Archive for category videogames

Game review: Alan Wake

Replaying Alan Wake from the beginning so I can write about it. I only just started it over the weekend, but I had a headful of things to say about it. Yeah, I’m gonna kind of dump on it and nit-pick it.

On my first playthrough, I had the language set to Francais, so I was primarily reacting to the visuals (because I could not understand everything that was narrated or spoken). I gave the writing a lot of benefit of the doubt, but now I’m playing in English, and I was sort of taken aback by how reliant on redundancy it was. “Suddenly, the body was gone!” or whatever he says, after the body suddenly disappears, which we just saw happen. This is basic stuff. If this were the work handed in by one of my students* I would draw a big red line through it and make him write 25 different lines that are better than that. And he’d thank me for it.

The main problem of the opening cutscene (I have the game paused now just at the point when controller-enabled play begins) is that it is a cutscene. Let me explain. I have to make this same complaint every year that I judge the IF Competition games: A lot of the material in your intro tells us about a bunch of stuff happening, instead of letting us get to play it. Start the game earlier and let us play the intro. For Alan Wake, player-controlled play should begin right after the opening title, as soon as he describes having a dream where he’s driving at night. The players should be driving the car, even as the narration continues to play. Then when Alan Wake suddenly hits a guy who pops up in the middle of the road — BANG! It’s a scare for us, because we’re driving, and we just hit that guy! Then we could get out of the car, inspect the guy, hear more narration, react to the headlights in the car going out, react to not seeing the body there any more…

I mean, the only reason to make us watch that instead of getting to play that — like it never even occurred to the people making the game to make it interactive, it was always supposed to be this movie — is that they want to play at being filmmakers. So they do these swooping helicopter shots that I guess are supposed to be like the beginning of The Shining or something, and this particularly bugs me when it goes past the point where I said the game should start — that as far as the storytelling goes, Alan Wake is now telling us his dream as he recalls it. Why is he recalling swooping aerial view shots of his car instead of a first-or-second person viewpoint?

If you want to make movies, go and make movies. If you want to make videogames, make videogames.

At the checkpoint where I stopped last time. Alan and his girlfriend, whose name escapes me, because it hasn’t been properly taught to me I suppose, have just arrived at a remote cabin. She is apparently afraid of the dark — “She has a phobia, a fear of darkness…” as Alan tells us — which seems like a strange place to take someone like that. It also is reminding me of that Lars von Trier movie with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, come to think of it.

There is some nice character animation done on the girlfriend’s face, but the effect still comes across of either puppets or blind actors. That second one is an uncanny valley effect, but the eyes of all these digital actors are greatly harming their impression of lifelikeness.

In an earlier draft of this, I was going to talk about how I could tell them exactly what is wrong with the eye positions, and how to set them correctly so that even if they don’t move they look more convincingly alive and alert more of the time on average. Then I realized, this could be a great specialized thing to say that one does, and to charge lots of money for doing it for about a year, until everyone catches on how to do it and stops hiring a special expensive guy who does it. Then I realized, hey, I can’t even prove I actually do know how to do this, I’m just extrapolating from what I know I can do to assume that this is the sort of thing I’d be able to do. How embarrassing it’d be to find out that I actually couldn’t do it, I just thought I could.

Anyway, back to Alan Wake. It’s not bad. I’m having a harder time this go-round thinking of things to really be critical about how they’re being done. I need to look back at my notes, which I left in my jacket, which is hanging in the closet. But if I go to get my jacket and put it on, I will start the habit-mechanism that will propel me out of the house to go get a cup of coffee, because that’s always what I do immediately after I put on the jacket. So before I read my notes, I have to ask myself: Well, do you? DO you want another cup of coffee right now?

—-One cup of coffee later… —-

When I left off the first time, I let Alan Wake just stand there outside his little cabin, so that I could watch his idle animation cycle. And it does, it cycles, but people put thought and effort into these things. It’s one of those things I like to do in a game, just to see what they did — not input any commands for a minute, and watch the character shift their weight and glance around. It doesn’t seem to have any randomized or weighted choice variety to it, it’s just a cycle of different things, about 15 seconds long or something. Here, all the casual-yet-concerned body language acting the mocap people did is once again undercut to a degree by the frozen eyes. Except, wait, they’re not frozen — in the idle cycle, Wake shifts his eyes to the side and then back again. So, it is possible to animate them at least that much. It helps, but it’s still not quite right.

I’m thinking of an algorithm, a method, for having eyeballs focus on the right things in an animation. Can you guess how I’m thinking of doing it? I don’t know how hard it would be to do, really. Surely someone would have done it by now if it were that easy.

Make that check out to JRW Digital Media, and I’ll get right on solving that for you.

I liked the scene where you run to safety over a rickety wooden bridge that blows away when you get across it; it worked dramatically while letting me steer myself. I also liked the Ferry scene, a contemplative, unhurried ride with a couple of conversational elements that play out automatically as you wander around. You get to watch the bridge go by overhead, and can find a couple of places to walk to, like up a set of steps, while Alan takes a phone call. It’s a very natural thing to do, wander around a bit while you’re gabbing on the phone, and I really enjoyed that they let me do that. This is what I mean — they could have decided to make this another cutscene, but why do that when you can at least offer a tiny bit of interactive exploration?

Alan starts to slow down and wheeze after a fairly short sprint. Well, he’s a writer, he’s not in good shape. However, that only happens when he’s in an action scene. If you’re just wandering around — and again, I like the fact that the game sometimes just opens its borders a little bit and lets you wander off. Before you go to the cabin, a cutscene leaves you on one side of a bridge, but you can go the other way, up the hill, back to where your car is parked, and walk back down again. This all happens with the sunset glowing its lovely “golden hour” glow, so it’s pleasant to take a walk around.

I do walk, in these games. I know a lot of people go through games full-tilt, but I like to sometimes role-play my movements, and when I’d walk if that character were me, I try to make the character walk. Some games are much walk-friendlier than others, both in how sensitive the control is to gentle direction input, and in whether they’ve even put a good slow-walk animation cycle in there. Sometimes it’s either you’re standing still or you’re going a funny staggered jump-walk where it’s vacillating between two digital states that don’t have an inbetween.

Someday we’ll need to invent digital-analog, so everything degrades smoothly. Patent application pending.

In other games, I’ve noticed that the bigger animation problem with walking very slowly is with follower NPCs. They are tailored to keep up with a PC who is going at a full run, and do a terrible marionette dance when forced to walk. So basically nobody has testers who like to walk slowly instead of running, is what I’m gathering. Oh well.

The Alan Wake game tries very hard to limit the amount of interactivity it allows in whichever mode (explore vs action) it happens to be in, so a lot of the buttons are “numb” — they don’t do anything at all when you press them. You kind of want them to, and they don’t, and that always makes me feel restricted or kind of off balance. I think I’d even prefer it if it made a little feedback sound that meant “this does not do anything” when I heard it, than nothing at all. Numbness. Don’t like.

There are small errors, little details. A vehicle drives by, making an engine and tire sound from a completely different type of vehicle. Yes, it makes a difference. Oh, speaking of audio — this is another general problem I have with many videogames, the ones that do spatialization of audio sources within the game. I’m not sure what physics they’re using to make the audio modifications — maybe they’re exactly supposed to be how they work in the real world, with an inverse-proportionate dB drop-off of sound compared to the distance from the source, but it’s wrong to use that. It has to be tweaked, padded, stretched, into audio that’s “unrealistic” in how it’s calculated, but is more realistic to hear. People’s voices don’t disappear into the distance when I turn my back or even if I walk 15 feet away from them. They can sound a lot more present than that. Our brains and ears do a lot of cool stuff to make sounds work better in our heads than microphones do when they pick up point sources of audio, which is basically what you’re simulating when you run the absolute math on the localized audio. Everybody, stop doing that.

Well! That’s as far as I’ve gotten with Alan Wake, about 15 minutes of it, twice. Plus the hour it took to write up my thoughts. Non-billable hours, of course.


* I don’t actually have any students. Perhaps this is why.


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Fallout 3

What an amazing, thought-provoking experience this game was. It’s been months since I finished playing it, but all of the following is still on my mind at the level of detail you see here. A lot of it has to do with what I brought to the experience of playing it, but that’s what’s good about an interactive storytelling medium. It did allow me to bring a lot to it, to find my own story, and play a particular character that I created through the act of playing the game over a long period of (game and real) time.

On October 20, 2008, I started playing Fallout 3. Several months later, on October 20, 2277 in the world of the game, I was escorting a band of freedom fighters on a long and dangerous path through the post-apocalyptic wilds around what once was the District of Columbia, on a symbolic mission to replace the head of Abraham Lincoln on the statue still sitting in its memorial.

October 31, 2277, in the dead of night under a bright moon, I won a community of ghouls the right to live alongside smooth-skinned humans in civilized housing. I could feel the end coming.

I had put the main plotline on hold for some time, determined to see as much of the world as possible. It shortly turned out that the main mission I put on hold some weeks before was the start of a fast-track to wrapping up the game, something I must have intuitively sensed when I decided to deviate from it. Integrating the ghouls was the last thing on my list of private missions to complete as I finished my wanderings.

It was around that time that I stopped leveling up. I’d maxed out at level 20, while still having a list of abilities and feats I intended to get when I leveled up a little more, but there was no more leveling up. I returned to my private residence in Megaton with a feeling of melancholy that was deeper than just this game. Actually, this was all happening to the Lone Wanderer, not to me, but I was deeply immersed in role-playing this guy’s existence. However, I had to separate myself back out of the equation and reflect on my own life. As the Lone Wanderer returned from his travels and put away his saved-up possessions — I had large stashes of food and medicine, extra weapons and ammo, and collections of stuff that could be traded for bartering to buy things. I was saving them all up, conserving resources, for some imagined future need. Some great series of trials that would use up all of these stored reserves. It was the same theory as worrying so much about leveling up, so that I’d be strong enough for some eventuality I was fearing lay ahead. But instead all that lay ahead seemed to be the end of the road. What use was all of this saved up stuff? By the standards of these ravaged peoples of the wasteland, I was dazzlingly rich. I was also rich in karmic terms, so rich that these poor people were giving me gifts from their meager stores every time I came into town.

Having nothing else to spend my stored up wealth on, I splurged on a laboratory workbench. I set an experiment to bubbling that was going to create some new item, and left my home. I, the Lone Wanderer never returned to find out how it turned out. Everything I’d stored for a rainy day was still neatly stored around the house, untouched.

A few days later, I freed an intelligent super-mutant named Fawkes from his cell in an underground laboratory. The date, appropriately enough, was the fifth of November, 2277. There was a trap waiting for me, so before it sprung, I sent away my invaluable, trusted companion, Paladin Cross of the Brotherhood of Steel. She said we’d meet again, and we did not. I looked for her, when I finally was able to escape the Enclave and return to the headquarters of the Brotherhood, but she wasn’t there. The Brotherhood had one more mission for me, and told me to let them know when I was ready.

I led the Lone Wanderer outside to the courtyard, then up onto a balcony deck that had a view of the setting sun. Poignantly, I just let him stand there and watch the sunset. It was the last he’d ever see. Then I played cameraman and did a lot of neat cinematic crane shots starting high above him and sweeping into a closeup on his face, then finishing with his silhouette looking into the distant fading sun.

The next time I played the game, he died and the story ended. As the epilogue recapped his story for me, I saw an image of Lincoln’s restored statue at the memorial, something I’d waited around to see when I brought the freedom fighters there, but they didn’t work on it while I was loitering.

The adventure with the statue head was the emotional and gameplay climax of the story for me and my gruff little wanderer. He had a violent launch into the world. The day he left Vault 101, he shot the father of his dearest childhood friend in the face with a pistol, and he fled as she screamed and wailed over the body. A couple of months later, with stories of his adventures starting to spread around the wasteland, and having worked hard to be karmically noble in all situations — he began to carry around clean drinking water specifically to be able to give it to the decrepit and thirsty, not to drink it himself — he returned to Vault 101. His former friend was in need, and was strangely welcoming. However, when a peaceful resolution of the situation (a parallel to the first crisis that made him a murderer) proved impossible — I tried to find one, tried several different ways, but none worked — he was banished forever from Vault 101, by the woman I suspect he loved.

We’d been to the Lincoln Memorial, cleaned it out of mutants, slavers, and other evils. Stared at the headless statue, wondering at what had become of the head. It was ages later when I came across the people holding the head safe, somewhere in the middle of the badlands. I told them I’d cleaned out the mutant problem at the memorial, and that it was safe to put the head back on the statue. They thanked me and told me they’d meet me there at the memorial, and I saw them head out. I ran ahead and arrived at the memorial, waiting most of a day, many hours after they promised to be there. Where are they?

Time rewound. Different choice. I walked with them a little bit, and they seemed to be on their way, so I jumped ahead again, and they didn’t arrive. I realized, then, that they would not survive the journey unless I protected them every step of the way. Very well.

Time rewound again, and instead of agreeing to meet at the destination, I became their escort. The journey was long and meandering, veering off from what started out as a direct line to the national mall at the river, and curving back into the empty wasteland. Not empty — full of scorpions, mutants, Enclave soldiers, wild animals, and general bad guys of the Mad Max variety. They had to be constantly watched, like children. There was no ducking out for a nap, or to trade in resources, or do anything, day or night, for most of a week, but keep an eye on this small party of people, a beast of burden carrying the statue head, and a dog. I worried that they might never get there, with the route they were taking, but I decided I would keep trying. They walked slowly, too, but that allowed me to run on ahead. I took to looking for high ground, so I could get a better view of what was around the next bend while still keeping an eye on the group, because sometimes danger snuck up from behind or from the sides. I became more and more serious about this mission, and what it meant to make sure none of them were hurt or lost. It required a lot. Patience, and genuine care, and real tactical ability. There were some really nasty predicaments, where danger triangulated.

In the end, with it finally accomplished, I genuinely felt heroic.

Right after that, in the far northlands, I found a hidden forest, where once again I was given gifts, including a special cloak with a hood, hand-made, far from the usual wasteland clothing. My character, who had for some time run around encased in armor and a head-concealing helmet, looking like a soldier-warrior, now looked like a mystic, a bit like a Jedi. I began to play him more and more like what he seemed to be becoming.

So when the last choice of the last mission came, where the Lone Wanderer had to sacrifice himself to save everyone else, it was a pretty easy decision to make. I tried to cheat this death, wearing a full radiation suit and swallowing large preventative doses of Rad-X and RadAway, but when the compartment flooded, that was it for him. It was fitting. It was the end of the story. I wish I could have had him live to see another day, but after everything that had led up to that moment, including taking the moment to let him gaze in silence at his last sunset, nothing else would have been as appropriate.

The Lone Wanderer at sunset

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on the great boss battles of life

I thought about posting stuff this year a lot more than I actually posted stuff. I guess that’s not unusual, but it always bothers me. I think there was more of a reason than usual this year than in previous years, because for a solid 13 years I had a certain coffee shop I went to that I used as an office, and if I thought of something I wanted to write, I would go there and write it.

2006 was when I lost that coffee shop and had to move on, but 2007 is when I felt the effects of that loss — of not having anywhere to go to work, that would really serve as a workplace for me and my creative projects. The best substitute I found had good coffee and was open 24 hours, but it is really a restaurant, and so has the problem of not really being a good place to hunker down for several hours to work on something, the way a coffee shop can because that’s what it is by design. You’re not putting out the management by sitting there for ages, not really, if they’re running a coffee shop. If you’re running a restaurant, a guy might be taking up a booth that a family of four will order a lot of food and drinks from, and then leave and be replaced by another family of four, and there’s this guy still sitting there. I definitely feel that pressure.

However, after hanging out there for a year, eventually the whole staff gets used to you, and appreciates the fact that, just by plunking down money into their cash register and tipping the wait staff nearly every single day, you’re actually supporting the place more than the family of four who only eats there once and doesn’t return. So they start getting nicer and more tolerant, and go “Yeah, whatever” if you want to sit there for a while.

bullfinch-1.jpgStill, it’s a restaurant, and it’s not the same. I can’t really knuckle down the same way and be productive there, which bugs me. All year I felt off-kilter, and a lot of things went un-done that I wanted to do because I’d be in the mood to get something done, but it’d be a high traffic mealtime at the restaurant, so I’d try and wait for a better time, and by then, the mood or the muse was gone. Life goes on, none of these missed projects were a great tragedy, but cumulatively, they felt like a real drag on me this year, and added to my overriding sense of frustration.

That was one of the major themes this year, at least in terms of my emotional life. I’ve been feeling just absolutely frustrated, day and night, for quite a long time now. Feeling frustrated makes me quick to anger instead of easygoing. I can’t tell you how many times I had a spastic tantrum over something that shouldn’t even have bothered me, because my general frustration level was so high that a minor uptick would make me hit the boiling point. I had to switch from playing active-type videogames to more passive ones (turn-based combat is my new friend) so I would stop exploding into rages. Boss fights were starting to feel like symbols for my powerlessness in actual life to find any traction. When I played Shadow of the Colossus, I invested it with a lot of psychological weight and baggage, let me tell you.


That reminds me of something else I was thinking of writing about as a one-shot post, but I guess I’ll conjure some of it now while I’m on the topic. Currently I’m playing this fairly mild mannered and pleasant RPG called Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King, another Square Enix adventure. Late last night, fulfilling a side quest led me down into this labyrinth that ended with a pretty rough boss battle against two giant dudes who could really whale on you, and who had ridiculous hit points (actual amount hidden, but it must have been 2500 to 3000 each).

Have you ever had a really satisfying scrap with a boss? Like, where it’s definitely pretty challenging, but not so overwhelming that it’s impossible? It reminded me almost of the way a classic Jackie Chan fight goes (when he’s fighting the boss henchman dude at the end of a movie). First Jackie has to get beaten down where it looks like he’s not going to win this one, then he manages by luck or by starting to approach the fight differently, he regains his ground, only to lose it again. And then the tide spectacularly turns just when it’s about to be hopeless, and the boss goes down. Well, that’s how this fight went.


I had four guys against these two, and they killed two of them early on. But one of my guys had just gotten the ability to sacrifice himself to resurrect everybody else who was dead, and one of those guys had just gotten the ability to resurrect with 100% success. So I brought everyone back. Then they killed half my party again, this time both of those guys who could bring people back. One guy, down to about 20 hit points from 250, had a resurrect spell, but it only worked 50% of the time, and it failed 3 times in a row. I was down to a turn where if it didn’t work this time, I was pretty much finished. Meanwhile, the other guy (girl) I had was casting spells that was zapping both bad guys every turn for about 70 points of damage. I just kept doing that, turn after turn.


On that turn where it was make or break, pow, one of the bosses keeled over dead, and my resurrect spell finally worked. That revived guy resurrected the other guy, and all four characters whaled on the remaining boss with all they had, and he went down a couple of turns later. I was really happy that everybody was alive and in fact in pretty healthy shape when the battle ended. A triumph!

“That was a pretty good scrap!” I said. (Actually, I may first have said, “BOOM! Gotcha, you f*cker!”) It just felt satisfying to have been nearly wiped out and then managed to pull it out in the end. It felt like I had met this challenge with my characters leveled up exactly to the right spot to have the most engaging battle I could have had. I really enjoyed that.

The future is always completely uncertain, but I’ve been feeling an undercurrent of optimism starting to buoy me for the past six months, sort of an antidote to that corrosive feeling of frustration. I’m kind of waiting for my real life to have some sort of dramatic turnaround like this. I’ve felt psychologically nearly wiped out a few times this year, and it would be nice to know that the tide will turn and I’ll pull out some sort of overwhelming victory and get to do a happy dance at the end.

Then I’ll get to look back on the experience, nod with satisfaction, and say, “Hey, that was a pretty good scrap!”


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