Monday, September 25, 2006

In Good Company

I was playing
the demo of Company of Heroes today and thinking, "This is absolutely great. They took everything fun about Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War and somehow managed to both extend it and yet keep it just as intuitive. I must get the full game."

I don't often feel that way playing demos. I actually had a blast just playing the tutorial.

According to Flash of Steel, this seems to be the consensus.

If I were to describe it, I'd tell you to think of all those things that true-blue grognards seem to love - arcs of fire, armor thickness, supply lines, suppression - and then imagine them integrated into an easily-accessible, clearly-understood game.

Dawn of War was similar, in that small tactical changes could have actual consequences, and I'd love to hear that the new expansion would incorporate the new concepts explored in Heroes.

With Blizzard too busy trying to please the hungry ghosts (MMO-players) to bother making a Starcraft sequel, it looks like THQ/Relic is taking over the RTS throne.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Editor's Note

For game previews:

Please refrain from using any form of the phrase, "But these problems are fixable for release." Every problem is conceivably fixable for release. Maybe even by release. I realise that often you get an exclusive and you want to be even-handed, but you end up sounding like a dink. Just don't use it. Mention your concerns and stay away from equivocating bullshit.

The real problem isn't that phrase. It's that you never bother to tell people whether a development team seems likely to fix the problems (what's their track record?). It's the fact that when the game in question gets released, you almost never mention whether the problems you had with the game were fixed. Maybe you don't even do the final review. It's that you almost never distinguish between bad overall design decisions and systems still being tweaked.

I know it's not completely your fault. Publishers and producers and developers tell a lot of lies. How many times have you had this conversation:

Previewer - "Is it always gonna play like a manatee in maple syrup?"
Producer - "Oh, that's totally fixable."
Dev Team - [eyes roll toward the heavens, general unvoiced groans/snickers]

In closing,

Try not to be such a sucker in the future.

General Sound Tech Questions

This is mainly for Thomas
, but anyone else with sound equipment experience can feel free to chime in.

Be warned, though, it's long-winded.

I've finally got a little extra room to set up my small batch of recording equipment (which will hopefully grow). My problem is that I can't find any good primers out there and I haven't been happy with the stuff I've been able to record. It might be my signal chain - and is no doubt largely due to my general ignorance.

Here's a quick rundown of what I'm dealing with:
-Fostex MR-8 digital multitracker
-LTO S-6 6-channel mixer
-Boss DR-5 Dr. Rhythm
-Boss ME-50 Multiple Effects pedalboard
-Crybaby Wah
-Behringer Condenser microphone (the mixer supplies phantom power)
-Fender M-80 Amplifier

Not much, I know. For the signal chain, I usually feed the drum machine and any mics into the mixer, then that into the multitracker. For a guitar I go through the pedalboard into the amp then straight into the multitracker.

The big problem is that I can't ever get a good guitar sound. I think it's the amp, but using the amp simulation in the multitracker generally sucks. Feeding it all through the mixer generally sucks, too. I want to get a full, heavy distorted sound, and the levels are never right - I either cut it out completely or it redlines.

I'm thinking I need a compressor, yes? Are there any good primers online that detail general recording stuff like this? Are there general rules for what level to put things at, how to get volume, the real nitty-gritty?

I'm not looking for anything professional, just being able to tinker with effects without getting overpowered by the drum machine or having to weaken the overall sound. I usually have to cut so much of the gain and level that the distortion loses most of its shape. And I can't even think about using the wah - the high-end completely redlines, unless I just completely cut it out with a filter. Not good.

Any thoughts, anyone?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Roundy Tabley Thingy

This will be a post about
conventions as they relate to games and movies and books and genre.

The horror genre, namely.

I recently purchased two games from the broad 'survival-horror' genre: Kuon and Silent Hill 4.

These games, and games like them, are steeped in the tropes of horror films. If you happen to design one, you end up riding a cusp between evoking archetypes and dredging up cliches. If you're lucky, you maintain a balance.

Some of the copped plots can be obvious. Dead Rising is a mix of Dawn of the Dead and the whimsical delight in gory dismemberment of Dead Alive (aka Braindead).

Survival-horror videogames even go so far as to mimic the cinematic techniques of horror films. An early example of this can be found in Alone in the Dark. Angular shots, stark lighting and close-ups abound.

Steadicam shots a la Friday the 13th are also popular. The Silent Hill series often employs an old-timey scratched film filter, like that found in the opening to Se7en. Resident Evil 4 used highly-scripted sequences with one-button interactions that were straight out of action-horror. Manhunt took its entire theme from the myth of the snuff film, integrating video cameras into its design as a sadistic filmmaker guided you through his set pieces of violence.

If that's not enough, then you could always play a game explicitly based on a movie: The Thing. But I can't recommend it.


And survival-horror doesn't simply cop from movies. There is often a strong tribute to literature, especially Lovecraft - diaries, words written in blood, scraps of newspapers, notes, warnings, all hinting at a greater madness, a mystery which should not be uncovered, but which the protagonist will, nevertheless, pursue. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem extends the Cthulhu Mythos and wraps a multi-character, multi-century narrative into a coherent arc in the same way that Ray Bradbury joined stories together in The Illustrated Man. Siren also pieces together multiple narratives into a broad plot.

Much of horror reflects general social anxieties, so it's no surprise to find techno-fears cropping up in the digital realm. The Resident Evil series not only pulls out the well-tread territory of zombie movies, but posits that the zombies are the results of humans tinkering with viral engineering. Dino Crisis, Run Like Hell and Lifeline brought horror elements into science-fiction environments.

There are also more personal anxieties and taboos. Alone in the Dark explored suicide. Resident Evil: Code Veronica used incest in its narrative. Insanity. Torture. Death from all sides, harsh, sudden, brutal. The dark side of the human experience infests survival-horror.

Sound design is probably the crucial element in setting the mood for any kind of horror/terror/thriller. The familiar Jaws theme should make you anxious. Creaky stairs, rusty doors, screeches, howls, echoing laughter, children singing - disembodied noises create a sense of focus and paranoia. When we hear but can't see, we're unable to determine whether something is a threat - you hear the tap-tap of footsteps and are forced to wait, nervously, as something shambles into view.

The following assertion should make Corvus happy - survival horror games are almost entirely focused on story. The seed narrative centers around a mystery - what is causing the horror? Typically, the answer to that question provides the key to stopping the horror, assuming the game provides that option.

The unfortunate side effect of the focus on story is that survival horror games tend to be lackluster on gameplay.* This is changing as designers learn to innovate outside the lines drawn by their predecessors. Control schemes, in particular, are changing in order to answer a lot of early complaints: bad camera placement, clunky character control, aiming problems. Ghosthunter and Resident Evil 4 are two good examples of developers drawing on lessons learned from third-person shooters.


Isabel Pinedo** identified five characteristics of the postmodern horror film: (1) a violent disruption to everyday life, (2) transgresses and violates boundaries, (3) questions the validity of rationality (4) repudiates narrative closure and (5) produces a bounded experience of fear.

The first three characteristics are the hinges of survival-horror's conflicts. Reasonable expectations are entirely subverted. The very nature of expected reality is altered or shattered. In the Parasite Eve series, the mitochondria in living cells explode with chaotic energy, mutating creatures into grotesque monstrosities. It's completely absurd and completely horrifying.

Or consider Silent Hill 4, in which the main character is trapped inside his apartment by a webwork of chains. A hole in the bathroom wall provides access to twisted mirror images of familiar locations. The boundaries between his world and the twisted one begin to erode as he collects more clues about events that happened in the apartment and in Silent Hill. The apartment is at first a haven. Then it becomes periodically violated by the other reality, against all rationality.

The fourth characteristic can be seen as a cheap way to churn out endless sequels, if you're a cynic (or, sometimes, a realist). But it can also be representative of the nature of fear, its sometimes implacable encroachment. There may be small victories, closure of one person's story, but the larger mysteries endure. The T-Virus continues to spread. Silent Hill holds secrets still. Enemies once dead live again.

The fifth characteristic can be connected to ilinx, a term I first heard from Chris Bateman. A bounded experience of fear is a way of provoking a fear response to a simulation of danger. The fourth wall or the magic circle tell us that the monsters are safely in their own space and yet, if the illusion is successful, your mind and body will react as if threatened.

Sometimes even after the game is shut off.

I leave you, gentle readers, with some sound advice:

Never mix up with secret and ultimate horror, young man, if you value your immortal soul.
-H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop "Medusa's Coil"

Bonus Trivia Bite: Both Haunting Ground and Rule of Rose feature canine companions with their main characters.

*Consider this from Gamespot's review of Clock Tower 3: "Clock Tower 3's movie portions are stronger than the gameplay that underpins them, and the result is a game that you'll probably want to finish more for its storyline than for the fun you'll have actually playing it."

**Click on this link to read some excerpts from Pinedo's book.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Critique of the Critique

If you get a chance
, check out Ryan Stancl's article about video game critiques.

It repeats a lot of the same old complaints (nobody's a video game critic, et. al.), but promises to introduce eight different schools of criticism using the game Katamari Damacy as its subject.

Now, my critique:

The first example critique is Biographical. Gamers see these all the time. They're all over the place. We're always reading about the designers and where they got their ideas and how much they can overhype their creations. Developer interviews fall into this domain. Devlogs would be Autobiographical.

Then there's New Criticism, which deconstructs the different elements of a work of art and examines the deeper meanings behind each of them. We see these all the time, too, especially on blogs. People will pull apart mechanics, themes, narrative and the interplay between all of these and more. Gamasutra provides plenty of New Criticism, as does Game Developer Magazine.

So why claim that hardly anyone is a video game critic?

Aren't we past that cliched, unproven complaint at this point?

Why not just write the article as an example of different critiques and not pretend that you're doing something revolutionary?

Still, I am looking forward to the next installment, when Stancl deals with both a Marxist and a Jungian perspective.

Frogger in a Blender?

If you've ever used
Blender and are also interested in making games, allow me to link you to the Blender Summer of Documentation Introduction to the Game Engine.

It sounds as if there is plenty of functionality, but looks as if the learning curve might be hefty. The author says no experience with Blender required. I might report back if I take a crack at it.

Perhaps this would be a good tool for early prototyping, especially for small teams, or for companies that don't want to throw a lot of resources at something without a proof of concept. I could definitely see an artist/programmer duo collaborating - if they only made some kind of networking capability (the way Writely allows simultaneous editing).

It's nice to see the confluence of these tools. Blender has a nice UI with a lot of the wrinkles smoothed out of it - one of the benefits of open-source.

A Little More

By popular demand
(on this blog, this means one comment), I present a critique of Transhumanism with appended rating:


When treated as a religion, Transhumanism combines techno-fetishism with the mind-boggling notion that technology itself can mitigate all the troublesome aspects of human interaction. It also requires complete ignorance toward the seeming ease with which corporations have managed to restrict access to new technology - which only seem to grow progressively more ravenous as transformative technologies emerge. Couple that with the almost-guaranteed law of unintended consequences (many of which will no doubt be negative) and you're just as likely to see a future society even more stratified than today (which already clearly shows the results of the disparity created by the lack of readily-available, well-understood technological development/access, e.g., the United States health-care system) as you are some form of techno-utopia. It should be noted that the Singularity resembles an optimist's version of Catastrophe Theory - two sides of the same coin, perhaps it will land on its edge. You must also believe that advanced AI will fall into either the friendly or unfriendly camp - just ignore everything about the vast permutations of psychology (HAL 9000 being a good example of the new possibilities - consistent, well-programmed, homicidal). Basically, transhumanism requires the elitist view that humanity is best-left-behind and advanced technologies should be embraced without skepticism or caution. D+

A little long-winded, I know. Okay, a lot long-winded. But this particular subject deserved a little more, partly because not everyone may be familiar with it and partly because I haven't considered it a religion so much as a mess of futurism mixed with wild speculation about how unproven technologies might help human beings.

For an even more negative take on Transhumanism, do read this series of posts over at Sadly, No!.

There is, of course, a lot more to the subject. One could read up on Timothy Leary's SMI2LE (Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension) as a progenitor of this kind of thinking - it is nearly unequivocally optimistic that those three programs taken together would make things better. There is some justification for those ideas, and I'd be very interested to see them in practice, but can't share such smiling enthusiasm.

I consider Bucky Fuller's treatment of a similar subject to be much more helpful. Utilization of current technology coupled with careful application and analysis to attempt to bring the necessaries of life to as many individuals as possible. It smacks of at least a little more honesty - future technologies aren't necessarily going to be a tipping point, especially if you consider that current/past technologies properly implemented would already improve things to a great degree, with the side benefit that there is more data as to the drawbacks. And he had much firsthand knowledge of how political/economic structures could fuck up that proper implementation.

Enough of this for now. I still have to finish up the Round Table post, but can do more on this later, especially if I get any responses.

Update: For my favorite of measured transhuman/futurist discussions, please do visit Warren Ellis' site, die puny humans. It's a great dose of optimism and pessimism and various other reactions. And they talk about zombies a lot.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Report Card

There isn't one.

Chris Bateman has another religion-oriented post up. I plan on responding in more depth at some future point. I've got quite a bit cooking, but it needs a little longer in the oven. There's a lot of necessary mulling before I commit anything to the digital winds. More metaphors must be mixed before the fermentation process completes.

In the meantime, however, I've taken the liberty of giving a small critique plus grade to each of the Atheist Religions cited by Chris.

Mostly, I was bored. Also, though, I miss the Book of Ratings.


As a religion, people get kind of shafted by Humanism. It's mostly just an affirmation not to be such an asshole each and every hour of each and every day and maybe, just maybe, use your fucking brain for a change. It's "Do Unto Others . . . " with a lot of overhead. American anti-intellectualism pretty much ensures that Humanism will always remain on the fringe. One of the drawbacks is that every few months someone has to write a new manifesto that promises to revitalize the radical notion that humans deserve dignity from their fellow humans, then a flame war erupts, then there is haggling over semantics and finally a schism. Whatever you do, stay away from the Transhumanists. C+

Naturalistic Pantheism

This won't work for me. Pantheists consider the Universe divine and sacred, and I don't know how one would recognize something divine or sacred. I think that the universe is complex and awesome and pretty fucking mysterious, but I don't think that's the same thing. You could use a similar metaphor and just believe in Leibniz's monads. Or Philip K. Dick's VALIS. If nature is God then why resort to the latter metaphor anyway? If you're just calling it God because you want the leeway to anthropomorphize, you're probably better off with something more authoritarian. C

Atheists for Jesus

Definitely can't hang with this one. What words were attributed to this mythical figure that form any kind of concrete ethics? Do unto others? Turn the other cheek? Not peace, but a sword? Between ripping off every other sacrificial god-man and the eschatonic, prophetic gobbledygook, Jesus lacks a certain clarity. This, of course, is great when you want to justify any old thing, but falls apart when you try to maintain consistency. Why not pick Mark Twain? Or Appolonius of Tyana? Or Balzac? D-

Theravada Buddhism

This is where that pesky philosophy/religion semantic debate pops up. If it's simply a subjective process of self-reflection based around meditation, then why all that rubbish about non-self and attaining enlightenment? They also have that whole Appeal to Dead People thing, where all the old disciples of Lord Buddha attained enlightenment but almost nobody will get there nowadays, because we suck. How very convenient. Oh, and they still have that Buddha-worship nonsense, where he supposedly obtained omniscience and supreme compassion. Bully for him. Everyone wants to be a superhero. B

Ch'an Buddhism

Lots of internally contradicting statements. It's well known that oxymorons lead to spiritual awakenings. Just think of The Sphinx from Mystery Men. They seek to erase the self and attain a state of no-mind. The tricky part is that destruction of the self is akin to suicide. No hero-worship, so far as I can see, but plenty of zaniness. It's the Tiny Toons of religio-philosophy. Do-do-dee-o. B+

Taoism and Confucianism

Taoism's a blend of pseudoscience and folk mythology. Think of it as the Dim Sum of mysticism. Confucianism, on the other hand, is mostly an ethics. We also tend to credit it with the rise of Bureaucracy, a religious organization based around ladder-climbing and losing paperwork. Oh, and corruption. So if you like lots and lots of rules and authoritarianism combined with superstition and poisonous herbal remedies, then this might be your cup of tea. C-

Bonus: Tantra's pretty cool. It works for Sting. But it also takes a lot of patience and practice. Why not just cunnilingus and cock rings? A, if you're determined enough


Likes the Truth, emphasis on the big 'T'. This is what you want if you really, really want to dig into nonviolence. They even refuse to destroy whole plants for food. These guys are ascetics, like, in a major way. Guess that nonviolence isn't total, because they can definitely kill a party. They're really into the notion that the world will go from shit to good to shit, and so forth, in perpetuity. Eternal Recurrence malarkey. Also incorporates the Cosmic Accounting System known as karma. There's lots of talk of karma particles that adhere to souls, which treads dangerously close to Scientology territory, except that Jainists are unlikely to ask for all your money in exchange for brainwashing you. Harmless, if they're skilled enough. B


No. F+


A joke that's not a joke that's a joke. This religion is syncretic only in the sense that it throws in everything, plus the kitchen sink. Ha, Sink! And then throws it all out. Mostly a way for extravagant/flamboyant theater majors to act wacky and pretend it's deep metaphysics. On the plus side, you get carte blanche to be eccentric. And the drugs, man. Also, no stuffy Popes, but high risk of cross-pollination with prominent nerd groups. Did I mention the drugs? A

Church of the Subgenius

Didn't X-Day come and go already a few times? Why wasn't this religion canceled? Can I get my money back? Ah, fuck it. B

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Strangest Thing

I apparently received
an e-mail from Chris Crawford today. The e-mail address seems legit, as does the writing style.

I just wanted to point out that this is one of those times when I appreciate the opportunity given by blogs.

I can badmouth an industry veteran and every so often they will send me an e-mail telling me that I'm wrong. Oh, and that I'll eat my words.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Call of the Wild

Wild Earth demo is worth your time if you like watching nature shows on the Discovery Channel. And I do.

It falls into the category of casual picture-taking game, a genre choked with . . . well, not much actually. Pokemon Snap. A few other games.

There's plenty of fascinating exposition as you observe animals in their habitats doing whatever it is that animals do. The number of behaviors modeled is pretty amazing, and you're tasked with documenting them all while also snapping shots of other flora and fauna.

Wandering around, in fact, I was struck by just how much game players get shafted when it comes to interesting creature behavior.

In a typical game, let's say an MMO, you have hostile creatures and friendly creatures. Friendly creatures kind of wander and chew and maybe flee. Hostile creatures wander until you aggro, then they attack. They might flee when their health drops. That's about it.

They don't stamp the ground and charge to scare you off. They don't rub against trees or wash their young. They don't nurse and they don't vie for dominance and they don't mate.

Bioshock, from Irrational Games, looks to be treading a little outside the hostile/friendly box, with different classes of creatures pursuing different goals. Some won't be hostile until you interrupt their function. Some will defend other creatures. A great studio, so I'm expecting to be blown away while remaining levelheaded.

Must . . . resist . . . hype.

Tales of the Tabletop

It might be a curse
, but somehow my friends and I can make any board game last at least twice as long as its average completion time.

So it was with The Fury of Dracula. This is a Fantasy Flight game, a company which makes some of the best - we picked up their Game of Thrones boardgame and hope to someday understand the rules well enough to play it.

When we began playing, there was a moment about ten minutes in when we thought that, perhaps, the game would be far too short. My friend William was in control of the Count and we picked up on his trail almost right away. The four of us tracked him to the Iberian Peninsula and had formed a chokepoint through the only city open to Dracula (ol' Vlad, when on land, can only travel upon roads - no trains for him).

Then Will decided to take to the water. Unexpected, because nobody ever takes to the water. Dracula especially, since he loses health as he travels over water.

So from that vast underestimation we four hunters embarked upon a five hour journey of frustration and deduction, degenerating into tired desperation.

Actually, the exact moment when the game length doubled is perfectly clear to me. Dracula played a card that allowed him to travel to any city on the game board, effectively starting the game over, making the trail absolutely worthless.

It was fun, but clearly we need to start gaming earlier.

And remove that damned card next time.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Shadow Knows


Download Penumbra. Play it.

Rejoice that the company is working on a more fleshed out commercial version.

Also, after playing, raise your hand if you feel a melee combat system is unnecessary.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Behold, the Future!

Not too long ago
I wrote a post in which I suggested, nay, demanded that "I'd like to see a candidate for public office with an SL persona."

Well, such has come to pass.

According to New World Notes, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner showed up inside Second Life for an interview. Warner is rumoured to be gearing up for a Presidential run.

That's just unbelievably cool.

Word is that he's going to come back in the future for a town hall-style meeting. Second Life is a great forum for those kinds of events - people enjoy a visual element from political discussions that a regular chat can't provide. It's also much easier on security personnel.

The drawback, of course, is that you're only seeing an avatar. And there's a good chance that the politician's whole team is listening in and crafting his responses.

Regardless, it's commendable that Governor Warner's team was able to recognize an emerging tool for social organization - and that they thought it would be worthwhile to make contact with a non-traditional group (not to imply that SL-ers would vote as a bloc).