Friday, September 16, 2011

Video Games in TV: Stargate SG-1

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

This season eight episode "Avatar" is yet another one of those all-too-common "trapped in a virtual reality video game" deals, but with a unique "Groundhog Day" twist. As Teal'c tries to stop a bridge security threat to beat the game, the game adjusts by adding new twists. Teal'c inevitably fails, restarting the game each time armed with new knowledge of what lies ahead, but the game is always one step ahead of him.

"Avatar" is a very self-contradicting episode. It doesn't do much to offend me as a gamer, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. The premise of the game, how it works, and how they finally beat the system are all too contrived to feel plausible for what is supposed to be a virtual reality training simulator.

To start us off, the episode makes overt references to video games and virtual reality. Sam Carter tries to explain the game mechanics to Teal'c as he's strapping in by asking "You ever play Doom?" and Teal'c acknowledges that he's played Def Jam Vendetta. One of the scientists says "Yes, exactly." Because Def Jam Vendetta (a hip-hop wrestling game) plays exactly like a first-person shooter. Then Jack O'Neill hears the word "matrix" and says that those films were "quite confusing."

The chair through which people play the game is apparently a modified version of the virtual reality machine from the season two episode "Gamekeeper." Its rebranded purpose is to facilitate combat training through VR simulations. As Chuck Burks explains, the user is basically the software that the alien technology adapts and responds to. When they realize that the combat sim is far too easy (because they tested it on scientists with zero combat prowess, instead of on military recruits), Burks says:
"We can input the parameters for different scenarios, but the vast majority of the simulation array comes from the mind of the user. The programming is actually built by interfacing memories from the individual's consciousness with the chair's matrix."
In order to make the game more difficult, they decide to strap Teal'c in so that the game can learn from his own extensive combat experience and thus evolve into a more difficult simulation. But then when O'Neill says to make sure there's a beginner level, Burks immediately blurts out "Oh we can always make it easier." They have no way to manually scale the difficulty upward, but they can manually scale it downward? Why can they make it easier but not harder?

So Teal'c goes into the simulation, and they explain to him that the only way to exit is to beat the game or to engage the fail-safe. Disconnecting him while engaged would likely cause fatal neural damage; there's no external way to shut the program down. You'd really think that some of these people making VR would find some kind of safe, manual override considering everyone who's ever played a VR game has invariably gotten trapped inside with no way out.

One point in Avatar's favor: the graphics actually look halfway decent.

The other thing they explain is that the game creates a graphical representation of Teal'c's perspective, which allows people outside of the simulation to watch what's happening. This creates a two second delay between the processor and Teal'c perception of it, but they explain that he wouldn't even notice the delay, it would feel natural to him.

But then Teal'c gets killed when the cyber alien ambushes him, and his unconscious body experiences an electric shock that spikes his heart-rate and blood pressure. Burks says "It's just a simulation, it doesn't have to hurt," to which Carter explains that Teal'c wanted it to be realistic and so he's perceiving pain. Burks says "Well fortunately we limited the chair from being able to deliver any sort of lethal jolt." So apparently Burks didn't know the game would shock Teal'c, but he did know that it had the capability to administer shocks. If he didn't want it to hurt, why didn't he just disable the thing altogether?

As Teal'c plays, the game keeps introducing new elements that cause him to fail. First the enemy ambushes him when he opens a door. So Teal'c enters through another door and gets shot in the back. Then Teal'c kills the enemy and gets killed by a second that he didn't know about. Then the enemies adapt their armor so that Teal'c needs a mod to overpower them. Then a third, invisible enemy shows up. Then they activate the self-destruct sequence. Then one of them disguises itself as his teammates.

The result is that he just keeps failing. The people outside the game rationalize that the game is trying to make the gameplay more challenging, but in actuality it's just making the game into a tedious matter of trial-and-error. He doesn't know what's going to happen until he's already dead, and by then the game's already added an extra cheap-shot tactic that's going to force him to fail all over again, constantly repeating the same simulation over and over again. Game reviewers almost always criticize trial-and-error, well this is taking it to the extreme.

This arm is too skinny and white to be Teal'c's.

Yet another self-contradiction is when Teal'c goes to the armory to get betters weapons and armor, a HUD appears displaying "Armor 100%" and "P90 Loaded." These are the only moments when HUD messages appear, which doesn't make any sense if this is supposed to be a virtual reality simulation. The whole point is that Teal'c wants this to be realistic, so he wouldn't see these kinds of messages pop up. It's like they're only here to remind us that this is actually a video game.

Once Teal'c realizes he can't beat the game, he tries to engage the fail-safe, which is apparently going inside of the elevator. The fail-safe is a location in the game? He can't just activate it from a menu or some kind of personal equipment? We've already established that this game adapts to the player, doesn't that seem like a bad design? What if the game learns where the "quit" room is and stations guards there, making it impossible to quit? Which is apparently what happens, because for some inexplicable reason the game restarts once Teal'c gets inside the elevator.

By this point, Teal'c gives up. He stands in the familiar hallway from the start of the simulation, with sirens blaring, soldiers running past, and a voice over issuing security alerts. He slumps his back against the wall and slides down, realizing that it's pointless to continue on. Everyone around him dies as he sits there, waiting for the game to reset. The people outside the game then say that he's too physically exhausted to continue playing, ruining the emotional impact of this "giving up" scene.

Carter then has the epiphany that they can hook a second chair up to the processor and cut out the graphical relay, thus allowing the second player to perceive everything two-seconds in advance, thus giving him an advantage over the computer. Which makes absolutely zero sense. They treat it like pre-cognition while trying to explain it in terms of computer mechanics, but the host processor dictates what the second one sees. The games runs "in real time" on the host's processor and transmits data to the other processors, which typically results in lag on the other players, not the other way around.

Anyway, this contrived trick allows Daniel Jackson to save Teal'c, and eventually beat the simulation. Both players wake up in the chair and the credits roll.

It almost doesn't even seem like this is a video game. Except for the Doom reference and once instance of a HUD, it just feels like a typical VR simulation, no matter how often they insist that it's a video game. There's almost nothing that offends me as a gamer because there's little actual game-related content. The whole design of this game system, however, is self-contradicting and makes very little sense. Praise to the writers for not poorly depicting video games, but shame be for not having any consistency behind the development concept of the game itself. 

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