What They Got Right: Science in Media

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When it comes to writing, or directing, or game development, reality can kind of… get in the way. It’s easier to just assume people won’t really realize that some things work certain ways. Sometimes these are big plot points, or a throwaway line; no matter what, someone usually notices it. But there are enough people pointing and laughing at the scientific inaccuracies in movies. I thought I’d try to highlight some that get it right. That took some time to put certain accurate and real details into their work. 

Halo: The Halo Array: Space Gravity

In the Halo games, there is very little time dedicated to explaining why things are the way they are. Ships travel via “slipspace”, plasma weapons are commonplace (though alien), and nobody seems to wonder why the people are sticking to the spaceship’s floor in deep space. (These issues are discussed in the expanded universe books, but not in the games.) 

But one thing that definitely would work, even without an explanation or retcon later in the expanded universe, is the design of the eponymous space station, the Halo Array. 

science-in-media

The Halo Array is a superweapon designed by a long-dead civilization as a last resort against the Flood, a parasitic life form that feeds on intelligent life. Halo kills anything that the flood might feed on, starving the parasite. 

The Halo ring design was inspired by the Niven Ring, but is much smaller, 10000km compared to Niven’s 150,000,000 km (as big as Earth’s orbit around the sun). Niven’s Ring is so large that there are no known, or even hypothesised materials that could withstand the stresses involved. It would simply tear itself apart just by existing. Halo, on the other hand, is much smaller. Not only do we already know of material strong enough, we could do it with fairly garden variety steels. 

So we can build it, at least physically speaking. It would be the engineering project of the century, and would require as much material as the entire asteroid belt, but we can do it. So what about gravity? It’s not a planet, so what’s keeping people stuck to the surface? Space magic, like the ships? No magic, just physics. Halo generates artificial gravity by having the “surface” of the ring on the inside and spinning to create a downward “force” pushing you away from the center of the ring. The faster you spin the stronger the force is. This is called centrifugal force. It’s not really a force, it’s more of a function of perspective to angular velocity, but that’s neither here nor there. You stick to the ring, that’s what’s important.  

Halo’s design is oddly realistic, and feasible. It would not surprise me, if I were to jump into the future, to see Halo-esque space stations allowing humanity to populate the solar-system. 

Battletech (2019): The Argo – More space gravity

Battletech (2019) is a video game adaptation of a tactical turn-based tabletop game of the same name. Set in the far future. Human society has been fractured into a number of different nations led by noble houses. Sci-fi feudalism powered by the use of giant, 15-100 tonne walking tanks called Battlemechs. (if you’re into turn-based tactical games I recommend it). You play as the leader of an enterprising group of mercenaries. Guns for hire in a galaxy with no shortage of conflict in need of big ‘mech diplomacy. Your mercenary Company’s home base is the Argo, an interstellar ship of mysterious origins. The Argo is an excellent example of a futuristic spaceship that uses scientific principles in its design.

space-science-battletech

Humans experience muscle atrophy and loss in bone density while in microgravity for extended periods of time. To avoid this, some form of artificial gravity is needed, to stimulate bone growth and retain muscles. The Argo accomplishes this by using two main mechanisms. The first is acceleration, and the second is centrifugal force, just like the Halo Array.

When Einstein was thinking about special relativity, he thought of a man in a box, falling freely through space. In this state, he would seem weightless, he would be falling at the same rate as the box around him, so it would seem to cancel out. But if a powerful being were to pull on the box with a constant force, it would appear to the man that he were in a gravitational field. The floor of the box would push up against him in a similar way to the effects of true gravity. This is how the Argo supplies artificial gravity to the ship while it’s moving. 

Its engines can accelerate at a constant rate (up to 2g – about 20m/s².) So the Argo would accelerate half the journey, then flip halfway and fire the engines to decelerate. Which the devs thought of, as the cutscenes for arriving at new planets show the Argo coming in engines first.   

In-Game, the Argo was designed as a “mobile space station” so it spends a lot of time in orbit around planets. You can’t use acceleration for artificial gravity in orbit, because, well, you want to stay in orbit. The Argo’s got you covered. Three habitation pods that are folded back fan out and spins to create centrifugal force, much like the Halo ring. One difference between Halo and the Argo is that the habitation pods are situated vertically relative to the center of rotation, so different floors get different amounts of “gravity”. In the levels further out, you would feel heavier than in those closer in, a fact mentioned in one of the upgrades. In which you add a pool to one of the lower levels of the pods, making a low G swimming pool. (Which would be SO cool).

science-in-media

Oxygen Not Included: City planning is hard

oxygen not included

Have you ever looked at a design, for a building, or a city block, or some bit of city infrastructure, and thought to yourself. “Why’d those idiots do it like that? I could do a better job!” Well here is your chance! 

Oxygen not included is a base building/survival game from Klei Entertainment, in which you guide a handful of whimsically named clones in their bid to create a colony inside one of a variety of underground environments. 

Duplicant

To succeed, you need all of the normal things for your little colony: food, water, power, oxygen (which, funnily enough, doesn’t come included), as well as heat, storage, sanitation, and emotional needs all have to be tended to as well. 

The electricity isn’t as simple as building a generator and pulling all your electricals into it. Wires have a maximum load capacity, and if you go over it, they short out and your grid crashes. You need to distribute your grid properly to keep everything running, and have transformers to step power up and down. If you don’t plan ahead, your system is gonna be a mess. 

Underground bases don’t vent heat very well, you can’t just open a window. So you need to find a way to deal with it. There are a lot of heat sources, most electronics, compost, generators, lights, heaters, of course, if you’ve built them. All this heat has to go somewhere, or your citizens are going to sweat to death. You can even spawn your base next to natural heat sources, like volcanos, or steam vents, which will only add to the problem. 

Gas flow and CO2 levels are important. There’s an impressive fluid dynamics simulator as part of the game, which means you can make all the O2 you need, but if you put it all in one place, or build too far away from your O2 farms without ventilation, then you’re gonna have a bad time. 

Water can be scarce, especially drinkable water. Dirty water can be reused, but it’s full of germs and can get your duplicants sick. Saltwater can be treated, but that requires power, and of course, a saltwater source. 

On top of all this you need to try and keep your duplicants stress free as possible, which includes having decorations, activities, and other places for them to destress after work. 

And I haven’t even mentioned growing/ranching food. 

Oxygen Not Included does a lot of things right when it comes to making a complicated, but still slightly simplified, version of reality to play in. Between the different mechanics you need to succeed and the fluid simulations. But I think its greatest strength is showing you exactly how good you would be as a city planner. (which is to say, not very.)  

Deus Ex: Augmentations

This is the odd topic out on the list. Whereas the others have been about taking some kind of observation from reality and adding to a project, this one is the opposite. When Deus Ex, a popular Sci-fi cyberpunk game franchise from 2000-2016, about the social and technical implication of cybernetic “augmentations” was written, I doubt that anyone in the development team actually thought that they would see anything like them in the real world.

science of deus ex
Because who doesn’t want minigun arms?

But they didn’t count on Elon Musk, who probably looked at the game and went-

Neuralink was born, and has been the constant reminder that we are living in the future ever since. Neuralink is a California-based company with the goal of creating an accurate, safe, and reliable read/write device implanted into a human nervous system. This means it will be able to see and interpret your brain activity and output a digital signal, and will be able to stimulate the parts of your brain it’s attached to. 

What could go wrong?

In all seriousness, what Neuralink wants to achieve in the long term would put us directly in line with some of the technology of Deus Ex: telepathy, cybernetic enhancements, radical improvement of life for millions with debilitating neurological conditions. But what does Neuralink want to do in the short term? The first “low hanging fruit” Neuralink wants to target is restoring functionality to paralysed individuals. 

neuralink

People with traumatic spinal cord injuries would be able to have a Neuralink device implanted in their brains, and another just BELOW the injury on their spine. This would act as a kind of neural shunt, directly transmitting the information from the brain to the spine, bypassing the damage to the spine. This could hopefully work with both tetrapelegics, and paraplegics. Those with even more advanced paralysis could be fitted with a Neuralink device that could help them function, allowing them to speak through a computer, or by controlling robotic arms. It could help make life worth living for people with severe paralysis. Which will have to be enough until we can get it to run inside our minds. 

Xcom: The Long War

We like to think of ourselves as the heroes in our own stories. When we see a hero on TV or in a movie, we like to think that we are the same. That the things they’re doing are the things we would do. We don’t like to think of ourselves as ordinary, we would stand out from the unwashed masses. When the chips were down, we would be extraordinary. 

Wouldn’t we?

Xcom: The Long War, is a turn-based tactics game that is actually a mod of Xcom: Enemy Within, which has the player lead humanity’s last line of defense against an alien invasion. The authors of the mod were playing Xcom and thought to themselves, “Y’know, I am not stressed, or terrified while playing this, let’s fix that.” So they made over 700 changes to the game, generally making it more difficult and punishing. Instead of a noble group of international soldiers standing against the invading xeno scum, you’re a frantic, overworked, terrified slapdash force that’s stretched too thin and always seems one bad day from utter collapse. 

You’re sent on some missions that you can’t hope to succeed, against vastly more powerful, technologically advanced enemies. The stress of combat wears on your soldiers, and even if they’re not injured, they need downtime between missions. Which means you need a large pool of soldiers to draw from. As opposed to vanilla, you can use the same soldiers over and over again if they’re not injured.

In both versions of the game, your soldiers’ morale can break, especially in the early game. But with the Long War’s ramped up difficulty, it is much more common for your soldiers to panic when a mission goes sideways. Panicked soldiers will do any number of things, doing nothing, running out of cover, or even shooting your own allies. This can feel… punishing, sometimes, to say the least.

xcom long war
Long War Mission Beginning

But that’s part of the game, it is balanced for this in mind, when you lose your soldiers, and you will lose soldiers, it isn’t the end of your mission, you can move on. 

Long War Mission End

And that is what I think the Long War does right, if you want to see how well you would last as a fresh recruit in a crazy alien invasion. Get the Long War, put Ironman on (no save/reloading), and name a soldier after yourself. I think you’ll find it’s pretty accurate to how long you last in war with little experience and no plot armour. 

Final Thoughts

So that was my list of things they get right. Not all of these were science, but I think they’re all important things to get right. Just some of these are key parts of the experience, others are incidental things that make my little gamer heart warm up inside. They’re all worth mentioning, they’re all worth appreciating. One of the hardest things about writing is not figuring out what to put on the page, it’s figuring out what should be there. And when creators follow unexpected or non-intuitive truths of the universe, it lends itself to more interesting and more engaging solutions to those problems. Which ends up with a much better story. 

If you enjoyed this article, and want to see some more things that people got right, you might enjoy this video we made on our Youtube channel.


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