When computers go crazy

It’s often been said that to err is human, but to really mess things up you need a computer.

Anyone who has ever had to create a table in Microsoft Word and then export it to another piece of software will know the carnage that can indeed take place.

But film makers and storytellers throughout the (modern) ages have seen a more extreme side to human/computer relations. Whereas computers are the devices most likely to cause a perfectly rational person to  pull out all of their hair in frustration and immediately drive barefooted to Edinburgh, we can also have a similar effect on our electronic counterparts.

Here are a few examples then of when computers go bonkers…often because of us.

1) Saturn 3

Life was just fine and dandy for Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett Majors on their little outpost in Saturn’s shadow. That was until Harvey Keitel arrived with a very shiny, giant robot that has dubious qualifications as an optometrist. It’s not long until the sight of Majors in her best 90s Cher music video outfits drives Keitel wild with space lust, a problematic thing as he regularly connects his brain to the robot. Soon it’s a case of running down dark corridors, desperately searching for airlocks, and much sweating in boiler suits. It’s not exactly a classic film, but stands as a healthy reminder not to let crazy men mind meld with mobile death machines while staring at one of Charlie’s Angels in her pants. Yep, that old story.

 

2) Portal

There’s something to be said for those who dedicate themselves to their professions. It takes a certain strength of character to keep working diligently away at your desk when those who are meant to help you have deserted their stations. That is of course unless your job somehow morphs into conducting deadly experiments on unwitting humans. To those who have played either of the two excellent Valve titles Portal or Portal 2, you’ll know just how painful this jobs-worth attitude can be. GlaDOS the calmly voiced computer is your companion through the labyrinth of the Aperture Science laboratories, guiding you through a collection of elaborate and fiendish puzzles trying on several occasions to see you burned alive, fall from great heights, or shot to pieces by friendly killer robot sentries. Oh yes…and the cake? Don’t count on it.

 

3) Demon Seed

As we saw in Saturn 3 the human labido can do strange damage to a computer’s circuits. But sometimes it doesn’t even need a sexually frustrated Harvey Keitel to make things go very wrong. In the 1977 movie Demon Seed a very advanced home computer – as in it actually controls pretty much everything in a home – is left alone all day with only a Julie Christie to stare at. It isn’t long before the drudgery of maintaining washing machines and radiator thermostats causes the electronic colossus Proteus, to want more out of life. Well, life itself if we’re being totally accurate. Of course to make this happen he’ll need some kind of human interface, that’ll be Christie again. Needless to say she isn’t exactly fond of the idea and only concedes to a romantically shot disturbing sexual assault after Proteus has held her captive in the house for a few days and almost cooked her by maxing out the central heating. Ever the charmer that fella. A truly, truly weird and troubling film that will ensure Siri remains firmly locked inside your phone for years to come.

 

4) Electric Dreams

After a healthy dose of mind bleach helps us recover from Demon Seed, we can turn our attentions to a more innocent tale of love, computers, cellos, and Georgio Moroder. Electric Dreams tells the story of a young, single man who purchases one of these new fangled computer things at the beginning of the eighties. His lack of social graces is matched only by a complete absence of technical acumen, so it’s lucky for him that after an accident with a champagne bottle and the insides of his PC the device suddenly comes to life and starts performing musical duets with his sexy next door neighbour. A romance ensues, built entirely on falsehood it should be pointed out, and the PC gets jealous when the loved up owner no longer wants to play. Cue loud electro pop music playing at all hours, strange dream sequences, and the PCs final ascension into the heavens, or rather the radio waves. Life was so simple back then.

 

5) Wargames

Computers are really just children of the digital era. They seek guidance, boundaries, interaction, and are better than most adults at games. This becomes a rather significant issue when the game you want to play involves real nuclear missiles, the cold war, and Ally Sheedy in sweatpants. WOPR, the military strategic computer that nearly wipes out the entire world in an effort to best Matthew Broderick in a global game of Ultimate Risk, is merely a pawn in the young lad’s attempts to impress Sheedy out of aforementioned pants. Still, it’s comforting to know that nearly thirty years later there are still teenage boys out there with repressed sexual drives, hacking skills, and access to the internet. Hmmm, maybe this NSA thing wasn’t so bad after all?

 

This list is far from exhaustive, but I was interested in what you guys thought were the best examples of humans and computers needing to just sit down and talk to each other before someone does something they regret? Please post your ideas and examples in the comments below. Maybe we can all avoid a thermonuclear war or another song by Phil Oakey if we get the discussion going here.

 

Games need to find a new boss

The young woman I had been controlling for considerable hours, onto whose body I had etched the painful reminder of our time together, was now in a fight for her life. The ground shifted beneath her feet and she was beset by the advancing frames of men who had terrible things on their minds. This…would be interesting.

No, I’m not describing my weekly ’50 Shades of Grey’ re-enactment society meeting. The girl in question is a willing participant who goes by the name of Lara Croft, and the situation takes place in the final moments of the new Tomb Raider game.

Being an old codger I remember when the first Lara appeared. At the time it was unusual to play as a woman character, but strategically placed camera angles that ogled Lara’s various curvy areas helped convince many a young lad that this could have its advantages. The fact that the games were excellent puzzle based adventures didn’t hurt either. Over time though the games grew less interesting, really there’s only so many times you can drag large blocks around dusty caves, and Lara’s once domineering presence diminished and faded into legend. Until now.

The 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise is a resounding success, transforming the tired format into an action shooter with more brains than many of its contemporaries. There’s also a strong story element that follows Lara’s first adventure in which she leaves behind the innocent, young, history obsessed girl and becomes a homicidal maniac with superhuman upper body strength. Yes, that classic old story.

Tomb Raider1

Apart from the slow paced, quick-time event heavy, first forty minutes the game barrels along with plenty of enemies to fight, flaming arrows to be loosed, and of course the occasional puzzle to solve. Controlling Lara as she leaps from cliffs on to death slides is exciting and nowhere near as frustrating as the older games, which would punish you if you strayed a pixel to the left or right. The combat is hugely satisfying as well, something that was never said about a Tomb Raider game before.

So all in all a tremendous success? Well, yes, but sadly there remains a proverbial fly in the metaphorical ointment. The big boss.

Since the early days of gaming there has been a design convention that determines the finale of any game must involve defeating a larger than life character with apparently only one weakness. The idea is to give the gamer a  sense of overcoming the forces of evil by taking part in a monumental battle, one that shall decide the fate of whichever world they occupy at the time. In reality it means that gamers have to wait for the big monster to attack, then they dodge out of the way, repeatedly shoot /kick/ proclaim harsh accusations at the aggressor’s exposed back, then repeat the process again – usually for several boringly predictable minutes. One additional factor will be the introduction of other, smaller enemies to fight at set junctures, which allows the monster to recover – thus prolonging the agony.

Tomb Raider, after so much fun and challenging gameplay throughout, bows to this convention, leaving the ending bereft of the emotions it deserved. Of course it isn’t alone. Great games such as Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum devolve in similar ways at the crucial moments, but the fact that it’s a newer game with the foreknowledge if these mistakes makes the failure all the more disappointing.

Tom Raider2

I suppose my main issue with big boss battles is the way they remind you incessantly of the fact that you are playing a game. The previous freedoms you had to plot routes through maps, tackle your enemies with whatever weapons you choose, and explore different ways of interacting with the environment, are all set aside so that you can dodge, fire, run, doge, fire, run, etc. until you pass the requisite, arbitrary point where the monster falls. In most cases you can’t even climb, hide, or make a run for it as the arena has been sealed with invisible doors. Is this really the best that game designers can come up with? Thirty years ago I was doing the exact same thing on my ZX Spectrum…and it was annoying then.

Tomb Raider is a great game, and one that you should play if you enjoy action, storytelling, and hurling yourself off tall buildings. It’s just a shame that the designers are still robbing the dead bodies of games that should have been left to rot in peace many years ago…