Who Likes Short Shorts?

I think I love almost everything about this short film. That being the case, I’ll quit my chin wagging and just get on with showing it:

Mucho kudos to Dan Trachtenburg, Danielle Rayne, and everyone else envolved. No get back to it. I want more!

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There Can be Only… Several…

As I’ve previously mentioned, this project (Clockwork Aphid) has been bubbling away in the  bearded cauldron that is my head for quite some time. As a result, I have quite a bit I want to say about it. I want to blog about the process of building it because I think it might be a good exercise to go through, and also because I think it might help me work the whole thing out. I’m going to talk more about what it actually is quite soon, partly because I want to start talking about implementation and partly because I’ve been prompted by someone else’s project which I suspect might be quite similar. More about that later.

What to do when something like that happens? I think there are two reactions you can to a situation like that: you can feel threatened; or you can feel vindicated. Clearly the second is the more healthy approach, so I’ll go with that one. This is probably for the best, since there are other parties who seem to be coming at the same problem as I am. I mentioned at the end of my post about World of Warcraft that I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the static nature of its world, nor the only one attempting a solution of sorts. Specifically, I was talking about ArenaNet’s upcoming Guild Wars 2. They’ll probably explain it a little better than me, so I’ll let them:

The video was supposed to be embedded here, but WordPress doesn’t seem to want to let me. You can find it here.

Now… clearly they have more resources than I do, which could potentially make me feel a little bit like I was staring up at a shear rock face. A rock face covered in bees. Happily, though, they’re going about it in a different way, though some of our goals are the same. Guess that means I’ll just have to come up with some pretty creative solutions, huh?

It should be noted that what they’ve essentially done is polarise the world. Parts of it are shared, and these are the parts with the villages you can actually save (or fail to save), while other parts of it are instanced, which means you have your own copy. So if I kill the dragon in one of these parts, it stays dead… but only in my copy of the world. The dragon in your copy is still alive and kicking until you personally cut its head off / stab it up the bum / jam some opal fruits down its throat. They talk more about the shared, dynamic parts of the world in their blog here and here, and the instanced personal stories here. I encourage you to read just about all of that blog, in fact. I found much of it fascinating and quite insightful.

While, I’m talking about Guild Wars 2, though it is worth taking a moment to marvel over just how stunning those visuals are. The comparison I find myself making is that World of Warcraft looks like it was made out of clay:

While Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, looks as though it was made out of china:

Now before you cry foul and point out that GW2 is a much newer game, it’s worth taking into account that this china like quality was also true of the original Guild Wars:

Obviously some of this has to do with the different graphics engines being used, but I think that actual quality of the design is definitely a factor as well. It’s evident in the 2D promotional art, as well.

I’m also quite taken with the difference in the mythology of the two games, but perhaps I’ll talk about that later. Mythology will be quite a relevant subject, later.

WoW oh WoW

Sooner or later, most people go looking for a bit of escapism every once in a while. There’s definitely a spectrum of how far people like to escape. Some can’t stand anything which steps outside the bounds of the possible, others practically require spaceships and dragons to co-exist with emotionally retarded vampires. Likewise, some people look to books for their diversions, some theatre, radio, television or cinema. Some people play computer games or one sort of another. No one is saying that everyone, or indeed anyone, has make a specific and binding choice, though. You can watch a movie about the emotion and theological struggle of gay monks one evening, read a couple of chapters of a book about an adolescent wizard immediately before bed, and take on the role of a greek god laying waste to, well… everything the next day.

The point of this project (Clockwork Aphid), when you get right down to it, has to do with my own frustrations with a certain kind of computer game. Specifically: the ones I’m going to lump together under the moniker “virtual worlds”. There are a lot of them out there, and I can’t claim to have tried them all, but I have had a play with a couple of the major ones and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Where to start, though? I’ve gone backwards and forwards about this quite a bit and come to the conclusion that I should probably start at the top. The top in this case being the brute, the sprawling 500 lb gorilla that actually accounts for almost 10% of the revenues of the US gaming industry: World of Warcraft, or WoW, to give it its not exactly modest acronym. What we’re talking about here is not just a virtual world, but a massively multi-player online role playing game, or MMORPG. Let’s examine the meaning of this working backwards through the words:

Game – this is something you play, for fun.

Role playing – it contains some component of playing a role different to that of your everyday life. All games do this to a greater or lesser extent, but the difference here is that your character’s own personality and skills have more relevance to the gameplay than your own.

Online – the game is played over the Internet.

Multi-player – the game is played simultaneously by multiple people.

Massively – the “multiple people” playing the game can number in the thousands.

WoW is set in an essentially Tolkenesque fantasy world populated by humans, dwarfs and elves, acting more or less as you’d expect them to had you read or seen the Lord of the Rings. There are other races: Orcs, trolls, undead, gnomes, undead, who are a little more stylised. There’s quite a bit of steam punk and tribal culture in places. That’s not the point though. The point, as in any game, is the question “what does the user do?” and the answer in this case is:

The user takes on the role of one of a member of one of these races, with a particular profession and proceeds to battle their way through the world, fighting hostile elements and performing quests in order to gain “experience” and improve their character. They can also join forces with other players to take on quests; in fact this is practically required in some cases.

I’ve spent a bit of time playing WoW and frankly it can be a lot of fun. The world is HUGE and exploring it can be very enjoyable. There’s also a genuine sense of achievement to be gained from “levelling up” your character. Most of the time. Which brings me to the first frustration: the grind. A lot of the time you just find yourself killing monster, after monster, after monster. This is partly because a large number of the quests (which are handed out by non-player characters, or NPCs, with large yellow exclamation points above their heads) sound like this:

“Oh no! <insert description of peril>! Please help us!

Kill <insert number> of <insert name of monster responsible for this peril>”

Or even worse and with a more concrete example:

“Please bring me 10 giant spider legs.”

The problem here being that against all conventional logic, you might only get a giant spider leg for every third giant spider you kill. As you may have gathered, they don’t call it the grind because it’s fun.

The next frustration is that you don’t actually affect the world. You do the townsfolk a good turn by depleting the number of bandits besieging the town, but this changes nothing. Other players come along and do the exact same quest time after time after, because the bandits simply reappear a couple of minutes after you take them down. So, when you do the quest to take out the leader of the bandits, you arrive to find that a queue has formed. The first person kills him, the others wait for him to reappear and do the same. It sort of breaks the illusion of the game. More annoying still: you’ve been waiting patiently for your turn, but some git comes running in and kills him first. Most annoyingly, to my mind is… Well… Let me give you an anecdotal example:

I was playing as a rogue, which is a nice way of saying thief/assassin, and had been given a quest to recover a particular object from a beach. Needless to say, the beach turned out to be crawling with monsters. So I set about luring them away one by one, depleting their numbers so I could get my trophy without getting my ass handed to me (rogues can give it out, but they cannot take it). The problem being, that by the time I get the to point where I can start thinking about claiming the prize, the monsters I killed first have already started to resappear!

Here’s the problem: this is not how the game wanted me to go about this task. It wanted me to find a group of other players and storm the beachhead, quickly despatching the monsters and grabbing the prize. I was playing as a damn rouge, though! That is not how an assassin does business! In the end I got lucky. A warrior stormed the beach as I was creeping up, and I snaffled the loot while the monsters were distracted. Amoral? I believe I did point out that I was playing as a rogue.

In a regular, non MMO, RPG, everything you kill stays dead for the most part. In this case the world doesn’t have to be persistent (as in unchanging) because you’re the only one playing it and it doesn’t matter if no one else can do the quests. In an MMO, almost everyone needs to be able to do the quests, so the world generally performs a decent impression of Kirsten Dunst’s hair in Interview with a Vampire. It is a workable solution to the problem, but it can make you feel as though you and your actions don’t really matter, which isn’t ideal given that you’re supposed to be a hero.

I’m not the first person to have these sort of complaints, or to contemplate solutions, but that’s a story for another day.

Street Fighter Tutu

So I like computer games. This isn’t news, really. Not in a hardcore live-to-game type way, more in a general fondness type way. That said, I did, as a youngster in an age before mobile phones, catch a bus to the next town so I could play a particular arcade game in what was (on reflection) a seriously dodgy little shop. That game was Street Fighter 2. It was a pretty great game, and it pretty much changed everything as far as the gaming industry was concerned. It spawned a bunch of sort of sequels which were mostly very popular, a couple of prequels, which were also very popular, and an actual sequel… which ditched most of the characters people loved and wasn’t as popular.

Coming out a couple of months is Street Fighter 4, a sequel to Street Fighter 2, but a prequel to Street Fighter 3. More about that later, but to complicate things further, there’s also a new version of Street Fighter 2, Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, or as I’d like to call it: “Street Fighter 2: Really Fricking Pretty Edition”. What it is is a revamped edition of the “original” Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo with redrawn graphics, new music and rebalanced game-play (all the characters are about equal now). So now (refering to the images below), instead of looking like the image on the left, the character Ken now looks like the image on the right.

Pretty cool, huh? What’s really weird, though, is that they didn’t change any of the game mechanics, so it still plays like it always did, thus:

Which is a little jarring, but apparently necessary. Why? Because there are still large touraments with this game and some people actually count the frames in order to get their combos right. Weird.

But what of Street Fighter 4? Well it’s still the same style of 2D fighting game, but it uses what I think is the most beautiful graphics engine I’ve ever seen:

This gives it a gorgeous cell shaded / traditional Japanese art type look which I really like. Also, even though the game-play is 2D, the engine is 3D; meaning it’s not limited to pre-programmed graphics, and so Ryu can actually react to the fact that he’s probably about to get dropped on his head, in real time. What’s more, when you pull off a more spectacular move, the game can get a bit more cinematic on your ass:

Credit where credit’s due: I stole all the images from wikipedia and Games Radar. Click any of them to jump to the relevant article.

Flip side

Two updates in one day shocker!

The last one was a little downcast, though, and I felt a need to pass on something awesome by way of balance. Here it is:

Perhaps you’re thinking “Huh? Who’s this guy?” or “What’s with the cake?”. You’ve been missing out if that’s the case. Jonathan Coulton (for that is the man’s name) is a computer programmer turned unlikely rock star (You scoff? He has a song in Rock Band. I’m having trouble thinking of a better benchmark), who’s become something of a geek standard thanks to the somewhat unlikely nature of his subject matter (one song has Pluto’s moon singing its condolences regarding its loss of planet status).

The song itself is the song over the closing credits of the game Portal, which is, quite frankly, an absolute fucking work of art. You probably know that I’m several different flavours of nerd and so JC’s* stuff appeals to me on a fairly base level , but I’m not a hardcore gamer. I have above average social skills, leave the house regularly and I prefer making love to playing computer games. There. I said it, and with a completely straight face. But that game is complete genius, through and through. I think Valve do amazing work in everything they do, and the fact they got JC* to write the song for the closing credits of one of their games makes me grin from ear to ear.

Check out some more of his stuff, it might make you smile. If you do and it does, leave a comment telling me about it, because that would make me smile**.

Update: His website is here http://www.jonathancoulton.com/ And you can buy (and download for free) all his music there.

That is all.

* No, not that JC

** At the risk of me smiling so widely that the top of my head falls off.