak from within the University. I spell out what I refer to by denialist in the full letter written below.

For some the position may look like an outright attack on religion, and some have already decided that this is my position: ‘What exactly are you trying to achieve from all your scheming? Isn’t it enough that you strive to make every Christian’s life you ever meet complete hell anyway?‘ (message from Anon, Nov 14).  This isn’t true, if my interest were in attacking people’s beliefs then this would neither be the way to go about, nor would it be ethical (denying religious freedom is not at all my intentions). My interest is solely in ensuring that information presented to students, especially on the topic of scientific theories, is accurate and precise.

Scientific debate is a good and healthy thing, and is encouraged at all levels of education, but to debate both sides must have evidence. What I am trying to prevent is false inflation of evidence where there is either none, or where all the evidence is demonstrably false.

I believe in honesty and disclosure, which is why below I have included the letter I sent to the Union. Where possible I have provided links to what I am referencing, but in cases it is not possible. While I believe in disclosure I respect privacy, and the emails sent to me in reply, by the Christian Union, where probably not intended for public forum (though they are welcome to inform that this is not the case), so instead I have instead listed the date and sender, so if it is needed in the future I can present the emails I am referring to. My actions are out of concern, and I hope by allowing an open airing of my position you are all able to see that for yourselves.

I am also aware that this may go to an open vote, and I hope by making my position and intentions clear from the start I cannot be painted in a false light, or have my arguments straw-manned.

Thank you for taking the time to read the following.

Societies and Services Officer,

On Tuesday 5th November the Swansea University Christian Union (CU) held a talk from invited speaker John McIntosh. This talk was advertised on the CU’s event page as ‘A scientific talk on the The Human Body, Mind, and Matter…‘ (Lunch Bar, The Human Body, Mind, and Matter https://www.facebook.com/events/616951371694636/) but what was presented by the speaker was verifiably false information, as McIntosh tried to present Intelligent Design/Creationist material as scientifically valid, while dismissing the vast amount of evidence to support evolution by natural selection. I contacted the committee of the CU to express my concerns over having such material presented, especially within the context of those with a vested interest in reaffirming their beliefs, and with McIntosh’s ability to use his title of Professor to add false expertise and position to his words. I asked for them, in the greater protection of their members, to not invite members of this viewpoint to be given a platform.
The members of the committee said that they would continue to invite speakers of this view, arguing that they have a varied set of beliefs among their members, and that ‘macro evolution is less supported because it is not physically and scientifically observable‘ (email from Swansea CU, Nov 14). They also argued that presenting the view in this small situation was a fair response to the presentation of evolution throughout the educational system: ‘One professor and one talk is not an unfair opportunity for a different point of view to be expressed, no matter how wrong you believe that point of view is‘ (email from Swansea CU, Nov 14). However, these arguments are not valid in the discussion of scientific accuracy, and show a gross misunderstanding of the scientific method. I believe both of these, among with various conflating factors which I will go on to explain, are extremely damaging to the individuals exposed, and undermine the University’s image as a centre of learning.
My overall desire is for the Union to add the presentation of either demonstrably false, or inaccurate scientific information to their No Platform policy. The Union already recognises and appreciates the difference between free speech and speech from a platform. From a platform you are given greater credence to what you are saying, and you are also able to avoid criticism in the way a normal discussion. From a platform you are able to answer questions in the way you desire, and avoid questions that you are not comfortable answering. McIntosh did this successfully after his speech in which he did not directly answer a single question I presented, diverted the goal posts by stating that I had a biased and incorrect view of the world (without justifying why), and then moved on to questions from other members of the audience.
I do not wish to make this addition to the policy solely aimed at the CU, or at religious groups as a whole, they were just the case that made this relevant. I would consider the same policy of no platform to be applied to presentations on homoeopathy, anti-vaccine campaigners, and crystal healers (to name a few examples), the goal is to ensure accuracy above all else. An allowance of individuals to present demonstrably false information is damaging on three fronts when applied to scientific theories: it undermines the understanding of theory in question, it damages an understanding and appreciation for how the scientific method works (and its self correcting nature), as well as affecting individuals ability to think rationally about information presented to them.
When speakers like McIntosh present their position they undermine our current understanding of evolution. To ensure that what he is saying is at least logically consistent within his speech basic facts about evolution have to be completely ignored, or presented through a straw man argument. Throughout the talk McIntosh continually presented evolution as ‘completely random’ and asking how did certain parts of the human anatomy form ‘by chance’, or appearing fully formed all at once, despite these not being arguments evolution makes (a greater and more detailed overview can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution). To deny the evidence of evolution, false equivalences must be drawn which give incorrect and inaccurate ideas of evolution, making it harder in the long run for people to engage with the idea, and gain a solid understanding. Given the importance of evolution in the understanding of modern biology and in appreciating modern medicine it is a damaging precedent to allow people to be misinformed.
Speakers and presentations that deny the validity of evolution, and other scientific theories, damage an understanding of the scientific method, and the nature upon which theories are developed and refined. The first issue is with the way those opposing scientific accuracy and their attack on the scientific method is their misuse of the word theory, positing it as an idea rather than a ‘widely-accepted explanation of and predictive tool for a particular aspect of the physical universe, which has been sufficiently tested and supported through repeated observations and experimentations; a critical component of a scientific theory is that it is testable and falsifiable‘ (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory). Alongside complaints on how the scientific method alters it views with new evidence, ‘as you well know the Big Bang theory has more than doubled its own estimation of the age of the universe in its relatively short lifetime in the public eye‘ (email from Swansea CU, Nov 13), it creates a distrust of science, and a belief that the views of science are opinions or beliefs held by individuals, and that there is a level of democracy to views. This flies in the face of reality, in which the value of a theory is held only by its accuracy and reliability in both explaining past events, and predicting future observations. Fostering a mistrust of science, an ignorance of the reality of the scientific method, and promoting a false equality of ideas is damaging for individuals going out into the modern world, where even basic scientific literacy is of growing importance.
The last major issue is the impact these false presentations have on the ability of members, exposed to such speakers, to rationally evaluate information. If lead to believe that all ideas are equal, and that scientific theories are just ideas, it damages the ability of individuals to critically and rationally analyse information. Compounded with a vested interest in reaffirming beliefs, it can allow some individuals to being misled, or prevent them from questioning what is being presented. The response from the CU states that they ‘do not believe there is any harm in encouraging people to think for themselves‘ but without implying how they could encourage people to think in a critical manner. Just having information presented to you, especially when it is false or deceptive, as if it were true, does not encourage people to think for themselves. In an ideal position everyone would be versed in how to analyse evidence, and the validity of evidence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierarchy_of_evidence), but this is not the case in practise. A vested interest in re-affirming beliefs, misunderstandings of false battles between faith and science (e.g. Christian’s cannot believe in Evolution), distrust of individuals from the opposing view (e.g. atheists, scientists), and a lack of scientific knowledge in general mean that not everyone is able to fully analyse information presented to them about science. This false view of critical analysis (that all ideas are beliefs) leads to individuals being susceptible to deception in the future. Whether in the form of media reports, or speeches form politicians, there is a need for rational and critical analysis of information, and with a skewed view of how to balance and understand information individuals can be lead astray, or away from the correct information, by those who wish to deceive.
By allowing a platform for those who wish to present demonstrably false information as fact we allow scientific theories, and the method by which knowledge is gained as a whole, to be undermined, and we damage the ability of members of the University to critically evaluate information. As a Union, and a University, [scientific] accuracy should be strived for at all avenues, and events and societies should be reflective of this as well. This letter and request is not written out of anger or spite, but from a position of concern. A concern that people are developing an inaccurate view of science, and critical analysis. The agenda being pushed here is an accuracy agenda, in which we believe all information being presented should be as accurate as possible.
Liam Dodd
If you have further questions, remarks, or commentary I can be reached within the comments of this blog, on Facebook, or on twitter @Audioworm.

An Apology

I intend to keep this brief, so I will attempt not to ramble.

To initially explain, I was unaware that my settings automatically shared my published posts across various social networks. I haven’t published anything on here for several months, and with previous posts rarely attracting any attention I forgot that the settings were even configured that way. What was written was intended to be the musings of an individual attempting to comprehend chaos and confusion.

I have also learnt that my tone, a by-product of many years of exposure to such events, was cold and analytical. I am not going to attempt to justify the style and approach, but merely reiterate that there was no intent to upset, cause distress to, or get a reaction from anyone. 

I respected the wishes of those who made me aware of the mistakes (and those from the more official standings), and understand those who proceeded instead to refer to me by various repugnant characteristics. 

“Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement” – Rita Mae Brown

At Your Action Posts

After a week of doing nothing of any productivity I am back to lectures, and I am extremely thankful.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoying time of from working, and after the mental marathon of cramming for five exams it was very much needed. But a massive problem with any time off for me, is that I have an extremely short attention span. My mind generally feels very cluttered and I bounce around topics in my head far too quickly. Too quick for standard conversation.

It’s not some big headed statement about having a mind too great or whatever other nonsense, but is instead that I am far too practised at flying through extremely tenuous links from point to point. I suppose it is an offshoot of having grown up with so much communication on various online forms and communities. The conversation from thread to thread was usually vastly different, but you would usually have to keep the conversations going between threads. I gave an unprecedented ability to hold multiple arcs within your own head, so it became natural to have these ‘bouncy’ internal conversations.

This has basically lead to it becoming quite an effort to hold my attention for any extended periods of time. The lectures I attend are a stretch, and I can just about get through the 50 minutes by focusing on what the lecturer is saying, and attempting to consolidate it into a vaguely readable document.

I attempted to spend a good chunk of the week off playing video games that have backlogged on my Steam profile. Steam’s heavy discounts mean that you will often pick up a game that you have a fleeting interest in because it costs less than a sandwich. As such I have about 100 games, of which I have truly played about 25, and have dabbled with another 40 to 50.

My attempt to play these games was a small success. I did bash around a good 15 games, and completed several of them, but I would often get to a point in the game that was frustrating or slow and just give up on it for the moment and jump to something else. Steam enables my boredom and allows me to jump into, and out of, multiple games.

A week of this has left me slightly uninterested in sitting down to play games for a long period of time now though, which is why I am glad to get back to lectures. As much as I may whine and moan about having to wake up in the morning (a self inflicted battle, some may say) I genuinely enjoy attending my lectures. I like learning, if I’m not being pushed mentally I become bored and restless, and the lectures fix this. They stretch me and keep me thinking. One of the major reasons I read New Scientist in any free time I get, as it keeps me thinking, and keeps me learning.

The enthusiasm for the new term is probably undeserved, but has been helped by the topics for this term are genuinely interesting. It is about this point in the degree that you actually start to learn stuff that is relevant to active physics research, or to real world applications. It follows shortly after the point where Googling your queries becomes utterly pointless (which is really fun when you have a small problem that you can’t find in any of the textbooks to hand).

We also have okay lecturers so far. Three different modules today, by two different professors, over four hours which were generally pretty good. One of the two is brand new to me a lecturer, and seems solid, if not a little quick with his notes. The second is some one I have had before, though he seems funnier in his state of significant sleep deprivation.

Expect to hear tomorrow about how three hours of programming has made me hate my course again.

Time Wasting, Not Time Killing

“Rule 406:You should always waste time when you don’t have any. Time is not the boss of you”

It has been ten days since I last updated this. Those ten days were the ten days in which I was undertaking my exams. I spent most of those days sat in the library, bashing my head through past papers and problem sheets trying to work out what I was doing in the exam that followed.

I did five in total: two which went well, two which I did as well as one could given the circumstances, and one which lies neatly in the middle. Though that is not my focus of this entry, as we have a rule among our friends to not talk about exams after they are done. It’s for our own sanity.

The topic I want to discuss is however I am really good at procrastinating, but awful at killing time. When I have something else, something important or worthwhile, to do I am fantastic at doing anything but that work. I can browse Reddit for hours, play games solidly for even longer times and happily cruise through YouTube. Take away that pressing deadline however, and become bored and my short attention span rips me a new one.

I have spent today trying to do anything that was unproductive. I have played about six different games today, only for an hour or two at a time because I couldn’t focus or enjoy them. I did a little bit of Dishonoured, some Binding of Isaac, GRiD, Dirt 2 and Symphony. I would play for a bit, get annoyed at a section and then lose interest. 

It may have something to do with how tired I am this morning, as I forced myself up early this morning to await for my laptops arrival and since then I have been tired all day, but I’ve noticed this phenomenon pretty much every time I have nothing else to do.

For some reason, boredom strikes me very quickly when my days are unstructured and I have little of need to do. I need to be doing something, or have done something otherwise I sit around utterly unstructured. My current solution is to try and be more productive with this week off, just to prevent me literally accomplishing nothing. 

And as a testament to my short attention span, I became massive distracted while trying to write this.