Thursday, 26 February 2009

Guest Rant: Turning The Other Cheek

The following piece was written by a friend of mine and I offered to post it on my blog if he could get the thing down in print. Follows is Tim's rant about realism, immersion and convincing game AI.

I am a fan of Control Alt Delete comics. I am also a fan of Call of Duty 4. Recently Tim Buckley, author & artist of CAD, made a comic joking about Killzone 2. To anyone who has read this comic my rant will make sense...or at least more sense than otherwise. (So go read it – Ed.) Regardless it did bring up the question, to my mind, of why game AI designed to respond tactically to a player’s skill or playing style, which is attempting to mimic the real world, would in the comics situation just send more troops in to die. Now true enough; if one man with a gun runs into a military facility then sending in a squad of heavily armed troops may be entirely appropriate as a response, but seriously, how many men can be sacrificed before someone says, "OK...lets just lock him in and flood the building with poisonous gas”.

Sure that may be overkill, but considering how many people (virtual people) die every time I play Far Cry 2, its curious that one man can make it the distance in a computer game without being nuked, without being murdered by the very factions I’m betraying. The commanders of these armies must be lunatics to think that a guy who has already killed many, many of their soldiers or security guards is going to have trouble if you just send in another 10.

It's then somewhat surprising these games can create and hold any sense of immersion. Sure we'd all love to see ourselves in a fantasy, an unstoppable force of good or evil or ponies...whatever you stand for – that doesn’t change the fact that no single person could possibly do the sorts of things we achieve in the virtual world. This is not to say games should make all characters week and venerable cowards who run in fear at the first site of an enemy...thought that did work for Mirrors Edge. But it is to say, why are game developer’s still obsessed with creating a sense of realism when the point of these games is often to escape the real world.

And this brings me to why I love Call of Duty 4. Any game that Nukes the player character halfway through the story is good in my books. Still, wouldn't it be nice to return to the good old days of Sonic the Hedgehog where you could die horribly by drowning but before that happened, you got bright colours and a gameshow countdown timer to bring it about, rather than horrifying orchestral music and 8 shades of gray?

- Tim.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

How To Kill People More Effectively In Far Cry 2

I love Far Cry 2. You want to love Far Cry 2, but you’re always getting killed, then getting rescued by your buddy only to get killed again a mere minute later. So here is SLRC’s top 5 tips on How To Kill People More Effectively In Far Cry 2. Inspired by Steve Gaynor’s post ‘Basics of FPS encounter design’, because Far Cry 2 is both the epitome of good FPS encounter design, and its antithesis.

#1 – Distance is the man killer, and you are the man.

If there is only one thing you learn about playing Far Cry 2, it should be that the distances involved in any engagement are an order of magnitude higher than any other game around. The sprawling African savannahs allow for you and your enemies to trade potshots at targets up to a kilometer away – and still retain reasonable chance of hitting.

Long range weaponry is king in Far Cry 2 and ideally you want to have at least one weapon with a scope on it at all times. Why? Because your enemies are better than you, can see through the brush and scrub better than you and there are just plain more of them. The more distance you can create between yourself and your target, the less likely they are going to be able to land any hits on you (especially if they are wielding shotguns, LOL!).

However, we here at SLRC know that ideal isn’t always possible, as you will probably eventually run out of bullets from killing so many people. In that case, you’re going to have to close to a middle distance and change to an alternative weapon. Note however, that I have never on a difficulty harder than normal been able to fight closer than 50 yards and take no damage; the AI is just too fast and too accurate at point blank range. Be smart and Just Don’t Go There. Which brings us to point #2.

Pro Tip: If you get your angle right, and you are patient, you can often shoot two people with one sniper round! Brillantine!

#2 – Pick where YOU want to murder people, don’t let them decide where you are going to die.

If your enemy doesn’t know you are there, you have the advantage of time, as well as space. Use it. Choose both where and when to engage. If possible, follow point #1 and fight from as far away as possible. For arguments sake, however, lets pretend you don’t have any sniper weapons or (more likely) you’re out of bullets from killing all those naughty mercenaries. Sometimes you need to get up close and get your hands dirty.

The main thing to look for is cover – learn to read the environment and look for things that you can potentially stand behind and that won’t let bullets through. If the obvious approach to a position doesn’t look like a good idea, it probably isn’t – don’t risk it. Swing around and come at them from the side, or even better, from behind. There’s usually a multitude of options in Far Cry 2, so explore them. That stand of trees off to the right looks OK, but further to the North West there is a burnt out car, which is even better. The bigger the cover the less bullets you’ll be pulling out of yourself. Higher ground is always a good idea, too.

Since Far Cry 2 utilizes a semi-recharging health system, getting behind cover even when lightly wounded is absolutely critical unless you want to burn through syrettes like a morphine addict on a week long bender. It becomes an issue particularly on the higher difficulties where you can only carry 3 on you at all times (without buying an expensive upgrade for more) and is compounded when you’re trying to save some for when you buddy gets injured. Defensive play is often necessary at medium-close range, and that’s only possible if there’s plenty of cover – the enemy can and will flank you and you will die.

Pro Tip: If your enemies are in cover and you are standing in an open field, you’re probably already dead.

#3 – Know your escape route and when to GTFO.

This ties in with point two, because if anything at all goes wrong, you will need a plan to get out of there and the faster the better. If an engagement has a chance of going hairy, SLRC personally like’s to park it’s car facing in the direction I know I’ll be wanting to escape and it has been useful on more than one occasion. An anecdote:

Once, on a mission to assassinate a prominent member of a faction, I parked my jeep on a large hill to the west of my target. A huge grassland area with no cover stretched between me and a number of his body guards. I parked my jeep facing south-west and started picking off mercenaries. They swarmed at me like I’d disturbed an ant hill, and I cut off their direct approach to me by starting a fire in the grass between me and them. However, as fire likes to travel uphill and it quickly turned on me meaning I had to GTFO as the ground caught fire beneath me. Thanks to having my jeep parked already facing the way to go, when I got in I was able to move in a safe direction and get out of the fire without taking much damage at all.

Often times, however, it will be the caser that your vehicle will be destroyed or disabled when you need to GTFO. In that case, sprint is your friend – learn where the sprint key is and the sprint-crouch move which allows you to slide the last few meters along the ground and into cover. It may just save your life!

Pro Tip: Your vehicle can be a valuable source of cover for your pathetic, bleeding figure as you limp off into the jungle.

#4 – Start a fucking fire.

I’m tempted to leave this point as-is, because it really is as simple as that. The effect of a nearby fire on an enemy is described by the Far Cry 2 fire propagation expert, Jean-Francois Lévesque (who is on twitter, incidentally), in an interview on Gamasutra.

Speaking in RPG terms, the fire acts as an area of effect fear spell.

Life forms will flee or at least try to avoid fire. It disorients the AI, making enemies forget about you and focus on saving their own skin. It gives you an advantage against high numbers of opponents.

Before, during and after anything goes wrong in your fight you should be thinking about starting some kind of fire. You always have on you two Molotov cocktails available for throwing and there are often many things you can shoot to blow up to start fires too. Make use of them all - anything to get those bastards to stop shooting at you!

Pro Tip: Despite the fact that it’s an extremely cheap weapon from the Gun Merchant, the flare pistol combines points 1 and 4 from this guide! Don’t underestimate the potential in starting a fire exactly where you want it, really, really far away.

#5 – Don’t use someone else’s gun, keep yours clean and don’t run out of ammo.

Weapon deterioration is a big part of Far Cry 2 as anyone that’s played for more than an hour or so can attest. So make sure to visit the weapon dealer regularly to pick up a free new gun – remember, if you’ve unlocked it you can get new ones whenever you like for no additional cost! Isn’t that handy?

When you run out of sniper ammo, the LAST thing you want to do is ditch you gun for (to quote Danny Archer from Blood Diamond) some “rotten AK” which is going to jam on you when you least need it. A better idea is switching to a secondary or special weapon, until you find an ammo box or crate.

Pro Tip: A big-ass machine gun in your special weapon slot is a very good idea for when you can’t use your sniper rifle, and when your pistol is a flare gun. As much fun as it is to light men ON FIRE with the flare gun, it’s pretty dangerous and SLRC does not recommended it.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Beyond Good and Evil Official Soundtrack - A Review

We don’t do reviews very often here at SLRC, and naturally this ‘review’ is probably only part review, with a bit of musical analysis throw in for good measure. I started listening through the Beyond Good and Evil soundtrack in conjunction with the Vintage Game Club’s play through of the game and couldn’t resist taking a few notes. I should preface by saying that it is one of the most impressive soundtracks for any game I have ever heard. Stylistically, the music on this album is amazing – the diversity of sound is a testament to the composer’s ability to create an incredible range of music, and even with the sheer amount of it present there are no pieces that sound like the standard licensed fare you get in many games (even many ‘AAA titles’). It’s impressive in that it manages a cohesive sound while including pieces that evoke calypso, ambient, jazz and funk feels.

While there is an official soundtrack, just as popular it seems is an ‘unofficial version’ which is straight rips of the music from the game (obtained from the PC version, I assume) – and while that’s kind of cool in it’s own way, I’m preternaturally attracted to the OST because of my love for the album form. The majority of my music listening is accomplished by putting on an album and letting it play through while engaged in some other activity and outside of my iPod, I rarely at best use the shuffle function in iTunes. The direct rips are also problematic for me because they often contain ‘unfinished’ tracks that end abruptly where a song would loop and start again, with the game applying fadeouts and transitions wherever appropriate.

I eventually discovered and downloaded the free official soundtrack, with the expectation that it was an album, which it is. However just as nothing is as it first appears in the city of Hillys the same holds true for this album, and in this post I’m going to try and outline why.

The album opens and closes with iconic pieces of music form the game, over which are played a selection of the in-game dialogue and sound effects in a way that builds up a rather complete aural picture of that moment in the game. I’m quite a fan of this technique as it can evoke some very specific moments in films and games particularly well. It really works well when the aim of your album is to re-tell the audio story of the film or game especially, and it works here.

So let’s cut to the chase and talk about the album as a whole. My initial comparisons were to the Halo series’ soundtracks which similarly capture the feel of ‘all the songs you hear when playing the game’ in their approximate order, but the comparison is not entirely beneficial to BG&E. While the Halo album releases definitely feel like complete album each, and can be listened to on their own repeatedly, BG&E ends up wearing a bit thin after a few listens.

Firstly, it seems to me that there is not enough variation to maintain interest in the more ‘ambient’ background pieces that in the game play while exploring dungeons. This criticism is perhaps a bit of a cheap one to level at the album, since the music obviously works in game, however it’s inclusion on the album strikes me as a somewhat thoughtless choice. The decision to include all or as much of the music from the game as possible, and in roughly the order it gets heard, has subordinated the need for the album to exist and be listenable as a work in itself. Don’t get me wrong, attention has definitely been paid to making the album, but maybe not quite enough.

The first hiccup in the album comes with the tracks ‘Mineshaft Madness’ and ‘Say cheese, fellas’ (tracks 7 & 8) which both drag on for just a bit too long. The latter piece uses a bit of in-game audio again at the start (omitting spoken word however) to remind listeners that this is the music from the first boss battle. Again, while both these tracks hold up well in the game their inclusion on the album is a bit questionable, especially since there is enough quality on this album to avoid using any filler tracks.

This would be a good point to talk about the uneven pacing of the album, which I think is the result of wanting to put the music in the order the player of the game encounters it. Conventional wisdom regarding pop records is that you generally try to give your album a ‘flow’ by arranging tracks so that you get a pleasing and natural progression between songs and also a particular kind of dynamic to the album. Think, for a moment, of how many albums you know that open with their best song, add a few in the middle (usually none of which are perhaps catchy enough for release as a single but which can still often be quite good) and in the last 1/3 of the album bring out all the stops, lifting the album to it’s crescendo. It tends to follow roughly that same curve that is used to describe a good narrative – with the high point somewhere around the 2/3rds mark, or roughly the point of the Golden Mean.

If I could draw a similar graph of the dynamic of Beyond Good and Evil’s soundtrack, it would be a series of tiny humps. All the stand-out tracks are separated by 2 to 3 songs that either feel like filler or feel out of place. Consequently, the album never really gets off the ground and can’t escape the feeling of ‘a collection of semi-related tracks’. Not helping this problem is the fact that, like the music in the direct rips I mentioned earlier, a number of tracks stop abruptly, where adding a simple fadeout would have worked wonders. One last issue – the song ‘propaganda’, the most iconic and memorable song from the game, is frustratingly mixed quieter than the rest of the album detracting from what should have been one of the highlights of the album.

I was originally planning on doing some musical analysis in this post as well, however this review has run on long enough as it is. If there is a lesson to take away from the album it’s that for any release to stands on it’s own, attention needs to be paid to conventions and expectations of the medium. As videogame music it succeeds flawlessly, however as an album, for me at least, it critically fails. Hopefully before long I’ll be back with some less critical things to point out about the music of BG&E and elaborate on just how good it is as 'music', rather than album.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 7, The Finale

In the final installment of my interview series with Marty O’Donnell, we talk about the effect that instrumentation has on musical themes and development, and I ask him one final question, what gets him out of bed in the mornings.

Marty: So it turned out that in Halo 2 there was sort of what developed into the covenant theme and I think it was the music that came in when the arbiter was introduced… and it tended to feel like the arbiters theme. But it felt more like ‘this is the somber alien, this has to do with the emotion of what is happening over there’ and that emotion worked several times through the game for me, so it wasn’t necessarily the covenant theme. I never developed the theme of the covenant, but it sorta turned out almost like that.

Ben: So you say you never wrote a covenant theme, but it seems to me like there’s definitely a 'covenant' type of instrumentation. Was that a deliberate thing?

M: It’s sorta like what you were saying before, there are a lot of different techniques and I tend to want to not be stuck on one, so sometimes it’s a musically thematic thing sometimes it’s just the colour of the instruments that are being used and then that’s what becomes sort of iconic throughout.

Lots of different thing work, and I don’t like to limit myself to only one way of working. It sort of self limits when you start really putting it together, you start saying, well I’m not going to do this even thought that could work, because this other thing has already become more interesting to me, so I’ll just narrow it down to just these three kind of approaches, and at the end of the day you look back and it almost looks like I planned the whole thing.

B: *laughs* Well it really does, I’m listening through it and going ‘hang on a minute there’s all these covenant sounds and they all sound like the covenant instrumentation!’

M: *laughs* Yeah it’s probably true, but it wasn’t something I planned ahead of time, it’s a little bit more organic. As you start throwing things together, certain things kinda work and stick so you stay with it, and you realize at the end maybe it was meant to be that way or… I don’t know how to put it, it’s never something I plan ahead of time, like ‘this is the way it will end up’, maybe it’s just my approach to composition, I tend to be more in the moment and say ‘hey this is working, I like this’ and then look back at what I’ve done and realize ‘oh there’s almost a plan here or there’s definitely a theme that’s building that I didn’t really know was going to be there ahead of time. But I sort of anticipate that it probably will be that way by the time I’m done.

B: Yes, I think that’s probably how I work as well. One of our lecturers at Uni always goes on about compositions being organic and having a natural development. I got into my degree as a singer, and so all my music training and knowledge was gained by ear, so I tend to evaluate whether it works on not by listening rather than dots on the page.

M: Yeah I think that’s great, that’s where it counts.

B: So I think that’s all of the questions I had planned to ask, except for one last question. I wanted to ask you what’s the most exciting thing that’s happening in music in games. What gets you out of bed in the morning to come to work after 10, 12 or 15 hours of crunch?

M: *laughs* Well that’s interesting…I would say, in general, the reason that I’m in the game business… I think it’s an artistic medium that’s still early in the development phase. And as a creative person who likes working in a place that is somewhat unexplored that is very exciting to me. There’s a lot of other places you can do music, but music in games still I think has just a huge unknown path before it. I have no idea where it’s really going to go. Games as a medium in general are still potentially in their infancy. I find it would have been really fascinating to have been a filmmaker in the 1920’s because it was so early on and things moved so amazing over the, from 29-39 it was just an amazing ten year period, and I think we’re sort of in that period. The mid 30’s in the film industry is where we are in the games industry. I think 5 years from now games are going to be vastly more improved, and improved as an artistic expression. And so I would encourage anybody who likes creating in a places that still has unexplored paths, I think games are probably the place to be.

Thanks again to Marty for being a part of my thesis and for being so generous with his time, and thanks to everyone for reading this rather epic series. Parts 1 through 7 can be found here.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

In reply to Clint Hocking and Michael Abbott

An issue that’s been floating around the videogame blogs recently is that of spoiling a game’s story for other players, whether or not that’s important, and similarly whether or not it’s possible to spoil a games actual mechanics for another player.

The issue was first raised by Michael Abbott in his post, ‘The spoiler ball and chain’ in which was pointed out that if you’re going to talk seriously about a game and what it means, what it says, how it says it, then you’re probably going to have to assume a certain level of knowledge on the part of your reader.

And then in the comments thread CLINT HOCKING showed up to spoil the party. (I kid! Clint is a consummate professional) The point he was making was that ‘story’ or anything the player doesn’t actually have control over isn’t really part of the ‘game’. Here’s the important part of what he said, in full:

Here's a more pertinent question though - why are we even really concerned with giving away details of the PLOT in a video game. Elika doesn't die in PoP. There is no Elika, there is no Death of Elika, because there is no choice, there is no GAME there. The villain in CoD4 doesn't get his arm sniped off by a BAD SHOT, he gets his arm sniped off by an imposed narrative. The weakness of Passage is that the death of the wife is purely narrative, and the moving elements of the experience of Passage are the narrative ones. Telling the player these 'plot secrets' does nothing at all to impact the experience of the GAME in my opinion (you may still find these things moving, but they are not games, they are stories).

What I really like about this idea is that it is reflective of the school of thought that says games are interactive and everything else is secondary to the ‘game’. Which is a perspective I can see has a lot of validity – however on the other hand, you have Michael Abbott who steadfastly refuses to believe that story has necessarily be ‘tacked on’ to a game as some kind of garnish, which also seems like quite a sensible idea.

My initial sense is that it comes from conceptions of ‘game’ somewhat running at cross purposes. Specifically, differing conceptions of what is and is not extraneous to the actual ‘game’, which is an issue that Jesper Juul discusses in depth in his book Half-Real. In it, Juul offers a view of games as pared back as they come – essentially describing them as rule systems. However, he also acknowledges that equally important is the aesthetics or ‘fiction’ placed on top of those rules, which often have as much an impact on the actual end-user experience as what the X button on the controller does.

An example: If I were to rip out the music portion of Far Cry 2 and replace it with nothing or something completely irrelevant and jarring, is that not going to change the experience of the game? Of course it is! But has the underlying mechanics of Far Cry 2 actually been changed in any way? Not really, and yet the experience will fundamentally not be the same.

What Hocking says next, after this his initial comment, is quite challenging. He says,

I propose that we put this 'spoiler challenge' to the test - I'd like to see someone write a spoiler that was about a MECHANIC or a DYNAMIC of a game - something that is part of PLAY not part of the STORY, that *actually spoils the game* for me.

Go ahead, try it. Find a game, explain the ways in which the mechanics and dynamics moved you, and write it up so that it ruins my own subjective experience of the game.

I think on this point he’s actually bang on the money – I have never, and don’t ever expect to in the future, have a mechanic spoiled for me by a write up. Why? Because mechanics are truly best experienced, and there is no replacement for first hand experience. Gonzalo Frasca wrote about this issue in his paper Simulation vs. Narrative back in 2003, and he concisely outlined the difference between a simulation and a narrative thusly,

To an external observer, the sequence of signs produced by both the film and the simulation could look exactly the same…but simulation cannot be understood just through its output.

In other words, mechanics (here fungible with simulation) can really only be experienced and any attempts to describe them will be, at best, second hand descriptions without being truly evocative and therefore leaving our imagination with the task of ‘filling in the blanks’ with respect to the actual experience.

As a side note, I think my belief in this idea partly explains why I love New Games Journalism and the whole movement around subjective games writing so much, since I feel it sidesteps the clunky ‘descriptions’ of mechanics and, via the vehicle of creative writing and anecdote, actually gets closer to the mark than even the best of dry mechanical breakdowns. So I believe that Hocking is right in that you probably can’t spoil a mechanic any more than you can replace the experience of white water rafting with a story about it. Even if that story is a cracking good yarn, it’s never going to be able to get you wet.

The ironic part in all this is that while Hocking seems to really get the ‘experiencing mechanics’ issue, he seems to have (with this comment at least) ignored the fact that no matter how trivial the ‘fiction’ (as Juul would put it) or ‘content’ (as game developers would put it) of a game may seem in comparison to the mechanics it still remains important. Exactly how important, I have a hunch, is probably different from person to person as evidenced by the strong reaction provoked in Michael Abbott at the announcement of the somewhat “tacked on” nature of the narrative component of the latest downloadable content for the new Prince of Persia title. And that’s actually a feeling I can somewhat empathise with – the few extra missions released to add more story to my favorite game Far Cry 2 were more than welcome additions, and I wouldn’t want to see the story ruined or altered seriously like Michael seems to is the case. But since it’s also probably a bit less important for me, I’m not sure I’d see it as the ‘betrayal’ he feels it is.

So that’s what I think – Hocking’s right in that mechanics can’t be ruined because, like they say, there’s no substitute for the real thing. But on the other hand, story isn’t irrelevant to videogames either – it’s obviously not the core of them and there’s certainly plenty of future potential for growth in the area of making interactive stories, but I wouldn’t want to cut the idea off entirely. Then again, is it really a story if it’s interactive? Actually, I’ll leave that kind of discussion to the Corvus’ of the 'sphere, I think.