Friday, March 30, 2012

Gamusiquality

Playing LOTRO last night, standing by the vault NPC in the last homely house, i was struck, as usual, by the musical manifestation of the apparent struggle against quality in games. The entrance hall to Elrond's home is also the site of the vault in Rivendell, so it's a spot where many players will spend a bit of time. The hall itself features one of the few notable music tracks in the game, a couple of airy vocal pieces. It creates excellent atmosphere... or would if some dimwit hadn't had the bright idea to dump an NPC right next to the vault endlessly repeating a ten-second simplistic sound loop that gives the impression he's trying to inhale his flute.
It's interesting that the same companies that insist they must charge fifteen-dollar monthly fees can also afford to shoot themselves in the foot by counteracting the best effects they are capable of. Whoever designed the last homely house apparently had this quaint idea that, hey, music is good and NPCs playing instruments are good, so lumping them together must be double good, and never gave it a second thought.
After all, sound is a minor issue, right? We have glowing swords now.

No. Sound matters. Game companies used to know this. Backtrack a bit. We're in the 90s. We all love our games' graphics. Pixellated, static, crude, cartoonish as they are, they are a major selling point. They are not, however, the only selling point. Every aspect of a game is expected to hold up under scrutiny. Game reviewers always have a special section for sound, and music tracks help fill in long loading times on those old pentium-without-a-roman-numeral computers. Voice acting is beginning to play its role. Sound is expected to do its part in suggesting the appropriate mood and game companies invest in composers to get it done right.
Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries has driving, electronic tracks that your giant robot can really tap his twenty-ton boots to.
Warhammer 40k: Chaos Gate has faux-latin, macho choral music to march your fanatic space marines forward.
Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and 3 have individual themes for each faction to put you in the grasp of the enchantress or the grave.
Morrowind manages to re-create the rocky shores of Vvardenfell island musically.
Diablo has what is still the single most memorable original music track in any game i've played, the Tristram theme. The game would not have been nearly the same without that feeling of desolation it created.
Even a game like Half-Life, which did not invest in music specifically, showed how important positional audio can be in creating atmosphere. Circling a gigantic metal chamber for fifteen minutes while hearing ear-splitting banging coming from inside may have its nuisance factor, but it creates tension and suspense and it is memorable.

Time passes. Graphics get better. Game components start becoming defined, standardized, categorized, restricted. Everyone knows what a mob is, everyone knows you're supposed to shoot it. Everyone knows that boogeymen jump out at you and your military units have to be upgraded. Along with this, the need for atmosphere seemingly decreases. Games can be sold to customers who demand a very particular endorphin boost. They're not in it for the experience as a whole, they just want to shoot something, blow up a base or see shiny lights around their elf characters. It is no longer necessary to create individual themes and personalities for areas of a game when computer games themselves start being churned out on an industrial scale.

Compare Oblivion to Morrowind or HoMM 5 to its predecessors and find me any music with as much individuality as they used to show. Compare current MMO music to EVE-Online's bleak, lonesome feel.

Blizzard entertainment deserves special mention here. For better, then worse, it has been at the forefront of the industry for a couple of decades now. Through Diablo, Starcraft and Diablo 2, they possessed an excellent composer. His work was so good they were willing to let him hire an orchestra for the Diablo 2 expansion. It was recognizable enough that i picked the little he did out of everything else when i re-activated for a bit during the first WoW expansion. Steadily, though, Warcraft music became less and less interesting, more generic. The best example is the track in one of the taverns in WoW, in the undead starting area. This utterly inspired minute of creepiness is what they started with for that spot, and this nondescript whooshing is what they replaced it with. Yes, that's right, years after the game was released, they paid some employee to go back, remove the track they had paid for before, and replace it with something less interesting, more bland, less recognizable. This is not just stupidity, not just catering to stupidity. It is going above and beyond to champion the cause of stupidity.

I don't want to entirely sound like an old fogey yammering on about how 'they don't make 'em like they used to'. There have been games with decent music after 2000.
In Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl, you'd occasionally pause by some radioactive waste dump to share a tin of spam with a bunch of hooded, gruff soldiers of fortune sitting around a trash-can fire, and chances are one of them would pull out a guitar and strum a bit of this to chase the shadows off.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines had, overall, the best music of any game i've played, hiring various artists' licensed songs for specific spots in the game. I won't link everything, but Chiasm's Isolated, The Genitorturers' Lecher Bitch, Daniel Ash's Come Alive would be the high points. There is another one that i'll mention in another post because it falls more under the category of creating a good scene.
The introductory theme to Dragon Age is noteworthy, even if the rest of the game's music is relatively bland.

Yes, there are some examples of good music in games still, but unfortunately it seems the current theory is that music only deserves token roles, that it should be as unobtrusive as possible, just a little fa-la-la or zing-whoosh here and there to break up the silence. We're not meant to pay attention to it. That's really my point here: many of us do notice it. We enjoy it, and we seek it out. Look at how many examples i've been able to find on youtube.

I have just learned that Matt Uelmen, Blizzard's old composer, is finally doing more music for a different company. That alone means that i will be looking into their games, if not buying an older one outright, because attention to quality in one aspect suggests the same attention to other aspects. Sound is still a selling point, no matter how much industry leaders might be trying to deny it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Give me my own 'toon, Ender

 - because i'd know what to do with it.

For some time now, i've been banging my head against the wall playing League of Legends. It's a bad choice. I'd rather be playing Demigod, if it hadn't died out. As things stand, there is no good choice for Aeon of Strife games. League of Legends seemed the lesser of two evils when compared to Heroes of Newerth, and i have to say it is balanced, works almost seamlessly, and provides good variety. The game itself is not too bad, for an oversimplified joke of an excuse of a ripoff of a good idea.
Its playerbase, however, is composed of the worst dregs of pvp games. All the worthless little idiots who play team games because they think the point is to have others make them look good, all the useless morons who are so scared of dying and ruining their personal score that they never do anything to help the team, all the pathetic cretins who never bother learning the game as a whole and only play one character using one template "like dude, 'cuz its awesome!!!!" seem to migrate to AoS games.

As soon as pre-game character selection starts you'll likely see two players saying "i'm picking character xyz". This is because players pick their roles on the team in sequence, and invariably, the last two players to pick want to ignore the order and get whatever they want because "dude i called it OMG". I have lost three games in a row today because some imbecile wanted to 'call it', i refused to let him, and he went on to purposely throw the game. The other players invariably side with him because they'd rather perpetuate the idiocy of 'calling it' than stand up to him.
I said that the game is balanced. It is. Chat will regardlessly always be filled with complaints of "OMG you picked character XYZ he sucks OMG u suck" or "OMG that spell sucks dun pick it u suck OMG". If you do try to do something they don't understand, they will always refuse to play with you for the entire game, regardless of the opportunities you can give them, because having you as a scapegoat is infinitely preferable to admitting someone who doesn't use the same flavor of the month templates as everyone else might've been right.

Once in game, it's impossible to get anyone to actually do anything together. Every player wants you to weaken enemies so that he only comes in to land a killing blow and increase his personal score, which actually has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the match. The most popular activity in the game is scapegoating. Sacrificing yourself for a player so that he can get a couple of kills will invariably result in that player later on telling you what a loser you are because he has a better score than you, and how you cost the team the game. As soon as anyone gets attacked, the rest of the team usually breaks and runs instead of helping him so that they have an excuse to assign blame. If your team is at a disadvantage, odds are that one or two players will decide to sit at the spawn site and refuse to play, cementing a defeat for the whole team because they don't want to make themselves look bad by trying and possibly dying.

In short, hopeless stupidity. It's true, there are ways i could work with this. Since i am usually the only one willing to dive headlong into the enemy team in order to give my allies an advantage, i more consistently win when i play tanks myself instead of forcing profiteers to do it. I could give in to the idiots who want to 'call it' so that they're happy and don't spend all their time in game complaining in chat about how they'd be doing so much better as character XYZ.
I could do lots of things. I won't. They're wrong, i'm right. I know what has to be done and i try to do it every time, regardless of whether my teammates understand it. I've also given up on explaining anything to them. Regardless of how well i play, i will never do well in League of Legends because i am unwilling to play badly just so that i'm in tune with the general stupidity of the populace. I refuse to adjust downwards.

Damn Ender Wiggin was right. Knowing what to do with a platoon is easy. Getting them to do it is the hard part.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Webcomic primer

At the risk of looking like a websnark-impersonator, i do want to comment on individual comics now and then. I've read a couple dozen of them, skimmed and avoided many others, so i have a decent idea of what i'm looking at. I make no pretense of objectivity, as always, but i do know from experience how slow it can be digging through this particular haystack for shiny needles, as i remarked in an earlier post.

I suppose the foremost observation is that not all webcartoonists seem to have majored in anything resembling art. This does not wholly invalidate their work. It's true that bad drawing has frequently put me off comics from their start, but there are some cases in which:
a) the work is redeemed by clever writing
b) the artist vastly improves as the comic progresses
Case (a) is less surprising to me than (b) though i expect more visually-dependent readers would experience the opposite.

In any case, there's almost no trick to sorting them out. Trial and error is unfortunately the best method. Still, there seem to be some general categories.

The most popular type of webcomics are anime and game-inspired. Anime-inspired comics tend to be started by american teenagers who've watched either too much Dragonball-Z or... err, whatever the shoujo equivalent might be. They are thankfully fairly predictable in terms of quality, being based too much on imitation. If the first dozen pages or so are bad, it's a safe bet the rest will be the same. There are some striking exceptions to this rule, like Flipside or Falcon Twin, which manage to pick up on japanese comics' and animation's knack for quickly creating gut-wrenching scenes (sometimes literally, gentle-minded readers beware).

Gamer comics can be a much more interesting case. They tend to stem from excitement and flavor of the month games. The most frequent start is the one artistically minded member of a little college clique making a comic about playing the games the clique is currently playing. Other times it's a only an offshoot of twenty-somethings' general lifestyle and interests. It should be obvious that most often, there is nowhere for these to go. The initial batch of in-crowd jokes wears out and all that's left is recurring strained attempts to recapture the magic. One of the most popular comics on the web, penny-arcade, dove headlong down this path a long time ago. It is now a game review site with a largely meaningless token comic appended somewhere in the back. However, another of the most popular comics online, PvP, made a relatively successful shift over the years from Ultima Online in-jokes to geek humor to general social comedy and drama.

Another major category seems to be college-themed strips. They are predictably enough created by college students who start out with slapstick gags and anecdotes about dormitory life. Just as with games, the starting material is predictably limited, and the preferred route to escape cafeteria food jokes seems to be getting the cast involved in ... well, anything. The internet is filled with high-school and college students fighting aliens, devils and vampires or traveling to alternate dimensions for no apparent reason. Here i was going to give College Roomies from Hell as an example, but to my surprise, the author seems to intend to do a reboot of the comic. This is another standard practice when artists are unhappy with their early art or when they realize they've written themselves into a corner. CRFH is also one of my favorite examples of a comic's improvement over time, both visually and in terms of coherence, so i hope she'll be keeping the old archives up.

Furry comics tend to be a fairly consistent niche as well. I suspect it's because many cartoonists find anthropomorphized animals easier to draw than humans, avoiding their readers' keener criticism of human facial features. Ignoring the more licentious, there are quite a few decent ones out there. Many, i would not characterize as 'furry' in any case. The animal characters serve as vehicles for animal jokes and don't really stem from the same motivation that drives junior-high girls to put cat ears on their heads. Freefall is one of them, a consistently well-written, low-key piece of work that's been running steadily at its own pace seemingly in defiance of the rest of the world's trends for... good merciful Lucifer, a decade and a half now.

There is also a surprisingly large market  for 'slice of life' comics about nothing in particular. Even more surprisingly, some of them really are good, and some of my perennial favorites have been primarily human interest. For these, it tends to be all in the writing. The overall story is uninteresting, so the day-to-day or page-to-page content really has to either comedically 'snap' or tug at the heartstrings. Take Bruno, for instance, seemingly created by and for the self-doubting navel-gazer, or Nowhere Girl, a beautifully depressive piece of whining for those of us who tend to be alone in crowds, or the less inward-focused Queen of Wands and Something Positive.

Most of the good comics, however, fall somewhere between or marginal to these broad categories. The best authors are the ones who go into things with an actual idea, and creativity consistently defies categories by its nature. Many are just 'funnies' in the original sense, a gag to start your day off with a smile. Others are brooding, paranoid fantasies or flights of fancy on existing themes, or conscious attempts to create something complex in comic format. The example i'd like to give here is Unicorn Jelly, whose own author gives it the delightfully pompous description "a vast philosophical science fiction manga strip which tells a metaphoric and purposeful story with a definitive beginning and ending". Come on, you just can't get that in your sunday paper.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Alchemindboggling

I'm always impressed with the insight of the old 'classic' alchemical elements: earth, water, air and fire. They correspond so nicely to what we now call the phases of matter.
Solid earth.
Liquid water.
Gaseous air.
Plasma fire.

Science may be cumulative, but observation is always powerful. Damn Aristotle.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Censorship by inundation

Dawntide is dying. It lost its funding. It was, while in development, the latest greatest hope of online games. Its setting was mature, its artwork and map-making were sedate and subtle with a good sense of the need for contrast and variation in scale. Best of all, its gameplay was created in response to the much-needed changes which MMO players have been requesting for a decade. It allowed players to build their own cities and conquer them, it did not pigeonhole them into classes by basing character advancement on skill advancement and negated the levelling and item acquisition treadmill by relegating personal loot to the means to an end and not the end itself. It was not perfect but it was better. It was far better than products any of us are likely to find advertised anywhere, and it was only the latest in a long sequence of games which either died in embryonic stages or shortly after release because of the conflict between quality and mass appeal.

Most of these projects have followed the route of WoW: they advertise quality but shift towards mass-appeal as soon as they can. This is in some cases planned, as in WoW's case, in others a capitulation as with Darkfall, where the developers gutted their game of most of its features after a decade of trying just so they could release something. Sometimes it's a slow, painful decline, as with EVE which began some time ago to revolve around pushing players to buy multiple accounts. In most cases, though, the players i meet in WoW-clones like Warhammer Online, LOTRO or Rift have never heard of Darkfall. They have never heard of Ryzom, A Tale in the Desert, Dawntide, Faery Tale Online, The Repopulation, or even The Secret World (more shocking because everyone has heard of Age of Conan, developed by the same company).

This is not only a matter of obscurity. It is the corporate state's model of censorship, mass-appeal turned on itself, the deliberate confusion of popularity with quality. There was more than one aspect of censorship presented in Bradbury's oracular Fahrenheit 451. One was the burning of knowledge, bottom-up censorship, the rebellion of the masses against anything they do not understand. The other is exemplified by Montag trying to gather his thoughts on the train and being continuously interrupted by an advertisement on the loudspeaker for 'Denham's Dentifrice' until everyone on the train starts chanting along with the ad. This is top-down censorship, though it may not fit the traditional model of Gestapo raids and McCarthy era witch hunts. It's a corporate solution for a corporate state, combining profiteering with the elimination of rivals, all through the magic of advertising. It works because the human animal is pre-programmed to form socially advantageous alliances, to pick the winning side. It is embodied by the stereotypically American nonsense phrase 'you can't argue with success', raised to the level of morality and it extends not only to games, movies, books and other entertainment but to every aspect of life. Elections have become confused with horse-racing. The vast majority of consumers in American-style corporate states will not vote for minor parties because they have this vague notion that the purpose of the exercise is to guess the winner.

It should come as no surprise that the most heavily indoctrinated are, as Orwell predicted, the upper classes. It's not shocking that a game like Dawntide lacks mass appeal. It is intended as a niche product. The problem is that publishers, investors and the like are unwilling to invest in niche products. They are unwilling to make a smaller investment for a guaranteed profit and insist instead on competing with each other by copying each other because they themselves are terrified of new ground. We will never truly know whether Dawntide would have succeeded or not because it is driven out of the competition before the race even starts, because when presented with a new option, investors' answer is to drown it out by re-investing in the old one.

Denham's Dentifrice!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Grisaille, ailes grises and gray trees

Grayscale is often used to support a bleak atmosphere in virtually any visual medium. I am therefore, going out on a limb when i propose a couple of examples in modern media which seem to have been more specifically influenced by the grisaille painting style. Still, artists are, after all, drawing on a much wider knowledge of artistic examples. To them, style seems to be not so much a nebulous collection of ideas as it appears to me as a mere viewer but a series of influences, some stronger than others. It doesn't seem so farfetched that the following anime and game would have been created with a strong awareness of the possibility of adapting a painting style to modern media.

First up: Haibane Renmei (linked to the Anime News Network page and not the official site because i don't want to pretend i speak Japanese). I have to wonder if the use of the french subtitle 'une fille qui a des ailes grises' is not only an internal reference but also a little joke by Yoshitoshi ABe which would confirm my theory. Certainly the palette used through most of the series and the original comic is not strictly greyscale, but the lack of sharp contrasts, the feel that the story is only a gradation on a continuum of events in the mysterious, isolated little town, the subtlety and gradual transitions, the doggedly sedate pacing of the whole thing all seem too coincidental.

The second example is Diablo, a game dating from the times of yore when Blizzard Entertainment, despite dumbing down gameplay, had not completely abandoned the idea of quality. Here it really is the palette itself that makes me think one of the visual artists was reliving his art-school days. Granted, the limited technology of the time made complexity all but impossible, but most games, including Blizzard's own Warcraft series, took the opposite route, banking on humorously cartoonish, garishly colorful graphics. Diablo not only used bleak monochromes as backgrounds, but also a technologically unnecessary stillness, a lifeless, dusty, stifling atmosphere. Other 'goth' games of around the same time like Planescape:Torment with its bleak, despairing mausoleum, trash warrens and the like, still used moving backgrounds or critters scurrying about to create atmosphere.

Well, there you have it. Mock me for a tin-hat conspiracy theorist if you will, but i'll stick by my crazy notions until the artists themselves show up to tell me they weren't trying to adapt Bosch for the computer age.

I got sick of holding back

I was digging through a text file with a couple of posts i had made on a game forum some time ago, while trying to write a much longer post on the subject of improving MMOs. I ran across something i had forgotten.

Many times i hold back. I try to be polite. I try to be considerate. I try to keep in mind that not everyone who hasn't reached my conclusions yet is incapable of doing so, and i shouldn't simply bash them. I should try to reason with others in the hope that i hit the one in a million reasonable ape. Sometimes, i fail to do so. These are a couple of examples, the first from a forum post from three or four years ago (prompted by some guild wars 2 promotional videos and their simplistic visuals), the second from an e-mail written about a year ago.

No, see that's the point. My judgment is based on an observation: they're gearing the game's atmosphere towards idiots. Based on that, it's logical that they're also catering to idiots in other aspects, like the actual gameplay.

They're going for mass appeal. The masses are primitive, stupid, moronic, dumb, idiotic, dimwitted, imbecilic, cretinous, drooling animals unfit to share a planet with me, and that's saying something since i'm much too primitive myself. And please, please, don't even try to paint me as the aggressor here. This is the internet, the grand escapist fantasy. This is where i should be able to get away from summer blockbusters, romance novels, sports stars, reality tv and all the other lowest-common-denominator fabrications of consumerism. There should be at least some products here aimed at the tiny niche market of people i can actually talk to.

If anyone feels insulted by automatically placing himself in the general group i'm insulting, then by all means, advance. Look for something more than an endorphin fix in your pastimes, something more than making yourself feel good. Look for, i don't know... complexity, novelty, subtlety, cleverness?

Anyway, that's the last i have to say here. The most infuriating part is that i'll likely end up buying the game anyway, faute de mieux.

And the e-mail snippet.
 None of this can be included in WoW-clones like LOTRO and Rift, which reward you solely for repetition. They're just banking on operant conditioning, the reinforcement of that stimulus with what seems like a reward. They're using the same principle as slot machines. Pull that lever enough times, kill enough of the same little mobs, and you get rewarded with a jackpot, purple loot, bragging rights, the illusion of social status, the ultimate currency of social animals. Making that social status an actual requirement, making cooperation meaningful, would include the possibility of failure, and that would scare normals away. In the same way, mass-market products do not require players to have any qualities like intelligence, creativity, good reaction time, multi-tasking, attention to detail, foresight or strategic thinking because they're afraid to scare their customers away. WoW-clones are bad products because they are aimed at normal human beings and normal human beings are idiots, morons, cretins, imbeciles, retards, dumbasses, stupid little wastes of air, and yes, i am better than them, and so are you and a bare handful of people i've ever met and you should be looking for a better type of product. You should be looking for the undiluted concept, the matrix, the engrossing world-unto-itself escape from reality that's promised by the internet.

The thrill of a real MMO is the scope of the game world itself, not the pathetic little endorphin boost of being told you're a hero at every step of the way. How many flaming ring icons did you churn through in LOTRO? They are nothing because they have no further effect on the game world. In a real virtual world, killing something, taking something deprives another player of it or gives you something he can no longer have. You band together in guilds because it gives you an advantage, and communication is necessary at every step of the way. Your actions have to be relevant, within the context of that world, and you have to be able to accept that you will not always come out on top, that the purpose of a virtual world is not to constantly boost your ego with "congratulations, mission completed, you saved the world !", but to grow with you, around you, because of you or by trampling you, it doesn't matter.  Your success or failure, your glory or ignominy is just part of the story. Ever seen Fight Club? First you have to know, not fear, know that someday you will die. It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything, and in a virtual world you must be able to lose everything.

We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.
Interestingly enough, these little howls at the moon are also the most direct expressions of my criticism of virtual worlds' failure. Maybe i really shouldn't hold back.