Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Colour me impressed

January 1, 1954 was the day of the first colourcast. People gathered to witness colour television for the first time, and they were stunned. Some people describe it as a life defining moment, that sense of absolute amazement watching these moving pictures in rich, vivid colour.

January 1, 2004 I was working in a video and games store in town and we had just gotten the film The man who wasn't there which is supposed to have a 40s feel to it. People who rented it returned it when they noticed it was in black and white. That's how much we take colour for granted.

That says a lot about the intelligence of those people, but also how passionately we feel about colour. So why is that?

Well, colour affects us beyond just giving a visual impression. We instinctively react to different colours, and they can actually make us feel things, like cold or warmth, sadness or happiness.

Did you know, for example, that the colour of waiting areas in hospitals is light green to sooth and calm patients and their families? Did you know that in casinos, the colour red is used to stimulate your senses and make you gamble more? Colour is light and light is energy - energy that has tremendous power over our emotions.

An emotion would be nothing on its own, though. The feeling of sadness is overwhelming because you're normally happy or neutral. Unless your life stinks that is, but let's just assume it doesn't for argument's sake.

Luckily there is contrast between colours aswell, and the same applies there. Transistions between colours can have an enormous impact, and the more surprising the transition is, the more intense. Have you ever had a birthday where your partner asks you to cover your eyes, walks you in a room and goes "OKAY, LOOK!!" and the room is FULL of flowers? Me neither. Anyway, we all saw the movie, and the girl goes "OH MY GOD!" and all that. Well that's not all just "you're a psychotic nutcase!", it's also "I'm having a near-orgasmic sensation right now because of all the pretty colours!" No really, I'm serious.

In the early 90s, the lack of graphics fidelity in games still slapped any realism ambitions on the fingers and made people think of ways to keep things visually interesting. At that point, platformers peaked, and it was according to Template 1A that developers made levels based on different themes. We all know them by now. Cave levels, lava levels, snow levels, water levels, forest levels, castles, ghost houses, etc etc etc. The funny thing is that even though presumably nobody thought too much about it, this provided contrast.

You'd be running around in Emerald Hill Zone, kick Robotnik's ass and start the next level in the cold and metallc Chemical Plant Zone. Now, years later I realise that there was a subconcious desire to see the next level and find out what that was like, because there was just no way you could guess.

Logic makes things comprehendible, and consistency makes things predictable. Logic is a sad result of realism, and now that graphics have reached a point where you can achieve something approaching realism, logic defeats the desire to make levels differ in the snow and lava way. There's more though, and I've taken the liberty to photoshop two screenshots to illustrate the difference.

I've divided them diagonally and desaturated one field.

Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 - in colour.
Gears of War - in colour, supposedly.

This is probably my biggest concern when it comes to game design right now. For some unfathomable reason we've managed to create entire subgenres of realism and grittyness that have forsaken the emotional impact of colour alltogether. Genres that have proven to be far more popular than the alternative. Combine that with the increasingly popular design choice of creating one large physical space for a game to take place - a realistic and predictably city-like city for example - and the visual flair potential of games is all but murdered.

Because that's what they have. Potential. Potential to affect us emotionally unlike any other medium - or perhaps like all of them combined. Games should be exciting, surprising, ever changing, and they should make us feel stuff. Every new level really should be like opening your eyes after being led into a room full of flowers, a near-orgasmic sensation. There should be a subconcious desire to see that next bit of it and not have it all figured out after five minutes of play.

Stop burning bridges and bring back blue skies.

Monday, January 30, 2006

You always hurt the ones you love

There's a place for paper dolls and newspaper cutout faces in gaming, states Namco with its football something or other "Love Football". They're on a roll with funny screenshots, this just marginally taking the crown from the equally bizarre and laugh-inducing "Frame City Killer". "FCK" for short. Yes you may giggle.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Understand the concept of Love

"Fanboy" is widely regarded as a negative term, but being a fanboy was actually one of the best experiences of my gaming life. I'm not anymore though. There just comes a time when you sort of see things too clearly, and now I can enjoy gaming on a different level. It's not a better or worse level, it's just different.

Not being a fanboy means that you can enjoy games across all formats, regardless of who made them. It also means you need to have a lot more money to spend and you just might feel cursed from time to time when you're basically buying a new system just to play that one game you can't miss. (PSP/Lumines, I admit.)

However, this article isn't about not being a fanboy, on the contrary.

Some feelings transcend common sense and conceptions like quality. When the love for a brand is strong enough you feel like you can identify with it. You actually identify with this huge company and its logos and characters to the point where it almost gets personal and intimate. You feel like their success is tied to your personal happiness, and it is in a lot of ways. For me and a lot of people this usually happens with underdogs. The company that's clearly losing the battle - the misunderstood genious if you will. It's tied to a bigger conception about how little quality matters in this industry, and the fact that good ideas don't sell. But here you are, clearly distinguishing their brilliance, righteously standing up for them. For some people, none of that matters at all, but the love for a particular platform comes from simply being familiar with its characters and franchises. People are conservative, and when obstacles like money/expenses stand in the way of enjoying all platforms, they're simply content with shutting everything else out and enjoying what they have. There's no shame in that.

People like identity. In these times one of the most important aspects of simply living is to build a unique personality and find a bunch of things about yourself that make you special. Of course some people drink Coca Cola and believe that being a Coca Cola nut makes them utterly unique, and the same illusion is true of gaming. "I'm a PS2 nut!" somebody exclaims enthusiastically as if that means something. Well it does mean something - to him.

The real boon of being a fanboy is that highs and lows are so much higher and lower, respectively. If you anticipate something and it finally comes out, that experience will be so much more powerful than if you don't much care either way. For example, the Dreamcast launch was probably my most exciting hour as a gamer so far, and just unpacking it was so great. The dreamcast logo on everything made my heart absolutely scream of joy, and getting a new Sonic game at launch was incredible. Seeing those characters I loved move around in 3D meant a lot more to me than seeing just any bunch of characters do the same thing. Mario had already done it to much less fanfare in my heart. Of course I acknowledged his entry into 3D as one of the bigger events in gaming, but I just wouldn't be honest if I said it was as significant to me, personally, as Sonic's 3D foray.

Today I clearly recognize Mario 64 as the better game, but that doesn't change the fact that back then, I just wouldn't have had a better time with Mario.

It's easy to write people's opinions off as fanboyisms, and truth is in a lot of cases they are. Thing is though, fanboyism doesn't equal stupidity. There's something unquestionably real about the perception of what's good and what isn't when you're a fanboy. Of course this pisses people off that try to keep some kind of objective sense of quality, and the fact is that more often than not, a fanboy defies logic when stating their opinion, but that doesn't make that opinion any less real to the one who expresses it.

As a result it's difficult to attach any meaning to the opinions and statements of someone who's clearly affected by his love for a particular brand or franchise, but that's just the price you pay for being a fanboy and experiencing those highs and lows. Of course, whether you're a fanboy or not, credibility as an objective gamer is something you just gotta earn.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Would-Be Real

We're heading towards it at the speed of at least 300 km/h bent forward with no helmets on. We can't really see it, we're too busy looking at the scenery, imagining the possibilities, and of course it's right there under our noses. Why would we look?

You know the worst thing for a kid in a toy store? He can't have it all. He can't buy it all and his parents won't let him have it so all he can ever do is walk around and look at all those things he could be playing with and never will. He's restricted. It's not that he doesn't have the means to play with them, even. He's got arms, hands, fingers and a brain, but there's something in the way.

Sooner or later that's how games will feel to us, and I'm starting to feel it already. If you haven't quite caught up with me (I don't blame you) I'm talking about input methods, or more specifically the traditional gamepad.

Games are coming to a point where physics and interactivity is so sophisticated that there's more you can do in a game than you can.. actually DO. Playing Half Life 2, I'm walking through a room with boxes on the floor, and I feel like a total elephant because I just can't seem to avoid kicking the boxes around when all I'm trying to do is walk around them. If I walk into a room with a set of chairs and a little table, I have to circle past them, I can't carefully place my foot between the chair and the table and get around it that way like I would in real life. I love the way developers are paying attention to details like that when the game is trying to convince me that I am in fact moving around in a real environment, but how am I supposed to keep believing in it when my interaction with it isn't more precise than Mario hopping on turtles? In fact, even less so. Oh and don't even get me started on mouse and keyboard, they're even more utterly incompetent in offering any kind of half-human interaction.

A normal gamepad today has about eight buttons and two sticks of which four are analogue to a point where they're USEFUL FOR ANALOGUE INPUT. Analogue face buttons are just stupid. With these I'm expected to have an experience that's close to or reminicent of reality (if that's what the game strives for) but to even begin to provide the precision I'm talking about, the controller would have to be completely devoted to just emulating human behavior.

I've never been a huge fan of the obsession with realism and I've sort of always failed to see the point of just trying to mimic something when the possibilities for creating something unique and brand new are so enormous. Even so, it didn't strike me until I realised that this is the only new generation in ages where gamepads are exactly the same. Games themselves won't just stop evolving and stop providing more believable surroundings, so soon the only thing making us doubt that we're actually participating in what plays out before us will be the inability to interact with it on that same level of sophistication.

Whenever I think about games I break them down to very simple pieces. I think the best way to create a game is through focus and through an idea that fuels itself, that rewards itself instead of neccessarily offering synthetic rewards. I'm old school and traditional like that I suppose. I think that those types of ideas will always work using today's input methods because they rely on something simple and doesn't try the cumbersome task of emulating and recreating the player in the environment. I think, however, that in order to let that kind of idea evolve and actually change, we can't just sit here with gamepads in hand and watch as environments in games take off without us. It's a worrying fact that the 360 pad is almost identical to the Xbox pad (even though it's purely sexual to hold and play with) when the current trend IS immersion and believability. That said, I'm not looking for lawnmower man type brain-jack stuff either.

In fact, I'm quite frankly not too bothered with the whole realism thing. I'll gladly keep rolling my Katamaris, because I don't really need to scratch my nose in game for that concept to work.

Thinking is good though, and I'll keep doing it. I hope you do, too.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Small issue of Great Scale

One of the real benefits of 3D and the power of consoles and PC platforms has over the last couple of years proven to be size. The notion of complete freedom has become more and more pronounced, and it spiked with the likes of GTA3 with its steaming cities and plethora of options available to you. Far Cry made a big deal (a suitably sized deal) out of its giant islands and the ability to go almost anywhere to proceed through a mission, and it did that well. Half Life 2 also tried its hand at scale, using scripts ala 1998 but with bigger things and thus to 2005'ish impact. Well, in theory anyway.

Even before all that, games like Tribes did the scale thing really well, with 64 players and huge teamplay modes on giant battlefields. The rush of emerging from an underground base in that game and realising you could fly anywhere on this giant map was intoxicating, and it worked really well from a gameplay standpoint, too. To this day, Tribes remains many people's favourite game.

The Inherent Problems of Making Small Things Big

Fact of the matter, though, is that apart from spanning far into the distance, the maps of Tribes weren't really big in the real sense. They were for all intents and purposes stretched versions of small maps. The notion that a game like Grand Theft Auto is big comes from the fact that it takes a long time to travel from point A to point B.

If you were to take a slice out of GTA3 representing the area of a game like Half Life, you'd notice how incredibly sparse the GTA3 world really is. In fact, I would pretty much compare GTA3 to a game like Duke3D if judged entirely on the complexity of the game world.

Yet we consider this a leap, and in some ways it certainly is. It was a rush gripping that PS2 pad, getting into a car and just driving for like 5 minutes in GTA3 with the city streaming by. That said, did it tap into that real sense of scale? No it didn't. I don't think anyone got the feeling that it did.


Well, it's because the cities in GTA3 are basically big small things. Let me demonstrate with a couple of images.

Let's give a brief explanation too, for.. you know.. logic's sake.

A. This is how a conventional game looks. This is the confined game world of a conventional shooter where you move around in a small, detailed area that's convincing as a real physical space. The canvas is small, but the painting is detailed.

B. This is the GTA game world. Travelling from one point to another in this world takes longer because the canvas is bigger. The painting however remains the same. Definition is lost, detail is lost, and the feeling of physical space is greatly decreased. Houses are basically shoe boxes in this world.

C. This is where things get real. The canvas is bigger but now the painting is bigger aswell. The content in this world has actually increased. The definition is there, the detail is there, and the feeling of physical space is there too, resulting in an overwhelming sense of scale.

When Half Life 2 was at its best, it offered that tangible sense of scale. That's because it was built from the perspective of a conventional game (example A) and continually expanded naturally. This is true for Shenmue aswell, perhaps even more so with its insane attention to detail.

Big stuff in Half Life 2. (Don't kill me, gamespot!)

Our brains are pretty clever devices, they notice these things even if we can't intellectually pick them up. Until games are actually built with as much attention to four in-game square metres as 400 in-game square metres we won't really get that dizzying sensation of scale. The good news is that technology is getting to a point where that's possible, the bad news is that developers are human beings and the amount of work that must be poured into achieving something like that is absolutely huge, and it's debatable if a truly free roaming game on that level is even neccessary or neccessarily any good.

That is rather irrelevant in this article though, which is more of an observation than anything else.

One thing that can be said about all of this, however, is that there's more you can do with graphical power beyond just drawing stuff in incredible detail on the canvas you have. When people say graphics aren't important and that conventional games have reached their limit, they are wrong. They have not reached their limit, and graphics play an integral part in moving forward.

Now a question for you; Is this article example B or example C?


Cheeky sods.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Next Gen killed the Current Gen Star

I won't lie to you, despite my outmost respect for ICO, that game never really got to me. I know that it was supposed to be this awesomely arty yet playable game with deeply touching scenes and views, but I never really felt it.

Do I defend ICO in an argument? Yes I do. Do I even challenge those who claim they saw no magic in there? Most certainly, oddly enough, I point out everything I read about it that seemed to make sense. But how come I wasn't touched by it? How come I didn't feel all those things a game like that is supposed to make me feel?

Well, you see, I played it fairly late, specifically a while after the Xbox and Gamecube were both released, both sporting anti aliasing and sharp textures and vivid colours in pretty much all of their games. In contrast, ICO looked disappointingly jaggy, washed out and blurred. I could tell that there was a creative vision behind it but to me it was like a really great, well framed photo that suffered from over exposure and terrible JPG compression.

Ironically I'm in sort of the same position now with the next game from the ICO team; Shadow of The Colossus. I've watched so many high res videos of 360 games I don't know if SoTC has what it takes to move me with its visuals. I certainly hope it does, I suspect it will because the idea is less about image fidelity and more about scale, and I'll give it a big honest shot. What if it doesn't though?

I think art should be timeless, and I think we're probably moving towards times when games will look good forever. We've already been there once with the SNES (tell me Super Mario World looks bad today and I'll slap you until you die) and I think we'll be there again soon. I think some companies have an easier time with creating visuals that stand the test of time, and I believe some hardware is better suited for it. I think it's sad though that I'll never be able to show Panzer Dragoon Saga to someone and have them actually GET what's so good about it. I don't think PDS will ever move anyone again, and yet it's one of my most emotional gaming experiences. It's scary and it sometimes makes me want to live in the backwaters of the cutting edge graphics just to make sure I'm not missing something. At the same time I want to sit in the front so I can be blown away by new things as they come along and be swept up with the surrounding buzz of anticipation along with other gamers.

Stunning. You can't really tell what's going on in this pic though.

If I'd been in the same position in the Saturn days as I am now (multiformat gamer) I would've had a PSX and its superior 3D capabilities would've had me looking at PDS going "huh." It's frightening to think about.

I don't know a cure for me, and I don't know a cure for you if you're having similar problems. It's certainly something to consider though, that the pursuit of the latest greatest graphics may well cause you to miss some of the best gaming experiences of your life.

Azel, I will love you forever.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Violence and mr Thompson

Okay, so, everyone else has voiced their opinion on Jack Thompson and after the recent change in tone in the whole discussion I feel that I should voice mine aswell. It's impossible to comment on what Thompson does before taking a stand regarding the games industry and its content on a whole. Therefore that's just what I'm going to address first.

Violent games exist, and today they're obviously more convincing than ever in conveying that violence. You can actually craft a world and characters that make a gut wrenching scene do just that - wrench your, um, gut. That's not to say it's entirely believable, but it's sufficient for the message and the idea to come through in a striking way. The fidelity of sound and images we experience today, and even more so this coming generation, makes it possible for the creative vision to translate almost entirely intact from idea to fully realised games. This places a greater responsibility with the game maker in making the distinction whether the content serves a purpose or not. That said, considering how many companies there are that make games and how many games there are, there are surprisingly few that actually push any kind of provocative content. The ones that do however are often horror themed games that use those violent or upsetting images to their effect like a film does. The exception is, of course, the often talked about Postal 2 which serves little purpose besides being perfectly justifiable ammo for guys like Jack B. Thompson.

Postal 2 - sets our side back about one hundred points.

Scary stuff isn't the same as violence of course. Disturbing images don't make criminals out of kids, but I still think it's an important point to make, that those games use their artistic freedom to present those images in order to convey a certain sensation. I think it's important also to clarify that while the discussion regarding violence in games have been around for a long time, it's only recently that it's getting this kind of attention - why? I'm fairly certain it's because games have been brought out in the mainstream in the last 10 years but also because the violence can be rendered so convincingly now.

Even then there are a number of different ways to use violence for effect, and like anything anyone says or does artistically it must always be judged in the context it was presented. Turtles do little besides fighting all day long, and sure enough there are people who claim that Turtles will make ninja killers out of children but it still airs alongside everything else on saturday mornings when kids (yes, REAL kids) are watching. Two wrongs do not make a right, certainly, but I think we can agree that Turtles are pretty harmless. I'm sure even good mr Thompson agrees. It is in a sense violence, but its context and the spirit in which it's presented makes it less provocative.

Monty Python did a sketch in which a knight gets his limbs cut off and blood sprays everywhere. Does that upset people? Some perhaps, but again, the context takes the effect out of it for most of us. Lastly, Pulp Fiction is one of the most celebrated films of the 90s and by many considered one of the best films ever, period. It contains some very graphic scenes of violence, but its context.... Okay you're probably fed up with me going on about context.

My point is; why isn't GTA viewed exactly the same way as Pulp Fiction? It's clearly a fruit on the very same tree, but despite that it's taking enormous amounts of flak. Why!? Let me tell you why: I'm willing to bet my own set of testicles that the ones who are upset by GTA still view gaming as something kids do, and the console itself as a toy. It isn't. GTA was never meant for 15 year olds, that is fact. According to studies conducted by the Entertainment Software Association the largest group of gamers today are 18 years old or older, so why then is it so surprising that the content in games these days reflect that? If the problem is kids getting their hands on those games you're looking at two problems; parents don't give two shits about what their kids are playing or the kids simply download the latest GTA off the net.

Piracy and bad parenting; hardly the fault of the games themselves.

Do I believe that a violent game makes murderers out of kids? I think games, just like any other medium, have a big impact on kids in deciding what's "cool" and what's "brave" and I believe that concepts like heroism and ideals like that are definitely affected. Is it a deciding factor? No, I don't think it is. Is it a worrying trend that some kids run around thinking it's cool to steal cars and shoot cops? Yes it is. I don't think you can blame that entirely on games though, I think that's a result of our general culture. It's hardly a new concept that crime is "cool" either. Bad boyisms have always been around. Idiots have always been around. This paragraph is entirely rethorical though of course, since kids aren't meant to play GTA in the first place.

So there you have it, basically. My stance on the video game industry and its violent games.

Now, finally, my opinion regarding Jack Thompson:

I think he's a complete and utter twat. Not because of his original sentiment that kids shouldn't play games like Postal and GTA, but certainly because of every single step in his efforts to enforce it. Also, his actual knowledge regarding the games seems severely lacking. You'd think a guy who makes a fuss on this extreme level would at least sit down and play the games properly, not just read up on them. (on IGN of all places!) Calling GTA a cop killer simulator and implying that someone actually used it for practicing killing cops (must be the PC version then, or else he's got a surprise coming if he thinks real guns auto-lock on everything but the guy he's trying to shoot.) is nothing short of retarded and it's really just more evidence he has no clue whatsoever about the actual goal in the game.

Unusually blatant and stupid from the otherwise witty and brilliant Penny Arcade.

Wrapping this enormous post up, I want to stress that I don't think people should brush off the entire problem at hand. There is an issue of kids and teens playing games meant for a mature audience, and if we can come up with a solution instead of just yelling and laughing at Jack Thompson then that would be awesome. Come on people, we can do both.