Archive for the ‘Medium’ Category

The Fourth Wall

January 17, 2012

Before home computer systems that were capable of displaying sophisticated bitmap graphics such as Commodore 64 and the likes, there was, at least, one gaming console that employed graphical overlays made of translucent plastic that were put on front of the TV screen. The console in question was Magnavox Odyssey which had extremely rudimentary image producing capabilities. Consequently, the main functions of these overlays were to provide detail and, more importantly, context for otherwise abstract visuals. There were a variety of overlays that represented tennis courts, race tracks, or haunted mansions, to name but a few.

How ridiculous the overlays may now seem, they were, one could argue, an innovative placeholder technology that introduced “color graphics” to the black and white world far ahead of its time. Unfortunately, Magnavox Odyssey happened before my time so I have no first-hand experience how the overlays actually worked regarding the overall experience, but I can’t see why not?

The plastic overlays were, of course, a dead-end technology that became obsolete once the color graphics evolved sophisticated enough to display more accurate representations. The main problem with the overlays, besides being awkward and clumsy, was their static nature, and in the realm of real-time imagery, dynamic entities do always override static ones. Or at least that’s the ideal to look up to.

What’s, then, my interest in the said overlays is the fact that they are, in a sense, an archetypical example of using a technically inferior visual paradigm in order to enhance and/or provide additional information on top of a more advanced one. A plastic overlay is indeed less sophisticated a medium than the visuals Magnavox Odyssey was able to produce, even if on the surface the overlays may appeared more pleasing to the eye with all the colors and details.

So, there’s an interesting parallel here in play which occurred to me when flying around in Star Wars: TIE Fighter (LucasArts, 1994) and reflecting the connection between the cockpit of the ship and the “outside world.” The visuals of TIE Fighter are basically a combination of two very different visual paradigms which are gouraud shaded polygons used to depict the external objects and plain bitmap graphics for the cockpit. One could say that the former represents 3D and the latter 2D, but as I wrote earlier, that dichotomy as such can be quite confusing and moot.

TIE Fighter, among its contemporaries, is indeed exactly a case in which an inferior technology (bitmap) enhances a more sophisticated one (gouraud shaded polygons) in that the bitmap cockpit provides much more detailed representation than if it had been realized with 1994’s polygons. The hardware simply wasn’t there yet to depict everything with polygons like nowadays, so the decision to combine the two paradigms was understandable. Of course, the price of the solution, just like with the plastic overlays, came in the form of static nature of the cockpit, as the bitmap couldn’t simulate any spatial movement or change in lighting whatsoever. In fact, I vividly remember fantasizing back then about a genuine polygon cockpit so I could “rotate” my head around freely and which would illuminate depending on the light source, but that did not come true until 1999 when Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance came along.

Since TIE Fighter, spatially static bitmap elements on top of polygon-based imagery have almost vanished by and large, or at least ones of that magnitude. What is there left are different kinds of so-called HUD elements that generally have no representational responsibilities, but rather informational as indicating selected weapon or velocity of a car, for example. Need for Speed: Shift is an interesting case in that regard as it integrates the HUD elements into the game space itself, making the HUD react to acceleration, braking, bumps on the road, and so on.

The ultimate point of all this is that, to my mind, the HUDs in modern games seem to be the last manifestation of those clumsy plastic overlays with which the visuals were enhanced to provide more visual detail and information using a less sophisticated medium or paradigm. Therefore, I think the HUD is something of a relic and usually the element that is the most eager to break the illusion of another reality by shouting “look, here’s your health bar and here’s the ammo! It’s indeed only a game!” It must not come as a surprise that I very much prefer the no-HUD solutions like the one in Dead Space whenever it’s possible or reasonable.

Getting Physical

December 30, 2011

I’m not particularly proud to admit that for a while in my youth I believed that pro wrestling (what a confusing term) was actually a real sport similar to, say, boxing. To my credit, pro wrestling is presented as such with “real” announcers, referees, and everything. Nevertheless, it amazes me how fake those kicks and punches that I once took for real now appear to me as an adult when occasionally watching pro wrestling, which is a testament to the fact how incompetent the judgment of a young mind can be.

Obviously the fakeness of the pro wrestling combat stems from the fact that the kicks and punches, even if showy, aren’t full contact, but merely soft landing slaps or ones that miss the target altogether. There is indeed very little actual physical interaction in play when the punches start to fly in pro wrestling, and the crux of such a show is, well, the show – the spectacle.

Then there are actual sports that include genuine physical violence but, in a way, don’t come across as violent as pro wrestling in terms of sheer scope of actions. Even the least holds barred sport Mixed Martial Arts include relatively little trading of (successful) kicks and punches per match, and more often than not MMA bouts reduce into unexciting unspectacles of hugging and squishing. The point of this is to say that actual violence is rarely as spectacular as fiction at large often depicts it to be. Only consider the contrast between a real boxing match experienced via TV and any of the Rocky movies, and you see what I’m after.

What then comes to violence found in video games, first of all, I’m not a fan of graphic violence per se. However, as I wrote earlier, I don’t have a particular problem with simulated violence. Some violence can actually add immensely to the overall gaming experience when done properly. Furthermore, at least one can be dead sure the violence in a video game isn’t real, in contrast to mediums like film or video which are more ambivalent towards that question.

That said, I remember finding the very first Virtua Fighter fascinating, as it represented for the first time credible full contact combat in fiction, instead of that obvious fakery found in movies or, let alone, pro wrestling. Thanks to the polygon graphics, kicks and punches actually did intersect with the opponent’s corpus, thus giving an impression of genuine physical impact. Of course, the game engine of VF was rudimentary at best and didn’t even include any actual physics simulations whatsoever. Yet, the combat in VF was not only more real and tangible than in other fiction, but at the same time, one could argue, more spectacular than real hand-to-hand combat.

However, the most intriguing aspect what follows from all this is the fact that simulated pro wrestling is, in a sense, far more real than the actual, live-action version of it. Indeed, wrestling games, such as WWE ‘12 by THQ, seem to be more truthful to the supposed frame of reference of the exercise in question, which is, presumably, defeating an opponent using violence in a regulated, non-fixed match. Actual pro wrestling neglects that premise altogether for the sake of the drama and the spectacle, which manifests itself as faked punches and fixed matches.

I wonder if this is the hyper-real (more real than the real itself) about which Jean Baudrillard so much talked? Is simulated violence some sort of hyper-violence? Does the title Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting finally make sense?

Of course everything said above applies also to computer-generated imagery at large, such as the very cool Assassin’s Creed trailer mentioned earlier. Video games just happen to add an extra layer to the mix, the interactivity, which makes the situation that more fascinating.

Remember that resorting to violence is never an answer,  outside video games, that is.

Lack of Character

December 16, 2011

It must have come across by now that my stance on scripted narrative in video games is somewhat ambivalent since on the one hand I believe predetermined stories are a direct violation against the very core of the medium in question, and on the other hand I find some in-game scripted events and machinimas fascinating nevertheless. I guess that’s one paradox I have to live with.

First of all, I am a huge proponent and fan of emergent gameplay (or emergent narrative), and it feels almost redundant to bring up Grand Theft Auto IV to illustrate once again what that means, but I believe it bears repetition. So, thanks to the sophisticated physics, decent Artificial Intelligence and other nuances, GTA IV is one of the few games that creates an environment (sort of an eco system of simulations) complex enough to allow the true spirit – the magic – of video games to take place, that is the unscripted, sometimes hilarious, random occurrences.

Emergent gameplay is precisely the reason why scripted narrative feels so out of place in video games. It, in a way, brings forward the core problems of the preconceived stories, as emergent narrative is the direct opposite of scripted narrative, especially those conveyed by cut scenes. In fact, the mere existence of cut scenes is the criminating evidence of the fact that scripted storylines don’t play well with games.

Moreover, characters on which scripted narrative is built generally fail more or less for the same grounds. Simply put, there is an irreconcilable conflict between written, “cinematic” characters, and the player’s agency on one. One way to deal with the problem is to minimize the character altogether, like the Half-life series did. Another way is to allow the player to create a character to his/her own liking, like, for instance, in The Elder’s Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Assassin’s Creed series is an illuminating example of, supposedly, character-centric games, or at least ones that are heavily marketed and perceived as such. For instance, Joystiq.com titled their piece on AC Revelations as “concluding Ezio’s story this November”. That in mind, consider the contrast between any trailer of AC games and the gameplay of the games itself, and tell me, which medium makes the characters of AC appear more serious and dramatic: the games or the trailers? Okay, the former example may be a bit unfair and purposefully selected, but it illustrates my point perfectly.

What, then, makes cinema, such as the aforementioned trailers, so effective at building characters is the medium’s total and utter control over how a character is exposed to the audience. Characters in video games, however, are solely in a mercy of the player, and no amount of carefully thought out backstory and other characterization will help when the player chooses to fool around and diminish all the mystique the character in question supposedly posses. Remember the mall scene in Heavy Rain how ridiculous the child-searching protagonist appeared when the player chose to hit repeatedly the x button to make him shout “Jason” just too many times to be a convincing worried father? The problem is, once again, choice – a choice to ruin.

In the end, characters in movies are more often than not idealized versions of the persons being depicted, which cinema as a medium allows. Interestingly, it seems that a video game character acts more as a mirror or a tool for self-expression than a vessel for an idealized person, which becomes apparent just watching the previously linked AC video. The one filmed with a camera phone.

After all, video game characters of today are nothing more than highly sophisticated action figures or marionettes of which strings are pulled via controller. And kids do play with their toys, not always as the toymaker thought and hoped they would, but how ever they feel like.

Perfect License

November 27, 2011

It may not come as a surprise that I was a huge fan of Legos as a kid and spent countless of hours putting them together and fantasizing of making ambitious structures that never ended up realized, just like every other kid. As the time has gone by, I’m starting to see increasingly clearer not only the connection between the fascination of video games and Legos, but the structural similarities in the mediums as well.

The first and most obvious similarity is the “Legos as pixels” parallel, which can be seen, for example, in The White Stripes music video directed by Michel Gondry. Of course, using physical objects as pixels isn’t solely a Lego-specific exercise, since a myriad of other house hold items will do as well, such as Rubik’s Cubes, Post-it notes, or cross-stitching, to name but a few.

There is, however, more substantial similarity of a higher order, if you will, that has got to do with reuse and recombination of a certain set of base components. This is most apparent in sprite-based games of the 8/16-bit era where the effect was quite in-your-face, but the concept still exists even in modern graphics systems such as of RAGE that is indeed celebrated, and partly marketed, for its non-tiling nature.

The Lego brick-ish nature of video game graphics is more often than not an inescapable fact that stems from the limitations regarding system memory and workload of the artists. And as I concluded in an earlier post, this phenomenon of tiling and reusing makes the unique assets or “blocks” appear so much cooler and precious than they perhaps otherwise would. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that in the light of everything said above, the Lego games of recent years, such as LEGO Star Wars or LEGO Harry Potter, developed by Traveller’s Tales make so much sense that it’s almost ridiculous. In a way, Lego is a perfect license for a video game, and actually one of the few that doesn’t exceedingly compromise the original concept that is Lego. Obviously a strong movie IP doesn’t hurt, but the real magic lies not in the IP, but the aforementioned correspondence of video game graphics and Lego as mediums. As a fan of both, it makes at least my imagination run wild of the possibilities.

And on top of it all, plastic, the sole material of Legos, must be the most straightforward material to simulate with real-time graphics. There’s just no need for sophisticated shaders, and for once the often-used derogatory term “plasticky” works in favor to the title, not against it.

In the end, the brilliance of the Lego license comes down to the advantages of a low-fidelity visual principle I previously wrote about. Consider, for instance, how little effort it must go into creating Lego versions of Harry Potter or Indiana Jones once the generic base character is done, in contrast to more realistic approaches. Minecraft says hello, too.

Of course, I’m not saying the Lego games by Traveller’s Tales are good, as they have generally been, merely by the virtue of the Lego license. I’m saying in the right hands a license like Lego is an enormous benefit and an asset to the production on the whole, especially in the case of a smaller studio.

Ghost in the Machine

November 14, 2011

It’s thoroughly evident by now that the project of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has turned out to be a lot trickier, to say the least, than it was perceived around 50 years ago. It seems that genuine, creative intelligence is something of a mystery even for today’s scientific inquiry, and as late John McCarthy, responsible for the coining of the term Artificial Intelligence, famously put it, “We understand human mental processes only slightly better than a fish understands swimming.”

So, even if we are nowhere near to replicate, or even understand, human intelligence per se, we can in certain cases mimic some of the most basic cognitive functions more or less convincingly. Of course, video games are a major arena for this kind of an exercise, in which the need for AI has been of importance from the very beginning of the medium. For instance, each ghosts in Pac-Man has its own separate AI behavior following own logic of how to get to the player. Unsurprisingly those AI routines didn’t fool anyone, even at the time, to believe the ghosts were actually strategizing their patterns, but regardless made the game that more interesting, or even a classic, for all I know.

Of modern games, the Portal series is now famous, among other great things, for its peculiar “AI” character GLaDOS, who is, interestingly, realized by not employing something that could be traditionally described as AI routines at all, but merely by scripting. The thing is, GLaDOS is nothing but a plot device through which the overarching, prewritten narrative is conveyed, so the scripting is understandable, and even unavoidable. She isn’t thus interesting from the point of view of actual AI that is under discussion here.

However, in addition to GLaDOS there were these cute little turrets that were also supposedly controlled by AI according to the fiction of the games. And in contrary to GLaDOS, the turrets actually possess genuine, although extremely basic, AI behavior, in that they react dynamically to the player’s actions.

Besides acid pools and abysses, the turrets are the sole enemies in the Portal universe so far, and what differentiates them, in my mind, from other AI antagonists in other games is the exceptionally credible nature of them. As said, human intelligence is still beyond the grasp of today’s most sophisticated AI systems, which means every simulated human thought process in any video game is a far cry from the real thing. This isn’t, of course, the case with our Portal turrets.

Indeed, because the turrets are, according to the Portal narrative, controlled by “AI”, the simulation of such a turret using real AI routines (which are admittedly at a poor state) is so much more feasible, and thus believable, than simulating behavior of any human(oid) character. And that is why the Portal turrets fascinate me, as they are, in a way, as credible as AI characters can be in a video game. It’s really not that much of a stretch to imagine something like those turrets actually becoming real at some point in the future, with a similar AI behavior.

So it seems that simulation of a certain type of fictitious “AI” is far more within the reach of current state of actual AI technology than simulating genuine intelligence, which said out loud sounds quite obvious. But still, it struck me how such low-level AI can be at the same time the most convincing AI, when wrapped with a cunningly designed context, like a sentient turret in this case.

Proper Definition

October 17, 2011

Every era seems to have its own hyperbolical prefixes, such as “super” in the 90s, which are then being used ad nauseam by marketing professionals to sell people stuff they didn’t realized needing. Super this and super that, and when everything is super, nothing is. Eventually, the buzzword becomes obsolete and replaced with some other soon-to-be meaningless word.

In the past half of a decade or so, one of such words has been “HD” which is, of course, an acronym for High Definition. It used to indicate a specific level of sharpness in video imagery, but today, the term is slapped pretty loosely on everything imaginable, including mascara containers and contact lenses.

However, where the HD situation is really peculiar is the iOS App Store where the developers have been mostly running wild with HD labeling since the release of the iPad. It seemed for a while that no iPad app was safe from the magic touch of HD attached to its title (as if there would be Standard Definition iPad apps), but luckily this trend is starting to fade out. In fact, the titles like Flight Control HD, Fruit Ninja HD, Real Racing 2 HD, and Cut the Rope HD to name but a few are very much reminisce of Super Nintendo games of which many were labeled as Super Something, or Nintendo 64 era with Something 64 titling, which did nothing but diminished the impact of the prefix / suffix at high rate.

HD labeling was and is obviously a way to differentiate iPad apps from iPhone ones, and an attempt to justify the higher pricing, as there are supposedly more pixels to work on, which is an absurd position to begin with. But what made the iPad’s HDness even more silly and arbitrary was the Retina Display introduced by the iPhone 4, which carries only 28 % less pixels than the displays found in both iPad one and two.

Of course, HD isn’t completely an empty marketing ploy, but does refer to an actual phenomenon of increased pixel number and density on displays at large. In the realm of technology, the more is usually the better, and in that regard resolution isn’t considered to be an exception. And in most cases, it isn’t.

So, I would argue that resolution isn’t indeed necessarily an absolute value, but should be treated as an integral component of the visual landscape as a whole. In other words, sometimes resolution can be too high in relation to the actual content of the imagery.

The most obvious case of the above that comes to mind is emulation of old hardware where, in my opinion, the original resolution should always be kept intact even if higher resolutions were available. This has got to do more than anything with the sanctity of piece of art, which is fundamental. On a side note, I generally despise the idea of “HD remakes”, too.

The second case is something I realized just recently when playing Shadowgun by Madfinger Games on my iPod touch with a Retina Display. As I wrote earlier, Retina represents something of an end of evolutionary advancement of pixel density on consumer displays, since it’s hard to imagine any human need for much sharper image. And it isn’t about that 640kt RAM this time. Sure, one can differentiate singular pixels in some cases even on a Retina Display, but with proper anti-aliasing applied, pixels become virtually unnoticeable to a bare eye.

So, Shadowgun, being a somewhat tour de force in iOS visuals otherwise, illustrated the disconnection between a super-sharp resolution and a relatively low polycount. What most iOS games still lack in terms of visual fidelity is indeed the number of polygons, thus it’s rather peculiar to see fairly crude imagery geometry-wise through such a clear lens, i.e. resolution. It goes without saying it’s better to mask the deficiencies somehow than bring them forward, and the Retina Display does exactly the latter.

Consequently, it’s weird to say but, in my mind, some of the more ambitious polygon-based games on iOS, such as Shadowgun or, say, Dead Space, don’t in a way “deserve” the Retina resolution. Yet. A visual landscape of a real-time product, or any visual product for that matter, should be first and foremost about authenticity (in regard to emulation), balance and coherence. At the moment – and I do believe the situation is mere temporary – the resolution of the Retina Display is a bit too high in relation to other visual structures, at least in the aforementioned instances and the like.

According to Script

September 30, 2011

The original Half-life released in 1998 was a genuine game changer for the FPS genre in more ways than one, there’s no question about it. The opening tram sequence alone made it very clear that this wasn’t your everyday shooter, but a novel and ambitious take on the genre.

What HL did so well back then, among other things, was to depict scripted events (i.e. predefined and animated subsets of game) without employing any cut-scenes whatsoever. The tram sequence was the most prominent of such that included a fair amount of choreographed events with characters and robots minding their own business. And the player could wander around the tram freely and focus his/her sight on whatever seemed most eye-catching at the moment. It was limited freedom, but freedom nevertheless, unlike cut-scenes that usually take away any latitude the player otherwise may have within a game. And you know how I feel about cut-scenes. Machinimas, instead, are cool.

Scripted events have since HL developed to integral part of practically any AAA game, the most illustrious of which being the Call of Duty –series whose incarnations are filled with scripted events similar to those of action movies. Interestingly, scripted experiences are popularly described more often than not with pejorative terms and prefixes, such as “on-rail” or “lowest-common-denominator”, and I’m guilty for my part to that as well.

But, even though I think video games should always be first and foremost about simulating dynamic systems and natural phenomena in real-time, I still can’t help but find some scripted events in certain games extremely fascinating. For instance, the said tram sequence found in HL was and still is one of the most memorable moments in my personal gaming history, and it was indeed all thanks to the scripting. It was like being in the middle of a movie, which isn’t either a positive or negative stance, but more of an interesting observation.

Another fascinating totally scripted scene very similar to the one in HL was the credit sequence in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, in which, in contrary to HL, the player couldn’t in fact move at all, but only look around the scenery through the windows of a moving car. Since the player’s position was fixed, the sequence lost some of its charm, as, in theory, it would have been feasible to pull off using solely pre-rendered animation in a Google Street View style.

However, where I find scripted events most fascinating is when the player maintains his/her spatial freedom in total. The thing is, usually scripted events happen behind a window or some other see-through obstacle, but there are instances in which the player is relatively free to circle around one. The feeling is like watching live theatre happening right before you, and even though I’m generally against non-dynamic set pieces in games, well done scripted events, and especially those using sophisticated motion capture, fascinate me nevertheless when pulled off outside the cut-scenes.

For instance, the first level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is an apt example of such, in which the player can freely wander around the military base and watch soldiers playing basketball and do other informal stuff for their leisure. I, for one, remember marveling especially the basketball players like I’d never seen motion captured characters in a game before, which speaks volumes of the power of natural human movement, even if predefined. But still, make no mistake: I, like said, always prefer fully simulated motion, i.e. systems like Euphoria, over motion captured such, as the ones who have checked out my thesis would have already guessed.

The biggest problem with scripting is, of course, the disposable nature of them when comparing to dynamic systems of which outcome is each and every time unique. A scripted event can indeed be really amazing once or twice, but in the end it’s dynamic systems, simulations, what video games are all about and should be made of.