Religion in His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman, along with a couple of other people from New Line, gave an interesting talk at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday about the process of adaption The Golden Compass for the cinema. There was a bit of a thrill of seeing some effects shots for the first time, although it turned out to be extremely short-lived – I’ve just this moment seen the promotional footage at Bridge to the Stars and am feeling a little irritated that they didn’t think to show this at the talk.

As with any Pullman presence, the awkward question of religion reared its head once again. I feel that Pullman has softened, or at least modulated, his stance on religion gradually over the years. I suspect that this is partly because he doesn’t want to get into too many fights, and partly because he doesn’t want to damage the film’s chances of success in the US. I can’t say I blame him for it, but it’s clearly causing him problems. Here’s an exchange that occurred towards the end of the talk:

Warning: I paraphrase here. This is not verbatim, but I have attempted to convey the exchange as accurately as possible

Question from the audience: “I read on an internet forum that the religious aspects of His Dark Materials have been removed from the film. Is this true?”

Pullman: “That rumour came from a daily newspaper. They took one of my answers to another question and put a whole new question in front of it. As I’ve said before, His Dark Materials is not anti-religion – it’s anti-organized, politically-based theocracies that tell you what to think and oppress you. I have no problems with anyone’s private religion.”

Panel moderator: “But in the books you have an organisation called the Magisterium, which is an obvious reference to the Catholic Church.”

Pullman: “Well, there are a lot of things in His Dark Materials that also exist in the real world, but it’s a parallel world, so I’m not implying they do the same thing. Yeah, that’s right.”

Pullman and New Line are in dangerous waters here. There were plenty of religious organisations that disliked his book when it was released, and if the movie is faithful to the book, then I don’t see their opinions changing; if anything, they’ll get even madder. At the same time, if the movie isn’t faithful to the book, or there is a perceived change of focus on the religious aspect, then the fans will be mad. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The moderator, Mark Lawson, asked quite a few cheeky questions – you can see one of them in the exchange above, and he asked asked the producer, Deborah Forte, whether she thought that the scene where they ‘kill God’ in the Amber Spyglass would cause problems. Forte was very quick to respond that they weren’t killing God, they were killing the Authority, an entity which ought to be anathema to any right-thinking democracy. A well-practiced answer.

The fact is, though, a lot of organised religions do exert political authority around the world, whether it’s overt or not. So Pullman might like to say that his views on religion aren’t as controversial as they might seem, but they are. This is probably causing him some cognitive dissonance, and I thought his final ‘Yeah, that’s right’ was the result of a quick mental review of his preceding answer: “Hmm, did that make sense? Can I get away with saying that it’s just a parallel universe? Yeah, seems like it!”

This is not to say that I think Pullman is lying, or anything near it. I think he’s just caught in a bind, not wanting to go anti-religious, full-on Dawkins-style, and not wanting to renounce his views on religion. We’ll just have to see how he copes with the increased media scrutiny as the movie approaches release in December. But he’s still an excellent writer and speaker. Earlier in the talk, the producer mentioned how she used to press Pullman for information about the as-yet unpublished Amber Spyglass, and would only receive vague answers.

Pullman interjected – to much laughter – that he didn’t know how it was going to end at that point either. Then he grinned and said, “No, actually, I did know how it was going to end,” to even more laughter. If he can keep that up, he’ll should be fine.

The Secret of Christmas Lights

‘Largest’ Christmas tree lit up (BBC News):

When lit up, the giant redwood will be visible on board flights approaching Gatwick Airport.

Two electricians spent a day replacing all 1,800 light bulbs before a pair of cranes were brought in to put the lights on the tree at Ardingly.

…Conservation manager Ian Parkinson told BBC South East Today there was “no secret” to avoiding tangles.

He said: “We just put them in the box at the end of the season, and the next year, when they are in a tangled mess, we unravel them laboriously.”

Beating the Hive Mind

“What’s this?” I asked, toying with a white cylinder with letters printed across it.

“It’s a cryptex,” explained Eric Harshbarger, one of Mind Candy’s in-house puzzle designers. “Like the one from the Da Vinci Code.”

In The Da Vinci Code, a cryptex is a cylinder with five wheels that can be rotated independently; each wheel has letters printed on it, and if you line up the wheels properly, it’ll open. The puzzle to open the cryptex in the movie was rather boring, but Eric had come up with a much more interesting multi-stage puzzle and then constructed it himself. He’d brought the cryptex, along with some other fun physical puzzles, to San Francisco for our live event there last year.

While we walked down to a nearby cafe for breakfast, Eric mentioned how he’d visited Google a couple of days earlier with the cryptex and shown it to some of the puzzle-fans there, including Wei-Hwa Huang, the designer of Google’s Da Vinci Code puzzle quest. Immediately, Wei-Hwa and two other Googlers threw themselves on the task, and within two or three hours, had figured it out. Thus the challenge was set: could we beat Google?

Personally, I didn’t think so. Those guys not only live and breathe puzzles, they actually spend a lot of time solving them. So I passed (I didn’t have a few hours to spare), and instead played around with some of Eric’s wooden puzzles while David Varela, a writer at Mind Candy, busied himself with the cryptex.

Thirty minutes later, David had solved the cryptex. He had beaten Google. And he didn’t even have a computer, let alone a piece of paper. Continue reading “Beating the Hive Mind”

Baba Yetu

Like other game designers, I don’t play a lot of games.

I do have a Wii and a PS2, which sounds typical enough except for the fact that the only games I play on the PS2 are Katamari Damacy and Guitar Hero; Wii Sports and Warioware for the other console. Clearly I like quirky and accessible games – not that I didn’t enjoy playing F-Zero X on my old N64, but it always made me shaky, like many other fast-paced or action games. As for Zelda on the Wii, well, consider this – most gamers dislike the long, non-interactive story scenes and prefer all the fighting. I’m the opposite – I begrudgingly slog through the fighting scenes in order to get to the story bits. I find most console games to be rather difficult to play, since they often assume a basic familiarity of the genre that in reality most people do not have.

I recently had dinner with a bunch of game designers at GDC, so I was interested in finding out what their game playing habits were like. Warren Spector, in between declaring that he will never speak about stories in games ever again (apart from in the following week at SXSW) said that he forced himself to play one or two hours of videogames every day, just to keep up to date on the different games out there.

This might sound funny to most people who would happily play videogames all day, but most people aren’t game designers. If you are, you can’t help but analyse games whenever you play them. So sometimes it really can feel like work, especially if you’ve spent the last ten hours arguing about story flowcharts or interaction points. Personally, I’m amazed that he can manage up to two hours a day, but then I was never a big console gamer, so maybe that’s the reason. I really ought to play more games though – there’s a lot to be learned from them, even for the weirdos working in the upstart ‘ARG’ genre.

The game on which I’ve logged the most hours is on the PC, and it’s called Civilization. Being highly addictive, it’d be tempting to throw it into the home-wrecking category of World of Warcraft, except for the fact that each individual game tends to last for around 6-10 hours – enough to provide a pleasant diversion for a rainy Sunday, but not enough to actually destroy your life (unless your name is Iain Banks, in which case it delays the completion of your novel for six months, until you physically destroy the CD).

The latest version is Civilization 4, and it’s definitely up there with the all-time classic of Civ2. One area where it bests its master, however, is the music. Civilization 4 has the best game soundtrack I’ve ever heard – or more accurately, the best game song, and it’s called Baba Yetu. Baba Yetu is a choral song in Swahili, performed by an acapella group. The lyrics come from the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really the antithesis of typical videogame songs, but it’s perfect for Civilization 4. Whenever I play Civ4, I’m uplifted by that song.

I won’t go into detail about its origins, because someone else has a great post about it already, with links to download the song, but when I was surfing YouTube for videogame music and came across a live performance of Baba Yetu at Video Games Live, I had to write about it. The performance does the song a disservice, especially with the male solo, but to hear even a bad recording of it played live is amazing. In the comments, someone says, “Listening to this one being performed made me and my three friends get a craving desire to play this game!”

That’s what good music should do.

(I went to a Video Games Live performance last year in San Jose. I fell asleep. Really. I blame jetlag, the bad acoustics and the fact that I had to shut my eyes to avoid being blinded by the fricking vicious green laser beams. Plus they didn’t play Baba Yetu.)

(I have a few friends who’ve sung in student choirs, and I know they’re always looking for interesting new music to try out. If that includes you, try Baba Yetu – I think it’d be a lot of fun to sing, plus you’d be able to expand your audience to game players…)

GDC 2007, ARGFest, Google…

Updated with a link to my Google presentation.

Flying from west to east, I can recover from jetlag at about 2.5 hours per day. This means that when I come back from San Francisco, 8 hours behind GMT, I take a little over three days to return to my normal circadian rhythm. I once read that you’re supposed to recover from jetlag at about 1 hour per day, which I really find hard to believe, unless it’s based on some strange sample or is measuring some more obscure physiological parameters. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s not health, flying east. If I had it my way, I’d just do short hops westward, lengthening my day instead of shortening it. Preferably on some sort of dirigible.

In a true race against time, I spoke at GDC this year, in a 20 minute session. You can download a PDF of my slides; I’ve added some notes to them so they’ll make more sense. They don’t, however, reflect the tortured thought processes that went into them. When I heard that my session was going to be only 20 minutes (this was after having an abstract designed for 40 minutes accepted), I preferred not to think about the problem. How hard can it be, I thought.

As the day approached, I realised that I wasn’t all that keen on talking about ‘The New Alternate Reality Games’ and the way in which ARGs associated with physical products were the way forward. Not that I don’t think the topic is interesting, but I submitted my abstract nine months ago, and that’s a long time in the ARG world. There was a bunch of other stuff I wanted to talk about as well, such as how to reach a wider audience, and a post-mortem of Perplex City Season 1.

This is when I hit upon what I thought was a brilliant idea – I would make a ‘Choose Your Own GDC Presentation’ talk! I’d give the audience three choices of topic, and I’d talk about whichever they picked. It’s interactive, it’s topical, it’s cute – and it’s really stupid. The reason it’s stupid is because the audience would never unanimously back one topic, and so I’d probably end up disappointing a large fraction of them. And doing the vote would waste valuable time. And I really wanted to talk about all three topics!

So I bit the bullet, and just crammed all the most interesting topics of all three topics into the 20 minutes. I don’t think I’ve done a faster presentation in my life, and which I know that speaking quickly is against the Rules of presenting, I was pretty pleased with the amount of raw information density that I showed – this was no fluff talk, it told people stuff that has previously remained internal at Mind Candy, and a lot of the reasoning behind what we’re doing in Season 2 to boot.

Still, I would’ve preferred 40 minutes.

Thankfully, that’s what I got when I presented at Google last week on How to Make an Alternate Reality Game or Perplex City: A Look Behind the Scenes. There are also videos from all the ARGFest sessions online now, and if you’re interested in ARGs, I’d advise you to take a look – I found them generally very interesting and useful.

I had a great time in San Francisco – so many new ideas!…

Fire Alert at Heathrow

I was sitting in the lounge area of Terminal 3 in Heathrow when the PA system came on.

“This is a security announcement. All passengers are reminded that baggage should-”

A sharp beeping interrupted the message. “A fire alarm has been activated in your area. Please go to the nearest emergency exit immediately. A fire alarm has been activated in your area. Please go to…”

People looked up quizzically; was this real? Most people decided not to take any chances and began to collect their bags and look around for the nearest green sign. This was hastened when shop staff started closing up. As I walked to the nearest exit to me (the one by Chez Gerard, heading into various gates) I noted with satisfaction that everyone was moving calmly but with seriousness; clearly the we’ve had bomb and terrorists drilled into our heads so much by popular culture that everyone knew what to do.

A stream of people were heading the same way as me. If you’ve been to Terminal 3, you’ll know that some of the walks to the far-off gates can take a while. 5 minutes for a fast walker, easily 10 minutes for a slow one. About halfway along, around when I was wondering why it was taking so long to get to an emergency exit that actually led outside the building, I spotted a green sign… that pointed back in the way I’d come. Brilliant.

Some people milled around it, paralysed by the competing signals, but most people just kept walking on. A little further on was another, more promising, green sign that hung above a double-set of fire doors. Some people were sitting around inside, looking bored, but the doors were locked. I shook my head.

When I’d come in to Heathrow earlier this morning, I was thinking about bombs. It was a nice day, and I wondered what would happen if someone set off a bomb in the airport. How long would it take to get back to normal? Would they still run some flights? I suppose I had this on my mind after watching a bunch of action movie trailers last night, most of which had some combination of huge explosions and nuclear bombs.

I knew that this fire alert probably wasn’t serious, but it all seemed very odd. Along with most other people, I kept on going until I almost reached the end gates. There, a small group had collared someone wearing a uniform – he wasn’t security or anything like that, he looked like a construction worker.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“There was a fire alarm back in the shops area. It told us to go to the nearest emergency exit, so here we are,” someone replied.

“Huh, I didn’t hear anything. All the tannoy systems are linked up together, so if there was a fire alarm back there, we should’ve heard it here.” All the same, he got on his phone to his supervisor, who evidently didn’t know any more.

“So what should we do?” we asked him.

“I don’t know. Like I said, if there was a real fire, we should be hearing it here.” He just seemed a bit bemused by the entire situation.

“Yes,” replied a woman, “but there was a fire alarm, and you said you didn’t hear it down here. So maybe it’s still going on. And there are some people going in the opposite direction now, back to the shops.”

He nodded. “That’s true. Well, all I can say is that you could just wait here, or you could go back and find out more.”

We all shook our heads, and headed back to the shops. No-one seemed particularly bothered, although I did hear someone say, “What if someone had fallen and hurt their knee?” What indeed.

After another five minute walk, I got back to the shops area. There was a small crowd hanging around, and a woman in uniform saying “You can go back now, it’s open!” So I went back, and on the way, saw some staff hanging around in Chez Gerard; they hadn’t even moved since the alarm.

I know that if there was a real fire, or a real bomb scare, everything would’ve moved a lot faster. But events like this just desensitive everyone. A fire alarm going off in a busy terminal is a big deal for the people in it, even if it isn’t for the staff. The fact that none of the staff know what’s going on, that the emergency exits signs point in the wrong direction, that it takes 5 minutes to get to the nearest exit – which is locked – is unbelievable.

They x-rayed my shoes when I came in. What’s the point? Security is only as strong as its weakest link.