Wednesday, April 19, 2017

After the battle

I've been trying to learn "Far Horizons" from the game Skyrim and that's led me to muse on a contrast.

In both Skyrim and Tomb Raider 2013 there are lethal encounters with the locals. In Tomb Raider, when the fight ends there's a brief quotation of the character theme; muted and tinged with the melancholy of all you've lost, as with every other piece of music in this particular Tomb Raider, but nonetheless a horn flourish celebrating a moment of triumph.

The only time you hear the "Dragonborn" character theme in Skyrim (outside of bardic performances in taverns) is when you are being attacked by a dragon. What plays at the conclusion to most encounters is something more wistful, even elegiac. It is a piece of music that invites one to contemplate the fragility of life and the shared humanity of you and those you've just slain against this harsh, bleak, starkly lovely landscape of steep rocks and chilly snow.

(It is in fact one of the generic wilderness travel snippets -- the piece I opened this discussion with -- but it is scripted to always show here and I can't believe the emotional impact of that choice was not considered).

Im Tomb Raider  the bad guys are somewhat humanized before the fight; if you sneak well enough you can hear snippets of conversation. Unfortunately there is no conversation allowed during the fight; once guns are drawn there is no negotiation allowed. Following the fight, all that is left is to search the bodies for more ammunition.

In Skyrim, you also search the bodies. Such is the stock mechanics of AAA games. But in doing this you are also led through their campsites and rooms and shelters. Where you find bedrolls tucked into a niche of the rock out of the rain, personal possessions tucked away in drawers, a couple books beside a table, a meal on the fire, a chair set up for no other purpose but to relax and take in a vista of distant mountains. These material goods are so particular and homely they give a mute description of their owners, a more sharply drawn and more universal one than any dialog snippet.

You can not help but place yourself shivering in that bedroll, warming yourself over a rude meal on that campfire (as often enough, you do in the course of the game) and greeting the day sitting in that chair looking over the vast snowy land of Skyrim. It invites you (sometimes literally) to put yourself in the hide shoes of those you were forced to kill. (Of course, in this game there is also no great distance between you and them. Your background is similar, your adventures similar. You aren't some well-equipped American stand-in mowing down foreign hordes, not in this game).

Even the nature of the encounter is different. In Skyrim you largely chose to engage; you can leave the bandit camp alone, or even run away. In Tomb Raider you are largely scripted in. It is an extremely linear narrative and often the next door will not even open until you've performed the sacrifice the game demands. Once combat is joined, of course, most AAA games are alike. There is no parley, no quarter.

Except not even this is absolute; Skyrim has a third-party mod that can be installed that allows your enemy to surrender instead of fighting to the death. And, sure, this is not a creation of the original designers. But the original designers did permit the end users to change the story and make this possible. Tomb Raider will not even allow the player to look in a different direction than that which the script requires.

(The only AAA game I've played in which quarter is possible in the base game is Batman: Arkham City. In that game, psychological warfare is all-important. The Batman is, after all, shaped to be a figure of fear to the cowardly and superstitious. So if you do well enough in striking from the shadows and otherwise appearing as an unstoppable phantom, some of the bad guys will drop to their knees to cower in place instead of continuing the fight. It ain't much, but it beats having to flatten everyone).

Am I reading too much into this contrast? Perhaps. Skyrim is intelligently designed by a company that knows how to search out a specific and nuanced emotional tone.  Tomb Raider 2013 is a lumpen creation-by-committee where every decent emotional arc sputters out in ludonarrative disconnect against the brainless mechanics and an insulting restriction of any player choice.

(I have to go a little bit further here. This isn't just a contrast between open world and linear narrative. The Half-Life series is also a linear narrative, and restricts exploration just as much. But Half-Life is designed by people who knew what they were doing; it leads the eye and hides the choices rather than forces them on the player. It shows that a linear narrative and even tightly scripted events can take place without making the player feel like a passive observer of the game being played).

Monday, April 17, 2017

Uh-oh, someone's been feeding the bunny

Yesterday's plot bunny is getting fatter and more aggressive.

I diss on the Tomb Raider reboot but I do like the character and her arc. I just don't like what happened when the story was gamified. Not just the stock AAA elements and gameplay, the formulaic action, the ridiculous shoot-em-ups that help to make for a huge ludonarrative disconnect, but the way the other characters and plot threads and gimmicks are crammed in sideways, wrecking whatever narrative flow there is.

So, Endurance. There's a mystery, and it both starts on and involved the "Yamatai" expedition ship. Mystery shrouds the true purpose of the expedition, and its true backers.

And enter our young archaeology student. This is the "Nine Bells" Lara, only she didn't chose to work late nights at a pub because she refused her family's money. She doesn't have that family. There is no Lord Croft, no manor. She is on Endurance without that whole support structure, without a built-in best friend and a father-figure/mentor to sacrifice himself later and a puppy-dog geek and a Magical Polynesian waiting in the wings to join her.

Yes, not even Sam. She was roommates, but they never bonded. Captain Roth and First Mate Grim are distant authority figures, a closed masculine world that laughs off her fears when she dares try to express them. Reyes is their security, primed for violence, similarly unapproachable. And even Sam seems to be up in the First Class Cabins with the expedition heads (despite her lack of strong credentials) and thus similarly unapproachable.

The game, I remind you, got Lara out alone to struggle to survive, then suddenly paraded the rest of the cast by her before yanking them away again -- in hopes you'd care about them when they showed up a second time largely just in time to get killed off. Oh, and you might stumble across various diaries and so forth which expanded on their characters. Which sort of works for a game like Bioshock but is a pretty solid failure when, a) the people in question aren't (generally) deceased yet, and b) you are supposed to know them already and consider them friends!

In any case. In Endurance we'd discover these people tentatively, as Lara has to risk her trust on them based on far-from-satisfactory conversations. And get them to open up to her in turn. Possibly the ally she wins first is Alex, and that one is a mixed blessing.

And, no, not all of them are trustworthy. Grim, Roth and Reyes are definitely far enough outside the curve that it will take a strong shock to make them step back and rethink their life choices. And Whitman is completely across the line. If there is anything like the Himiko plot going on, he knows damned well what the Queen needs and pretty much brought Sam along for the sacrifice.

And as for the mystery? Well, it is probably Amanda's ship. Still. She's probably in uneasy partnership with Natla, with both looking for the best moment for betrayal. And only Amanda's incompetence (she's good, but she's not original-model Lara Croft) has kept Natla from gaining the full powers of the Scion.

Or perhaps another McGuffin. We're so off model already there's no use quibbling that it didn't work that way in the game. (One is reminded of L. Sprague DeCamp's comments about changing the gender, nationality, key dates, and other minor details and voila, the "real" King Arthur was obviously Cleopatra.)

(The comment was aimed at people who apply a similar surgery to Plato's Atlantis).

The bunny just fed again. Richard Croft -- as revealed in Tomb Raider: Underworld -- made a lot of progress in finding Mjolnir for Natla. So there's no problem at all with a Croft having worked for Natla and having left interesting clues around for our new protagonist to discover. Mansion included. Ah, but was there an original child of Richard and Amelia? What if she never left Nepal? What if, in fact, young Lara went to Avalon and a heartbroken Amelia had to struggle out of the mountains alone? And Richard dying in his attempts to find her instead? 

So now we have a mysterious figure who both aided and fought Natla, and a reclusive widow in a massive manor filled with dark secrets (seriously -- have you PLAYED that damned house?) 

The question is, of "our" Lara actually "that kind of a Croft?" Aka the original kid, thrust through time and space by the travel stones?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Plot Bunny of the Day

So in the Stargate, SG1 episode "Watergate" (no relation) it is revealed that the Soviets have their own DHD, which they grabbed off the Germans in 1945.

It is a bit of a weakness of the series that the US sat on their stargate until Catherine finally got them to restart it. Especially after the episode "Tantalus" revealed that Ernest Littlefield's group had successfully opened it in 1945. (And this without the ten years and four supercomputers Samantha Carter claimed had been necessary in 1998).

So...instead of a Manhattan Project, a crash project to open the Stargate. Because the Germans got theirs opened first (maybe they got the entire Giza gate -- and never you mind that outside of Indiana Jones movies they don't get to do what they like in Cairo in the 30's). Which means the US might have had to somehow discover the Antarctica gate...

But anyhow. The fun is having that same polyglot group of crazies, Feynman and Fermi and so forth, only working on wormhole physics. And Werner von Braun's group getting to explore the universe like they wanted, but without rockets. Of course the physics of the gate means that Tantalus and Abydos are the most likely successful contacts anyhow. Which ends up with one side joining forces with Ra and then things really get crazy.

But let's shake it up a little. Instead of the usual suspects for heroes and villains, have the US play Ra like an analog of Stalin, handling him with what they think is a long enough spoon at least until the Germans are out of the picture. Except they don't know about the Goa'uld parasite. And it is left up to a third party to try to save more than one world from the madness.

Some really motivated Italians, perhaps? Why is it that the role of being the only heroes who can fight well enough always goes to the ones who, historically, had the kick-ass armies in the first place? But, alas, that's too much research. As is the obvious Bear in the room (Soviet Russia, that is.) Or even further afield, China (who had enough on their plates already, and besides, let's keep this to the Western Front). Ah, but given the fun of pitting the Manhattan Project against von Braun's rocket group, who else but to throw in the mix are those doughty and reliable underdog heroes, Bletchly Park and Alan Turing and so forth...I speak of course of the Brits.

The other bunny of the day is even odder. So when the reboot Tomb Raider 2013 was made Crystal Dynamics re-used some assets. The rusty, tramp-steamer-looking Endurance which Whitman's archaeological expedition charters re-uses the model of the two big fancy cargo ships Amanda has in the final game of the previous canon (aka Tomb Raider: Underworld).

But...what if it is the same ship? Ten years, rough seas and a few more changes of ownership (plus Lara did a number on one of the ships anyhow. Sunk it, actually, but who's counting).

And once again let's skip the stupid island so conveniently filled with soft targets and spare clips for the various machine guns lying around like a cheap first-person shooter. Instead, assume the previous canon is true. At least as far as Amanda and Natla (though, pretty obviously, Natla didn't actually destroy the world in this chronology). Lara might or might not be real; it would be interesting to have her as a reclusive countess with stories about her past that sound downright mythic.

But she's not our protagonist. Our protagonist is stumbling across, on that same ship, evidence of a story that already happened.

Which is not to say it isn't a story that's been concluded! Lara might not be holed up in Abbingdon and not talking to anyone, but Natla is still out there and dangerous as ever. One might reach at this point for "Young" Lara, the inexperienced college student of the reboot. But that ship has already been around the world a few times. Instead, try someone else for the starring role. But keep the other characters.

I think this is actually more interesting. Stephanie, say, might be discovering there's a darker side to archaeology. And she has to reach out to people who have the skills she needs now, but people who don't have that existing relationship to her. Like Conrad Roth, who in this chronology is friends only with Angus Grim and isn't already staged as a mentor and trainer and dead father figure to the protagonist de jour.

(Actually, in a way it is even more hilarious to make Roth the hero. He'd very much fit the archetype of a certain kind of masculine adventure fiction; he's practically an early Alister MacClean protagonist. So he'd be retired, going to seed, his only contact with military adventure being the stories he shares with his mate Grim. Content to captain this ship around even if the current charter are a bunch of idiots. Until they discover more than they can handle and he has to step up to the plate.)

(And there's everything such a character could want. A young man -- or young woman -- to take on as protege, at least a couple options for romance, an abrasive academic who thinks he should be in charge, a gentle giant and a tough cop as solid right hands and a geek for tech support.)

These are wild plot bunnies, of course. I'm not petting them. I'm pretty much done with those two silly universes anyhow (at least, I will be in another four to six chapters).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A conflict problem

As the current story is wrapping up I've become more and more aware of how much interesting conflict I didn't put in it.

I'm going to blame not having an overall plan. When I wrote the first scene I was aiming for 6-12,000 words. My only aim was to bring two casts together and have a little fun at the way they clashed. I had no overall story arc or goal.

Thing is, even as I came up with puzzles and opponents, the resulting story remains as exploratory as the process. Basically, my characters are searching for clues. There's none of the groundwork there even if I did come up with some great moral choice or interpersonal conflict or some nice paralleling of the internal and external. No-one is planted to be a lover or betrayer, to change loyalties at a key moment or discover hidden depths in themselves. No element is designed in to suddenly strike home at the protagonists.

And, really, I could have. If what I have now were a first draft, I'd take apart the materials I have and I'd find those conflicts. Lara has several potential arcs here. For instance, I could have planned to bring her into internal conflict by contrasting the guns-blazing cultural heritage-destroying Tomb Raider she is now versus the academically trained lover of discovery she had been. Have others bring up this conflict (perhaps with their own contrasting methods). Personalize it in the form of Amanda, who may have shared the innocent love of discovery but went even further into power-hungry looter. Bring the unnamed tomb in Bolivia where it all changed to a more central part of the narrative. Etc, Etc.

In a different direction, I could have brought the Tears of Horus even closer to the central narrative and tied it to internal themes; both to Lara's reluctant admission that she is willing to kill and destroy in order to complete her mission, and (even stronger) her entire lifestyle as a quest for freedom -- which clashes most horribly with the mind-controlling properties of the Horus Draught. This could have been a bigger moment and a much harder struggle as she pits her very vision of herself against mental bonds she can't fight.

Heck, even on a smaller scale; I sort of set up but never plotted to complete a legendary battle between her and Teal'c. And one could, with enough distance (and/or hindsight) to plan, bring this into an epic fight with the reader rooting for both sides equally.

Nor do my created characters, the Genesis group, really have a purpose in the narrative (they may have had one that I forgot in the long months that passed between each chapter). And there are so many possible conflicts and arcs and changes of heart and revelations of purpose that could have been wrought with them.

Fortunately, I am comfortable viewing the entire thing as a rambling monolog on history, archaeology, retro-technology, philosophy of science, and whatever else struck my fancy.

But when I think about it, my other two novel-length attempts (one abandoned, one completed but never published) also suffer from what I am thinking now is a conflation of the protagonist's problems with the writer's problems. In both, the protagonist is primarily investigative. Exploring, or simply reacting and trying to stay alive. In Shirato, at least, that was conscious and thematic; Mie spends most of the book trying to act according to internalized social mores and, when she finally breaks free of those social constraints she almost loses everything in a sort of madness.

This is a powerful mode for a reader, too, as it allows the reader to discover the characters, the universe, and the MacGuffin of the day in a natural manner. They share along with the protagonist an increasing understanding of what is going on, what the stakes are, and what might be done about it.

So the fault may not just be one of lack of planning. It might just be that I'm a guy who avoids interpersonal conflict (or really any situation that might give rise to strong emotion -- an unfortunate habit I got into in high school and never grew out of). So my protagonists tend to Mary Sue in at least this one way; they get a freedom to explore, to chose what to investigate and where to go next. They don't tend to find themselves in tangles (emotional or not) that have no clear way out.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Shell Game

Well, I got my day off. Didn't feel up for work today.

Holocron serials #02 and 03 are moving along. I had to paint up a new shell in order to record the steps on my revamped mini-studio (a piece of blue paper tacked to the wall and running under the subject as a no-horizon backdrop, and a high-CRI fluorescent bulb in a clip light).

So I've posted up the first sheet of assembly instructions:

And the first payment is in on a successfully shipped Holocron. No word yet on the one I sent to Japan, though.

In any case, there's an annoyingly short list of steps before the first kits can ship. Annoying because it is just so difficult to work in enough constructive hours to actually do those last couple of steps. I really feel I have to finish one more of the "complete" Holocrons both to make sure all the current parts are cut to the right length, and to record the steps properly for the remainder of the assembly instructions.

As far as I can tell there's just a few wires left to solder (USB breakout board and the tail for the sensor lead). And maybe include a few pre-cut pieces of double-sided tape. And figure out how to wrap everything so it is properly protected in shipment. And I think I have enough parts cut for four kits.

Oh, and make sure I'm uploading the latest version of the software. And doing a complete function check of the assembled electronics module.

Unfortunately I still have rent paperwork to do today. And I should really finish those taxes. And this cough is distracting me enough it is hard to concentrate on anything technical. After all, if I felt well enough to program and solder and sand and paint and record shipping data I'd be at work being paid for my time. I mean, more than $90 a kit.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

I need a day off from my weekend

I have half-soldered holocron modules spread over my desk. With more circuit boards coming from OshPark sometime next week. Another $150 of acrylic is current by the front desk at TechShop waiting for me to come out and cut it on the lasers there.

My plan today is to solder until the rain ebbs a little, then spend as many hours at the shop as I can get tool reservations for. On Sunday, back to painting and assembling, and take new pictures so I can post up assembly instructions for the kits I will be shipping out next week.

Oh, but of course I have a rehearsal to attend and a short meeting with the director for what I strongly intend to be the last play I work this year. And rent paperwork, and I need to finish the business portion of my taxes for last year. So there's a lot I'm hoping to get done over this far-too-short weekend.

So far, I haven't even put on my shoes.

Well, that went well. I soldered up all the current batch of circuit boards, but it took all Saturday. (The weather never did get better so just as well). Woke up today with a stomach bug and it was the afternoon before I could sit up without wanting to throw up. So mostly worked on the instruction sheet, did the worst of the sanding and priming on serial #04 and took lots of pictures while I did it.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How Strange the Change...

It is so nice not to have a show to work twice a week and two shows on weekends. I feel so relaxed -- even with putting holocrons in boxes (I spent five hours last night at the laser, getting home too late to even eat diner) I feel relaxed.  I feel like I can finally finish some of these dangling chores and clear the work table a little.

So, of course, I'm yanked off in a new direction. Started this morning. See, I've been bringing my
violin to work to practice during my break time.

Which is coming along well. Messed with the theme from the 1978 Battlestar Galactica (fingering is straight-forward enough I could almost play through on the first attempt) and the "usual snippet" from Polovtsian Dances (rather less so). By ear, that is. I've got my music stand back and I'm a member at MuseScore now but my sight-reading still needs a lot of work.

Anyhow, carrying an instrument on your back as you approach the time clock will start a conversation here and there. One of my co-workers is buying a keyboard soon, another is trying to spend more time with his (a familiar problem).

I don't spend a lot of time with my keyboard partly because it is a Behringer controller; no internal sounds, no external speakers. To run it I have to connect it to the laptop, boot up Reaper, then stretch a headphone cord across the room. Every now and then I think I should throw a speaker and some kind of synth module in a box so I just have to throw a single switch and the piano is playable. Right now the only impulse instrument I have is a ukulele I keep on a hook by my chair.

So today I opened my Maker's Notebook and scribbled ideas for a simpler keyboard setup. I still have
a couple rack-mount synths, but 19" is large for the "box with a speaker" I was envisioning.  I do have a Korg P3, but there's a lot to be said for having other than a basic piano sound. An even smaller box would fit a Kurtzweil micropiano, which has some of the best keyboard sounds in a book-sized synth (and really nice piano). But the things are still $200 American on the used market. Hrm. Keep scribbling.

Plus the Behringer keyboard requires external power when using a MIDI cable, so that's more wires to play with. A USB box would be just one cable...  Say; a Raspberry Pi can handle software synthesis and even be trained to handle MIDI-over-USB. So could throw that in a box and...

But by now I'm thinking of the sounds I spent so many years practicing keyboard with. The sounds of the Yamaha DX21 (a cut-down version of the DX7; no velocity, only four operators instead of six...and that's all Geek to you, right?)

So I hunted and yes there is a free multi-platform FM synthesizer pre-loaded with those great old
DX7 patches. Called DEXED and you can find it with a short Google. By this time, as you can gather, I'm pretty far from my original starting point. (Incidentally, the pi-in-a-box is totally doable but requires some hairy programming steps to boot into musicality without having to hassle around with passwords and so forth every time).

But by this time I was off-track. Found myself listening to samples of DEXED on YouTube, then DX7 samples, then reproductions and homages of some of the synth-heavy 80's hits. And that leads me to some clever videos explaining the chord sequences used by many Hollywood composers (as well as the familiar discussions of orchestration and so forth that somehow never seem to show up on my YouTube "you may also like" page no matter how many I watch.)

And, yeah, this seems completely out in the woods now, but one of the things I was intending with the violin was to get back into composing a little. And that instrument is now close to the point where I can actually make use of it.

And probably I'll just prop a rack module and powered monitor under the Behringer and gaff-tape a power strip to the keyboard stand. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and a fancy box with a Pi-based FM synth and a scratch-built speaker system at some point in the indeterminable future must fall to the utility of having a keyboard I can go to now when I hear a musical motif in my head and want to try it out.