Zak and the real world home


Zak McKracken is based on the real world - with crazy twists!

New Age thoughts  |  The face on Mars  |  The stupidity epidemic  |  San Francisco

van van with occupant Above: the camper van on Mars, Spaceballs' version (released in 1987, the year before Zak) and Tom Sachs' art installation "mobile quarantine facility"

Zak McKracken is packed with New Age ideas. It's easy to scoff at New Age thinking (I do, regularly), but it can have an eolutionary advantage: some of our ancestors thought that every rustle in the grass was a tiger, and every shadow in the distance was an enemy come to kill them. They were almost always wrong, but very occasionally they were right, and that is why they survived. The point is of course weighting: if the cost of a crazy belief is very small, and the pay off is very big, the rational thing is to believe. Obviously, if the cost is great (e.g. we distrust established science and assume scientists are in on the conspiracy) then new age thinking becomes irrational. It's just a cost-benefit calculation.

A new age commentary on Zak

The images and text below are (used by permission) from Silva's web site at

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'The device,' a tree-of-life motif.

Silva writes about the game:

"It starts with leaving the body in the first scene. [Out of body experiences are a common theme throughout the game.] With Zak we can also learn for example that we have a personal climatic conditioner in our heads to set our mood (behind the left door in the face on mars, following the violet path). The last scene where Zak and Annie activate 'the device' symbolizes the alchemical marriage. And there is much more in the game linked to real ancient wisdom (by symbol, color, scene, theme or function), it's not just a funny game."

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"One of the designs in the
Mars labyrinth - showing ape,
human and scolarian. "

Silva writes:

They seem to correspond to the three gates in the great mars chamber, which again seem to correspond to three-principle-models like three souls, three alchemical principles, trinity, three main triangles on the tree of life and similar. The first gate again allows access to three placces through a labyrinth (where the pic is taken from): an airconditioner-room (the vegetative; the four greek elements could be adjusted by two sliders for temperature and atmosphere), a teleporter room (you arrive there when 'astral-projecting' symbolically to mars with the yellow crystal) and a world-map-room (origin for the map seen in the dream, strange markings below allow access to the sphinx)."

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"The next picture combines the mouth of the
face-on-mars like seen in the dream with the final
drawing of the complete 'astral-projection-map'.
While the world-map is for the world (wake state),
the symbols are for mars (dream state)."

Zak and Christianity

If I remember correctly, the only person to write a complaint letter against Zak was a Christian minister. He saw new Age thinking as anti-Christian and possibly pro-drugs. But Zak is only pro-curiosity. He never uses drugs, he only uses crystals, and only when they actually work. And he doesn't say anything against Christianity. There are many parallels between Zak McKracken and Christianity:

The face on Mars

'Gildor' from Holland writes:

"It's very interesting to compare the real photos and the intro scenes, and see how the artists interpretated them.. I like very much the Face, and shows that the artists had a good deal of imagination... although the Face pic isn't very clear, the artists did a good job making a 'how would it be if the picture was in good quality'

"OTOH in reality the Face is not square, and has some curves on the northern side.

"As you see, the artists didn't bother much with the distances and the Face seems very close to the structure called 'City', than it is in reality.. it is very interesting to note, that in reality the so called 'Pyramid' that plays an important role in the game (and is of course visited), is not found in the City, but much south of it... for simplicity reasons, the makers decided to put it in the City.

"Note: the structure called City has been analyzed with fractals and they say that they present an 'anomaly'.. that means an anomaly compared to the rest of the natural landscape.. this hints that it is artificial!!

"Unfortunately I can't justify it, and probably it's just an urban legend.

"Notice also, that the artists made the images to be illuminated from a north-western angle, the same angle as in the real pictures!"

Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image Here's another photograph of the face on Mars and the nearby pyramids. It's very close to the view you see at the start of Zak McKracken, and when you first see the girls on Mars. The pyramids and face on the Martian desert do remind you of the pyramids and sphinx in the Egyptian desert.

Most of the adventures on Mars take place in or near the giant building that, seen from above, looks like a face. The face on Mars, in the region known as Cydonia, was first spotted by the Viking spacecraft in 1976. As a natural skeptic, I have to admit that it is probably coincidence. There are millions of rocky features, one of them is bound to look like a face. But who knows? I love playing Devil's advocate. Maybe an ancient civilization really did build it?

Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image On the left side of this page is the best photo we have, from the 1988 Mars Global Surveyor Mission. It's called MGS image SP1-22003 if you want to check. The MGS spacecraft took photographs of the surface of Mars, in long thin strips. Because it had to take everything, sometimes the lighting and the angle and the atmospheric conditions were far from ideal.

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This is the original (enhanced) photo that caused all the fuss. The face appeared on two separate frames of the Viking surface scans, and each taken when the sun was at different angles, yet in both cases the features of the face remained. Critics said that NASA is embarassed by the face because it doesn't fit into their world view, so NASA was pleased when the 1988 higher resolution images seemed to show no face. But what did the new images really show?

I am making a computer game in my spare time, and sometime I need to take a lot of photos. I am not a great photographer, but I have enough experience to know that good lighting and positioning are much more important than pixel resolution. Could it be that the original 1976 image is more reliable than the 1988 hi-res version? Let's see.

This is just a summary of the issues involved. For more details, click here. The 1988 image of Cydonia was taken under poor lighting conditions, from a low angle, so that you couldn't see much past the 'nose.' Worse, the light came from under the chin. When human faces are lit from under the chin, they look weird. There were other problems such as atmospheric conditions that diffused the light. Finally, the images that most people saw - the ones released to the media - had been through a "high pass filter." This exaggerates sharp edges and minimises gradual changes in color. In other words, the image that most people saw emphasized small rocks and drew attention away from the overall shape.

Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, imageSo how do you compensate for these problems?

  1. First, you find the original image, not the sharpened one.
  2. Second, look at a negative. As astronomers know, negative images often show up patterns that are easily missed in the positive image. In this case, since the lighting angle is so severe, and the mage is greyscale, and the hils are relatively low, using a negative image has much the same effect as simply lighting it from the opposite side.
  3. Third, use the known angles and lighting to calculate a 3D map. Then give it a clear light source from a more familiar direction.
  4. Fourth, look at it from straight above. In some places the 1988 image was just a blur of shadow, so in these parts use the older, low definition 1976 image.

Remember that Mars has lower gravity than earth, so the dust storms are much worse. Even the most perfect face would look cracked and battered after thousands of years of severe Martian weathering. So maybe this is an artificial face after all. Just to be sure, I recommend that the first manned Mars mission should take cashcards, spare fuses, and a giant bobby pin. Just in case.

Mars update:

There is now a new image of the face on Mars, from the European Space Agency:

The chin is at the top left of the picture. Note the small chin, the small pointed nose and the large bulbous forehead. And especially note the distinctive ridge along the forehead. This can only mean one thing. That's right. It's a Skolarian face! This proves that Zak was right all along, and the Skolarians built the face on Mars. <grin>

face on Mars

The Stupidity Epidemic

The skolarians are an ancient trace with bigger brains, from 50,000 years ago. Sure enough, if you Google the topic, human brains did peak in size around 50,000 years ago. But the invention of farming meant life got easier: it takes less brain power to plant the same crop as last year, compared with outsmarting a tiger. The invention of technology means we have even less pressure to be smart: we can out-source our thinking via books and specialists. 

human skulls

But Zak goes further, and talks about a modern stupidity epidemic. Nonsense, surely? Well this is taken from a review of “Winning Elections: Political Campaign Management, Strategy & Tactics” (M. Evans; $49.95). (The review was "The Unpolitical Animal" by Louis Menand). Read it and weep.

Converse [the grandaddy of political experts, who began his studies in the 1960s but the results still hold true] claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people “ideologues,” by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of “what goes with what”—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs).

...after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles.

...Rephrasing poll questions reveals that many people don’t understand the issues that they have just offered an opinion on.

...These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.

...In a paper written in 2004, the Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels estimate that “2.8 million people voted against Al Gore in states were too dry or too wet” as a consequence of that year’s weather patterns. Achen and Bartels think that in 2000 these voters cost Gore seven states, any one of which would have given him the election.

...The most widely known fact about George H. W. Bush in the 1992 election was that he hated broccoli. Eighty-six per cent of likely voters in that election knew that the Bushes’ dog’s name was Millie; only fifteen per cent knew that Bush and Clinton both favored the death penalty.

...“The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field,” the economic theorist Joseph Schumpeter wrote, in 1942. “He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking is associative and affective.” And Fiorina quotes a passage from the political scientist Robert Putnam: “Most men are not political animals. The world of public affairs is not their world. It is alien to them..."

Yes, you read it right. It's official. It is alien to them. Alien. Zak is a metaphor for our times.


San Francisco

Having never ventured further west than Cornwall, I was curious to learn about Zak's home in San Francisco. Apparently, Zak lives on 5858, 13th Avenue, San Francisco. But is there a real 13th Avenue? The number 13 is considered unlucky, so was renamed Funston, after Frederick Funston, nicknamed "fearless Freddie". Funston's numbering starts at 10 and ends at 2498. If there was a 5858 it would be south of the bridge about 58 blocks. You can't see the Golden Gate bridge from 13th because it is under the Central Freeway and is miles from the bridge. So clearly the game has changed the name in order to protect the identity of real Zak. And who is Zak? A friend pointed out:

"5858 is actually the Lucasfilm address in Marin County.  The address  is 5858 lucasvalley road, nicasio, ca."

These are the closest images I could find, back when I first made this site. These days you can just take a virtual drive down the street using Google maps street view. But these images will maybe help as a starting point.
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These maps show the extent of 13th Avenue, with some indication of where 5858 would be located:

Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image
Zak McKracken, Zak McCracken, image