Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mic Repair

I'm thinking about writing a post on the care and feeding of B3 elements/Sennheiser packs.  A couple of people have landed here seemingly looking for that information. But I need to get a macro lens working on my camera before I can take the pictures I'd need (those connectors are very small).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Updates, Downtime

I opted into the beta test of Tomb Raider 2013 at Steam. The first update I put in made the saved games slots visible. It also cleared up the need to toggle V-Synch every time I started the game. However, it also seems to have removed the option to turn off motion blur, and because of that, or just because that level has all sorts of wind effects including animation and camera over-rides, I got killed several times on the final level when I couldn't turn fast enough to line up a shot or make a dodge properly.

Also tried out the "Go back to the island after finishing the story and try to collect the remaining GPS locators and so forth" mode. Oddly, there are still pockets of Solarii around, but as much as I've been hanging around eavesdropping, I haven't heard any of them commenting on the fact that the magic rain has stopped and there's sunlight all over the island now. Although I also haven't explored enough to see if this is true! It is another nice aspect of the game, that the environments change over play. They change due to game events (such as getting set on fire) and they even remember which crates you busted open.

Worked the usual four performances over the weekend. The drummer is getting steadily louder again, and the frequency at which the Music Director needs to rap on his cage and glare at him is also going up. He's trying, though. He's pulled together a much more even sound across his various tools, and for 70% of the show he is seated in a good place where I can get a nice mix. And then he gets excited, or tired, or deaf after playing a matinee, and he goes crazy on the remaining numbers. Still, I'm managing to keep the dB's in the mid-80's at the FOH position, with only a few excursions over 92-93.

And for some reason finished Sunday's show completely exhausted. It is an early show, and it was still light out, but I went to bed within an hour of getting home, and slept for fourteen.

Needless to say, Monday I wanted nothing to do with driving or operating heavy machinery. But I think I might get a little lathing in today. And the fourth chapter to my Tomb Raider/SG1 cross-over is going well -- finally got through the Valley of Kings sequence. Next exotic location will be Prague Castle, to which I'm adding such varied bits of esoterica as the Voynich Manuscript, Silphium, and the Tribute of the Falcon.

(Yes...I've been spending a wee bit of time reading up on random things.)

And tried the most recent beta build. Regression in graphics; the flicker is back and the save slots are invisible again. Not only that, they seem to have decided the final boss battle is too easy. No, not the Oni. Mathias. Which is entirely a QTE. What puree-brained spavined excrescence of an incompetent designer thought they could improve this game by making one of the QTE's even more arbitrarily unwinnable? 

Especially annoying because, if this wasn't a QTE, you'd just dodge back, then give him a few incendiary shotgun rounds to that bare chest. Instead the damned game wants you to guess whether to hit "F" when the red circle hits the red dot, or after it hits. And, no, the damned thing never turns yellow (the usual sign that this is now the right time to press the button.) So I watched Lara die a dozen times in a row with no input from me having damn-all to do with it, then quit the game in disgust.

Thanks a lot, Crystal Dynamics. I'm not buying your next game until it also goes on $1.75 sale.

Just to put the final laugh to the lamentable QTE that litter an otherwise wonderfully playable game, it turns out that many of them, including the wolf, Mathias, the teleporting Solarii on the bridge and the not-a-rape early in the game, can all be solved by ignoring the stupid distracting unhelpful graphic completely. Apparently there's no actual code sensing if you hit the button too early -- so just start mashing it right at the top and keep mashing until the damned QTE is over with.

I've now made it through the stronghold on "role playing" mode, where I plunge ahead to each new plot point instead of hunting for salvage crates and random experience points. The early fights were rather tough without the axe, or dodge counter! I also made it a point of walking into ambushes, and otherwise letting the Solarii get all their forces in place. Perhaps because of that, experience points begin to accrue very quickly by the middle of the game -- you have all the essential combat skills long before you make it to the Tramway of Fitzcaraldo.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Underworld: A Brief(er) Review

Tomb Raider: Underworld is perhaps a less ambitious game. History lesson first; the Tomb Raider series was showing weaker and weaker returns, and the two live action movies didn't help as much as had been hoped. After some odd floundering and experiments the next authorized games released came from the Crystal Dynamics group. They revised the backstory, and stayed more-or-less within that rebooted continuity for three games. Then they tried to go in a new direction with another reboot, this being the much-discussed 2013 game.

The three middle games show a lot of floundering around in a search for a coherent style. One is a re-make of the very first Tomb Raider, only done with more modern graphics. Legend, the first of the Crystal Dynamics games, is graphically quite primitive, and really plays up (with a tongue-in-cheek opening movie) the James Bond aspect of the character. It is also combat-heavy, interspersing pure-combat levels (and a driving-combat level) with more traditional platforming-and-puzzle levels.

Underworld, the last of the series before the second reboot, presents itself more like a big-budget action movie. It is somewhat darker, with a more serious flavor to it. The stakes are huge, combining a save-the-world plot involving, basically, Ragnarok, with Lara finally reaching some answers about the disappearance of her mother (an incident first introduced in Legend.) The graphics are superb, the new motion-captured Lara moves in a way that makes the story feel much more real and (ahem) grounded, and the music -- largely orchestral -- is epic.

What else did they do right? Well, outfits are unlockable via ordinary game play. Not that you get all choices all the time; the game gently leads you to semi-appropriate clothing for the extreme conditions (above the Arctic Circle, for one).

The epic scale of the places and sequences makes significant parts of the platforming into white-knuckle play. Even though the threat is actually fairly small. The slow-time is used sparingly and is fairly effective when it happens. Death By Camera, however, does happen -- particularly in the slow-time events, where half the challenge is waiting out the moment you can finally swivel the camera to the jump you already know you need to make.

On the sort of downside, the odd thing about the platforming in Tomb Raider games is that it isn't actually very difficult. It is rare you have timed events, and most of the jumps are static. Which means that if you position yourself right, you make the jump every time.

Underworld adds a variety of new movement options, including a free-climbing surfaces, shimmying up pillars, balancing on beams. But as much as this extends the variety, most of the climbing is basically holding down movement keys, with a jump here and there. The only difference between traversing on a ledge, and shimmying up a pillar, is the direction of travel and what the animation looks like.

Combat is simplistic. With auto-aim, and infinite ammunition for the signature pistols, there's little point in doing anything else other than strafe-moving while hosing. Hitting the "precision aim" key locks you in place, opening you up for attack, which makes it hardly worthwhile to mess with any of the exploding barrels (which, refreshingly, are not that prominent nor frequent anyhow).

Another nice touch; beside the fact that you can melee opponents that get too close, you are also not prevented from fighting back when you are in the middle of a climb. Lara is allowed to cling to a wall one-handed and shoot back. It might not be that effective, and you can't use any of the more advanced weapons, but it beats what feels like an artificial imposition of vulnerability.

Oh, and since you are a bullet sponge and the bad guys all attended Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy anyhow, you will only take a little more damage if you chose to close to melee range. And there is something rather satisfying about doing a flying leap-kick over a crate to take down the guy that was shooting at you.

The puzzles are relatively simple. The hardest part of them is the ways they break ordinary intuition about how the real world works. For instance, one place where you need two weights to start a machine going, the trick is to use your grapple line on the head of a statue. Which breaks off and falls in exactly the right place. The very first puzzle in the game, I wasted a while on because I thought there was some nice trick in how to use all three disks to rotate the images you wanted into the center. No, it turns out you are supposed to swim around until you find a second wheel, after that it takes no time at all to line up.

At least in a couple places, what you think would work does work; in a similar weight-and-platform setup you arrive at by motorbike, it works just fine to park the motorbike on one of the platforms. And the game also recognizes that a motorbike is a pretty good weapon against melee opponents, too.

The characters are a little more uneven. Your companions are broad caricatures but fortunately get little screen time. Between the lack of the headset chatter from Legend and your more grim demeanor (you are going to hell to kill a god, okay?) there's not a lot of dialog from Lara, either.

On the other hand, both Natla and Amanda are seen a lot, and their entire presentation is grating. Both come off as C-movie female villains, with horrible dialog, slutty wardrobes, and expressions limited to scowls and pouting. Rob Liefeld could have written these two. Your encounters with both have all the wit and integrity of a typical scene from a Women In Prison movie.

All of the relics and other artifacts, outside of the big plot-important bits (Thor's gauntlets, etc.) are presented, well, not at all. They just sort of pop across the screen in a little flash of score points. After a point, I stopped bothering to kick every earthenware jug I found, and only collected the open bowls of magic healing potion.

There are mercifully few cut scenes, and those agree quite well with the actual surrounding game play. You don't suddenly turn into a wimp or a gun nut, and you don't get conveniently captured by mooks you could take out with a rusty spatula. The cut scenes, in short, show you doing pretty much what you were doing without the special camera angles and animation.

Save points are executed automatically, and fall at an almost perfect frequency; far enough apart to make you careful about getting killed, but not so far apart that you get bored replaying a long sequence of easy stuff just to get up to where you got killed.

In summation, the only really negative thing I can say about the game (besides the absolutely horrible presentation of the other female characters) is that it sets up unfair expectations of the other games. So far, all the other ones I have played have failed to live up to this one in epic feel and sheer playability.


I know I've been ranting on this one game for a while. But it hurts to see so much good work done, then squandered on some avoidably stupid choices.

Why the icon overlays?

Here's what I'm talking about:

In the middle of a claustrophobic, atmospheric, tightly-rendered scene, this op art object is floating in garish primary colors. Eventually the helpful caption goes away, but the icons will always be with you. The only way to partially avoid them is to interact as quickly as possible without giving them a chance to display.

Immersion breaking? Take another look at the above. What do you see? A HUD? Bullets remaining, damage taken, experience points to date? No! All of her health is indicated via animation cues and screen effects (the frame gets blood-spotted, and if you are really hurt, it all goes black-and-white -- very effective emotionally as well as communicating quite clearly.

Let me note, all the objects that can be interacted with share the usual law of detail. They are usually lighter in tint and more saturated in color. Most of them have standardized forms you quickly learn to recognize (the standard salvage crate, for instance). The game doesn't have a wide variety of interactions; you either hold "E" to pry it open, turn it on, or set fire to it. Or, in some places, "E" to light the torch then "E" again to set fire to it.

(Yes -- Lara's first resort is setting fire to it. Later in the game she will add blasting it with a shotgun. And there is not a single place in the game where it is a mistake to operate every single button or lever you find. At no point do you realize "Oh, I should not have turned on a damaged generator in the middle of this room filled with gasoline fumes!")

In case you needed more help in ranged interactions, the cross-hairs change color when you are over something worth shooting. Which could be annoying but it a more acceptable break from reality.

But the icons. Grrr! Half-Life has a HUD (excused by the high-tech suit you are wearing) and it doesn't need them. Portal doesn't use them. Not only do they harm immersion, but they get in the way. They cover up things you need to see. There's times I was hit in melee combat because a giant floating icon decided it just had to tell me about the loot-able body I was standing on.

(Incidentally, if you are going to be a power player, then loot the bodies during the fight. You might fight twenty guys, but after the fight ends all but three of the bodies mysteriously disappear.)

The fire graphic goes on to cleverly "fill" in the same elegant way as the old Coors sign visible from Highway 101. Which is how the game designers decided they needed to communicate how long you have to hold your torch on something before the fire was properly set. Ahem. Which you could just, you know, time out by trial and error. Plus, there's a freaking sound effect -- you could just, you know, listen to that.

And as for seeing the object the first time, if for some reason the peculiar texture, the in-game placement, the camera framing, the lighting cues (the usual shaft of light occurs in several places), and the stereotyped form didn't clue you in, then you could always turn on the Bat Vision -- I mean, Survival Vision -- and it would light up for you.

The only slight defense for the damned icons is the usual start-of-game problem. Which is to say, the things that a game needs to do in the first levels, when you are unfamiliar with the conventions and the designers expectations and how the controls work, can become annoying and even awkward later.

It is akin to the scaling problem in the Civilization series of games; it is a lot of fun managing all the small details of one city, visiting it on every turn to check the health and happiness of the population and managing construction of standard infrastructure like granaries and temples. But it is really, really annoying to be forced to do all this minutiae when you are running a world-spanning empire.

I've played Civ games where you have options to hand off these mundane details to city mayors or other AI. But none, yet, where your graduation from worrying about the small details is a natural progression supported by the game; where you implicitly move from chieftain of a tribe to someone who has gained advisors and staff to do things for you.

Anyhow, so I could see it being annoying in the first parts of the game to be clicking on everything randomly, hoping to find out what works. But that doesn't excuse having the same exact mechanic (minus at least the floating captions), staying with you throughout the game.

And, heck. If you are going to have a mechanic that tells you, "Pick up this thing, it's important!" then why are you sticking with the same stereotyped shape? There's no longer the same reason that every single "journal" in the game has to look like the same leather-bound book, whether it is a scrawled note by a dying Roth or a deliberately penned scroll by an ancient Japanese priestess.

And there's no reason for the WWII issue ammo cans, and the wooden crates full of salvage, to be appearing in exactly those forms in an ancient monastery occupied by undead Samurai. If you are committed to an icon popping up like a Whack-a-Mole every time you pass near a collectable, and the things glow neon-bright whenever you turn on your Lara Radar, AND they appear on your pop-up map and can even be set with a searchlight-into-the-sky beacon...!

Then you could have mouldering scrolls and desks full of random papers and all sorts of more interesting forms to press the "interact" button nearby and trigger the "Lara reads a journal entry" screen.

Collectable objects and salvage and loot and buttons aren't the end of it. Enemies get icons floating over their heads as well, turning fights into some kind of black comedy version of The Sims. Do I really need to say you could indicate their status better? "Suffered a fatal wound" is already indicated clearly by the animation; those guys are crawling around on the ground, whereas the injured ones are still charging you. And "You can use a finishing blow on this one" is the same thing as above...(and that's ignoring the extreme ludonarrative dissonance of the "finishing move" crap being in this particular game).

Really, the experience becomes a lot more like playing World of Warcraft online (well, with chat turned off). So much for the immersive sole-survivor experience the same was aiming for.

Notice I didn't quite say "realism." Unlike the game play missteps. that area is acceptable. As nonsensical as this island gets, would you really want to miss out on experiences like....this?

(I had my graphics dialed way down for this, because otherwise the huge fight that's coming on that suspended trawler becomes difficult.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

More Ludonarrative Dissonance

I already mentioned (heck, lots of reviewers have mentioned) that what is presented in the cut scenes of Tomb Raider 2013 fails to match up with the actual play. Heck, the actual narrative doesn't match up with the cut scenes. For instance, having her uncertain about whether boarding the rescue helicopter is a good idea. Uncertain? A few cut scenes before, she witnessed a four-engine plane being shot out of the sky by magic lighting! The cutscene is very definitive that the plane was attacked, and destroyed without either difficulty or mercy.

In the inverse case, when she meets up with the other survivors late in the game they are all, "Glad you could join us." Oh, like you had a tough time of it, Reyes! I had to fight my way through a giant fortress that was on fire, killed about a hundred guys, got hit umpty times by machine gun fire, now I'm covered with gore (half of it mine) and I'm carrying four or five insanely customized weapons and a whole pile of grenades. How could they not see the evidence of what she's been through?

Similarly, when you are trying to convince the others, you are shown in cutscene making some vague, unsupported statements about German scientists and stuff. How about, "And here's the log books I picked up, and journals, plus the goddamned sword of her top general."

Sure, some of this depends on style of play. It is just possible you would reach these cutscenes with different information, different collections, different experiences.

Except not really.

At the center of the ludonarrative disconnect is that this reluctant warrior who throws up at her first kill is going to (while under your control, and in general only while under your control), kill hundreds of people. In generally messy fashion.

This is not a stealth game. You can not avoid engagement. In many, many places, the only way to proceed is to kill.

On my second time through, I felt really bad about killing the armored giant on the Endurance. Okay, first time, he was a pain. And he's insulting you through the fight, and whacking you around. But even then, there's a streak of chivalry in him. He could easily kill you on any of those times he grabs you and picks you up. But he tosses you away and taunts you to come at him again. And, hey, even on the first time through, when you start making progress, he gets confused and a little lost and it feels bad to take advantage of these moments of weakness.

My second time through, I gamed for skills -- focusing on bow and axe, getting to the axe as weapon and the various dodge counter and dodge kill skills as quickly as possible, and putting all my upgrade points on the bow. And I also made it a point to practice the dodge and the dodge counter.

(Including on wolves, the most dangerous non-boss enemy in the game. Oni can only swing swords at you. Wolves attack you with Quick-Time Events.)

That meant that when I faced the giant again, he was completely outclassed. I had to seriously mess up in order for him to hit me even once. And this became the worst kind of bullfight. I'd just stand there taunting him to charge. Dodge away, causing him to cry out in hurt confusion, "How did you do that?" -- then slam an arrow into his knee. As he cried out in pain I'd shoot him a couple of times in the face, causing him to go to one of his almost-sobbing states, ("No! No! What is happening to me?")

And then you bury an axe in his skull. I mean, why? Fuck you, Crystal Dynamics. I felt so bad, and I wanted so much to spare him. But the game forces you to kill in order to progress. Makes me want to write a fanfic excerpt in which she refuses to execute him, and tries to talk to him instead.

Because I respect the big guy. Okay, he may be brutal and horrible and guilty of all sorts of things off screen, but that isn't shown. What is shown is that he's a strict but helpful supervisor, and he takes pride and joy in his work (which includes wearing what has to be really hot, heavy, and uncomfortable armor.) He takes legitimate pride in the toughness of what he has made of himself. Killing him is like killing a Bengal Tiger in its prime. From a tower. With a machine gun.

It was actually less bad going through the Oni. I mean, you'd sort of feel bad for them, given that they've been living corpses for a thousand-odd years, surviving and drilling just to protect their Queen. And when the worst threat that has ever come at her appears, they are forced to give up their night raids and throw everything into a massed frontal attack.

(This also may be the only explanation of how you are actually winning through most of the game. Although there is equal narrative evidence against it, it is plausible that the Solarii worked almost entirely by stealth. They pretended friendship, like Mathias does. They suckered small parties of bewildered, shipwrecked survivors into trusting them, or raided them at night picking them off one by one. You -- and presumably Roth as well -- are raiding them. Instead of sitting in a well-marked camp waiting for them to snipe from the bushes, you are taking the fight to them, and catching their small raiding parties out in the open and unprepared. And the few times they try massed ambush to take you down, they show they just don't have any experience at coordinating their efforts. They can't even manage to get the whole-hearted cooperation of all of their guys; half of them are skulking behind cover refusing to show themselves.)

Anyhow, the Oni probably would have wanted it that way. They went out fighting, not being sniped from behind. They probably would have preferred it if they knew they were succeeding in protecting the Queen, but there's a strong thread in that culture of The Good Fight, whether or not you actually win. And if nothing else, their half-life of continued deathless service is finally coming to an end.

The Solarii...jeez. With all the energy they use creating things like that Fitzcarraldo's dream of a tramway, and putting up fortifications all around the island, they could have built a pretty good paradise. Heck, it rains a lot in Seattle, too. The caverns, and the inferred cadre of "Enforcers" that hints of a hierarchy of control, still does not excuse them.

But, still...from a Doylist perspective, the Solarii were created to be unredeemable. And for Lara's actions to be excusable. This is why Tchaikovsky or whatever his name is was created to be so despicable. Because they didn't want Lara's first act of active resistance to be ambush-killing some poor twenty-year old kid guarding a road.

Anyhow. I mentioned already the almost complete disconnect between any of the archaeology and the actual game progress. This game offers a wide variety of collectables, but only one of them has any effect on game play. Salvage allows you to make your weapons more powerful. Some other collectables give you a bit of experience, but otherwise they don't have anything to do with the in-game world or the progression of the story. You can save Sam and leave the island without collecting a single one of the Chinese daggers or GPS locators or magic mushrooms. These only buy you some kind of badge that you display on your Steam wall, and which ten thousand other people already have anyhow.

Really, outside of salvage, the only thing worth picking up is the optional tombs. Because they give you lots of eeps; they are usually worth a skill point, and a weapon part as well.

Sure, reading the notebooks is fun the first time around. The way the back-story of the island is presented is very nice, and the only flaw here is that there should have been more. There are tantalizing hints, but no way to follow them up. No way to even stay with one story; as you progress, one notebook will talk about 14th-century ambassadors to Himiko's court, and the next notebook will be Whitman rambling on about his divorce settlement.

But once you've figured out the gist of it, there's no point in picking up any more of them. Besides, it isn't as if you the player need to know anything at all about the plot. It will all happen, usually in cutscenes, anyhow. You are going to be railroaded towards staking Himiko regardless of whether you bother to translate any wartime letters or collect any 100-yen coins.

There is a different affliction with skills. There are a lot of skills you can collect. Only some are unlockable early in the game. Those skills will only be used early in the game.

Even if you game things thoroughly, it is essentially impossible to achieve the majority of survival skills before it no longer becomes necessary or even particularly useful to have them.

You can at least to save salvage. Because it is possible you could perform all the upgrades on a weapon only to get something better. I can see a player spending on the bow, then the pistol, then never using either of them again after the rifle (and grenade launcher!) falls into their hands.

In a similar balance problem, I basically never ran out of ammo. Not even on the big battles, which often have re-spawning ammo cans spread around. This suggests to me that all the playtesters were hosing the battlefield and mashing the buttons. If you aim your shots -- if you can get even a quarter in headshots -- you rarely have an ammo problem.

How nice it was that the Oni made sure to stash cans of ammo for weapons they never use all over their own village! The ammo cans, and a few of the other collectable items, are even more reality-breaking than the health packs that litter the ground in games that pretend less to realism.

But this is another sign that you are meant to play bullet-sponge fashion. You are meant to stand up and hose, ducking behind cover only to heal up. And this has damned-all to do with the small, lightly-built girl with an aversion to killing and a torn t-shirt for body armor. It is really as if the game created by the writer and the voice actors and some of the resource designers was spliced on to a generic first-person shooter engine and gameplay mechanics. And, somehow, no-one noticed the disconnect.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Time Raider

Yeah, turns out Tomb Raider 2013 is addictive. I finished it, then started again to see if the skills and upgrades system worked better if you gamed it a little. But all of this is time I should have been spending on the new circuit, or the grenade orders...and the apartment is looking pretty shabby, too.

I"m still ambivalent about some of the choices they made. And how well those choices work is impacted greatly by style of play...and by familiarity (aka, having done the game once already).

Half-Life2 suffered a little from this as well. It better presents the illusion of a wide-open environment, and you feel like you are making a unique pathway through it as you find places to climb, physics objects to move with the Gravity Gun, etc. It is on the second play through that you realize there is only one path, and all the options you chose not to take were not, in fact, choose-able.

Tomb Raider does have some wide-open explorable environments. But the set-pieces, most of the travel, and of course the developing story are all very much on a set of rails. And the camera does not help.

The Tomb Raider series has always been known for "death by camera." See, Lara's movements are XY along the camera axis. If the camera is behind her and you hold down "W," she runs forward. If the camera is on her right, "W" will cause her to strafe/scramble to her left. And jump direction is the same. Which means, inevitably, the camera will end up on a diagonal to your desired motion right at the moment you need to make a jump.

Tomb Raider 2013 is extremely cinematic. Which helps to hide some of the railroading the first time through, but also adds Death by Camera to the ignominy of Death by Quicktime Event (and, of course, Capture by Cutscene.)

A word on that last. If you started a drinking game for every time Lara is captured during a'd be too drunk to finish the game. Many, many important narrative events are railroaded by making you witness a cutscene (as opposed to a game like Half-Life or Portal 2 that relies on clever level design to force your actions whilst giving you at least a modicum of the illusion of free choice.)

Oddly, though, the one that annoyed me most when when Lara escapes from the two Russian brothers. Two guys, on a narrow bridge, and they've got your weapons. So the cutscene informs you that she grabs her bow off of one and jumps. Fifty feet into a river of blood covered in punji stakes. Presumably you were thinking they'd believe you died in the fall (can't imagine why they'd think that!). Except they don't, and they are free to go around and tell everyone else you got away from them.

Thing that makes this so annoying is; you've still got the climbing axe in this scene.

Right, another aside here. My two favorite weapons are the popular choices; bow, and axe. The bow just does everything. Silent kills early on. Powered shots are available from the start of the game as well, for punching through light armor. Fire and rope arrows later in the game. Ammo is plentiful and you can even recover your own arrows from your kills. The fire arrows are especially devastating, and appear fairly early on (in one of the best cutscenes of the game). You can drive enemies out from behind cover by setting fire to their surroundings, and then set fire to them -- which acts as a delayed kill on even semi-armored opponents, plus sows confusion and sets more fires (particularly if you've shot a Grenadier). And they work as well as anything else on explosive barrels.

The players at Spoiler Warning demonstrated how deadly axe melee could be. And this is one thing I wanted to try for my replay. So I concentrated on leveling up, both by taking the skills in the right order and by getting in some extra hunting. My Lara was hell on the wildlife in her area (As are all the Laras -- at least the Underworld Lara finally invested in a tranquilizer gun.)

And, yes, the axe is devastating. I was able to get pretty far with it just by button-mashing, but use of a little dodging, plus snap-shots to take out ranged opponents, makes fights against smaller/isolated groups go quickly.

All of the attacks are pretty graphic, but in one of the "Going a bit too far there aren't we?" design moments, you get extra points for a finishing move on an injured enemy. Also once you have the ice axe, the silent melee kill animation changes from a bowstring strangle to burying your ice axe in the top of their head.

This makes the reaction of your surviving crew-mates a bit jarring when they give a football cheer and call you a badass for taking out their guards. Um, does "badass" really cover putting an arrow through the throat of one from hiding, killing two more with a freaking ice axe in a savage close-corners melee -- finishing the second one off with a vicious and snarling ice axe trepan -- and then gratuitously setting the last one on fire and watching him burn to death?! I'm thinking a more appropriate reaction would have been shocked silence.

(And a little later on in that scene, if there was a dialog option I think my Lara would be saying, "Shut up, Reyes, or my next arrow is for you.")

So , anyhow, back to the bridge. At this point the game had given you plenty of chances to demonstrate that those two didn't have a chance. They didn't even have armor. And, heck, one of them had my stuff. It is a paucity of imagination that led the designers to chose for you via an imposed cutscene, rather than try to work around the possibility that you could wipe the floor with them, easy.

Heck, it would have been less annoying -- less character breaking, which is really the point -- if you were allowed to chose to run or fight, and the game showed you a cutscene of a bit of the bridge breaking off under your foot regardless. Or, since they did the same damn thing in other scenes, have machine gun fire open up on you from a covered and protected position, forcing you to chose to jump (or stay and die).

Another aside before I talk cinematics. I am playing on a Mac. I'm playing the PC version on a Mac (via Wine). So I had to do some creative button re-mapping. In Underworld melee is always available and your guns auto-target. Manual aim freezes your avatar in place. Tomb Raider 2013 doesn't have the martial arts moves. Your only melee option is to kick things, up until Roth finally gives you the ice axe. Then it becomes your only melee weapon until the end of the game.

Anyhow, the upshot was I didn't know Tomb Raider 2013 permitted strafing, and I didn't get the dodge mechanic -- well, particularly the dodge kill mechanic. Considering I was playing on the track pad of a laptop (and on normal difficulty, too), it's pretty amazing I got 2/3 of the way through the game.

After reading up on a guide to the controls, I re-mapped to my Orbit trackball, to where left mouse enters target mode, and right mouse fires. That made it easier to hit the dodge/scramble button, and release the fire button sometimes to take cover, and it made it possible (since I was no longer using a navigation finger to turn on targeting) to strafe and to snap-shot.

And having concentrated on axe and melee skills once combat took over from scavenging and survival, the heavy-shield guys that are introduced as early bosses fell within seconds. Scramble-dodge around whilst using snap-shot to take out the other guys (shotgun blast from close in, or headshot with the pistol. Shoot them in the legs first to slow them down if necessary. Or a charged fire arrow for the lightly armored ones). Then when it is just the big guy, find an open space and wait for him to charge. Dodge, use the Dodge Reverse to ram an arrow through his leg, then when he stumbles hit him with the ice axe; once to take him down, and once for the finishing blow.

Yeah, it is pretty nasty and brutal stuff! This is like if Tarantino designed a video game.

So cinematics. The game is exceptionally cinematic. It achieves this through a near-seamless blend all the way from total player control through to full-on cutscene. All are rendered in the game engine, real-time as far as I can figure, and there is often no real indication when you've got control and when you don't. (As opposed to Half-Life 2, which famously never takes away camera control from the player, instead choosing cunning tricks to make you look the directions it wants you to).

Here's the variations;

1. Regular play
1b. Scripted animations (Finishing Moves and the like)
2. Constrained camera and/or pathway
3. Slow-mo
4. QTE
5. Cutscene

In a typical sequence, a short cutscene presents you with an exploding bridge, then the camera whip-pans from looking at the bridge to looking at Lara. She starts to run. At some arbitrary point, she will only continue running if you are holding down the movement key for her, but the camera is fixed in such a way you can only run forward. Several jumps present themselves. One big jump arrives, and the game goes slow-mo as you miss and fall towards a climbable surface, giving you all the hint you need to grab the climbing axe. You are in normal control while you climb, although the camera is now glued to one side so you can't look down or up, and it switches to one more brief cutscene as she tops out. She crawls out facing the camera, the camera pans around to take in the new vista, frames her in it with the light just so...and without the slightest change, you are back in control once again.

So I actually had a harder time through some of these sequences the second time. Because first, the camera is dogmatic about being in the desired direction of travel, so much that if all you do is mash the "run" button you will almost always be running in the right direction. And everything is timed and only a few rare events actually require you to do anything, so ignore the fireballs and falling timber and all that rot and just run. And jump the gaps.

So, yeah, the first time through it feels like you really achieved something, and the whole pell-mell dash through falling bridge or burning building (Lara also does a number on the architecture in this game) is framed beautifully with camera angles that show it off to best cinematic effect.

And the second time you are aware of the rails, and if you happen to anticipate a move you get control of the camera wrenched from your hands just as you try to jump, jumping the poor kid off the side of the bridge. But, heck, this is still less annoying than Death by QTE.

What makes the QTE so annoying is not only are they graphic, not only do they have a meaningless difficulty (forcing you to replay the graphic death scene over and over and over), but they take you out of the game.

In each QTE, you are watching a cut-scene until the moment where, in fine Dragon's Lair style, a large picture of the controller button/key appears over the scene you are watching. Sometimes the button is blinking, asking you to mash it. Sometimes it is blinking differently and appears to want you to hold it or tap it. And sometimes it is a timed tap; hit it too soon or too late and the death animation plays. All of these take you out of the game, particularly as you are puzzling out which button is being displayed (as the choice seems too often arbitrary). The worst being the timed ones, where you are watching the button graphic to try to detect the moment when it wants to be hit.

This is oddly akin to the Standard Loot problem, where fairly quickly all the loving background detail becomes ignored as your eyes become focused on pattern recognition for the only things that actually matter in all that background; the loot, presented in familiar standardized shapes for easy recognition.

(And similar to the falling debris mentioned above; it can't hurt you so you ignore it. Anything that could actually hit you, will trigger a QTE that you then interact with. Otherwise, just mash the button and keep climbing.)

So too often you find yourself staring at small letters in a dark red font, wondering it it is an "E" or an "F," or watching a ring contract towards a fuzzy ring-like zone where either it matters that it touches the outside, or doesn't touch the outside, or is somewhere in the middle (and there is no clear guidance which)...and then the death animation plays and the entire damned cutscene plays again from the top.

This, to me, is what pushes my avatar over the edge. Not seeing all the dead bodies, not being shot at by everyone. No, having to listen to Mendelev or Molotav or whatever his name is growl how he's going to kill me slow...over and over and over and over as I keep having to watch the start of that cutscene to get to the moment where I can maybe hit an "E" or an "F" or something when a red ring is just about to turn into a yellow dot. After suffering through this a dozen times I was ready to kill everything on the island.

And, thing of it is; even outside of the player-patronizing use of railroads and camera control and QTE and so forth, these events could have been easily integrated much better into the play experience.

There is no point at which the game needs to take control away from you and give you arbitrary graphics and force you to guess at which key to hit in order to jump a gap. Not even in the most tightly-scripted, cinematic, partly cut-scene sequence. You jump because you see air, and a place to jump to, and you hit the right key because the jump key is always the space bar.

Point being, they could have trained you -- the way better designed games like Portal train you in the correct mechanics, the way this game itself trains you to use the climbing skills in a relatively safe environment and with a few early button hints -- to respond with the normal action buttons as if what was happening in the QTE was a normal action.

The game does this in other places.

And if it is so necessary that they have a specific event and/or moment for the story-advancing cinema-friendly event they wish to contrive, there are already existing mechanisms for it. The slow-mo sequences (which were also used in Underworld). And the Survivor Vision.

Here is it. If the game wants to underline that you knee Prokofiev in the crotch, go to slow-mo (which the QTE does already) and light up the target area with Survivor Vision. And let the player grasp that since this is melee, this is a melee attack, meaning the same button they've always used to hit people. And if timing is important, you can put that in the graphics, or even put that in the sound (and, again, there already is a building-up sound that follows these QTE moments. It just doesn't mate up close enough to be a useful guide).

Heck, the game practically goes out of its way to emphasize how little actual control you have during the QTE's. When fighting wolves in open terrain, you can tap the Dodge/scramble keys to avoid their lunges. When one of them jumps on you in a QTE, the game helpfully tells you (in a distracting overlay, to boot!) to mash the movement keys randomly. Pretty much baldly telling you it doesn't matter what you do, and completing the divorce of your actions from what is seen on the screen.

(And, no, you can't turn these off. The only "Turn button hints off" checkbox I found doesn't appear to do anything at all, and that also includes the immersion-breaking floating icons that "helpfully" appear every time you stand near an oil drum or a can of ammo you already have too much of or some other useless thing).

So integrate it. As the Wikipedia article so cogently puts it, early driving games were QTE because you just couldn't do the required stunts with the existing controls. Now we have physics engines, and essentially everything is done within the same framework.

And as for indicators; games are pretty good about using texture cues and lighting cues and camera cues. You don't need to have immersion-breaking floating icons drifting about every object you can interact with. Make them optional, at least.

And another sigh for how things don't matter. It is a peculiar situation they've set up. The Solari seem set up with a lot of internal fortifications. The fact that they are wearing their armor and weapons 24-7 in later parts of the game is at least partly explained by what you've been up to, but even the hints that they've been fighting with the Oni don't explain why they are so heavily armed.

Nor does it explain why you are doing so well. You got the bow off someone who died with it. Were they off peacefully hunting for a living in some corner of the island until a Solari scouting party happened by? Or were they trying to fight back like you were? The game seems unable to make up its mind. The Solari are so ready to do battle, yet they also seem surprised and even put out that an "Outsider" is fighting back.

(This is one of the few places that they have a nice realism; when you are hunkering down behind cover in sniper mode, you can hear them arguing with each other; "I'm not going out there, man! She's too good a shot!")

You don't have weapons they don't. Yours are all scavenged from the same wrecks as theirs, and even your fire arrow and rope arrow innovations aren't unique (later in the game the Solari use both against you.) Even Lara's speciality, the climbing, doesn't seem to make a difference. All the internal evidence is that the Solari are getting to work with the same wall scrambles and zip lines you are using. They only thing they seem to lack is the ice axe climb, and even that is unclear.

Which is a pity in a way; it highlights how the game so rarely gives you chances to make creative use of your outside-context skill set. To climb up to a ledge to avoid an armed party, or to ambush them from an unexpected direction. The most creative thing you do is set fire to everything, and, really, people who stack cans of gasoline, lit candles and oil lamps, into debris-filled decaying wooden buildings are basically applying for a Darwin Award already.

The archaeology is of course similar. The little items she finds are cool, and it is great to have her gushing over the history and context of the artifacts. It just looks really weird when you are finding them inside a room full of dead bodies while maniacs are throwing molotov cocktails in after you.

And of course they don't matter. The only "finds" that change game play are in the big treasure chests at the end of the optional tombs. Which, after a long wriggle through twisty passages, solving a complicated puzzle, then (in a cutscene) approaching a big fancy box and opening it to big fanfare...well, you never see the artifact. Apparently the only thing inside the ancient Japanese shrine deep under the mountain is a map, and the slide to a magnum pistol.

(Which could have been kind of cool in a more "Beyond Thunderdome" way, but, no. This is one of the places where game mechanics collide with world building. Tombs are worth experience points and weapons upgrades. And the latter manifests as "Part 1/3 shotgun found!")

The big secret, she puzzles out in an agonizingly slow way. Since nothing you do has anything to do with solving it one way or another. Setting fire to the body would have ended the story a lot sooner (especially given that outside of cutscenes, that's pretty much Lara's modus operandi. The only time "set fire to everything" isn't the optimal move is in the caverns, where it draws more Solari. Which you might want anyhow, if you are hurting for experience points.)

In any case, the game gives you no hint to how you are managing to tear through them like this. Mathias may claim to be better at surviving than you are, in his "We are the same" speech. (Sorry, no. I am killing people who chose to kill, you are killing people who came in peace -- and are still willing to try to talk to you.) But Mathias is sadly misinformed. After hewing your way through his Solarii, you take out the entire Oni army they've been fighting for decades -- over the course of an afternoon. I'm way better at this. The final fight against him would have been a curb stomp if it wasn't framed in a QTE.

So, sometimes the hero convinces you (Bruce Willis was excellent at this) by looking like he can take all that punishment and is just too stubborn to quit. And sometimes you just have to hand wave that one CEO in a muscle suit with rubber nipples can beat up thirty guys in a row. Or, such as this game, the shark gets jumped in such slow motion you just go with it.

Games try to present it that you have the advantage of unpredictability. Of freedom of action. They are trying to cover all the approaches, or send out scouts all over the place, and trying to coordinate their efforts, and all you have to do is be in one place and win each individual fight. Sure, it happens. The 82d basically had the early hours of Normandy handed to them that way. And it makes more sense when the enemy is disrupted, have lost communications, or when you are really coming at them from an angle they didn't expect.

But, really, it becomes hard to buy. So as a role-player -- and not as a simple button-masher who is willing to abuse the game mechanics in order to score points -- you end up with internal monolog in which you are superhumanly good. Or lucky. Or got bit by one of the special bugs in Edge of Tomorrow.

(Which is where I'm going with my own fanfic, if and when I stop playing games and get back to doing some real writing.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Whining about Games

So I've never been that heavy a computer game player, and slanted more towards TBS (Turn-Based Strategy) and other slow, contemplative games (Myst) than towards FPS (First-Person Shooters). Which was a bonus with my usual less-than-wonderful hardware.

Okay, sure, I liked me some Doom (yes, indeed, the original John Carmack game) and I stumbled upon the oddly addictive Martial Arts Bunny Massacre game Lugaru. (The sequel to which, Overgrowth, has been in development hell longer than Duke Nukem Forever.)

But I kept my ear to the news, especially around the replica props makers, and a little game called Portal seemed like it would be just a lot of fun to play. Until the day I realized I actually owned a computer recent enough to run a modern game, and signed up for some Steam. And in the Orange Box with Portal was a copy of Half-Life2.

Yes, I got the Half-Life bug. And besides offering good game play, it has an incredibly well-integrated story (the guys and gals over at Spoiler Warning do a good job of describing how the design gets around a lot of the usual design pitfalls). More than once (when I had a lot more time to read) I'd pick up an SF or Fantasy trilogy in the middle, and even when the book wasn't that good I'd be intrigued enough with questions about how they got to where they were in the second book, and how the author might have set up the story, that I'd seek out the first book in the trilogy.

The first part of the Half-Life story is an old (practically Doom-level graphics) PC game. However. However. There is a group of volunteer developers that took the extensive modding tools for Half-Life 2 made available to the community, and made a port of the entire game (with much enhanced graphics, design, game play, voice acting -- you name it).

All I had to do is install a game mod designed for a PC game. Which meant, first, running the PC game. And that meant Wine.

Wine is a lovely little (with a massive support community) bit of open-everything freeware. Wine (with a GNU-like tongue-in-cheek) stands for "Wine Is Not an Emulator." 

Some people argue with that. As I see it, though, an emulator basically acts like a chip. You run an actual Windows install in a shell, the emulator intercepts the commands down at a machine-code level and translates the opcodes into something your current hardware can handle. In the case of Bootcamp and similar, your hardware will already run Windows natively; Bootcamp basically operates as an overall supervisor, instructing the hardware whether to listen to the Windows OS or the Mac OS from moment to moment.

Wine, on the other hand, handles the program calls from the software you would be running IN Windows. And then it does what Windows would have wanted to do (bugs and all -- part of the necessary process is to reproduce all the weird flawed ways various versions of the OS respond to the program calls made by software attempting to run under it, because many are the pieces of software that were written specifically to make use of those strange and often ad-hoc behaviors.)

Which gives Wine tremendous flexibility. It can pretend from moment to moment to be different flavors of Windows, with different attached hardware. And it also makes it fast -- fast enough to play a modern game.

I was astounded by just how good Black Mesa looked, and how well it played (a glitch or two notwithstanding -- but even a modern supported and well-patched game running native on the PC will glitch sometimes. Such is life in the modern world.)

So when Steam alerted me to one of their rolling $1.75 sales, I took them up on it. 

I've had no particular interest in the Tomb Raider games. Tried a demo of one a while back and was put off by the graphic drowning animation that triggered every time you failed to read the designer's mind and swim towards some badly-rendered spot that looked pretty much like every other badly-rendered spot.

But for two bucks...

Tomb Raider: Underworld was a surprising amount of fun. It took a little creative re-mapping, but I completed the game using just the laptop's native track pad. There were essentially no major crashes or glitches (although I did have to roll back some of the graphics to get smooth game play.)

The scenery is gorgeous. One quibble is that while the designers worked well with light and shadow, and made good use of stamps to break up the textures, there are no overall shaping and toning to the surfaces. This is something you pick up in art classes and in theater painting; the final technique over the texturing and the painted-in shadows and other details, is a spattering or glaze that shapes the overall focus towards the stage, and helps separate the large masses from each other.

Underworld lacks this overall shaping, so the large masses of buildings tend to blend into a single highly-detailed but oddly homogenous mass of architecture.

The puzzles are simplistic, though at least very few of them require you to do something that breaks intuition and the realism of the game world. So is the mythology, with the "relics" being particularly disappointing, as they just show up as a bland "relic found" instead of the detailed archeological artifacts of some of the other games in the series.

And combat is very different from the FPS model. The Tomb Raider series mostly uses auto-target. Underworld does include a manual aiming mode but it is too cumbersome for anything other than sniping. (And the ranges of the weapons largely preclude that). The most effective combat style seemed to be the Monty Python variation of strafing; circle the enemy at high speed while holding down the "Fire" button. The signature twin pistols have infinite ammo, and with auto-aim you don't even have to see the bad guys. Meanwhile, they lose tracking on you and even blunder into each other while trying to follow you around. It wins, but it is boring. You can break things up a little by throwing stick-bombs (especially nice on bad guys that like to clump together).

It also follows the Steven Seagal rule; often the best way to deal with a lone gun-wielding opponent is to run up to them while they are shooting at you and hit them in the face. There are a few of the usual exploding drums around, but the manual aiming system is cumbersome enough (and freezes you dead in your tracks while you are employing it) that it is hardly worth looking for them in all but rare cases.

All of this makes the game the equivalent of a summer action flick. Lots of colorful settings (most of them in the process of blowing up) and a few tight corners with adrenaline-pumping music framing them (the bit where you have to set the Mayan calendar then race your motorcycle around pit traps and into the just-closing entrance of the tomb is a good one).

And thinking about Lara Croft herself led me to wonder why no-one had written a cross-over fanfic with the Stargate universe. I mean, both of them feature "gods" who are really Ancient Astronauts, and both illustrate the Indiana Jones school of archaeology. And as much as he does the exact same thing, Daniel would be horrified by Lara's "smash the tomb and grab the artifact" methods. 

So of course I'm currently writing one. And reading up a ton while doing so, including a bunch of blogs by working archaeologists. And why is it that I don't get more of my electronics projects done, ahem?

Given that smooth performance, and another $1.75 sale, I decided to try the third reboot of the Tomb Raider universe; the much-discussed 2013 game.

It runs less well in Wine. There are some glitches, notably, a few textures that don't render at all (which acts the same on the otherwise gorgeous game worlds as seeing the back of a stage flat does in the set world). Worse, there's a couple of spots where text does not show, most annoyingly, in the saved scenes dialog. Meaning if the game crashes, I can't always find my way back to where I'd stopped, and often have to re-play from some previous spot.

Replay has always been a sticky spot for immersive realism. Playing games that allow going through a level twice always puts you in that weird compartmentalization mode; in one part of your mind, you are thinking and reacting as your game-world avatar. In another part, you are aware of what is coming up. And you end up -- if you are a role-player, like me -- coming up with all sorts of weird rationalization for why your avatar feels like suddenly throwing a grenade down an otherwise unremarkable hallway.

Tomb Raider 2013 takes this one step worse, with the properly-reviled QTE (Quick Time Events,) otherwise known as Death By Quicktime, otherwise known as (when manage to avoid triggering the death animation) "Press X to Not Die."

Immersion is already holding on with one hand when the label for the button you are supposed to press is suddenly drifting around on the screen. It falls to its death after the sixth or seventh time you try to hit a button at some arbitrary moment when a circle lights up or something -- you are quickly divorced from any feeling that your actions relate to the game world, or are in any way part of the simulated kinesthetics of your avatar, and are left entirely trying to mash a button on your computer at exactly the right moment to let the damned Quicktime Movie finally end and let you get back to playing the game.

Several in particular are so divorced from any connection with the normal game play they are un-involving from the first moment. In the river episode, you literally can not see the obstacles you are trying to avoid, and it becomes a matter of mashing the direction keys randomly, watching random things happen on the screen, until either the movie of Lara crawling ashore plays, or the damned animation of her choking to death with a metal rod rammed through her throat plays yet again. And, no, even after a dozen times, the visceral shock of the brutal death animations don't manage to fade to anything less than the blackest of black humor. Never have I more wanted to just run a damned cheat code and avoid this bit of unnecessary nastiness the designers had weighed down the game with.

I'll say again; it isn't so much that the death animations are graphic. It is that the piss-poor design of the game means you are forced to sit through them over and over again, with no action on your own really having any influence on them. This is like one of those rat tests where the poor rat is shocked randomly while it hunts in desperate frustration for the correct lever to pull. It doesn't make the stakes feel real (the presumed designer's intent); it just makes you pissed off at the game.

Separate from this is the missed opportunity. Game design has been dealing with this for a few decades now. Somehow, major titles are in a bind where they cost so much to make, they have to charge the consumer an amount that raises expectation of many hours of gameplay in return. If you were paying two bucks, you could probably live with a thirty-minute game (especially if it had replay value). For forty bucks, the purchaser expects ten hours or more. 

And the most tried and true method of delivering that much time in game play without boring the gamer (or driving the level designer to distraction) is combat. And a similar set of constraints -- the need to make combat actually risky, without it being a game-ender -- means a multiplicity of mooks and player avatars who act like bullet sponges. 

Portal is one of the games that breaks the mold. It plays like a First Person Shooter, but you don't really fight. You solve puzzles. And there's enough in that basic framework that thousands of hours of additional puzzle play have been created by, and played happily by, the community of players themselves.

The Tomb Raider games also concentrate gameplay on the platforming (as an aside, I normally hate platforming, I hate it in Half-Life, but I think I mostly hate it because many games don't support it well. Half-Life is a shooter, and the platforming puzzles that are thrown in for variety tend to be frustrating exercises in trying to predict the size of your invisible bounding box.)

The Tomb Raider games have developed a wide pallet of gameplay solutions, from the variety of methods and tools (grapple guns, the ice axe, different animations) to some very sensible use of small cues to help the player. "Press X to jump safely" is a hell of a lot less friendly to immersive play, then noticing that Lara is hesitating when you look up but is leaning with a hopeful look when you look left.

So the good ones in the series provide a nice balance of platforming and puzzles, with a few spots of combat for variety. However, the platforming is fixed. Unlike game AI's, there is no emergent behavior, no unique situations. Every time you play the game, the same platforms are in the same places. In the worst levels, there is also only one solution. And that breaks immersion in that you end up doing Donkey Kong on it; memorizing which jumps and traverses you need to do in which order, then mindlessly walking your way through those moves when the puzzle is presented.

Overly-scripted AI's of course fall into a similar trap.

On the good levels, there are multiple possible routes and things feel less like rote memorization and more like you are actually clambering around. A mistake the 2013 game makes, unfortunately; many of the routes are so relentless linear, and you are also forced to take them in one string at a run, you end up feeling more a manipulated puppet than an active player. Indeed; one of the great set-pieces, a relatively early ascent of a towering and exposed radio mast, becomes a heck of a lot less interesting once you realize you can go through the entire freaking climb by just holding down the "forward" direction button. And then letting go when the Quicktime movie plays for the climax and finale.

This is also a philosophical problem the game fell into; that it tried to be more cinematic than a game really should. To create the kinds of scenes they wanted, they had to script actions much more tightly than is usual, and they did a poorer job than some in hiding the railroading from the player.

But I was heading somewhere else here. There was existing potential in the series to make it more of a puzzle game, and make the puzzles more interesting.

Of course, all puzzle games suffer from the simple problem that once you've solved it, it devolves to memorization. And I really, really don't know how you could write a game that integrated the support documents of a Tomb Raider game with the in-game puzzles.

What I mean is this; in the framing animations of the earlier games in the series, you are presented with journal entries, conversations, short QuickTime movies that explain the MacGuffin and the why and where for the level of the moment. Someone told Lara, or Lara found in old documents, or even a bad guy was bragging during the climax of the previous level that a part of King Arthur's sword or whatever is hidden beneath an ancient Mayan ruin in Yucatan. So now you are at said ruin, looking at a bunch of Mayan glyphs and trying to figure out how to get the door open.

Essentially all of the actual puzzle solving comes down to matching patterns or jury-rigging half-broken ancient machinery. Which is to say, it is all in-game, and it makes no functional difference whether the parts are moss-encrusted stone carved with runes, or brightly-colored Tetris blocks.

Given that several of the games have made an effort towards incorporating decent archaeological data, there is an obvious space here for, at the least, for the secret to opening the sarcophagus being to re-arrange the parts of a cartouche to properly spell out Imhotep. Which is scrawled in your notes (most of the games have provided the high-tech equivalent of Indy's "Grail Diary" in the form of a PDA.)

The Myst games do this, where often the key is not looking for where the broken-off wheel went to, but instead remembering that a picture of a bird was associated with the sound of wind chimes.

I don't really know what this would look like, translated to archaeology. Whether it would be possible to actually reproduce some of the process of inspiration which is shown in fictional depictions of archaeology ("This is the cup of a carpenter"). And given the above caveats, tying large parts of the game's planned running time to the puzzles themselves severely limits replay, thus value.

But I'd like to see someone try.

The road not taken by Tomb Raider 2013 is a different one, and fully as interesting.

Lara Croft is in most of the series James Bond. She's trained and well-armed, supremely confident, and has a bunch of gadgets. The bulk of play is swinging from pillar to pole in blithe confidence in your own physical prowess, with small vacations in which you put down armed opposition with your own copious firepower.

In the first chapters of the 2013 game, you are alone without equipment in a hostile wilderness. And the game emphasizes -- and makes you believe -- that you have only nascent survival skills. It does an incredibly good job of walking you through struggling up a mountainside to find shelter, making a fire, tottering out injured and shivering in a desperate attempt to bring down small game with a home-made bow and arrow.

And it supports and celebrates your growing skills, letting you treasure the tiny pieces of essential survival gear that come into your hands; a rude axe at one moment, a piece of flint at another.

I say again, the mechanics are excellent here. Not unflawed; after the first few camp fires and animal kills the underlying game mechanic becomes too exposed. With the first, you share with Lara not quite knowing what to do, and having your survival hinge on it. After a bit that pales, and each hare in the brush becomes a handful of XP's and some salvage points you can cash in later for a better bow.

So the first mistake is maybe that the level of abstraction becomes too bare too quickly. The underlying mechanics are too simple; for instance, everything you salvage (with the exception of a small number of earmarked parts that may become new guns, and the hero items that appear with much less regularity) goes into a giant unmarked pool of "salvage points." Looked at with too much abstraction, the game appears to imply that with enough feathers and bones from enough dead crows, you can construct a working AK-47.

The abstraction fails to mask the underlying point system, and indeed only emphasizes that despite what the graphics might tell you, only the points matter. You might get a very nice graphic of a 12th-century jade trinket you found in a junk pile, but your eye is drawn more towards the big letters that say "3/5 artifacts found; collect them all to unlock so-and-so."

I was making a similar point in regards to the abstracted archaeology; where it doesn't matter if the notches you are lining up to open a door are in Norse Runes or Mayan Glyphs or composed of smiley faces in bright primary colors. I don't know if it would be playable if, instead of having "You have found 2/3 parts of Combat Rifle. Collect all parts to upgrade weapon," you got something more like, "You found the bolt of a 1938 Mosin-Nagant" -- and then you'd have to remember you already had the upper receiver and the broken stock of that same rifle, and now only needed to find an intact stock somewhere...

I mean, even if this was the primary presentation, it might be better. But wouldn't it be interesting for a game to force you to learn what the parts of a rifle were, or how to skin game, or the difference between hieroglyphs and cuneiform? As a survival game, the real mechanisms of shelter, making fire, the need to find berries or other variety to add to your diet, etc., could be given some treatment.

Or, given that the setting is implicitly an island covered with the wrecks of centuries, some more intriguing way of handling salvage, perhaps even one that allows the MacGyvering of unique solutions based on the salvage available. If nothing else, more specifics on each salvage or each forage would be interesting (it is the same problem of the excessive mookage in most games; the gameplay dictates hundreds of poorly-detailed mooks instead of smaller numbers of unique ones).

And I mean, really. Games have spent decades training us to recognize small arms and basic tactics, and have also trained us in the peculiar and non-realistic expectations forced by the reality of mechanics (as in, there will always be random boxes or bottles or something with a Red Cross on them lying around, which you need to run over or pick up in order to regain health points.)

There are games that have incorporated some of this learning in a form that doesn't punish either the player who has already learned, or the player who needs help. As a similar example, in the above, Lara might have passed a wrecked Soviet-era truck, and after finding the broken Mosin-Nagant if the player clicks on a "help" icon in the Lara's Journal pop-up, a Lara voice-over muses that the Nagant was standard issue with the Soviet Army for some years.

And, yes, many of the Tomb Raider games have included such hint mechanisms. Although they tend to be more towards, "That hanging bell looks very heavy." 

As an aside, I am on the fence about the "Survivor Vision" mechanism of the 2013 game. It feels natural, if slightly meta, to use; supposedly you are focusing your attention on just those elements of your environment that mean life or death, with enemies (or edible game) popping out of the otherwise detail-lush backgrounds. But there is nothing really to keep you from mashing the button over and over again, and going through large parts of the game on Bat-Radar; seeing only the enemies and traps and ignoring all that mere background detail.

(The game has the same focus problem most games have; although there is so much wonderful detail, almost none of it matters, and the bits that do matter are always marked in contrasting colors and formulaic shapes. So after a few hours of game play, you don't bother looking closely at the hand-made shrine of candles and bones and steer directly for the Crate O' Salvage Points.)

And this isn't even including the combats and the scripted events that force you to run through gorgeously detailed settings without taking the time to look around.

The argument is easy to make that making the survival game the center and bulk of Tomb Raider 2013 would make it not a Tomb Raider game. The easy counter-argument is that what they chose to do is also not a Tomb Raider game. There are only a handful of tombs, the puzzles are pedestrian and circumstantial (aka, an arrangement of random things that just happen to allow you to make a path, instead of an ancient stone combination lock), and they are completely optional. They have essentially no effect on the rest of the game.

Much has been said, and quite correctly, that the survivor game plays badly with the rest of the game. You inhabit an avatar early on who doesn't know how to fight and apologizes to a deer before gutting it -- and who has the shakes after she is forced to take a human life (in a scene made rather more infamous than perhaps it should have been.)

By the mid-point, you are carrying more weapons than a small platoon, and you are blithely setting men on fire with flaming arrows and watching them die screaming. And as much as you could defend that she is shell-shocked, and moved to a rather dark place by the terrible things she has witnessed up to that point, the voice acting and in-game cut-scenes haven't changed; she is still presenting the same innocence in them. This makes for a massive disconnect.

The character of the island also builds in stages, adding to itself so gradually there is never any moment where you clearly see the motorcycle ramp being set up next to the shark tank. But if you step back for only a second, disbelief releases from suspension like all those ridiculous Edo-era cliff-side villages you've found, crashing into a chasm of "I wouldn't believe this if I saw it in a Die Hard movie."

Add to that your own combat fatigue of too many seemingly narrow escapes (that upon the oft-necessary replay reveal themselves baldly as a tightly scripted railroad with a couple of arbitrary mashes of the "jump" key in the middle of them), and you stop buying the reality of the universe, or any of the presented reality of Lara. Instead you are Heavily Armed Future Mercenary #2013, only instead of artistically-dirtied powered armor as a hand-wave to your bullet sponge abilities, you have a low cut t-shirt and a texture job that consists mostly of dirt and blood.

It is impossible to reach the mid-point of the game without accepting that Lara is supernaturally strong and agile (and let's not even talk about her endurance, or her ability to heal in seconds from machine-gun fire). The game rubs your nose in this implausibility by only suddenly, after hours of game play in which people are dropping grenades at your feet and slashing you with pikes (plus the aforementioned machine gun fire), demanding you take time to deal with a hole you got in your side from a piece of rebar within the first few minutes of the game.  Which hasn't, until this moment, stopped you from jumping from ledge to ledge like a monkey on caffeine.

And you've stopped bothering to think of yourself as lucky. Reality is, you've watched the death animations too many times already, and your survival is less luck or skill, and more a matter of simple fatiguing repetition -- get killed twenty times, and on the twenty-first you finally struggle through.

It isn't a bad game at this point. The fighting is interesting enough, and there are enough of the requisite environmental options to make you feel a little less like "Front rank, kneel, rear rank, fire" about weathering the attacks of waves after wave of mooks. 

It isn't a bad game, but it is a familiar game. And as of 2013, and with the material they already introduced, it could have been something a lot more interesting.

Duck Duck Goose

I keep finding other things to keep me busy instead of working on the Arduino Controlled Lighting Source (aka pairing a 3W or better RGB LED with an AVR and basic battery management).

And yet again, an application comes along that if I had the gadget, I would use it.

That's been part of the problem. I try to brainstorm what shape the circuit should be to be a flexible general-purpose FX tool for theater. But I have trouble dreaming up the actual applications. Until a show comes along -- like the light-up coat for the WIZ, or an on-stage miner's lamp -- and I realize what I wanted to have had available.

The application that got dropped on me yesterday is to have a light inside a locker that pulses Dalek-style with the voice of the actor. Now, I have one already:

Which works, more-or-less, and will do this show (this has a 741 pre-amp, which is bypassed, a 386 power amp which is pretty much a waste of space in this design, and an ATtiny45 programmed off-line via the Arduino IDE. Under the heat sink is a power Darlington; it takes audio input on one end, and can control 50 feet of LED strip light at 12 volts at the other).

Using this of course requires running power out to the light itself. Or you could run the lights with a battery but the audio would still be on a wire. 

The PLS (to borrow Tomb Raider terminology) is designed from the get-go to be portable, and battery powered. And to have a remote link.

But where this gets interesting is in processing audio. Upon reflection, the neatest way to do this may be to treat audio as just another input stream on the host computer of the controller node.

So the topology works this way; a Processing ap written to take an input of Core Audio, and spit serial commands out to an XBee node. On the remote end (the light-up locket, in this application), the serial data stream through the second XBee node sends real-time adjustments to the desired output, and the AVR runs the PWM serving the light.

(One thing I've been freezing on is sometimes I want a general high-power switch, such as a trio of Power Darlingtons: and other times I want three constant-current drivers matched to a specific compact LED.)

(Or maybe four; a lot of lighting effects look better with a RGBA instead of RGB. Especially anything that is trying to simulate light heavy in the ambers; firelight, candles, oil lamps, etc.)

(Because while I dream of Green Lanterns, two recent applications I might have served with this both required a different form factor. The WIZ coat had light-up lapels, and the stage had almost fifty feet of the same LED strips).

The other thing I'm realizing with this is that rolling custom software is probably going to be necessary in most of the applications that pop up. I can easily see needing to process audio, for instance, but doing a Fast Fourier transform on it so frequency is the driver, not amplitude. I also noticed during The Wiz that having a DMX512 option would be extremely helpful!

Most of which is host-side, but then there's applications like Crystal Ball or Blaster where the data (actor's movements, sensors, controls) are at the end node, and it adds an unnecessary level of complexity to have to send all that sensor data back to a host computer where it gets interpreted.

Oh, yeah, and unless your theater employs a Hollywood Hacker, no-one is going to write raw code on an ad-hoc, application-by-application basis. Which means that even if there's a central coordinator running on a laptop, taking MIDI from the pit or button-presses from a Stage Manager or sensor data from the stage, and sending it out to remote nodes that light up or throw relays and solenoids, there needs to be a complete, robust, and extensible software framework.

Which is as much beyond my current software skills as engineering a proper set of constant-current drivers with PWM is beyond my electronics skills.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


I've been turning more prop grenades for people at the Replica Props Forum.

Hosed around today until there was barely enough time left to be worth reserving a lathe. Did so, raced out to the city, and the lathe I'd reserved turned out to be out of service. Switched to the other, which left only three hours until the next reserved user came on. Worked, cleaned up, was out the door in enough time to go to dinner...not that the other guy ever showed up. Whatever.

Cut two bodies in that time. Second one I was seeing how much metal I could hog out in one pass -- everything to make the process a little faster. Cut too deep, and fluffed around for a while before I realized the difference between .790 (the aimed for final dimension) and .782 (what I'd accidentally went to) was less than a HUNDREDTH of an inch. Perspective again. Nobody is going to notice that.

And it was a good mistake to make, because while I was fluffing around wondering if it was worth trying to save that one, I set up for the next cuts out of order. And that turns out to be a more streamlined way of making the things in the first place. Even with that delay, the second body took only 45 minutes. Means I probably can get two grenades finished each time I spend the afternoon in the shop.

Monday, July 14, 2014

In the Pits

For a number of shows now I've been hearing a muffled, unfocused, inconsistent, and un-dynamic sound from our pit orchestras. And I do not know how to proceed to make things better.

The first reason we are having trouble is that we don't have the resources for the material. Broadway shows are written for a full pit, full stop. Smaller theaters usually try to fake it with multiple keyboards, each playing multiple split and layered patches, but this is problematic. More on why in a moment.

The clearest (and most consistent) sound comes from recasting the score; adapting it to a smaller pit. The jazz combo setup is a well-tested ensemble most musicians can fit into with minimal rehearsal time together, so that works. A tight fusion ensemble or something more unusual -- like a brass band -- takes more work to bring together, but when this happens the sound is powerful and unique and interesting.

But it takes time, and time is also in short supply It is too much to even expect all of the people in even a small pit to actually perform every show; through the run, subs will be swapping in and out. Few music directors can afford the time to rewrite an entire score. Nor can small theaters afford to reimburse them for that time.

Add to this limitation of resources, the lack of rehearsal time. Without any assistants, the solo sound designer/mixer/engineer is already over tasked with mixing microphones, repairing microphones, creating and adjusting sound effects, and so forth. And similar goes for the run; they can't spare the fingers or the ears to mix the band as well. So the few tiny chances the designer actually gets to hear the band, there is too much else going on to really seat them. This is even assuming the bad shows up ready to play, and there aren't any major changes. And fat chance of either of those being true.

Not that it would do much good, though. The two-synths-plus-random-add-ons schema is too wildly inconsistent, from number to number and from night to night. Maybe, maybe, if you were doing nothing else but, you could figure out all the fader moves to try to get a good blend out of the orchestra from moment to moment, and either memorize them or program them into scenes. Because a musical isn't like a set. It is more like a battle of the bands, in which different numbers in the show have significantly different sounds...and needs.

Take just the drums. In one number, he is called out to rock out on sticks. On another, he is called to soft-shoe the stir-and-slap with brushes. No single mic and mixer settings will suit both.

But even saying this, I don't think it is possible. I'm listening to the keyboard patches, and the splits and layers aren't blended with each other. Which means there is essentially nothing I can do from the console. If the strings layer is overpowering the piano layer on a single keyboard, it is going to be that way no matter what tricks I pull on the send.

As a sound designer, I know that there is no such thing as a correct blend of frequencies (and activity, and phase). It depends on the playback. Each system, each situation, and each playback volume will emphasize certain bands and certain kinds of sound (impulsive versus continuous, for instance). Which means the only way to establish the proper blend between multiple layers and splits on multiple simultaneous keyboards is to adjust those patches from the house, at performance volume. And there isn't anyone who can do that.

Why you end up with these insane layers and splits and multiple flying patch changes are several. First, you don't have the time to take apart a score that was designed for the voicing of a clarinet in one place, a tuba in another. Second, the score has too many parts that are melodically or harmonically necessary and if you leave them out, you don't get the tunes you paid for. Lastly, there is a need to fill sonic space. A single trumpet is just too lonely by itself (especially since no part in the original score actually plays through; so any single-voice approach is going to have huge gaps of tacet). So you need all this junk just to try to fill in the picture and make it look a little less like a Lichtenstein blow-up of just the chin and eye.

I've got a book on orchestration that notes (particularly when writing for less experienced performers) that you need three instruments on a part, never two; two will never quite be on the same pitch or moment, but with three, the two that are closer to each other on any one note mostly mask the third, resulting in a blend that sounds more in tune than any of the individual instruments. Same book also recommends playing all the harmonies on piano, so if an inexperienced player drops out for a bar you've still got their notes covered.

Which is a roundabout way of leading into a central conundrum; especially with the lack of rehearsal, the poor working conditions (crowded, dark pits with poor sight lines and compromised monitors), et al, instrumental lines are often too clumsy to leave naked. But...when you mask the many tiny errors, and fill out the sonic picture, by adding the rest of the band, you also get a mushier sound.

Backline leakage is a compounding part of this problem. In the small theater, the direct acoustic leakage of louder instruments like drums and trumpet, and the personal amps of guitarists, bassists and keyboard players, all leak out into the audience space along with the pit and stage monitors.

To fight through this sonic mush, and to put the instruments back into proportion, you need to amplify. The threshold is whichever misbehaving instrument (usually the drums, but often the lead keyboard) is so loud you can't hear the other instruments over it. You have to amplify EVERYTHING until you've overpowered this unbalanced blend with one that actually works, and features all the instruments equally.

But as the backline level rises -- or, rather, the unbalanced and unlistenable backline leakage -- the amplified sound takes more and more precedence in the final mix.

Why is this a problem? Well, besides the overall volume wars, and the diminishing returns, and the way that small noises like pit chatter or other problems get also amplified excessively, this amplified sound strips out all the natural resonance of acoustic instruments in a space. You are left with only what the microphones hear -- microphones which are close-mic'd (because the feedback threshold and the leakage of other pit instruments demand it) and which are in compromised positions (because you don't have line of sight to them and are helpless when the musicians kick them over, because there is no time in the process for proper sound check and you have to proceed on guesswork, and because the performance varies too much to allow any single position to be less than a compromise).

So you've replaced the natural sound of the pit with a poorly-done amplified version. And you add the thin, dead sounds of sampled instruments on top of that, and the result is trash.

This is happening to the pit themselves, of course. They also end up in volume wars, demanding more and more material in their monitors until they can't hear themselves, then demanding more of themselves, in an ongoing spiral of destruction. They can't hear themselves, they can't hear each other, and they can't blend as a section. And the only thing they can think of is to turn up everything even more; play louder drums, turn up their cabs, and demand more monitor. Which is even more backline, of course, and leads to an even more amplified sound for the poor audience (but now produced by people who might as well be playing in different rooms).

Late one night after finishing a two-show day I went downtown to deposit a check. There was a jazz combo playing in a club across the street. Drums, guitar, upright bass, trumpet. Which blended with each other, who obviously could hear each other, who sounded great even filtered and indirect from a building on the other side of the street -- and who required no (or at least minimal) electronics to get there.

So it can be done with music. The question is how to achieve that in a pit. How can we get a pit that can hear each other and create a blend internally? Because there really is no way -- not within the current process and the current schedule -- for the FOH microphone mixer to also be trying to correct for the band's errors from moment to moment.