29 July 2005

Wheels within wheels, details without end

Ad Astra Games, “games that combine fast furious fun with scientific realism” are preparing to hand me a (space)ship-list to arrange the repeated proofreading of, and it’s driven home a lesson.

My nephew Christopher wants to build a robot. In the beginning, he had in mind something completely autonomous, with the canonical laser eyes and such, and didn’t see any problem with cobbling this together out of pieces from broken radio-controlled vehicles, magnets, dead digital clocks and assorted computer parts. Rather than coathanger these marvellous aspirations, I asked him to think about what he wanted his robot to do.

About a month later, he explained that he’d decided to make it remote controlled rather than having it think for itself.

Now, about a month after that, he’s started to consider the mechanical aspects of a simple arm to wave about and grab things, and details like the need for vertical lifting to actually pick things up and move them around are starting to dawn upon him. And he’s confessed to having no idea how a computer works.

Reality is setting in. Not so harshly as to dissuade Christopher from building his robot, but now he’s becoming seriously aware that robots aren’t just magicked into existence, there is a lot of detail in them and it takes a lot of work to make a useful one.

(Not so with #1 Son, who is absolutely totally Thunderbirds-obsessed at the moment. And I mean totally — first word in the morning, last word at night, kind of thing — <scream>)

Anyway... so with the ship list. None of this “so many hits and you’re destroyed” mode of the old AlphaBASIC StarTrek, Luigi Cantoni’s Warlords or ForTran Empire — no! Now each ship is broken up into individual compartments, each one different, depending on where in which ship it is and what its purpose is. There are little diagrams of top/bottom/left/right; each weapon hit is assessed separately and may result in damage to compartments beyond, all of which alters the performance of the ship and its weapons, and so on.

Sounds complicated, and it is, but the game is designed so that working through the complexity is very straightforward, and the result is very realistic (for specific definitions of “reality” :-)

The very complexity of it also underscores the simplicity of it. These ships routinley flit around at accelerations approaching a thousand gravities, and throw missiles which might haul ass at well over a hundred thousand gravities. A big one might weigh over eight million tonnes.

A little, baby one — say, a destroyer (DD) — might have 12 missile tubes. But what is a missile tube? It connects to the ship’s “sidewall” and flings out (still talking about DD-class ships) an eighty-tonne missile (about the size of one of the Pilbara locomotives and twice as heavy) fast enough to clear a ~100km gap in a fraction of a second — after kick-starting the fusion reactor aboard it. It requires a feeding and a loading mechanism, stowage for the ammunition, control electronic(ishe)s, repair and maintenance access, mountings, direction, power, an on-mount crew plus life-support, aiming astronics, life support, crew access, lighting, communications, yadda yadda. Each of these might involve scores to millions of components per mount. And so on. But I digress: there’s lots of detail even below the intricacy shown.

snailThe point I’m circumnavigating is that opening up a layer of complexity on the components of the stories has added a new depth to every aspect of the stories for me, and this was accomplished without burying the whole thing in detail. It’s the same lesson Chrisopher is learning, only writ larger.

If I might wax philosophical for a moment, practically everything in life has more detail hidden behind it. Take this snail, for example. Zoom in on one of its eyes, almost too small to see (this one might be a millimetre across), yet each of these is composed of millions of specialised cells. And what is a cell? Scores, hundreds of organelles, plus the most amazing membranes to block and admit stuff, flexible frameworks to hold the whole thing together and transport stuff, factories, demolition yards, testing stations, sensors, scuttling charges, the whole thing’s busier than a space station, and this is just one tiny component of the millions encapsulated in an invisibly small snail’s eye. And pick a component of a cell, say one of those “factories”. It consists of collections of molecules each with thousands or millions of atoms in it, many unique to the task, precisely arranged. It all makes one want to squint over one’s shoulder and into the sky to try and make out the next scale above “galaxies”.

If you ever think this world is boring, take a closer look.

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