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May 12, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker

Restraining Order, Part Two

I owe STALKER (the game, not the movie) an apology. Not for calling it ridiculously overpunctuated (although I guess over-abbreviated would be more accurate), but I quit it last time after only a few hours, frustrated at its weapons model and its opaque narrative structure.

After watching the film, I got an itch to give the game another shot. I figured I wouldn't last long, but I was a little curious as to how much of Tarkovsky's visual aesthetic had ended up in the game. I decided to head in, spend a few minutes looking around, and then I'd blow it off again. But it turns out that I'm still playing.

I'm not entirely sure what the difference is, but my suspicions, like Jay Leno's chin, are twofold. First, I started paying more attention to the automap in the corner, using it to find stashes and watch for bodies to loot. Second, at some point I was clued in about the location of one of the mission goals that I never previously had been able to find. Unless the player locates a hidden flash drive in one of the underground tunnels, the game basically halts--my first time through, I had no idea where it was.

Which, I'd like to point out, is an easy situation to end up in: the drive is actually hidden in a pipe behind some very poor level design--the lip of the pipe is just slightly too high for the Stalker to step over it, and in the end I had to resort to the old Half-Life trick of jumping forward while crouching (which, in Stalker requires the use of the forward key, the spacebar to jump, and two separate crouch buttons to reach a "low crawl" state. It's a little awkward).

But once past that point, the game has opened up tremendously (especially since that's the first moment when you get a decent weapon). It is, as I told a friend, like Oblivion with Chernobyl-born mutants and AK-47s instead of elves and swords.

As far as the film's influence, I've seen very little on display so far. Stalker does include a number of wide open fields and ruined buildings, but its color palette is much more gloomy and grim than Tarkovsky's--and of course, the first sight of a uniformed soldier dispels any hope that the game will share the movie's character-driven, dialog-heavy atmosphere. The only real similarity I've seen so far is the glow of high-radiation areas: when you stumble into one of these, the screen begins to oversaturate and acquire a kind of film-grain effect that's very striking.

Stalker definitely has its flaws. The AI can be a little wonky, and I've failed missions for what seem to be no apparent reason. The text is barely localized, and NPC conversations are oil-slick shallow. But the game does have its own distinctive atmosphere--the untranslated Russian voices and signposts, the click of the geiger counter, and howling dogs during the dark nights make sure of that. The combat itself has a very different feel from most shooters, but once you get used to it, it's got its charms. All in all, it's an impressive piece of work, as long as you don't get caught on any of the rough edges. I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

Extra credit: For those who might be curious, you can read the original short story that inspired the movie and game, "Roadside Picnic," here, since it seems to be unfortunately out of print elsewhere.

April 29, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»art


Just an idea I had last week.

Possibly useful information: the physics are not terribly complicated--returning the ball with the edge of the paddle does not change its trajectory. But it will sometimes put a little spin on the response, if you take my meaning.

March 31, 2008

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Vox in Socks

Here are three steps to better voice acting in games:

  1. Stop repeating yourself. I only want to hear a line of dialog once. After that, it's annoying. So if you're thinking about having someone say something every time I click a button, or select an option--don't.
  2. Fire the guy who does Mario's voice. He sounds like a weird mafia pedophile. It's creepy.
  3. Write better dialog.
The first two are highly recommended, but optional. The third is not.

Video games are b-movies. There's nothing wrong with that. I love b-movies. At their best, the point of a b-movie is that it's inclusive. It says: the people who made this are a lot like you. Remember when you thought that a fight between a werewolf and a cyborg leprechaun would be awesome? We thought so too. And because we only had $20 in our budget for it, we need a little help from you to make it work: if you can suspend your disbelief for an hour or so, this is gonna be great.

B-movie dialog is not good, in any kind of objective quality sense. But it's written with a kind of hard-edged desparation. For most b-movies, the only reason to have dialog is to find a way to either explain or lead into the next fight (werewolf vs. mutated shark! awesome!). Perversely, this singlemindedness often translates into less padding, fewer monologues, slimmer storytelling. Again, it's not good. But it knows why it's there, and it suffers no illusions of its own brilliance.

And that's the point. The typical video game operates on exactly the same goals as the b-movie, except that you get to choreograph the fight between the werewolf and the alien motorcycle (yes!). "Better" dialog doesn't mean exposing universal truths. It just means that if it ever gets in the way of the viewer/player/reader who just wants to enjoy some irritable lycanthropes, it needs to go.

I've spent a couple of years now recording non-professional voice talent for multimedia projects, and it's been educational. I've learned the little tricks to getting a decent, inoffensive performance out of people who have no real business being in front of a microphone. It's not usually great. But it's not terrible, either. I don't think there's much excuse for bad voice-acting. But I suspect the real problem is not that the voice talent is bad, so much as they're being forced on you through an excess of terrible writing.

Who else wants to talk?

March 11, 2008

Filed under: gaming»media»online

Catching Waveforms

My interview with Audiosurf creator Dylan Fitterer is up on the Opposable Thumbs journal for Ars now, and can be found here.

It's an interesting interview in part because the game is an indie title that would be much harder to do on the console, and yet it's apparently been very successful over Steam's digital distribution. There's an argument to be made, I think, that PC gaming isn't dying--it's just going to be overtaken by titles like this, which have lower system requirements and can leverage the platform in new and interesting ways.

Thanks to Corvus for helping me get in touch with Fitterer.

March 8, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»excel

I'm Not the Only One

...doing inappropriate rapid application development in Excel: Excel as 3D engine via Rock Paper Shotgun. He exposes the guts of the matrix calculations in the spreadsheet itself, then uses the cells of another as "pixels" for display (an idea that I'm sure most people who've zoomed out on a spreadsheet have thought about). It's all very tongue in cheek, with lots of references to resizable pictures and the engine's "advanced" capabilities. But behind the joke, there is something that I've always found fascinating about working within VBA.

When I was in my first or second year of college, I remember reading about LISP for the first time, back when I thought I might be a programmer for a living. LISP programs are made up entirely of lists inside of other lists, and there's no distinction between program commands and data--you can, quite easily, generate a list of new program instructions and then run them, making LISP very useful for AI research.

The idea that the program could actually write itself just struck me as really cool and thought-provoking. I never learned how to actually program in LISP, mind you (all those parentheses make my eyes cross), but conceptually I thought it was a neat experiment. As I've been learning a bit more about Javascript lately, I get a little bit of the same vibe--not that it can rewrite its own code (although I guess it could), but the idea that a page in a web-browser can dynamically rewrite itself based on user input is, in an admittedly incredibly dorky way, kind of magic.

What I like about working in Excel or other Office macros is that they can use the document in the same kind of way. If you're working in Excel, you don't need a file system, because you've got the spreadsheet sitting there to hold your data. Using cells for variable storage lets you use the same kinds of tricks that programmers in C might play with memory pointers--but you can see the memory updated right in front of you, stop execution, and dig through the current state of things. In the piece above, if I'm seeing things right, the programmer's even using the math capabilities of the spreadsheet itself, so that the program relies on the recalculated values of individual cells.

I guess I still think that's pretty cool, that a spreadsheet with a few extra lines of code can run its own contents, blurring the lines between a human-readable document and a program.

March 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»audiosurf


From Audiosurf via e-mail:

Audiosurf scoreboard alert - Dethroned! You used to have the worldwide best score for: from blown speakers by the new pornographers

Now the Audiosurf player 'Pookums' has beaten you. Get back in the game and reclaim the top spot!

Was that fifteen minutes up already?

February 27, 2008

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Out on the Dynamic Range

For this month's Round Table, Corvus has written about using ambient noise in a game. Basically, he raises two points: first, the perfect silence of silences in a video game is a flaw in their ability to suspend belief because the real world contains no perfect silences; and second, few games have used ambient noise as a gameplay mechanic.

As I mentioned in the comments, this is not really restricted to gaming--it's a variant of arguments over dynamic range that audio producers have been having for more than 20 years. Ever since people realized that heavy compression (of volume, not data) made songs on FM radio sound "louder" (because our ears actually hear the average amplitude, and not its absolute level), people have been complaining that dynamic range has been abandoned--a debate that became even more bitter with the advent of digital media, which has a hard-coded maximum dB level.

Indeed, the decision to go softer instead of louder is something that any form of media can--and no doubt has--use to accentuate a critical moment for the audience. You can even take it to extremes--on both With Teeth and The Downward Spiral, Trent Reznor includes a section on several songs that drops to barely a fraction of its previous volume, which is quite a shock when it returns to full blast. And The Wire is notable for its diegetic sound, meaning that any music or sound effects have to come from the environment around the characters. The lack of "sonic cues" means that the audience isn't constantly being told how to feel about the onscreen events, which fits in with the show's "all grey areas" mentality.

So while I agree whole-heartedly with Corvus' second point, that silence or ambient sounds could be used far better, it's hard for me to agree with his first: that ambient sounds should be explicitly modeled, or even used for crucial gameplay cues.

Many of the reasons are technical. It may be impractical to model environmental white noise for entertainment, for example, just due to the uncertain hardware on the player's side. There's already a lot of noise possible there--do you really want to add more? On many built-in soundcards, which is what most people will use instead of having an add-in card, the internal processing often takes place at 48KHz instead of the more widely-used 44.1KHz, so all sounds get resampled up and down during playback--not a high-fidelity process. Most soundcard amplifiers, which raise the level to full line-level for output, are noisy and terrible. The amps in speakers or most low-end sound systems are hardly better. And who knows how someone will listen to your audio? I once had a roommate who ran his laptop into a tape adapter plugged into a cheap Sony boombox. Few living rooms are great acoustic environments, and few consumer headphones are a decent replacement. And of course, all of this applies to consoles, which are just as likely nowadays to use the same kinds of components as a PC.

Now it's true that the magical "HD era" is upon us, and more people are using digital sound output and other solutions for moving audio from one place to another. But it's also true that not everyone--not nearly--has a nice HD set. And even when they do, who's to say that sound receives the same attention as video? I have an LCD TV that will run up to 1080i, but I still listen to my DVDs through its built-in speakers--in stereo, no less--and while they're certainly adequate they're also nothing special. It's a sad truth that audio doesn't get nearly the attention that video does, from either the consumer or the manufacturer.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's simultaneously a movement taking place that can't leverage high-def audio--namely, downloads. It's a funny thing--going 3D meant that art assets actually got smaller for a little while, and with procedural tricks you can do quite a lot visually with a little. But you can't make something out of nothing in audio, unless you're going fully synthesized--which is an intriguing idea, but unlikely to occur for a very large number of reasons (latency, processor-drain, and lack of specialized hardware, to name a few). This leaves anyone who is aiming for a download market to consider their audio options carefully, and more than likely means choosing from compressed audio.

I won't go into the whole process of psychoacoustic compression (you could read my AudioFile article for that), but here's the basic idea: MP3 and almost every other audio compression format actually work by figuring out exactly how much noise they can add before you'll notice it. It's not impossible to compress a file containing nothing but ambient sound, but you kind of have to wonder why you'd bother. You'd be better off trying to generate it, or try to produce it from the environment (Creative's ill-fated EAX was a first step towards doing so with modeled reverb), either of which would probably be extremely hard to do more convincingly than just relying on the trope of silence. After all, the brain actually filters out ambient noise most of the time--if you make it noticeable enough to overpower the existing noise floor of hardware and compression and the listening environment, it's probably going to sound pretty terrible--like a load of static hiss over all your samples.

It is funny, in a way, that we're having this discussion about actually adding noise, because most people don't realize how important noise is to even the "cleanest" of sounds. How does analog-digital conversion overcome rounding error in its samples? How does MP3 shrink file size? How do delta-sigma DACs turn those numbers back into sound? The answer to all of these questions is the manipulation of noise. Without noise, your digital audio would actually sound more distorted.

While we could argue whether I'm correct about all this from a purely technical standpoint, and heaven knows I've been wrong plenty times before, I think there are also practical reasons to not rely on soft audio cues for storytelling--urban living and accessibility. For the former, remember that a lot of people live in apartments or townhouses, and can't crank up the sound. These days, plenty of gamers have kids, or irritable spouses, or other assorted wildlife which (in the name of continued coexistence) means that they can't listen as carefully as they might like. Likewise, while deaf gamers are not a cohort that's going to drive a lot of sales, they do exist, as do audience members with differing degrees of hearing damage. What are you going to do, subtitle the ambient noises?

This is not to say that it's not a good idea to incorporate more realistic dynamic range into entertainments of all kinds. Subtlety and realism are always welcome, and if we really are going HD, then by all means let's do it right. Likewise, as someone who often feels that video production is overstressed compared to the audible element in almost all forms of media, I really do love having these kinds of questions raised. I'm pointing out reasons why they might not work, but it's also entirely possible that they might. I hope someone will prove me wrong.

I'll leave that point with an anecdote: a while back I wrote another one of these posts about how I'd always wanted to play a shooter that worked just with audio--forcing players to orient themselves using the stereo field. Soon after, I think someone referred me to AudioQuake, which tries to do exactly that. There's just one problem with AudioQuake: it doesn't work very well. Turns out that stereo isn't really enough information to place objects in space (at least for me, and I'd guess most other people), and the cues it uses to represent level geometry aren't exactly user-friendly. I mean, I know the first level of Quake pretty well, but I couldn't find my way around with my eyes closed at all.

Does that mean no-one should have made AudioQuake, that it was a waste of time? Not at all! It sounded like a good idea at the time. And it might still be. I can think of a number of additions that might make it feasible--comb filters and delays to mimic the actual response of sounds travelling past a person's head, for example (read more) but we won't know until someone (not me) actually tries it.

Who else wants to talk?

February 19, 2008

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Why We Hummed Along

This is a Round Table post, but it's kind of late: I started out thinking about low-fi sounds and it spiraled away from me, with the result that it's more in line with January's topic (soundtracks) than February's (ambient sound). Sorry about that.

An NES sound chip has 5 channels, says Wikipedia. That's two pulse wave synths at set duty cycles with pitch bending, a triangle wave, a white noise generator, and a delta pulse-width modulation (PWM) synth capable of doubling as a crude 7-bit PCM sound channel. These capabilities are not particularly extravagant. The noise generator is primarily good for special effects and simulating snare rattles or cymbal hits. The PWM channel is also usually used for the bass half of the groovebox. That leaves three melodic channels--and not three polyphonic MIDI channels the way that most modern synthesizers understand, but three monophonic (single-note) instruments to carry the tune.

As a result, there wasn't a lot of variation in the "tone" of the NES from game to game. There were occasional attempts to broaden the palette--mimicking flutes by taking the triangle wave up a few octaves, for example, or the chimes from the now omni-present Final Fantasy theme--but for the most part the instrumentation was static. Imagine that every rock band had to use the exact same equipment for making music, and you have some idea of what this is like.

So it's honestly impressive, if you waste an afternoon listening to NSFs ripped from old Nintendo cartridges (who, me?), how very different a game could sound, and how much composers managed to do with such simplistic tools. Metroid and Mario may share the same hardware, but they are radically different soundtracks. The former embraces the artificial sounds produced by the NES chip. It broods like a Moog Mini that's just had its lunch money stolen.

Super Mario, on the other hand--well, here's the thing about Mario: it's a victim of its own success. We've heard it so many times, either through the game series or through the many pop-culture references, that we're a little dead to its charms. But listen again to it again, and really listen this time:

I mean, that is a genuinely funky theme. Hear how the noise channel isn't being used to emulate drums, but instead creates something more like beatboxing? That's a distinctly NES-friendly move, and it also sounds to me like it pulls inspiration directly from the contemporary hip-hop of the early 1980's. But note that the rest of the arrangement would easily fit onto a clavi or a piano, with the left hand starting out in unison with the right's chords, then wandering off into a laid-back bassline before returning. I don't think it's a stretch to hear a little Stevie Wonder in there (even more so in the slap-bass riff of World 1-2). Sure, when he plays it live nowadays, composer Koji Kondo adds a little swing. Still, this is a far cry from the "beeps and boops" stereotype of 8-bit music, a reputation that the platform hardly deserved (and was primarily assigned by people who had hardly ever really sat down to listen to a game).

These are songs that have really stuck in the heads of people my age, whether they were really hardcore gamers or not. They became a standard. When Belle picked up my copy of New Super Mario Bros., practically her first comment was that they never have managed to get the music right again. Which is a funny comment, since the music capabilities of the DS, while still primitive, are leaps and bounds better than the older games. So why the nostalgia? Why the feeling that the new wavetable interpretations of the songs are somehow less appealing?

I think part of it has to do with the instrumentation, for both the listener and the composer. For my parents' generation, Switched-On Bach may have been the first real experience with electronic music, but for Gen X and younger it was the NES that introduced us to synthesizer tones. And while they may be rough and low-fi, the NES chip's channels have a kind of pleasing weight to them--when I hear analog synth junkies rhapsodize about the sonic characteristics of a Moog or a Prophet 5, this is what comes to mind. I think you really have to understand the NES platform as an instrument with its own distinct sound, compared to today's sample-based consoles.

For composers on this bare-bones hardware, it was clearly a struggle to translate their traditional music chops to such a spare set of sounds. And many of them failed, leaving us with a legacy of generic techno music that lasts to this day. But the successes fused great songwriting onto a new palette, one that was as much defined by its constraints as by its capabilities. It forced the music to pull in new influences in order to overcome those limitations. I think you can hear the tension in the best examples of NES songwriting--that is, in those earworms that have stuck with us, and which become less exciting when they're allowed to stretch out on higher-fidelity platforms.

Who else wants to talk?

Another reason why this post is late is because initially I thought I'd already written a Round Table post about soundtracks: SKU'd Perspectives, which discussed P.N.03 and Jet Grind Radio, and how I want an action game with rhythm.

February 11, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»stalker

Restraining Order

Rough estimate of time spent with ridiculously-overpunctuated FPS S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: 5 hours.

Time required to delete local content: About three minutes.

There is, apparently, a niche for post-apocalyptic shooters featuring inaccurate weapons, a practically-vertical difficulty curve, and no hand-holding whatsoever. Unfortunately, I'm not in it.

On the other hand, I enjoy the title of this post enough that it alone might have been worth the $20.

Stalker's other saving grace is that it reminded me to go back and find an abandonware copy of the classic Wasteland. I never made it very far in Wasteland, but it always sticks in my head as having what might have been one of the coolest fusions of copy-protection and storytelling ever made: the manual included 162 paragraphs of in-game text, which would be referenced by number during the game. Using the manual as a verification code was an old trick even by 1989, but incorporating it into the narrative was pretty slick (not to mention that it saved on space). To add to the fun, buried in the 162 paragraphs were several fakes, existing only to mess with cheaters and readers who couldn't help skimming ahead.

20. The Premacorin Mural is a work of art which you have only heard rumors about. It records all human history in one vast display of gaudy colors. At the beginning of the display you see the image of Charles Darwin walking arm-in-arm with an ape in a wedding dress. Next to that you see a youthful Egyptian pharaoh in mummy wrappings and a gold mask dancing on the stage of a place called (according to the neon lights behind him) Radio City Museum of Unnatural History. Proceeding along, you see a masked man brandishing silver six-shooters on the back of a silver Tyrannosaurus, hot on the trail of a mustachioed man wearing a swastika. A fat man in a red uniform with white trim flies through the sky in a sleigh pulled by eight F-19 Stealth bombers. He has bags full of guns, ammo and bombs, which he is freely dropping down to King Arthur and his knights so they can battle Genghis Khan and the Yellow Peril. Yet further on a man in a green and gold uniform (with the number 12 emblazoned on it and a 'G' on the helmet) has just thrown a missile to a man vanishing in the white glow of an atomic mushroom cloud. Finally, at the far end of the wall, you see the ape in its tattered wedding dress, squatting and studying the fire-blackened helmet.
There's even very short parody (I think) of the Edgar Rice Burroughs "Princess of Mars" stories buried in there. My favorite paragraph is #145:
145. This paragraph can be reached from no place in the whole adventure. We know who you are, and we will get you for reading this paragraph. Expect it most when you expect it least.

February 5, 2008

Filed under: gaming»software»no_more_heroes

The Garden of Madness

No More Heroes is weird. And that is the understatement of 2008 thus far. But I love it, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, NMH almost exactly walks the fine line between the completist impulse and the time-budget of adult gamers. For example, there are basketballs hidden all over the game, which (when you take them to an abusive Russian drunk) grant special abilities inspired by the assassin team from Killer 7. There are 49 of these balls hidden around the overworld map. This sounds like the kind of thing that normally drives me nuts: the need to compulsively collect a bunch of random junk in order to be rewarded.

But it turns out that there's a cheap gadget that you can buy from Naomi, the beam-katana engineer, which makes all hidden items appear on the map. And once you've got it, collecting all the basketballs takes only about an hour, if that. So you still get the warm feeling of having gotten all the stupid secret options, without all the wasted time.

A lot of NMH does exactly this: it cons you into thinking that you're doing a lot more work than you're actually doing. The trappings of the visual design evoke 8-bit games, but more than that Grasshopper shows a keen insight into gaming conventions. It's not at all afraid to parody them--the entire overworld map is definitely a joke at the expense of GTA, but it's not the quicksand that many have made it out to be: once you realize that the motorcycle boost (triggered by the Z button) is completely recharged by powersliding (tilt the wiimote and press B), the city takes practically no time to navigate at all.

Now I am one of the few people who seem to have played significant chunks of Killer7, Grasshopper's previous console title, and actually enjoyed some of it. I enjoyed it more in abstract--the convoluted story fascinated me in a Twin Peaks kind of way, but the actual gameplay was just actively hostile to players, in part because at base level it relied on overused puzzle tasks for its challenge. Likewise, I tried to play Contact on DS, but it's basically a weird little RPG wrapped around incredibly boring MMO-style grinding. No thanks. No More Heroes does what neither of these games managed to do: underneath the weirdness and the self-referentiality, it's still fun to play. The wiimote slash, for example, starts off feeling gratuitous, but actually adds a visceral bit of activity to each combo.

The second thing I love about the game, honestly, is the complete and utter lunacy of it all. The looks that I got from Belle just from listening to the speeches--like the insane ranting of Dr. Peace about his estranged family--were priceless. And yet there are moments of pathos, like the death of Holly Summers, that are genuinely a little touching. Not to mention the final boss, which involves a delivery of six or seven plot cliches in a row, followed by denial of those cliches, followed by their re-affirmation in a hilariously self-aware monologue sequence. It's one long double-take.

And then you realize, in the end, that none of it really mattered. It was just so much fun to watch. Ninety percent of NHM is spent wondering "how are they going to screw with me now?" The fact that you don't have to worry about how painful that will be is what makes it possible to keep playing. The combination of the two illustrates that the studio behind these games might have finally learned how to make its high-concept narrative ideas into actual entertainment.

Future - Present - Past