Posts Tagged ‘gaming’

Where does the weekend go?

Feb 15th, 2009

The third part of the ‘On art and Games’ series won’t be appearing this week, but instead will be up once its done. That’s not to say I’ve been ignoring it, but these things can take a while to put together, and I don’t want to fling the whole thing together in a rush. I’ve also reconsidered the idea of it being a fixed series, as its a far larger topic than I had first suspected. Instead, I expect the series will be interleaved in with other posts, and each article will be more or less self contained.

Ch…Ch…Ch…Changes

So this leaves a bit of a stream of conciousness affair here instead. If anyone actually is reading this blog regularly, you’ll have noticed the ‘this weeks tweets’ post which appeared this Wednesday. As you may have gathered, this is an automated weekly affair and ties in with my use of Twitter. You might also have noticed the ‘lifestream’ tab, a page which summarises my activity across the web, perfect for all you stalker types.

Time and Tide

The title of this blog post refers to the weekend’s tendency to disappear. I had intended to get some food shopping done, but suddenly it was six and I hadn’t got to the supermarket. I was in the lab though, before ayone thinks I was in bed. Odly enough this is probably actually a good thing, as I had forgotten than I was heading home later this week for my Mum’s birthday. I had planned a whole week of food.

The Great Train Ticket Gamble1

Oddly, talking of going home I had a great time playing the ‘find the cheapest train ticket’ game. It turns out that the answer was Megatrain from Edinburgh to Birmingham, and then a standard return from Birmingham to Kemble. I could have actually done it cheaper with an offpeak return, but that would have left 15 minutes to change trains in Birmingham, which is a bit tight if one of my connections suffers a delay. I’m still slightly confused at what happened to one of the tickets offered to me between Birmingham and Kemble, as it seemed to change price. This isn’t unusual for ‘advanced’ tickets, but only standard tickets were availible at that point.

And Now for Something Completely Different

This was originally going to go in On Art anf Games [Part3] but never really fitted. So I’ll stick it here instead, where is still doesn’t fit but at least its surroundings are similarly muddled.

Genre?
I have always felt the term genre is mis-applied when used to describe computer games. In other media, genre describes the theme and style of a piece, whereas when applied to games it is more often used to describe the mechanism. In rare cases, particularly with some more arty indie games concerned with dissecting gaming mechanics, this may be appropriate, but in most cases it isn’t. I think part of the problem is that game-play mechanics are often far more central to games than any vague themes the game may explore; in many games it would be ridiculous to even attempt to identify any ‘themes,’ particularly in the early days when these terms were coined. However, it would be ridiculous to describe a film genre as ‘animated’ or ‘black and white,’ it is still more difficult to even identify an equivalent concept for literature, prose and poetry perhaps. While overarching game-play mechanics are important in defining the tone of a game, and are likely to be one of the primary influences in terms of appeal, I feel the term genre has been misapplied.

And now, finally to football is over, sao I can start watching Being Human.

  1. I almost went for the great train robbery, but the price was fairly reasonable in the end []

On art and games [Part 2]

Feb 8th, 2009

Feeling slightly worse for wear this weekend, so hopefully part 2 will not be affected too much.

Early Home Computers

As the home computing revolution began in the 80’s, systems were getting into peoples homes through two different routes. While Atari, and later Nintendo and Sega were making the first games consoles, the likes of Sinclair and Commodore were producing some of the first home computers. (The IBM PC remained out of the price range of many home users. Atari was also involved in the home computer market, along with other competitors that I haven’t discussed here.)

While the graphics of these early 8-bit systems were poor compared to modern standards, they were flexible enough to give developers real control over their game’s appearance. While some systems, such as the Sinclair Spectrum had very limited colour pallets, other systems could use a larger selection of colours, although would often be restricted to a subset, such as the twenty-five colours per scan-line limitation of the NES.

Two Mario sprites

Notice how the four colour limitation of the NES sprites is dealt with. Mario's shirt is brown, rather than the later blue, and once powered up his moustache is red.

A restricted colour-palette and often large pixels, meant that cartoon style graphics were particularly common. This was reflected in games with child-friendly mascots such as Sonic and Mario. On the Spectrum, the colour restrictions were particularly strict, not only using a fixed 16 colour palette, but also drawing the screen in blocks of 8×8 pixels, each capable of containing only two colours. If two sprites of different colours overlapped each other, this would lead to a phenomenon known as attribute clash. While many games largely ignored this, others helped to work around it, either through the use of large bulky sprites, or by maintaining monochrome environments in areas where attribute crash would otherwise occur. The linked Wikipedia article goes into some more details on this restriction.

A screenshot from the C64 game, Creatures.

A screenshot from the C64 game, Creatures.

While the cartoon style of many early games also coincided with a suitability for children, other games were using the same visual style in a darker manner. While the C64 game Creatures had a cutesy visual style, which conflicted with violent torture scenes contained therein. The juxtaposition of cute graphics, with disturbing visuals was important in building the humour of the game. The sequel played off the effectiveness of this approach, and increased the role the torture scenes played in the game.

A Touch of Realism…

Other games took movements toward being more realistic. Jordan Mechner‘s Prince of Persia games used Rotoscoping to produce realistic character animations. On many systems the game used a subdued colour palette, making use of pastel shades, rather than bright primary colours. A similar feel was subsequently used in the games Flashback and Another World (Out of this World in the US), both of which relied on fluid and realistic movements. While Flashback used hand painted backgrounds in pastel shades, Another World made heavy use of browns, blues and greys, with subdued touches of other colours. The backgrounds were produced with vector images, which were reminiscent of the early 3D graphics and also replicated the same style seen in the character. This had the effect of creating scenes which felt simultaneously alien and realistic.

Prince of Persia also provides illustration of the way in which graphics may be used to break up empty space, and to offer feelings of progression. Early development versions of the game had large regions of empty space. Mechner broke these up, first through the addition of torches and wall textures, and later through filling otherwise large empty regions with blocks. The latter especially helps make the dungeon feel more confining. Mechner also realised that a change in graphical style helped break monotony, and gave the game a feeling of progression. The contrast between the upper levels of the palace, and the lower dungeons, also serves to better establish a sense of place and to better amplify the wealth of the latter environment. This technique, of using changes in graphics to add variety to a game is extraordinarily common, and many graphical themes have since become cliched, the terms ‘fire world’ and ‘ice world’ being shorthand for a lack of imagination. To work efficiently, this technique has to be accompanied by gameplay progression, otherwise it can feel like a cheap way of introducing variety.

Abstract Ideas

While some games were making strives toward realism, others were using more abstract approaches. Abstraction allows game developers to work with the limitations of the graphical system, rather than attempting to produce effects that it is incapable of. It is also a necessity of games which largely operate outside of real world concepts. The games Tetris and Klax for example, have no real bearing on the real world, save for their use of the concepts of colour and gravity. However other games used abstract presentation for more standard concepts.

Perhaps the king of the abstract is long term indie developer Jeff Minter. Minter has adopted a style reminiscent of psychedelia, which runs the gauntlet from the strange surrealist, and yet still representational graphics of Attack of the Mutant Camels through to the much more abstract Gridrunner. Many of Minter’s early games drew heavy gameplay inspiration from popular shooters of the time, with Gridrunner being inspired by Centipede. However Minter made use of surrealist and psychedelic imagery, as well a large numbers of ungulates (Cows conspicuous in their absence). As graphic technology increased, Minter made use of it to increase the number of visual effects, throwing more psychedelic imagery at the screen. This culminated in the recent Space Giraffe, in which the graphics act specifically to obscure the action on screen, forcing the player to use auditory clues. Other titles, such as Geometry Wars, use bright neon graphics, and sensory overload in a war which is reminiscent of Minter’s graphical style, while also using graphics which deliberately take on a retro feel, a technique which I will discuss in more detail in later parts.

And so ends part 2

Firstly I apologise about the lack of screenshots to illustrate some of my points. I’m trying to avoid nabbing them from sources which don’t specifically allow it, which is surprisingly difficult. I hope to be able to present animation frames from Prince of Persia especially, although you can seem images on Mechner’s website, which has been linked at several points. I’ll also look to providing a few examples of Minter’s work.

I tried to take a few jumps forward in time with this part, as a strictly cronological treatment is not what I intended. This allowed me to escape for the purely technical considerations that will otherwise shape the consideration of many early graphics.

In the next part I’ll mainly be using the 16-bit era as a jumping ground, but hope that the discussion will embrace contemporary two dimensional games.

On art and games [Part 1]

Feb 2nd, 2009

This is not another tedious discussion on whether games are ‘art‘ or not. Such debates rarely tell us anything new, and instead usually end up hinging on arguments on semantics, and nebulous concepts of worth. Instead I hope to briefly consider the way in which games leverage art, that is in terms of graphics, to both present themselves, and to shape the content delivered.

I am not an artist; nor have I had training in the experience of literary analysis and criticism. While I can tell a Monet from a Dalí, I could tell you little about the history of either, or how they influenced or were influenced by the art, social and political systems contemporary to them. I have however played many different computer games over the years, and have seen their development from blocky 16 colour pixels to HDR lighting, 32bit colour and countless thousands of polygons. This technical development has shaped, and been shaped by, the graphical requirements of games.

The Early Days…

Spacewar running on PDP-1
Spacewar running on PDP-1. Photo courtesy of Joi, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

When considering the earliest computer games, technical constraints were a major restriction on what could be accomplished. One of the earliest computer games, Spacewar!, for example was limited to very simple monochrome graphics, whereas the earlier Tennis for Two made use of an oscilloscope. In these cases graphics were mainly functional, although Spacewar! did make use of a background star-field to add a bit of flavour. However, in terms of effecting player emotion, or even just representing a mechanic of any real complexity, the displays were somewhat limited.

Where graphics wont do…

Controlling IF
An oft repeated problem with interactive fiction is that it is difficult to control, and that the parser often complains that it is unable to understand you, leading to ‘guess the verb’ situations. While this is true at first, and often remains so for the earlier games, the situation becomes less problematic as you become familiar with the genre. Not only will you pick up the truncated and specifically structure form of language required, but will also realise the shortcuts that may be used to cut down on typing.

At this point it would be a good opportunity to make a diversion into a discussion of interactive fiction. While Hunt the Wumpus, used text to present a fairly simple mechanic, move or shoot, it was in Adventure that Will Crowther, and the later additions of Don Woods, showed how text could be used to deliver a feeling of place that wasn’t possible with graphics, given the technical limitations of the time. By describing the cavern, Crowther and Woods managed to deliver details which would have been impossible to render in the crude graphics of the period. (The Crowther-Woods version was released in 1976, predating the NES, the ZX80 and even the Atari 2600) The parser, albeit crude, also allowed for a level of interaction which was difficult to reproduce through purely graphical implementations, and subsequent improvements mean that modern interactive fiction titles can still offer the player an impressive level of control over the world.

Orange River Chamber

You are in a splendid chamber thirty feet high. The walls are frozen rivers of
orange stone. An awkward canyon and a good passage exit from east and west
sides of the chamber.

A cheerful little bird is sitting here singing.

A screenshot showing the opening room in Melbourne House's The Hobbit, as running on the ZX Spectrum.

A screenshot showing the opening room in Melbourne House's The Hobbit, as running on the ZX Spectrum.

Following Adventure, companies such as Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls took the genre further, using text to deliver narrative as well as description, and managed to extend the medium beyond the traditional cave crawl. While some companies began stretching what could be done with narrative, others began to make use of the available technology for supplementing the text with graphics. Titles such as The Hobbit and The Very Big Cave Adventure, used rudimentary graphics to supplement the room descriptions. While in some cases these images were used for simple illustration, in others they were used to provide additional information to the player. While the limited graphics capability still meant that art direction was still a somewhat meaningless concept, changes in palette, and the occasional use of a restricted field of drawing helped provide a different atmosphere for distinct regions of the game.
Slowly, a subset of IF titles began to use graphics as a direct replacement to the text delivery system. As they did so, they also showed a similar move away from a parser based control system to more graphical systems. Some early Sierra titles provided almost all player feedback in the form of animated graphics, yet still relied on typed communication in return. Other developers, such as Lucas Arts, meanwhile began to narrow down the larger verb list inherited from its interactive fiction forefathers. While early versions of Monkey Island for example had a list of twelve verbs, this was narrowed down to nine in later releases, both a reduction on the fifteen verbs in Lucas Arts first SCUMM adventure, Maniac Mansion. Later, graphic adventures tended to abandon the verb system altogether, first using pictorial representations, and then adopting context sensitive systems. Thus the graphic adventure moved away from the influences of its text based roots. Later systems tended to increase the screen real estate available for depicting the game-play, and removed what some developers felt was unnecessary redundancy in the verb system, that is, if a player clicks on a closed door, it should be blindingly obvious that they wish to open it.
While the graphic adventure market flourished, traditional IF slowly lost its commercial presence, although remains popular in a large community of enthusiasts. Graphics are still a rare addition in most modern interactive fiction, usually being confined to representing maps or jigsaw pieces. However, some games use graphics to flavour the interface, bringing the otherwise bland parser in to the game environment, as well as providing interface shortcuts. Other titles, such as Photopia, have taken a far more minimalist approach, using changes in the palette colours on chapter transitions in such a way as to tie in with thematic tones of a chapter.

That which follows…

So far I have introduced the beginning of the computer games industry, and looked at the way in which the most early of graphics were tightly constrained by technical limitations; it is very difficult to deliver emotion through an oscilloscope. In this situation, presentation was often confined by practical considerations, although the simulation of star-fields in Spacewar! shows that even some of the earliest gaming graphics weren’t solely practical.
Then I went on to consider how some games used text to create detailed and immersive environments, which were out of the reach of graphics of the time. Then, the slow addition of graphical elements to these games, eventually lead to the evolution of the graphic adventure, which itself had been shaped by the conventions of its text only predecessor.

I had hoped to take us further in this initial post, yet Sunday is almost over, and new years resolutions must be kept. Next post I hope to move on to the home-computing revolution, and consider how the 8-bit and 16-bit eras began to offer developers the freedom to use graphics in increasingly creative manners to shape the feel of their games.

Lifetime achievement

Jan 17th, 2009

Anyone who has played a game on the Xbox 360, or has looked at a growing number of PC Games, will be familiar with the concept of achievements. Achievements are a way of meta-gaming, giving the player a reward outside of the game, for completing various in game tasks. These tasks can vary from simply completing the tutorial, through killing a certain number of enemies, to something as bizarre as carrying a garden gnome through the whole game so as it may be launched into orbit at the end.
Life doesn’t have achievements; there are no amusingly named awards which pop up at the lower edge of your vision whenever you complete a particularly important life event. Unless you were a member of the Scouts or similar, you won’t have a little collection of icons representing the various things you have accomplished. This, I think, is one of the reasons why computer games will eventually win out over life, and we will all sit in large virtual reality booths getting achievements to our hearts content. Or something.
But before this great revolution can occur, I present the proposed list of achievements which will be available in Life 2.0. Note that it will be impossible to get all achievements in one lifetime; this is to encourage replay ability, something currently unavailable outside certain religious groups.

Achievements

Achieved _

Natal AttractionNatal Attraction

Have at least three people attend your birth.

one-small-stepOne Small Step

Take your first steps unaided.

vocal-minorityVocal Minor-ity

Gain a vocabulary of at least 50 words.

just-another-brickJust Another Brick

Spend at least 6000 hours at school.

What Did I Come In Here For Again?What Did I Come In Here For Again?

Walk into a room, forget what you went in there for and leave again.

facial-ingognitionFacial Incognition

Have a five minute conversation with someone without them realising that you don’t recognise them.

Jack BauerJack Bauer

Remain awake for 24 consecutive hours

Sisyphean CrockerySisyphean Crockery

Maintain a pile of dirty crockery for three weeks, despite regularly washing up.

Unattained _

we-dont-need-no-educationWe Don’t Need No Education

Leave the schooling system before obtaining any major qualifications.

Self Replicating SystemSelf Replicating System

Carry a pregnancy to term.

Mother HubbardMother Hubbard

Give birth to a new religion.

Will Of The PeopleWill Of The People

Be elected to rule a country with a minimum population of 10,000 people.

The Great DictatorThe Great Dictator

Seize control of a country without winning a democratic election.

Tie The KnotTie The Knot

Get married or enter into a civil partnership.

SlipknotSlipknot

End a marriage or civil partnership.

GlobetrotterGlobetrotter

Circumnavigate the word.

It's Alfred Nobel, HonestNobel Pursuits

Win a Nobel prize.

Novel IdeasNovel Ideas

Have a piece of fiction published.

ProcrastcreateProcrastcreate

Have a child conceived when you should be working to meet an urgent deadline.

Class ClownClass Clown

Prompt more than 20 people to laugh concurrently.

fashionDedicated Follower Of Fashion

Have a wardrobe worth more than 30% the combined annual salary of your household.

Phone HomePhone Home

Communicate with a person on Earth while on the surface of another moon or planet.

Race RelationsRace Relations

Live at least once under four different racial classifications.

Midlife RerollMidlife Re-Roll

Undergo gender re-assignment.

Lifetime AchievementLifetime Achievement Award

Live a complete life from start to finish.

Smash LandingSmash Landing

Land a commercial airliner, with no casualties, after total engine failure.

Phew, that took far longer than it should have done and I don’t even get an achievement.

Homophobic censorship?

Dec 9th, 2008

Recently it was discovered that the word censor list for the computer game Pure was included in the game install in plain text format. Predictably this has resulted in many people trying to string together the most obscene sentences which will be able to bypass the filter. However for me the list raised another question. Among the filtered words were:

bisexual
bisexuality
bisexuals
bi-sexual
bi-sexuals

gay
gays

homo
homos
homosexual
homosexuality
homosexuals

lesbian
lesbians
lesbo
lesbos

Along with several pejorative terms for describing non-straight people (except poof for some odd reason). What the list didn’t block is straight, heterosexual or any of its variants. This provides gay and bisexual people with little ability to discuss their sexuality, while placing no such restriction on straight folk.
This just continues to reinforce the idea that gay and bisexual people are an ‘other,’ and that there is something dirty or morally corrupt about their sexuality. If the list itself can’t be described as homophobic, it in the very least reveals the deeply rooted homophobia in our society.
Before someone raises the issue, I am well aware that gay and ‘homo’ are used as insults in the same was heterosexual isn’t. However the developer’s approach here is highly unsatisfactory, and I think creates a situation which is worse than the situation they were trying to prevent. By blocking the words, they merely end up re-enforcing the attitude that led to them being considered offensive in the first place.
I feel the developers (or more accurately the publishers, as there is an indication that the list was supplied by Disney) should have either allowed all non-pejorative terms to describe sexuality, or none of them.
If anyone is interested, the banned word lists can be found here.

This post was originally a message on the snopes messageboard.

CORRECTION: The post intended to refer to the game Pure, rather than P.U.R.E, as was mistakenly written in the initial post. I apologise to the creators of P.U.R.E for this mistake.