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Soup of This Day #399: Through The Veins Of History

December 8, 2014

Mars mission
An artist’s impression of people landing on Mars. It’s a goal worthy of reality – Image: Les Bossinas of Lewis Research Center for NASA, 1989. Neither Les Bossinas or NASA are affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I’m not a conspiracies kind of guy. This is partly because I’m too comfortable with the world as it appears. It’s also because a lot of conspiracies are wacky.

Take the theory that the Moon landings did not occur and instead were staged in a carefully-constructed and very Earth-bound studio. Ironically this idea makes for an interesting film plot but doesn’t really stand the test of common sense in real life – Simply, for the Moon landings conspiracy to be true there would have to be hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people in on the gag. There’d be the astronauts (Or astro-nots if that’s your bent), pretty much all of NASA, government after government, and a staggering number of scientists.

The latter are a particular weak link because scientists aren’t great with secrets – It’s just not in their nature. They are instead great at publishing papers. Do not, for instance, tell a scientist that you’re holding a surprise 40th birthday party for your friend Susan and that you’ve got her that C3P0/R2D2 stripper team that she secretly lusted after.

There will be a paper about it and it will have a weak pun in the conclusion – Something like, ‘These WERE the droids Susan was looking for.’ No self-respecting scientist is going to miss out on publishing that kind of line.

So the Moon landings would have been nigh on impossible to fake. Happily, this is a reality that I’m cool with – Neil, Buzz, Pete, Alan (Bean), Alan (Shepard), Edgar, David, James, John, Charles, Eugene and Harrison walked on a body not of this Earth. That’s an adventure so preposterously grand that if it’s a sham I don’t want to know.

I can take that a little further too – It’s ok not to want to peel back the curtain – If it had been me in The Matrix instead of Thomas A. Anderson, I’m not entirely sure that I’d want to give up on the virtual reality – Life as it appears to me is just too vivid and wonderful.

Not that I haven’t wondered from time to time if this is all just a computer game. Maybe I’m just a particularly well-drawn sprite like those I used to control in Electronic Arts’ FIFA International Soccer.

Who to be honest weren’t actually that well-drawn. This was the first of EA’s iconic soccer series and so the level of detail wasn’t quite there. For instance there were no club sides, just 52 national teams. EA clearly didn’t have the rights to use real player names either and so what you got instead was a cultural mash-up liberally salted with a host of vanity inserts.

Aside from the names of coder’s and their family members, there were also some vague approximations of famous names – Argentina for instance featured a Mardona, albeit as a defender, presumably to give EA some extra legal distance from the actual and legendary Maradona. Who was an attacking midfielder cum striker.

A fair swathe of names though were simply cringeworthy stereotypes – Russia had the staccato Kalishnikov and the revolutionary substitute Trotsky. My favourite Russian player, the hilariously explosive Boris Molotov, in particular could easily have been cast as a Roger Ramjet villain on name alone. That wasn’t the best of the worst though – The Republic of Ireland had a goalkeeper called Terry Irish, whose handle was surely the product of either extraordinary laziness or an unhealthy lack of respect for the wonderful people of Ireland.

At least Terry was a decent keeper though.

The cultural insensitivity also extended to the appearance of the sprites – Particularly the skin-tones. Teams were composed of a uniform hue, with European teams being a lighter shade, through to the much darker tones of the African sides. The USA team were indistinguishable from the English – Neither side featured black players.

No side featured women.

For all that, if you could pretend that each sprite was a simple generic person, the game-play was superb. This was the first mainstream football game to use an isometric view – Previous games had taken a 2D top-down approach. Consequentially there was a feel of realism, a sense that you were in part replicating actual football.

The physics mostly helped with that too. They were simple – You could pass, shoot, tackle and run, but that was about it. There were no combo moves gifting extravagant and complicated manoeuvres – You couldn’t stupefy an opponent with a step-over and that was ok with me – Partly because I couldn’t stupefy anyone with a step-over in real life, but mostly because it was a smart-arse move no self-respecting sprite should want to pull off.

That’s not to say that the game perfectly replicated the conditions of a real game – There were too many quirks for that. Quirks like how you could only really score a goal from a handful of spots. Outside of those and your shot would be saved by an astonishingly acrobatic keeper, who sometimes would seem to be out of the reckoning until the very last microsecond, before reeling off a dive across the breadth of the goal mouth to catch the ball cleanly.

This would happen if you were directly in front of goal, maybe five yards out and with no defenders to put you off.

The bugger would save that.

But take a shot from 30 out, hard on the right touchline (And it had to be the right – left wouldn’t do) and bend your attempt back in, and suddenly the likes of Terry Irish would be clutching at thin air.

Still, while it was easy to conjure such moments in my head, it took a fair bit of work to play them out in the game. One time I was down by a goal to nil against the Germans in a World Cup semi. It was approaching half-time and I was struggling to break through a cloying defence when via my Italian No.10, the mercurial Joe Della-Savia, I found myself bearing down the right wing. Though Joe had his work cut out for him, I tacked him this way and that, leaving three defenders sprawling. Then, having avoided the last of those lunges, and angled away from goal, Della-Savia, ripped off a defiant shot that would have to break a number of laws of physics to even go across the end-line.

And so in my virtual game I broke those laws of physics.

As that ball ripped across the virtual park, I hung a hard left on the joystick like I was piloting an Apollo lander away from a rough looking crater wall, and dragged that pixelated ball in off the keeper’s right-hand upright.

Shortly after the half-time break I made it 2-1 and then added a third for good measure. The subsequent World Cup final was an anticlimax – I comfortably beat the Dutch 2-0.

That Joe Della-Savia strike though is clearest in my memory. As it cannoned in off that electronic woodwork I remember standing with a roar to punch the air. I didn’t go so far as to rip my shirt off so that I could run around with it over my head but that’s because I’d never have done that in real life anyway.

Actually I’d never have roared either. In fact, the goals I have scored in real games and with my real feet have almost always been muted occurrences. I’d almost always look over to the referee as the net bulged, checking to see if maybe there had been a foul or some other technicality to rule out me scoring. Then, given the all-clear from the officials, I’d simply turn to jog back to my rightful defensive slot. I’d acknowledge some congratulations, maybe a pat on the back, storing that all up in my memory for after the game, but the most demonstrative I’d get is a clenched fist and a barely perceptible pump. Sometimes I’d have a sort of triumphant snarl on my face too.

And that was that. But here’s the thing, how I know that we’re not a part of some great computer game…

No matter how great that goal of Joe Della-Savia’s, I’d have traded a million of those for a single real goal scored in a meaningless scratch contest. The rush of the latter easily swamps the artificial wash of the former.

It’s the same rush I get when I re-watch that footage from those Moon landings, or when I see the European Space Agency (ESA) land a washing-machine-sized craft on to a comet. Even those sizeable achievements will hopefully be dwarfed in my life-time when a human gets to set foot on Mars.

Then ironically, there will be no clenched fists or barely perceptible pumps. Instead there will be a kind of agog silence and maybe some tears of wonder at the great things we can achieve in real life.

The roar and the triumphant snarl I will save for the conspiracy theorists.

Through The Veins Of History

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