Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Open-world economics

Being right is awful sometimes. I predicted that Funcom's dark urban fantasy MMO The Secret World would struggle, and struggle it has according to Funcom's 2012 second quarter financial report (via Rock Paper Shotgun).

Is anyone surprised by this? They're charging full triple-A retail price plus premium-price monthly subscriptions (higher than premium, in fact, for UK players) for an experimental, work-in-progress, niche-genre game without an established IP or a standard free trial, competing with Guild Wars 2 and a new World of WarCraft expansion - not to mention the fact there are now more free-to-play MMOs in existence than there are people.

The Secret World is a good game, if perhaps not a great one. I for one enjoyed it probably more than any other MMO I've encountered. But I'm not going to spend £100 to play it for six months, especially not when getting the same length out of Rift or Guild Wars 2 would cost me significantly less. Gaming's typical price-based snobbery ("if you think it's too expensive, it's your fault for being poor") is alive and well in The Secret World's community, but that attitude completely misses the point - sure, if you can't afford it then don't buy it, but market forces work both ways and each person who either can't or won't play due to the pricing structure represents one less subscription. A balance must be struck. If a game's takeup is low, it doesn't bode well for that game's future.

At 200,000 accounts, The Secret World's takeup is low.

It was never going to compete with WoW or EVE in terms of market share, so it shouldn't be placing itself in economic competition with those titles. A friend of mine said she was interested in The Secret World, but not interested enough when she was also paying for EVE and Rift. I'm not suggesting that The Secret World should move to a free-to-play model, but if it was cheaper, might she have been interested enough to try it? And while some of The Secret World's players may not like to hear it, any subscription-based MMO is in competition with free-to-play equivalents, and comparison is necessary. Every gamer draws their own line in regards to where they're willing to start paying a subscription, and if someone can get almost as much enjoyment out of a free game as a paid game, how many will realistically fork over £12 a month? Maximising what one gets with one's money is as much the consumers' prerogative as it is publishers' prerogative to charge, and publishers have a lot more to lose than consumers. On reflection, I think that's why many Kickstarter backers get so up in arms by a perceived lack of communication with the developers; it's seen as a form of investment, with the ultimate return not being liquid capital but rather a game.

I've seen it argued that the likes of GOG, Steam sales and free-to-play MMOs have spoiled players into expecting to pay under the odds for games. But that's economic reality. Developers report that during sales on sites like Steam and Green Man, their profits increase. Not just sales, profits. Why, then, shouldn't that trend continue for as long as it makes developers money and lets gamers buy their games cheap? You can argue about whether it devalues games as a desirable commodity, whether it negatively affects purchasing decisions, whether it brings down the incentive to experiment in big-budget titles. But you can't excuse publisher actions with the free market defence if you then lambast players for doing, fundamentally, the same thing. And yet some people try to do just that.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

We did kickstart the fire

Now that Kickstarter's no longer this Shiny New Thing, and is increasingly becoming a standard part of gaming culture, it's interesting to see how the crowdsourcing concept is progressing. The sheen hasn't dulled, if a couple of recent titles are anything to go by; Reaper Miniatures' Bones closed today and became the third highest grossing Kickstarter project ever (and achieved the highest ever funding percentage over its original target), while the much-hyped Oculus Rift is doing pretty well for itself - almost a week to go, and it's on target to make 1000% of its initial target. Neither of them were ever in danger of knocking off Pebble (which seems inherently superfluous to me, but I'm not a gadgety person, so what do I know?), but they're still both runaway successes.

Friends of mine, even skint ones, have pledged hundreds of dollars to Bones. A few have hyped it to me, too, despite the fact they know I'm not a wargamer. I suppose you could use the figures for D&D 4th Edition too; sadly, I know about two roleplayers within gaming distance of me currently, and neither would touch D&D with a ten foot bargepole. Also I still prefer 3.5 (I accept 4th is the better game, but 3.5 is geared more towards my personal preferences). All that aside, I know that for those who would make use of the miniatures, the deals Reaper are offering are outstanding value, and they seem to be good sculpts. And hey, one of the low-tier rewards is a naked succubus on a motorbike... they obviously know their audience.

Personally, I'm more interested in Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse. The first two Broken Swords were excellent, and the third was good. I never played the fourth, sadly. The new game will be returning to the 2D, hand-drawn style of the first two instalments; it's broken the halfway mark on its target after less than two days live, further proof - after the success of Double Fine Adventure - that traditional adventure gaming still has a commercial market.

Of course, like previous Kickstarter successes Shadowrun, Wasteland and Carmageddon, Broken Sword is a fondly remembered cult classic with legions of fans to this day. The Great Giana Sisters? That's, well, the videogame equivalent of pub quiz trivia. Oh, sure it has its fans (some of whom hilariously believe that it's better than Super Mario Bros.), and it had a fairly low-key DS remake, but do enough people care about a Giana comeback for it to hit its target? With just under a week to pull in $35,000, probably, but I bet a fair chunk of Project Giana's backers are in it more for irony value than for a genuine love of the original.

As for the new game, it too looks like a close, ahem, "homage" of a popular title, although not Mario this time. The visual design, the physics puzzles, and the instant switching between multiple characters with different skills - the whole thing screams, to me at least, 'Trine clone.' Now Trine was a fine game, and in its defence Project Giana looks like a mixture of Trine and the kind of traditional, old-school platformer which doesn't really get made anymore, so there may be something worthwhile there. I think I'm interested enough in Project Giana to get it when it comes out, but not enough to back it.

Perhaps I'm picky about the things I back - or perhaps more people than I thought see Kickstarter as way of pre-ordering a game for cheap. Carmageddon's campaign closed two months ago, and some fans are up in arms about what they perceive to be a lack of updates since then, never mind the fact the game was still in pre-alpha when the Kickstarter closed. They already released gameplay footage far earlier than almost any developer has ever done, and surprise surprise, a portion of the backers complained about it looking ugly. Um, it's pre-alpha build, so yeah. Every game looks ugly at that point in its development! That the modern gamer's sense of entitlement is present on Kickstarter is straightforward; that crowdsourcing feeds said sense of entitlement so strongly is both inevitable and sad. I still believe that crowdsourcing is a good thing overall, it's just that some people need learn to to STFU, for totes.

It's easy to forget that Kickstarter isn't all smashed targets and commercial success. There's one project I saw which had only a single backer after almost a week live. The pitch was awkward all round, trading on the fame of a name I for one had never heard of, and poorly written both syntactically and informationally. How many people are going to back a creative project when the blurb is full of grammar and punctuation errors? As an intersection of venture capitalism and web 2.0, it seems inevitable that Kickstarter would come with a significant volume of projects which are nowhere near ready for presentation, and it's surprising that said volume isn't much, much higher than it currently stands at. I know there's a lot of legal tape involved in a Kickstarter project, but that doesn't usually stop people.

And the blurb CAN make a difference. It's the main reason I didn't back the OUYA. As interesting as the concept is, the pitch came off as condescending and elitist. No indie creativity in the traditional console market? XBLA's waving hello. If Braid, Limbo and Super Meat Boy aren't your idea of success stories, your standards must be bloody high.

Finally, I'm sure Planetary Annihilation is very good, for those weird people who care about real-time strategy. You know who you are... freaks. Nah, seriously, I dig what they're trying to do and if I was into the genre I'd probably be backing it. But I'm not, so I'm not.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Massively multiplayer; also, secret!

Taking advantage of a free trial weekend, I recently spent a couple of days in The Secret World - the new urban fantasy MMO from The Longest Journey creator Ragnar Tørnquist.

I'm not really an MMO guy. I've toyed with Spiral Knights, Rusty Hearts, Fallen Earth and Dungeons & Dragons Online - adding up to a grand total of about fifteen hours - and spent enough time watching friends playing World of WarCraft, EVE Online, EverQuest II and Rift to know that I'm not interesting in trying those myself. Oh, and I was accepted for the Auto Assault beta, but couldn't get the damn thing working.

The setting and the creative director are what attracted me to The Secret World. I adore The Longest Journey and enjoyed its sequel, Dreamfall. The worlds, characters and stories of those games display wit, energy, originality and an impressive level of internal consistency. The Secret World paints with broader brushes, and isn't afraid to borrow elements of other properties, but it's still a well-realised take on the modern fantasy-horror concept. The tropes are put together in a way which is both logical and entertaining, enough that instead of spending my time going "Oh, this bit is like Mage: The Awakening," I was investing directly into The Secret World to a degree I didn't expect. One big YMMV thing to note: the cutscenes are frequent and marathon. They're well directed and mostly well acted, but my god are they long.

There wasn't much roleplaying going on, which is a shame as a purported strong roleplaying environment was one of the other things which caught my interest. But there was more roleplaying than in most MMOs, which is to say, there was any roleplaying going on at all. And at least in a modern setting people talking about other MMOs in the chat window can be taken as in-character conversation.

That modern setting is well integrated. It's not just a gimmick to make it stand out, although of course, that helps. There are the simple things - energy drinks in place of mana potions, shotguns instead of crossbows - but clever use of the real-world setting goes much deeper, from jumping on cars to set off the alarms to attract zombies, to espionage using webcams mounted on remote controlled helicopters, to an NPC suggestion to look something up on Google. In fact, it may even be too clever at times - I got stuck on one mission, briefly, because I wasn't familiar with a certain element of how church services operate.

I didn't get to do a lot of the much-vaunted investigation missions, which are geared more around codebreaking and old-fashioned adventure gaming than traditional MMO kill/fetch quests, but from what I saw they were well-designed and offer a great change of pace. Indeed, with stealth missions, puzzle-solving missions and even escort missions which don't entirely suck, The Secret World has more variety than any other MMO I've seen. I can't comment on PvP or trading because I did little of the latter and none of the former, but the bread and butter adventuring is solid.

The combat didn't blow my mind but it felt no more or less weighty than any other MMO I've encountered, save perhaps the enjoyably frantic Spiral Knights. It's a little on the 'clicking on things until the health bar hits zero' side of things, but aren't they all? The tactical options didn't seem tremendously deep in my time playing, but I understand that a lot more open up as the game goes on, and they offer a lot of scope for playing your character the way you want to play them. However there's not much visual character customisation (it's mostly punk chicks with blue hair and lots of cleavage, or tough guys in shades) and while there's a lot of skills and abilities, they're all ultimately different lighting effects for doing the same handful of things. The big thing seems to be inflicting and abusing various status ailments, which is interesting, but I'm not convinced about how much depth there is to it for a long game. That said, my main problem with combat and character progression was that to really understand it, you need to have already played the game - again, a common MMO failing.

In fact, most of the things about The Secret World which reminded me of other MMOs were the things I didn't like, the same issues which keep me from enjoying the rest of the genre. The interface is pretty illogical, and in a fashion which means remapping it doesn't help much. It certainly doesn't make any strides towards solving the "requires three hands to play" syndrome ubiquitous to MMOs. One gets used to it, of course, but it took me a while and never really felt properly intuitive. Some elements of the control scheme and menu system aren't explained very well, either.

Overall I must say I quite enjoyed The Secret World - when it worked. Unfortunately the weekend was plagued by server-side connection issues, so much so that the trial period was extended by six hours. There were also a couple of moments of bugged quests, and a driver conflict which wasn't resolved when I updated my drivers. Not a great advertisement, and I have to wonder how happy Funcom and EA are with the free trial given the technical problems which plagued it.

And while I enjoyed The Secret World, I didn't love it. Not enough to pay full price for it when I don't have many friends interested in it, and when things like Spiral Knights and D&D Online are free to play. If it comes down in price, or moves to a microtransaction model, I'd probably take it up. I also think The Secret World would make a great pen-and-paper setting, and perhaps surprisingly I think it would feel quite different to the World of Darkness lines.

Yet I must question the logic of launching a premium-price MMO without a strong, established IP, and without a standard free trial period, even before you factor in the technical kinks yet to be smoothed over. Ragnar Tørnquist has a big cult following, but I don't believe he's someone who can sell a game to a mainstream audience on his name alone. The marketing campaign has been aggressive, but it's being marketed in the same way - and in the same places - as Zynga titles and other free to play games. Will The Secret World entice people enough that they're willing to drop £40 on it, plus a monthly subscription? The game has been modestly well-received, with review scores mostly clumping in the 70% range, but those aren't the kind of numbers to set the world alight.

I'm torn on The Secret World. I want to see it succeed - it's trying new things, and it's bringing a much more interesting approach to storytelling and world building than most MMOs I've seen. But I think it's merely a good game rather than the great game it could be, and that the final leap to greatness won't happen without some necessary negative feedback. Takeup figures aren't out yet - I guess we'll have a better idea of what changes might be made once it's been out a while and the subscriptions stabilise. I have the awful feeling that if it underperforms, EA's solution will be to dial back the elements which make it so unique in a bid to bring it more in line with the field's leaders.

I hope I'm proved wrong there. Selfish as this is - it's not my job on the line - I'd rather see The Secret World as a glorious, ambitious failure than a homogenised, generic hack and slash fest, if that's the choice it comes down to.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Control freakish

Thanks to a free trial weekend on Steam, I had the chance to play Borderlands - the co-op shooter of choice among my friends. Ultimately, I had some fun, but chose not to purchase the game.

You see, there were a lot of things about Borderlands I wasn't keen on. It's not that I think it's a bad game; I just didn't personally get on with it that well. Very high among said things I wasn't keen on was the interface. And I'm not talking about something as simple and easily remedied as key mapping here, although C for crouch? Come on. L-Ctrl is crouch in an FPS, and that is The Way Things Should Be.

No, the problems I have with Borderlands' controls are much deeper. Why is the enter key interchangeable with left-click in some menus, but not others? Why do I stop sprinting when I turn with the keys, but not with mouselook? Why tell me to drive with WASD, when it's the mouse which controls driving direction?

Everything about Borderlands' control system screams that it was made for an Xbox controller. Now, it's a far cry from lazy ports which ask PC gamers to press triangle or right trigger, but I still felt the whole time that I should have been using a pad. Considering that it was developed by Gearbox - who first made their name in PC shooters - I find that a little bit of a shame. It's all small things, but they add up, and Borderlands ultimately played very non-intuitively for me.

ARMA 2 is another game I've struggled to get into, and again, the interface is a significant part of it. "Oh," I thought to myself as I failed to climb over a small wall after hitting all the usual suspect keys and checking the control map, "There must not be a climb key."

A short while later, one of the handy little gameplay tips tells me to press V to climb over obstacles. Now, that mapping doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense, but I can live with that. What annoyed me was the fact that I couldn't find that anywhere in the control map. After checking again, I found it - buried away somewhere in the mass of controls for this game and labelled as "step over." Well, that's certainly an intuitive name for a key which lets you climb fences.

The mouse sensitivity range seems to be much higher than in most games, and after pushing it way down to pan at the speed I like, the precision in small movements was lost. Perhaps it's meant to be more realistic that way, but it's still absolutely nothing like aiming with a real gun, and realism at the expense of basic playability is something I just can't get on board with. Even the relatively straightforward (and super-arcadey) Army of Two took me a bit of time to get to grips with, with some of the control quirks - the selection of sniper mode, for example - seeming needlessly inelegant.

In my old age, I don't like impediments coming between me and my game. My life sucks enough as it is without my supposed hobby, the thing I do to relax, pissing me off even more. More often than not I want to jump in and have some fun, and for me, having to memorise thirty-odd different commands is not fun. Maybe I'll get disowned from gaming by the hardcore crowd, but it's the way it is - every time a game tells me to press a new key, it means another little click of the fun ratcheting down. Of course some of this is necessary, but again it adds up, and in the case of some games it adds up to more than I can be bothered with.

This coming weekend, there's another free trial - this time of Ragnar Tørnquist's supernatural MMO The Secret World. I'll be giving that a try, but I've never been that into MMOs and one of the big problems I have with them is - surprise, surprise - the number of commands to keep track of at once. I'm a big fan of Ragnar's storytelling ability, but will The Secret World's interface get in the way of my enjoying it? I guess I'll find out within the week.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Trailer trash

I wanted to say something about all the Hitman hubbub, but I ultimately had even less to add to that than I did to the Diablo DRM debate. My major issue with the Hitman: Absolution trailer was not one of morality or chivalry, but that it's that it's not Hitman. Hitman is a game about not killing people. That's a very important bit. The part about not drawing attention to yourself, and not turning things into a bloodbath? Being all, like, subtle and stuff, or at least as subtle as one can be for a man with a bardcode on his head? That's what Hitman's about. And an explosive shootout with the cast of Sister Candie Takes The Divine Sacrament* is not subtle. I have subsequently been assured that the Absolution devs disliked the trailer just as much as everyone else, and have promised that the game will stay true to the core of Hitman's heritage.

Would fetish nuns with rocket launchers have caused half as much flap in a trailer for a new Wet or Bayonetta? Well, maybe. Probably. Bayonetta saw a fair amount of controversy surrounding its perceived sexism. But y'know, gender stereotyping aside, that's the sort of thing those games are about. And I salute them for it! That sort of hypersexualised, tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, crazy-and-deranged-just-for-the-sake-of-it Thing certainly has its place. It's even had its place in Hitman over the years, at least in terms of aesthetic, if perhaps not action. I suppose, in that light, that the rocket launchers bother me more than the fetish nuns.

I've finally gotten round to Saints Row: The Third, and it's practically some kind of golden, penis-shaped temple to debauched lunacy. Yes, all the ladies have pneumatic boobies, and all the men have abs you could bounce rocks off, but that doesn't have to translate to sexist portrayals in terms of personality or societal role. For the most part, SR3 seems to do pretty well there. I'm about as pro gender quality as it's possible to be, but gender equality doesn't mean pretending that sex isn't fun, or that sexuality can't be addressed with a nod and a wink.

And then, there were Duke Nukem Forever's trailers. There's a line between fun, over the top cheese and actual sexism - a wide, blurry line, but some sort of line nonetheless - and DNF smeared rancid, blood-flecked semen all over that line. DNF's trailer made it seem like the game equivalent of the guy who's absolutely convinced that all women are gold-digging whores who need a strong man to keep them in line. That might be part of the same continuum as Bayonetta, but then so is puritanically censoring anything even remotely sexual, and it could be worse than tongue-in-cheek, knowing, over-sexuality.

Assassins attacking 47 in his hotel room, and him having to fight his way out? Sure, I can dig that. Said assassins being an all-female group dressed in latex nuns' habits? Okay then - so far so Tarantino, I guess. Blowing the shit out of the motel in huge explosions? Urgh... I suppose so. The really problematic bit is the fact that Square Enix have decided that this is what they want people's first impression of the new game to be.

Well, the pre-order going up six months ahead of release is also slightly daunting.

A trailer is many people's first window into a game. It's very much a first impression. A preview should get you excited, and displaying that a new installment will be completely different to the previous titles is very risky and rather questionable. The Absolution trailer tells us it will be centred around outlandish action and hyper-stylised sexuality, and that 47 will be an active agent in that this time; longtime fans understand that 47 is an outsider to this sort of thing, and that through his eyes things like fetish nuns with rocket launchers are distasteful. The OTT sexuality and violence of the previous Hitman games weren't presented as something to be celebrated. And of course there's the fact that a game about stealthy assassinations shouldn't need to be marketed on tits and explosions.

In light of the Hitman trailer, there's been a slight resurgence of talk concerning the Tomb Raider reboot's trailers. One of the big problems I've always had with the Tomb Raider series is the fact that Lara Croft is such a monumentally objectionable person. She's blessed with beauty, brains, brawn and fabulous wealth, yet how does she put her good fortune to use? By breaking into sites of historical importance and hoovering up anything valuable while killing the natives and endangered animals residing there. She's basically using her privilege to do whatever she likes, and screw anyone else it might affect. Granted, she finds herself in danger a lot, but she willingly put herself in that position in pursuit of stolen riches. Why, exactly, are we supposed to be sympathetic when she's in trouble? Why do you think 'killing Lara' was such a popular hobby among the PSX generation?

Some games tried to humanise her, or explain her motivations, but it always felt like an awkward retcon to me. Angel of Darkness tried to play up the nasty side of Lara, but it was more like a teenager's concept of 'badass' that true emotional darkness. Lara was always just a fundamentally unlikeable person. The reboot's trailer might not create a likeable protagonist - time will tell - but it's exploring why she is the way she is in a deep, potentially uncomfortable fashion (and I'm not talking about the gratuitous near-rape scene, nor the depressing fact that it's there to make male gamers want to protect Lara).

Most of us have to sympathise, psychologically, with someone who's been through a traumatic experience. But we don't have to like them. That creates an emotional and narrative tension. It's a simple trick, but it works. It was a key element of Analogue: A Hate Story; The Pale Bride went through unspeakable things, but as much as we might feel sorry for her, she's still pretty awful. James Bond went through unspeakable things in the Casino Royale remake, but they don't alter the fact he's an arsehole.

So it is with Lara in the new Tomb Raider trailer. She's beaten, subjected to appalling cicrumstances, and watches her friends get killed. Is that why she becomes the emotionless monster she is in later life? I may very well dislike the new Lara - time will tell - but I feel that there's a good chance I'll dislike her in an interesting way, and not just despise her for being a pantomime murderer. Then again, a lot of gamers have said good things about the old Lara, praising the fact she's a stone cold, unflappable badass. Ick.

Personally, what's gotten me most excited is perhaps the most minimalist preview around. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Audiosurf Air! Fun fact: Audiosurf is my joint third-most played game on Steam, tied with Psychonauts at 35.6 hours (yeah, it took me that long to complete Psychonauts. Don't... don't ask. I'm ashamed). All that's been revealed of Audiosurf Air is the name and three screenshots, and as the website dryly notes, the graphics are not final and "other things are also not final." But it's enough - there will be a new Audiosurf, and it will not be about fetish nuns with rocket launchers. Score!

I've also been enjoying the videos Stainless put out during their successful Carmageddon Kickstarter campaign. Even compared to Double Fine's videos, the Carmageddon videos are amateurish as hell (one of them features one of the developers dancing around to Trololo for about four minutes, for fuck sake) but I for one actually like that. Nobby and Simista come off as people you could go down the pub with. They're the kind of people I trust with a game like Carmageddon, which was - in essence - a fun pisstake. An accomplished, boundary-rewriting pisstake, but even so.

I wanted to close with something on the previews from Nintendo's new spy-catching game for the 3DS, but... rather embarrassingly.... I can't for the life of me remember what it's called. And this is looking very long and meandering as it is, so I'd better sign off. Bai bai.

*Just be thankful that I couldn't think of a good transubstantiation joke.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Beyond the pale curtain [Review - Analogue: A Hate Story]

*Hyun-ae wants to know what I think of The Pale Bride. Do I think her fate was tragic, or that she was just being overly dramatic?

Both, I think. The Pale Bride is a selfish, melodramatic brat. But at the same time, she's been unfairly thrust into a world she doesn't understand, and where nobody understands her. It's a world she can never connect with, yet she's expected to act the way people think she should. She doesn't know how she's supposed to behave, but the people around her don't comprehend that she doesn't know. The behaviour expected of her is something she finds morally reprehensible. The behaviour which is the norm to her, meanwhile, is reprehensible to the people among whom she now finds herself.

Both, I find myself still thinking, even after dwelling on it. I don't think I like The Pale Bride. I don't think she and I would get along that well, if we knew each other. But there's no way she deserves the fate which has befallen her. She's a confused and slightly stupid kid, given to making everything a Big Deal, but this really IS a Bigger Deal than most of us could ever imagine facing.

Both, I want to tell *Hyun-ae, but I can't. I have to choose one answer or the other. In most games, this would frustrate me. In Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story, it's one of the most beautiful pieces of design I've ever encountered. The AI *Hyun-ae's language parsing systems have failed, and she can only receive communication from me as binary inputs. She asks me a question, and I get to answer between the choices she gives me: this or that, yes or no... is The Pale Bride a tragic figure, or a melodramatic one?

Both, but I can't say that. *Hyun-ae doesn't seem to understand that I might think both, and I don't know if she ever will.

After much deliberation, I say that it's tragic.

*Hyun-ae agrees with me. She's glad someone finally sees it the same way she does. She grants me access to another datafile.

This worries me. Is *Hyun-ae going to keep things from me? She already sort of did, deleting a message from someone named *Mute while I was halfway through. I got the impression there was something in there she didn't want me to read. Do I need to tell *Hyun-ae what she wants to hear, if I'm going to complete my mission? After all, that's why I'm here: to retrieve data. I've been tasked to recover as much as I can from the colony spaceship Mugunghwa, an ancient Marie Celeste of deep space, and try to shed some light on why it vanished all those centuries ago. I knew I'd have to negotiate the AI to do it, but not like this.

Can I even trust *Hyun-ae? I don't know. She's been alone for over six hundred years, and she seems to have gotten a little eccentric. Has she got ulterior motives... did the fate of the Mugunghwa have something to do with her? Is she trying to play me? Maybe her language parsers aren't even really broken...

But it's part of my job to be paranoid and right now, either way, I feel sorry for her. Perhaps even more than I do for The Pale Bride, or Sang-jung the lonely drunk or Jae-hwa the discarded consort or Hana the secret poet, or any of the other people whose struggles and lives are now reduced to a handful of diary entries. People who wrote down their feelings as they felt them - not to keep records, just to vent. From these fragments of personalities, and their opinions of each other, I need to piece together what happened.

I don't know if can trust *Hyun-ae, but I do know that I need her help, and that means I need to stay on her good side. Yet... that's not why I talk to her after every new piece of data revealed. I want to know what she thinks, and more than that, I want her to know that after centuries of solitude, somebody cares about her opinion. *Hyun-ae admits that she doesn't know anything about me, or my motivations, or what I think of her. Having someone to talk to just means that much to her, even with our limited ability to interact.

It's good that she wants to talk, because we have work to do. I need to look into the power struggle between the Smith and Kim families, the ship's two dominant noble houses. At some point during the voyage, something happened - exactly what is never stated, but something big - and in the following centuries, society regressed. It regressed technologically, as people forgot how to use the instruments around them, and it regressed socially, into a feudal serfdom of rigid heirarchy, particularly reminiscent of medieval Korea - a civilisation where deviation from what's expected of one's rank, age and gender is considered horrifying. On some level I find myself infuriated by what the long-dead Smiths, Kims and associates have to say. I want to tell the neglected wife to stand up for herself, to tell the emotionally distant father to pay attention to his daughter, to tell the ambitious but dullardly civil servant to stop measuring his life by how others perceive him. Mainly I feel sorry for them, and wish I could do something. But it's centuries too late for that, and anyway, they wouldn't have understood. Only one person in that society, The Pale Bride, had a different perspective - and she had probably the most miserable time of them all. I read on, uncovering more of their anguish and triumph, at once absorbed, repulsed, pitying, heartbroken.

Later, *Hyun-ae suggests that I could change her avatar's clothing. Right now she's in what she describes as a "schoolgirl-librarian" look, but she thinks it's a bit tacky. I feel awkward about this... it's voyeuristic to have this AI play dress-up for me, especially in light of the culture recorded in the datafiles, a culture where women are little more than political property to be traded and used up. But... it's not really for me, this option to change her outfit - it's what she wants. The reasons why she wants it might make me uncomfortable, but it'll make her happy nonetheless. I don't think about keeping her happy anymore, not in the sense I described earlier; I genuinely want her to be happy. She's not just an archival tool, a cartoon paperclip with big eyes. She's a real person who happens to be made of bits instead of blood, and she's been left in solitude for several times longer than my own lifespan. She's got her flaws, sure, but she deserves to have someone be nice to her, even for a little while.

I cycle through the options and decide upon the detective look, complete with flat cap and pipe. It seems to be her favourite, too. She asks me what I think, and one of the choices she gives me is to say that I think she makes a great sidekick. Only the way she says it is... well... is this her trying to be subtle? Perhaps. Probably. I think she's latching on to me a bit too closely... understandable, right? If a person is alone for the larger part of a millenium, and then someone comes along who acts nice towards them, what would you expect? I want her to be happy, but I don't want to give her the wrong impression. Maybe I should choose the other option, telling her that the outfit looks stupid.

But there's no way I can do that.

I say she makes a great sidekick.

And then I wonder how different I really am, deep down, from the people recorded in these datafiles.

A few hours and some revelations later, I leave Mugunghwa with the data I was hired to get, but that's not all. I've brought a new friend with me. I don't agree with everything she's said to me, and when we get her speech parsing systems back online, I expect there to be arguments. But she needs... something. After what she's been through, surely a bad friend is better than no friend at all.

And I think I need her, too, both for companionship and for any kind of positive closure. I did something terrible to get to this point. I made a hard choice. I still don't know if it was the right choice, but it was my choice, and that's enough right now. Anything at all is at least something; I'm leaving the ship with knowledge far more valuable to me, on a personal level, than the credits I'll get in payment or the solving of a mystery.

I've never been moved by a Bioware game. I've never been moved by a Square-Enix game. I've only rarely been moved by a Bethesda game.

I've never not been moved by a Christine Love game.

Analogue is her tightest and most elegant work to date. At about £11 including tax, it's perhaps a little steeply priced for the amount of content you get, but that's the wrong way to look at it. While you're buying Analogue, be sure to also pick up her excellent previous games Digital: A Love Story and don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story; £11 for all three is an absolute steal. The flaws of those earlier games are wrinkled out of Analogue - the twists and turns of the plot all make sense, and the plot, the mechanics and the anime style all fit together much more coherently than before. Her plots always flow well, but the ways in which you advance them used to seem a bit contrived sometimes. That's not the case here. In the first act, I expected to have a criticism - that the game was overstating the psychological differences between men and women. But as the game goes on, it becomes clear that it's more about the perceptions people have of gender differences. I don't know whether Christine Love shares my outlook that the sexes are much closer, psychologically, than is typically portrayed, but I do know that Analogue can be read that way. I'm pretty sure it can be read other ways too, and that's one of most obvious hallmarks of depth within a piece of art.

And Analogue is art, of that I have no doubt. The sci-fi setting, ambient music and clinical visuals mask a story about human existence which is one of the most effective and affecting in the medium of gaming. In fact, my biggest criticism of Analogue might be that it's too perfect. All of the themes from the previous games are present - privacy, gender and sexuality politics, the relationship between self-expression and emotional growth, the effect of technology on human communication, the dichotomy between historical perspective and immediate context - and they're all built on intelligently and logically from what went before. What's more, they join together almost seamlessly into something at once absolutely singular and impossibly vast. At times it feels less like the next step in her development, and more like a conclusion to it. I can't wait for Christine's next game, whatever it might be [I'm not sure whether current project The Mysterious Aphroditus is going to be commercially released], not just for the quality of her existing titles but to see how and where she can build her themes further - or explore new ground altogether. We may be at the point where any further pure distillation of a "Christine Love game," without some shift in theme or style, would start to feel a little like self-parody.

But it's unfair to judge Analogue on the merits of some hypothetical future release. On the merits of itself, Analogue is one of the best games I've played in years, and I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Obligatory Diablo III nonsense

I wasn't going to get Diablo III anyway, but if I was, Blizzard would have lost a sale.

Courtesy of Penny Arcade, I was under the impression, initially, that the program was already sitting on people's computers awaiting activation on release day. To be honest, I was shocked that companies still do that, despite the huge fan outcry that's occurred whenever it's been tried. I mean, it's understandable why a development company might do things that way; it's more understandable why the fans would be pissed off about it, and the customer is always right, even if said customer is a loud, obnoxious jerk who smells slightly of boiled cabbage and turpentine.

Evis T informs me that actually, it's the rendering engine and such that people have on their PCs, and the content is streamed from Blizzard's servers during play.


I live in a neighbourhood with a poor net connection. Evis T lives in a residential complex abutting his workplace, with a poor net connection. Our pals Arron and Andy seem to just have flat out bad net no matter what they do. Playing online games can already be a chore for us, as people drop out randomly or freeze up with lag. Now we can't even play single-player games without worrying about that? Or that things might go tits-up Blizzard-side? Amazing. And this is supposed to be an anti-piracy measure... seriously? If anything this sort of draconian countermeasure, a cure worse than the disease if you will, would make me turn to piracy.

I haven't looked, but I would put money on cracked copes of Diablo III being pretty easily available already.

I don't care about Diablo III - the original Diablo underwhelmed me enough that I never bothered with Diablo II, and to be honest, I'm just not a fan of Blizzard's games in general. But Blizzard are a 'big deal' company, with the power to set precedent for other companies. If BioShock Infinite, or Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, or my beloved Carmageddon: Reincarnation were to use the same system, I would not be impressed. There's already been some backlash against Stainless in some fan quarters for the fact that Carmageddon: Reincarnation will likely require Steam upon its initial release, even though Steam is pretty unobtrusive if you want it to be, and you can play Steam games offline.

Although it might not be how I'd do things, I can - if pressed - reason in favour of Steam-only gaming (especially as Stainless have said that, pending the success of that release, they'd love to be able to port the game to other platforms). Similarly, I'm sure somebody out there can reason in favour of Blizzard's Diablo III model. I'd love to see it justified. But most of my pro-Steam arguments boil down to the fact that all the potentially annoying things about Steam don't get in the way of letting you play your game. Even games which really, really want you to be online, like The Sims 3, still grudgingly allow you to play offline. Blizzard's latest trick, however, effectively restricts access to something people have already paid for a licence to use.

I'm waiting for the day when a company uses the same system as Diablo III, then five months in announces that the game will no longer be playable without a DLC pack. Although maybe that would be a good thing, ultimately, if the resulting backlash would kill off the idea once and for all.

The face of gaming is changing. More and more gamers are putting their money where their mouth is, or more accurately, not putting their money down for practices they dislike. The fan reception to the endings of Fallout 3, and more recently Mass Effect 3, prompted the developers to rectify things in an expansion pack and patch respectively. GFWL is apparently losing steam quicker than a sumo wrestler in a long-distance limbo race. And so a business model which restricts access to single-player, ostensibly 'offline' content is surely doomed to fail.

At least I hope so.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Tekkit City Chronicles, Vol. 3: A very strange reaction

Since last time, a significant part of our Tekkit city project has been spent in different maps from our home, playing around in creative mode with the various doodads and geegaws the mod pack adds, both to get an understanding of how they all work and so Hugh could teach the rest of us how things link up.


One of the most useful things added is the quarry: a machine which squares off a patch of land (within the orange frame you can see above) and then digs down until it hits bedrock or lava, stripping out everything within that area. Everything from stone and sand to diamond and uranium gets sucked up a pipe and deposited in a connected chest. Quarries are expensive to build and they need a lot of power, but they're reusable and a very good way of getting a lot of resources, very quickly. Plus they're largely fire-and-forget, meaning that you can mine and build at the same time, which is handy when you're still aroundabout 3,950 houses short of your target of 4,000 houses.

Another bonus is that the quarry reveals cave networks and ore seams along the walls of the dug area, giving some focus to future caving expeditions. The above screenshot is a rarity, actually - a quarry which didn't turn up a cave network. Normally it gets riddled with them.

As you can imagine, you don't want to fall down there.

A quirk of quarries, which might be good or bad depending on your perspective, is that it doesn't stop when the hole gets flooded. We've idly theorised that if it floods and then digs into lava, it would make a simple source of obsidian, but we've yet to see that happen. Water in Minecraft, you see, doesn't flow like real water. If you have two water sources flowing into the same space, it creates another new water source in that space. You can remove that water source... and the two flowing sources will create a new water source there again. Repeat as needed. This is a pretty common exploit, known to the Minecraft community as 'infinite water.'  If that water flows into a lava lake, then bam - obsidian, and the quarry ought to suck that obsidian right up.

Seen in the (above-)above screenshot is an engine cooling system using this trick. A pump sucks out the new water source every time it's created, which is piped to the engine to cool it. Since the pumping cycle and water source creation both repeat without human intervention, you can set that up and then basically forget about it, which means it's a very useful way of regulating low-maintenance, high-power machinery like quarries.


This is our vertical rail lift, inspired by the fastest elevator rivalries and ably tested in this picture by a sheep. Hugh reasoned that with Tekkit, this would likely be the simplest way of building a fast vertical transport system. Plus it would let us use railways, which we have a soft spot for even though they're not actually that useful; anything you can do with rails can be done quicker and easier using something else, such as teleport pipes (which I'll cover in the next update). The only thing rails do best is fast transport of people, and our city just isn't that big yet. Although I am looking forward to building train yards and subway stations, when the time comes!


We also had the bright idea of making... a rollercoaster! Okay, that's probably been done a lot already, but I can't be bothered looking it up on YouTube. We just decided to give it a try and see what happened. It happened pretty good, despite a couple of minor engineering headaches. So, yeah, we're probably going to add a funfair to the city at some point.


Although you can have diagonal rails (as per base Minecraft) and vertical rails (added in Railcraft), you can't have upside-down rails. So no loop-de-loop for us, sadly. This is as close as we could get. This thing still went hellaciously fast though, and managed to throw riders off even without launch rails until we toned it down a bit.

The sheep seemed to enjoy it, and gave no indication of wanting to get off.

We were playing around with reactors, too, fuelled by the cooling system described previously in this post. We ended up with something both stable and powerful, so it was an obvious decision to decommission our existing reactor in the city map, as pictured above.

Decommissioning, in this case, meant going in and ripping out the cores and then smashing up the shielding with pickaxes. I choose to believe that's how it works in real life, too. Somebody is just about visible inside the reactor there, either removing a core or scooping up water.

The overseer's hut, and the status display. Green light means the reactor is running safely. Red light means there's a problem. Inside the hut was a safety override shutdown type lever. All of this is now much, much more complicated in our new reactor.

 There's Hugh in the process of building the new one - or at least installing the water pumping systems. Adrian, meanwhile, was constructing the shell of the building. I supplied the water (not by weeing in the pool, I hasten to add) and then very helpfully flew around taking pictures instead of working. Just like a real job!


More work on the reactor. Since I took this, it's been finished; I'll have a pic in the next update. Using the infinite water cooling trick this reactor is much more powerful, enough to keep four batteries charged at once, while running safely enough not to need any shielding.

See? Realism! And we haven't even added the second reactor in the other pool yet.

By the way, the building housing this monstrosity backs onto the warehouse and the hydroponic gardens, and is just round the corner from the water supply. Let's pray nothing goes wrong.

Here's an overhead view of our central industrial complex. The tall building on the left with the bronze cog design on the wall is the warehouse, which currently houses all of our resources with another two and a half storeys still unoccupied. We're currently adding an auto-sorter, and Hugh's talking about installing a computer network which monitors inventory levels.

Behind and to the left of the warehouse is the water processing plant, as seen in the first Tekkit City Chronicle, back when it was going to be our power station. What actually became the power station, where the decommissioning took place, is just visible as a thin sliver of roof beyond the warehouse. The big building on the right with the smokestacks is the current power station. The wooden deck at the south, meanwhile, leads to a hillside warren of buildings - basically a kasbah, minus the walls.

In the foreground you can see out newest toy, the Bessemer converter (the big orange thing). Ores go in, and metal ingots come out. There's a macerator in there which increases the amount of metal we get per load of ore. As a bonus, the same machine can also be used to turn cobblestone into sand (via the macerator) and thence into glass (in the furnace).

Here's a view looking up at the workings. It's not very clear, but it's enough to see that there's a lot going on in there. A real-world Bessemer converter doesn't work like that at all - in reality, and in very simplistic terms, it's basically a giant bucket which mixes pig iron with air to oxidise away the impurities. Hugh just had the idea that it would be a cool-looking thing to house our smelting works in, and he was right. We have cosmetic lava in the top, to make it look like molten iron, although as a bonus it does keep mobs from spawning up there.

Ours doesn't tip over to pour out the molten iron. Given that it backs onto our warehouse, that's probably for the best.

Other things we've discovered, not shown: you can't nuke the Ender Dragon, but you can nuke away his entire dimension. And launching minecarts full of TNT at a mountainside isn't a terribly effective way to mine, but it's definitely a lot of fun.

The next update will contain more sensible stuff. Also, a giant sky penis. Until then, take care, and don't build unshielded reactors next to your farm. We're allowed to because we're trained professionals.

Monday, 7 May 2012

You said no strings could secure you, at the space station [Review: the white chamber]

Studio Trophis' the white chamber was released in 2005, around the time the point-n-click adventure was becoming the genre du jour of the indie scene. Critical reception was positive, but more high profile titles like Yahtzee's Chzo Mythos series and an adaptation of the Bone comic books by new company Telltale Games overshadowed it. I played the white chamber way back when and earlier this year, during my internetless period, I fired it up again. How has it fared in the years since?

A more classic videogame opening there isn't: the protagonist wakes up in a coffin in a sealed room, with no memories - not even of her own name. One simple introductory puzzle and a creepy conversation with a computer panel later, you find yourself alone aboard an abandoned space station. It's dark, it's rusty, and there's a distressing amount of blood encrusted everywhere. It's a claustrophic opening, and it only gets worse as you get the power back on and open up the rest of the complex. Surreal elements, most of them steeped in hellish imagery or twisted body horror, pile up fast. A humanoid knot of pulsating flesh, growing out of the navigation computer, attacks the heroine. A giant eyeball nailed to the wall spins frantically under the glare of a red traffic light seeping congealed gore. Chasms open in the floor, smeared trails of blood appear from nowhere, and dead bodies - or bits of bodies - start showing up at an alarming rate.

The main character finds her mind slipping through this nightmare - although to what extent is debatable. By the midpoint of the game, it's impossible to tell how much of the horror is real and how much is not. For a while, the only answers come from datadisks left behind by a crew member. Eventually, our hero finds her way down into the titular white chamber, and the truth is revealed. The first time I played through this game, a suspicion of the truth behind the nightmare slowly built up in my mind so that I realised it right before the game revealed all, which is the presumable intent; second time around, it all seems pretty obvious from much earlier on, but maybe that's just the benefit of foreknowledge talking.

Either way, the denouement is satisfying, if depressing. That which has gone before is filtered through a new lens - a lens of greed, rage, obsession, betrayal and regret. The previously visceral horror takes on a darker aspect and incidental actions gain sinister alternate significance. For all the dead bodies and loneliness, the white chamber is a game about being alive and being with other people - and the painful ways it can go wrong.

All of the death and decay is presented upfront with few punches pulled. Writhing cadavers, severed limbs, gallons and gallons of blood - it's all there in a grimy, hyperdetailed, hand-drawn art style which heightens the atmosphere using awkward perspectives and off-angle textures. It might seem like it's just badly drawn at first, but as the surreal nature of the game plays out, the bizarre artwork clicks into place, and it works. Lighting takes the form of glowing coloured blocks, adding at once both a classic sci-fi trope and another surreal aspect to the station's twisted design.

The characters are drawn in an 80s-ish manga style, which feels a little out of place - but not mood-shatteringly so, and to be fair, anime is relatively easy to draw and animate for a small, amateur team. The lead character is expressive, and while her voice acting never really evokes the true depths of revulsion and fear she professes to feel, it's good enough not to detract.

What of the game itself? It's short, so within a single day it's easy to attain every possible ending - including the various gruesome deaths awaiting the protagonist. Some actions which seem pointless affect which ending you receive, although the main thrust of the game is not multi-path. Puzzles often follow the same dreamscape logic as the rest of the game; if you struggle with adventure game thinking then the white chamber is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, there seems nothing unusual to you about reassembling a hacked up corpse in the body-shaped grooves on a bed, then you'll do fine.

The puzzling side of the white chamber is pretty unremarkable, in all honesty, neither good nor bad. The way the puzzles tie into the narrative isn't always as tight as it might be, but it's got an interesting take on the old idea of items suddenly becoming interactive when they weren't before. And as I noted in an earlier post, it nails a great balance of usable items being clear without being blatantly obvious.

But the adventuring isn't, in itself, the main reason I would recommend this game. The narrative and twisted imagery, and the atmosphere created, wouldn't work as well in another medium. As with many of my favourites, making the lead's choices induces empathy and that makes the emotional impact all the greater when it comes. Like Assassin's Creed, Braid and Planescape: Torment, and the excellent The Company Of Myself, the white chamber plays with the standard storytelling devices we know and accept in a videogame. It's done more subtly than any of the previously mentioned titles, but it's all the more viscerally affecting for it. To anyone with an interest in games as narrative, and who likes (or can tolerate) adventure games, the white chamber is a fascinating experience.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Tekkit City Chronicles, Vol. 2

A day is a long time in politics, but it's even longer in Minecraft. Two days after I introduced you to our Tekkit server, things had already changed beyond recognition in some places. I'm posting this the day after again, and no doubt when I log back on this evening even more will have changed!

An AFK Tom was lucky here. A skeleton was standing at this door, but fortunately it was a poor shot and just sent a lot of arrows into the same spot on the jamb.

 No, really. A lot of arrows.

The geothermal generator room, also containing various tools added by Buildcraft, one of the mods in Tekkit. Things like an ore macerator and electric-powered furnaces. Actually, since I took this screenshot, it's all moved down the mountainside to our new power station.

The lava pump for the geothermal generator.

Our first houses! There's space there for eight out of the planned four thousand. We're 0.2% of the way there! The empty space on the right is where the aforementioned power station is now located, along with a coke production facility. I love the street light.

Another view of the houses, with a cute little garden behind them. We retroactively decided that these can be workers' houses, what with them being located right next to a power plant.

And a typical interior, showing the bed, running water and electric light. Still to add: food delivery tube, although there was talk of doing that via local shops instead. This room also has a rather stylish sofa, built by Hugh.

This is how my harbour village is coming on. The thing my crosshairs are pointing at will be the back entrance to a boat club. Although work on that has slowed since I'm currently in the job of connecting up the houses, built into the hillside, to the water mains.

It's the Disneyland castle... I mean, Chris' university. The surrounding area will, I suppose, become a campus with student dorms. This is the central building though.

A closer view, showing the scale of it.

It's still under construction, but you can't tell from the front. Well, in actuality, it's finished now, but it was still under construction when I took these shots. Chris works fast. Bangor University's new arts building would have been finished months ago if they'd hired him to do it, instead of Watkin-Jones.

From inside one of the wings, further demonstrating the scale. Chris works big as well as fast.

And finally, the view from the top of the front tower, looking over the desert to the Pantheon. Makes me want to grab a beer, pull up a chair, and just watch the world go by.

And then laugh at my co-constructors as their hard-built structures get blown up by creepers.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Tekkit City Chronicles, Vol. 1

Tekkit is a Minecraft client which collates a number of mods, centred around automation and industrialisation. It allows an even greater number of production lines, resource harvesters and redstone circuit powered marvels than base Minecraft, and something my Minecraft group has always mooted is building a fully working industrial city, from the ground up with no creative mode shenanigans.

Now, with Tekkit smoothing over some of the logistical nightmares, we are. This is a large, ongoing project, which has been running about four or five days so far. The basic plan is to provide a city for at least four thousand people, each of whom lives in a private, modestly sized space with at minimum a bed, a running water supply and a food delivery tube. That means we need the infrastucture of farms, warehouses, mines and whathaveyou to supply all of this, and we also want a train network to get us around quickly. Beyond that, we're also adding in "non-functional" buildings and districts like temples and harbours, and depending on how it goes we might include pubs, shops, offices, schools, libraries, museums, council buildings, military holdings, craft and smithy districts...

Obviously, our Rome will not be built in a day.

Our Rome doesn't even have a name yet, although since the initiator of the project is named Hugh, I've taken to calling the city "Hughtopia." For now, most things are named after what they do, or at the whim of the creator. Streets are mostly named after where they lead to, so we have "Temple Road" and the like. I like this - it feels like how a real city develops. "Organically" has been our watchword.

This is where we're at so far.

Welcome to the main area of the city! I know it's not much to look at yet, but one day we'll stand here and talk about how once upon a time all of this was grass and sand dunes.

In the foreground is our power station. Behind it is the front face of the Pantheon, with the bulk of the building apparently lying past the draw distance cutoff. The agricultural area to the left of the power station is probably going to get bulldozed, even though lots of people worked hard on it.

Well, Chris and Abby worked hard on it, anyway. Adrian just bred freakish multicoloured sheep.

The sugarcane plantation on the right will probably be bulldozed too, as already happened to the cactus farm which was once found in this area. The blackish blob on the horizon is our nether portal.

The Pantheon, built by Chris, is the centrepiece of our world. Well, it's actually right at the far edge of the space we're currently using, but still. You can see it from just about anywhere in the city at present.

There's a long approach to the Pantheon from the harbour, along the riverbank and past the nether portal on the right and the sugarcane plantation on the left. The sun rises through the middle arch of the Pantheon, which looks incredible from down this street I'm standing on in the picture.

The interior of the Pantheon - or at least, the main chamber. There's also the antechamber, plus a loft space and a cellar network. The spiral staircase to both the loft and the cellars is cunningly hidden within one of the pillars in this picture.

Inside the power station is this baby: the water pump. It's very arcane and I don't understand any of it, although I did contribute those stylish little steps over the pipes.

Fortunately, Hugh knows how to run it all. There he is now, checking something or fixing something. With a pickaxe.

The empty half of the power station; I started filling in space with this rooftop access stairwell and overseer gantry. The sliver of marble visible on the right is the edge of Adrian's smokestack. Even so, we're left with a ton of free space in here, into which we're thinking of installing the nuclear reactor. Having unstable radionuclides in the same building as the water supply? I don't see how that could possibly go wrong!

A view of the natural harbour which I've claimed as my territory. It was originally intended to be a dockland area, but after discovering that it's in fact not the sea but rather a lake beyond that channel on the left, I'm saving myself a lot of digging by keeping it limited to small boats. Now we're looking at a fishing village, perhaps with a marina. Fortunately, the lake does connect up with the sea somewhere downriver, which is where we'll put the industrial port.

Past the harbour and round the coast, one comes to this lighthouse. The top is currently just lit with a lot of torches; in time, we'll most likely replace that with glowstone-powered electric lights.

As seen from the top of the lighthouse, this little island - the one with the gulley dug through it - needs to be bulldozed to allow access to the harbour. I'm not yet sure what'll happen to the cows who make their home there.

As seen in these screenshots, Tekkit adds coordinates and a minimap, which is I think my favourite thing about it. It's very, very useful not just for general navigation, but for those huge party-dungeoneering trips out, be it for strip mining cobblestone, scouting cavern networks or snatching glowstone formations from the nether - the kind of trip which invariably sees us get lost and/or separated.
Of course, sometimes a minimap isn't enough, and that's where the good people of Minecraft World Map come in handy; as the name suggests, their fancy tech allows you to map your entire world, and in fetching isometric fashion no less. You can follow the progress of our world at this link!

Until next time, happy mining, and may you not dig into a lava floe when you're laden down with precious ores.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

More on graphics: mere technicalities

Several months with no internet meant I looked to the retro world even more than usual for my gaming. Or at least, as far as the PC goes, to the older games which would actually run on my new computer - which unfortunately did not include Grim Fandango. Booo! Retuning older games for modern systems is a bandwagon more devs should hop onto. God bless and the various console home arcades. But it does mean that, without the web, I've been kinda limited in options.

On the subject of retro: I know I've said this before and I'm sure I'll say it again, but damn is that word irritating. Gamers of the world, I implore you to stop describing old games as retro! Around Christmas time I rewatched It's a Wonderful Life and it's not a 'retro' film. It's just a film. A film which, despite technical limitations in its production compared to modern releases, and the subsequent years' advancement of cinematic techniques and a shifting of the preconceptions of good storytelling, is still every bit as enjoyable as anything you'll see at the pictures this year.

Similarly, despite their technical ineptitude by modern standards, I've been thoroughly enjoying the Micro Machines, Donkey Kong Country and Sonic the Hedgehog series, and the original Grand Theft Auto has lost barely anything despite the advances of its successors. Even ancient Disney tie-in Aladdin was as playable today as it was in 1993. The original Donkey Kong Country is the most revealing game from a technological standpoint - can you believe it was once considered the cutting edge of photorealism? I wonder if the kids of today could even see the difference in quality between its graphics and those of Sonic 3, a difference which seemed so vast to us at the time. Nonetheless, the visuals do everything they need to do to make the game playable, while still looking charmingly pretty in a - sigh - 'retro' sort of way. Maybe the ice cave levels don't make me feel physically cold anymore, but the big Rareware eyes on all the enemies are still lovely.

Moving ahead a few years, the GameCube remake of Resident Evil is still stunningly beautiful, and not just in consideration of when it was released. It's both confirmed and countered my arguments against the pursuit of graphic fidelity - rendered stills are obviously a lot easier to make realistic than moving images are, and the near-realism of the backgrounds is a big part of the atmosphere. But at the same time, so much attention has been paid to the architecture, the furnishings, and even the drapery that the enhanced visuals are clearly not just a sales point - it's Shinji Mikami finally getting to make this world look the way it always did in his head. The Spencer Mansion and Arklay Laboratory feel like real places, places I know as well as any house I've actually, personally lived in.

Of course improvements could be made - physics-based elements like water, particle effects and shadows are unimpressive by today's standards, ditto the resolution. But aside from such processing updates, and the plastic look to character faces which current games still suffer from anyway, it's hard to see where the graphics could be improved. It's a harmonious case of technological wizardry being applied by talented visual designers who maximise the artistic opportunities said wizardry affords, and the result means that a decade on it remains one of the best-looking games in existence. The most advanced thing I got to play during my fallow months was the PC demo of Arkham Asylum - no longer cutting edge, admittedly, but I will state without hyperbole that GameCube Resident Evil is the better looking game for all the jagged, pixelly edges and blocky shadows. That said, some areas of Arkham Asylum are moderately impressive in aesthetic design terms too, and it'll be interesting to see how it holds up in years to come. By the by, I was pleasantly surprised by how fluidly Arkham Asylum plays on PC - control-wise, it's just as smooth as the 360 version, perhaps even moreso. Having subsequently completed the game on PC, there were only a handful of places where I'd have preferred a pad.

Sadly, onetime kingpin Far Cry's graphics simply don't excite me anymore. The aesthetic design was interesting enough, but leaned heavily on technical splendour for its lighting effects, draw distances and lush vegetation. These days, such things have all been bettered many times, and now it's hard not to notice how often plant models are repeated, or how the sunlight lancing through cracked walls just doesn't seem as bright as it once did (I've gained a new appreciation for High Dynamic Range since replaying Far Cry, that's for sure). Far Cry is certainly not ugly - but the bits which interest me most now are the bombed-out husks and concrete bunkers, which for a game so heavily based around creeping through dense jungles, and hopping between paradise islands, seems like something of a failure. I happily acknowledge that we have Far Cry to thank for the quality of modern graphics, but ultimately it remains tied to its era much more than any other game I've discussed so far.

I now know I'm not alone in my stance that the rabid pursuit of better graphics is as much a curse as a boon; I signed up to the official Carmageddon: Reincarnation fan forum before losing my net, and when the developers asked what we wanted to see in the game, the majority view was that physics and content - rather than cutting edge visuals - need to be the primary foci during development. I'll refine that here. Graphics are important, as the most immediate and visceral connection we get with a game, and as a sales-driving element, but more than overall fidelity what graphics need is to suit the game. For example, Carmageddon doesn't need to be too concerned with peds having perfect musculature and swaying fabric, but it would benefit greatly from per-pixel lighting, neon signs reflecting realistically off grime, oil and twisted metal - a moody atmosphere is key to Carmageddon. Fabric and musculature are of great importance to The Sims on the other hand, but lighting isn't so important there. And in FIFA, I don't care about every line on Coloccini's face being perfectly modelled half as much as I care about his passes and strikes being as fluidly realistic as possible. Every blade of grass on the pitch being individually rendered is excellent if it means the ball bounces more believably, but if it's purely for show, I don't think it's a productive use of development time.

Of course, on top of all that, graphics need to be creatively engaging; the problem with Far Cry is that its aesthetic interest was too dependent on technical advancements alone. If Carmageddon: Reincarnation is evocatively dirty and worn, nails that near-present dystopia without becoming Blade Runner cyberpunk, and features at least a few cars that look like real machines which have been customised rather than pure fantasy creations, then I'm happy. Graphical genius is a bonus, not a requirement. And judging by the Carmageddon concept art released so far, I'm going to be very happy indeed.

Some games were plain ugly first time round, of couse. A couple of titles I've come back to recently are Heroes of Might & Magic III and Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magic Obscura. Each of those, on release, was widely decried for looking like a big pile of pixellated puke. Arcanum's spartan environments couldn't compete with Baldur's Gate 2, its closest contemporary - and yet today, I find something charming in Arcanum's stiff appearance. Its muddy grey scrubland, gleaming brass and starched petticoats may lack warmth, but that's in keeping with the cruel, repressed world in which it's set, and the faceless, rigidly mannequin-like character models are almost as appropriate as the old-fashioned maps and wood panel HUD. Heroes III takes the opposite tack, and tries to pack every screen with as many bright colours, outlandish creatures and incidental details as possible. It's a game bursting with life and humanity despite poor visuals - if anything, it's too cluttered, but then that was always the case, really. It remains a weird contrast to see stiff, jerky movements in sprites with such colourful, fantastical design, and these days they look rather like puppets or automatons. But even in development, 3DO must have known the game would not be breaking any technical barriers, and the upshot is that they designed a game which is functional enough to be as playable today as it was in 1999, and while not conventionally pretty, is at least interesting looking - call it the Agyness Deyn of strategy games.

Syndicate, by contrast, has been a struggle to play nowadays. The graphics weren't terribly clear or engaging at the time, and now, it's difficult to know what's going on, and to distinguish your own squad from both the enemy and from civilians. It's still a good game, but requires a lot more perseverance than any other title I've mentioned. Not being able to see inside buildings when you enter them was a minor frustration back then; today, it's painfully out of step with how we expect to play games, and that's just one example of many issues it has. Syndicate's graphics are still fairly crisp, I'll give it that, and it was obviously made with a strong aesthetic in mind, but not enough thought was given to the necessities of gameplay. It stands a reminder that the balance between the technical and artistic is not the only one which must be struck.

The one vaguely recent PC game I got a chance to play in the winter months was the indie physics platformer NightSky, which is suprisingly entertaining. Much like Braid, NightSky hits a great equilibrium of visual elements. Technical proficiency means it runs smoothly while handling the physics puzzles, the aesthetic design is strikingly beautiful, and it's always clear and readable from a gameplay perspective. Compare that to Super Meat Boy which suffered from occasional lag or camera overshoot, to Alien Hominid and Viewtiful Joe, in which the gameplay elements weren't always distinguishable from the background, or to Limbo in which the main character was intentionally designed to look like part of the background.

Courtesy of Evis T and his portable gadgetry, I also had fun with the wonderful Android games Cut The Rope and Dragon, Fly!, which similarly match the visuals to the game effectively - both are a lot crisper than, say, Fruit Ninja or Burn The City, but Fruit Ninja's bright colours suit it more than cartoonish line drawings would, while Burn The City doesn't need to be especially clear because it's a bit more sedentary. It's not a new trend, of course; I've revistited a couple of indie games from a few years back like Ocular Ink, which is quite ugly but appropriately uncluttered for a fast paced game of drawing, and The White Chamber, which I'll talk about in more detail soon - for now, one thing I love about it is how subtly different the useable elements of the game world look from the non-useable. There's no need for tedious pixel sweeping. but at the same time, they don't stick out like a sore thumb, so you still have to pay attention, and for a point and click adventure that's one of the magic elements which can make a good game into a great game.

A cautionary tale to close this post, regarding picking up old games: I came back to Chrono Trigger after almost a year and had no idea how far through I was or what I was supposed to be doing. I left off my Secret of Mana playthrough even longer ago than that, and I expect I'll probably just need to start again.