Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Half-Life (Black Mesa)

Half-Life was the first game of the series, probably the first game of the second generation of First-Person Shooters and responsible for many aspects of the genre today, and so seminal the history of FPS games has been described by more than one commenter as "Games before Half-Life, and games after Half-Life."

And I've never played it.

What I have played is Black Mesa, a massive fan-made upgrade and do-over of the original game, using Valve's shiny new(ish) Source engine.


There were FPS games before Half-Life. One can't describe the history of games without crediting John Carmack's Doom. Doom (and before that, Castle Wolfenstein 3D) laid out many of the basics of the First-Person Shooter.

Doom presented a 3D environment, and the player is essentially an animated camera that moves through that environment. Important information for play is presented around the corners of the image, in what is generally known as a HUD in reference to the "Heads-Up Display" of informational graphics projected on a clear slab in front of the pilot of a combat aircraft.

The basic FPS structure is present here; player avatar and enemies are given an aggregate value of "Health," which is metered or indicated and when used up causes an enemy to be replaced by a corpse or the game to restart at the latest available save point. Player health can be re-stocked from "Medkits," which like refreshes of ammunition and armor, the addition of new equipment, and various (usually temporary) special abilities, appear as objects of a stock (and easily recognizable) type which the Player needs to go to in order to pick up.

Play progresses from Room to Room, Level to Level; Rooms being artificial demarkations (usually but not always architectural) that limit the number of entities and other resources the game engine has to deal with simultaneously, and Levels being completely new data which is read in from permanent storage (usually over some kind of loading screen).

Movement is generally WASD: a set of keys that are more-or-less arranged for convenient forward/back, left/right, with the direction the Player Avatar/camera is pointing controlled by the mouse. Weapons point to the center of the visual field; you aim like you aim the cannon on a fighter plane. Clever players figured out almost instantly that you could in fact fire forwards while walking sideways (holding down Left or Right movement keys) and thus confuse enemy return fire. Thus was born Strafing, and it has had a long an honorable career.

Another stock element introduced back then was the weapons mix; you could generically call the classes Pistol, Assault Rifle, Shotgun, Machine Gun, Sniper Rifle...and add to these different options melee weapons and grenades. Doom offered two melee attacks; the chain saw, and if all else ran out, the Doomguy could defend himself with his fists. The usual trade-off is that the more powerful weapons have less ammunition available, requiring you to strategize which weapons you use at which moments. Add this to strafing, running, sniping, and cover options, and you have a good mix of evolving strategies that keep combat interesting for the length of a game.

The Next Generation

The innovations of Half-Life were not the improved graphics per se. Although they were improved, and this is no slur on Carmack; Doom did extremely clever things mathematically, perceptually, and artistically to get that real-time rendered 3d universe with textures and animation and even (simulated) shadows and lighting effects on those older processors. The Quake engine was the ancestor of the custom code that went into Half-Life, and it permitted polygon characters instead of pre-rendered sprites, real-time lighting effects, and other innovations.

Half-Life2 made huge changes to what became the Source engine, folding in physics originally taken from the Havok plug-in. Graphics upgrades are the name of the game, and one of the big selling points both in the console wars (which are in my opinion largely a forgotten issue as desktop machines outdo them in processing power) and in showcase reels at E3. With HDRI being the most recent flavor-of-the-month; the ability to simulate the high dynamic range of the real world realized both in a higher-contrast image on screen, and rapid changes in gamma as the player moves about.

In any case, Half-Life's major contribution was in story. To have a story, a complex story that unfolded over play. And a story that was presented in-game. This latter part of the lesson is one too few games have learned from. We seem to have reached a point where two disparate philosophies are fighting it out (sometimes within the same game); one is gameplay at all cost (including unrealistic, suspension-of-disbelief breaking, and outright invasive elements in order to provide more control of the gaming element itself), and the other is story, but with an unfortunate twist.

I can't lay the fault at the feet of improved graphics and a market method (the demos and the reliance by most advertisement and game criticism media on eye candy for short attention spans) that make fancy graphics the cart dragging along the unfortunate horse of the game itself into a shiny mess of motion-blurred water-spotted HDRI-enhanced lens flares. Whatever the cause, the game itself plays like the advertisement; player control and even player input is sacrificed for the sake of getting the perfect animated image.

So for better or for (mostly) worse, the cutscene has come back. Whereas early games simply couldn't afford to do more than flash up a page of text explaining who you were and why you should be shooting everything in front of you, modern games treat you to up to twenty minutes of brilliantly choreographed, voice-acted, animated, directed (with all sorts of fancy camera tricks) and lit sequences of, well -- to paraphrase one reviewer, " exciting game I wish I was actually playing."

It can be done. Mass Effect, for instance, plays in third person and moves "in" to standard shots for the dialog sections -- mostly two-shots in medium, but there are some action shots. This works I think because you are still an active player; you have switched from WASD keys to Dialog Wheel, and the change in shot is acceptable to go with the change of play style.

Contrast with all the Tomb Raider games produced by Crystal Dynamics; as a general rule, if Lara is in anything other than the standard third person, then you are being a passive observer. The exception -- the Quick Time Events -- do not help. If anything, QTEs make you not even pay attention to the carefully arranged movie and look only for the display of which button you are supposed to mash next (to finish the QTE and get back to playing the game).

(And no, this is not interactivity. Better to call it "reactivity"; if there is only one button that progresses the game, then there is no actual choice being made, even the most trivial such as whether to use the pistol or use the rifle at some random moment of combat, or whether to walk down the right side or the left side of a wide corridor. And choice is what separates playing a game from watching a movie.)

As with Half-Life 2, the story unfolds in front of your eyes. Unlike Half-Life 2, there are not even lectures given by other characters. Well, only very short ones. You pretty much have to figure out what is going on by yourself. And there is an additional element of player choice here; you can figure out just enough to keep going and surviving, or you can listen carefully and look for subtle clues and pick up additional and far more mysterious (and threatening!) levels of story below the surface.

Black Mesa

Valve themselves ported the original Half-Life to the new Source engine, but it was just that; a plain port, without new textures or other additions to leverage new options within the Source engine (such as physics, or real-time lighting effects).

It was left up to a group of fans -- a group that expanded to hundreds of members and who worked at it for over seven years -- to make a version of Half-Life that was the equal in updated graphics and play to Half-Life 2. And more kudos to them because they resisted the urge to remake the game to their taste. It is more like a second draft, with some of that hindsight editing that various authors have found themselves doing when re-issuing an old book that had since turned into the first book of a series.

As in, there are some references that tie it more closely to Half-Life 2...all the way out to a subtle reference to Magnusson (who only appears in Episode 2) and a possible explanation for why he still hasn't "forgiven Gordon for what happened."

It is as I said a second draft. The game is still there, it looks and feels and plays like the same game. But the architecture of Black Mesa has been rationalized a little, some pointless episodes were truncated or removed, play flows a little better, NPCs are much improved in their rendering and in their activities. And there is simply more; more textures, more lighting, larger arenas, more voice acting for the NPCs.

On the negative -- and very likely because it was written by people who had played the original a lot, it is also harder than the original. Significantly.

The basic story is simple (yet enough to hold interest). You are Gordon Freeman, with a doctorate in Theoretical Physics, an interest in physical fitness, and with that and your position at the bottom of the Black Mesa facility's totem pole (being young and new) your job revolves around donning the heavy protective HEV suit and working in the test chamber at Anomalous Materials.

The first episode ("episodes" flow from one to the other with no more interruption than necessary loading time. Essentially, you play in real time, from the moment you enter the facility until the moment the G-Man comes for you at the end) is all introduction. You are free to wander parts of the Black Mesa facility, interacting with the scientists and guards, reading black boards, throwing ash trays -- whatever. In fact, the first five minutes of the game are nothing but a tram ride through the outer parts of the sprawling mostly-underground complex.

The test sample of the day, however, is anything but ordinary. Something goes wrong. The test chamber is severely damaged and aliens begin appearing randomly throughout the facility. Eventually you realize that the test opened a doorway to another universe and some of the local creepy-crawlies are coming out to play in this one.

These are the parts that feel to me like the heart of Half-Life. The almost indescribable loneliness, as you explore a workplace turned into a shattered ruin with only a few scattered, terrified, and very much temporary survivors. And things are appearing there that wreak their own hideous transformations. There is a profound alienation going on here.

This is the most Survival Horror the game gets. In the earliest phases you have no weapon at all -- perhaps some road flares you pick up. Soon enough you stumble on Gordon Freeman's signature weapon; the crowbar. And this is also an innovation, because it is not just a weapon, but it is also a key; it allows you to access places you could not travel to without it.

Eventually, of course, you find more weapons. But that is largely because they are being brought in from outside. After struggling so long to make it back to the surface, working your way through dripping maintenance tunnels and wrecked offices and elevator shafts with broken elevators, you are nearing the surface when "rescue" efforts show.

And begin shooting at the survivors. You grasp -- guess, really -- that the reaction of the government was to send in experts at covering up. The HECU troops that start piling in from the surface -- pinching you and any other survivors between them and the aliens who are still teleporting in from Xen -- mean to leave no witnesses of any species.

Thus the middle part of the game is a much larger mix of weapons and tactics and an ever-widening picture as you wage a one-man war of survival against the military, with the aliens an equal threat to both of you. Eventually the aliens get the upper hand on the military, and they withdraw to begin pounding the surface with artillery and aircraft.

But you've gone back underground for other reasons. The rip in space is getting larger and threatens the planet and some of the surviving scientists might be the best chance of stopping it. So this is the Act II/III break; you've changed from a selfish survivor to someone who is acting more as a hero.

Which eventually leads you to Xen itself, to stop the invasions at their source. Which sets up the rest of the series. But since the Xen chapters aren't present in the current version of Black Mesa, I'll say no more about them.

What Works

The levels are distinct in character (as well as spectacular). As with Half-Life 2, the game makes a point of breaking up the pattern. One section might be close-in fighting, one might be exploration or even (shudder) platforming. And each level and each section of game is distinct in not just looks and not even just play, but in the atmosphere; the chilly cleanliness and relative calm of the labs where Questionable Ethics happen, the hot desert sun of Surface Tension with its wide-open spaces of bare rock and sand the perfect place for the increasing numbers of the military to pound on you, the cubical warren of Office Complex that turns it into a hundred single encounters in close confines, etc.

There is a multiplicity of weapons and options, even more so then in Half-Life 2, and many have dual modes; rifles that fire grenades, satchel charges that can be thrown with one click and detonated with another. Too much wealth, in fact; in the height of the fight against the HECU one is sometimes getting killed through being distracted by wondering which particular mix of weapons and strategies will work best. (I managed to kill myself with trip mines multiple times by trying to get clever with them).

New wrinkles continue to unfold in the story. The combat and exploration is enough to stay interested in any case, but there are slow revelations throughout, strongly showing that neither Xen nor the Resonance Cascade itself were entirely unknown or unexpected.

Interaction is simplistic. Since you don't speak, all you can really do is press the "interact" key when near a character and see if they will talk to you. But this still feels better than some games. There aren't characters designated to inexplicably go into lecture mode and hold you captive while they explain to you who you are and why you are there and why you should care about the invading monsters. Instead the other characters all appear to have inner lives; they are going on about their own business and only glancingly and tangentially end up explaining anything to you.

One oddity is crouch-jump. There are perhaps two places in the game where normal jump (aka hit the space bar) is actually enough. Everywhere else, it is necessary to do a super jump by hitting the crouch command and immediately following with the jump key. So for all practical purposes standard jump could have been used instead; it is a wasteful extra key operation, with the only tangible benefit being certain YouTube videos.

Black Mesa also successfully reproduces something else about the Half-Life experience; and that is the difficulty of detaching from a ladder. You have to be positioned perfectly in order to move gracefully off a ladder. Anything less and instead of moving on to a catwalk, your command causes Gordon Freeman to hurl himself into empty space and die impaled on broken crates far below. It makes every single use of a ladder in the game a mini platforming game in itself.

I have to admit to save-scrumming through parts of the game. Not so much the combat parts (although the lobby fight is incredibly tough), but for the platforming sections. The Box-Smashing Room in particular, but also the cliff-side climbing (where you have to crouch-jump at an angle to a narrow target and immediately perform a second action to keep from falling to your doom.) Fortunately the game allows saving a game at any arbitrary point.

What should have been learned

An immersive experience is possible. A game doesn't have to mimic film, with the downside of turning the player into a passive viewer, in order to be emotionally involving. And it doesn't need these tools to communicate story; a complex and nuanced story can be put across in the same way most of us experience the stories we encounter in our daily lives; not as a presentation but as a collection of observations and small interactions.

The Portal series does this. But there's no reason it can't also be accomplished in third person. Mass Effect and Deadspace and Bioshock also rarely feel it necessary to cut away to a cutscene in order to communicate story beats.

Related to this is trusting the audience. You don't have to spell it out. Also, you don't have to force them to absorb the story. If all the want to know is "Aliens bad, Army bad, just don't shoot the guys in blue or the people in lab coats. Unless it's fun" then they can go right ahead and play.

You can constrain the path and create a linear narrative without making it blatantly obvious you are doing so. And, hell -- on of Half-Life's chapters is actually called "On A Rail!" I'm not entirely sure what makes the path feel open. There are alternate routes. There are dead ends that go for long enough you aren't just being told there's only one door. There are rooms large enough to move around in and explore for a while.

One way to make this work is lock-based or hub-based environments; there will be a key (an action, an item, a puzzle, an interaction with an NPC, a fight that must be won) before the door to the next level can be opened. But before that, you can explore and exploit and otherwise solve the level in whatever order you wish.

Paths are less annoying when the environment makes them logical. A narrow trail up a cliffside is understandable as being only one open path to proceed. A wild wilderness area is a lot less convincing, and the waist-high weeds that conveniently prevent you from moving off the designer's intended path are at best felt as an imposition -- at worst, they are immersion breaking (as yet, few games have managed to explain why your barbarian character with a sword that can cleave an iron-scaled dragon in two is stymied in her path by a flimsy wooden door).

Designing logical environments works. Players aren't all architects or civil engineers but most of us do have an innate sense of when an environment is functional and laid out in the way human spaces are laid out, and we lose belief in a game universe and lose some of that important emotional connection when presented with scenery that was clearly arranged only for the benefit of the monsters (or for creating a specific movement path).

When all is said and done, it is a good game, and via Black Mesa completely playable today without even having to make excuses about "the charms of a retro experience" or anything.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Half-Life 2

I've been a real late-comer as a computer gamer. I come out of theater, with a strong crafts background, and that drew me to the Replica Props Forum. There I saw various wonderful toys that came out of recent games, and like the Joker I wanted to know where they came from.

Steam beckoned with the Orange Box deal, and not only did Portal run on my new (but still not a gaming machine) laptop, so did games that I never would have tried out otherwise. Such as Half-Life 2.

Half-Life was a seminal game, raising the bar in numerous ways for not just first person shooter games, but video games in general. Half-Life 2 was ambitious, brought new innovations, and had (and has) a strong following. But it isn't quite the same shock as Half-Life was to the industry. However, when one sits down and studies it (and its predecessor, and its sequels) one discovers a great many lessons on game design that the vast majority of game developed after it failed to take notice of and learn from.

I'm going to try to cover the entire series, in some depth, and with screen shots as well. I will also be covering it from the angle of someone with a smattering of background in theory but who is not a dedicated gamer -- I'm as yet still unfamiliar with a number of the titles that get mentioned over and over, titles like Assassin's Creed or Halo.

Connected with that, I'm trying to make my explanations transparent to non-gamers as well. Some technical terminology is unavoidable but I hope I can either define it as I go or use it in a way that allows grasping of the essential idea from context.

Point of View

So, Half-Life 2. It is a first-person shooter, meaning all you ever see of yourself is your hands. You play as time-lost physicist Gordon Freeman, and you don't say a lot (in fact, Gordon is never heard to speak.) You explore, there are some simple physics puzzles to solve, and you get shot at. A lot.

In one of the many Valve innovations, the situation you find yourself in, and the back story of that world, is presented as you discover it. There is no narration, no introduction, no lecture. There aren't even any cut scenes; everything you see on screen is rendered with the game engine, observed from your first-person point of view, and takes place in real time.

Your experience begins in City 17, a near-future dystopia. This, the details of how it works, and just how dystopian it is are all shown, not told, and furthermore they are shown subtly. You don't see villains hamming it up and shooting babies. You see frightened, hopeless people cringing, you hear sirens, you pass ominously darkened doorways.

It is a very real environment. Large, sprawling, familiar, functional. Housing blocks, warehouses, drainage canals, railway yards. The scale is more-or-less realistic. There aren't ammo drops  on every corner, either; when you do find equipment, it is often in a marked but hidden cache left by the Resistance for people like you (or near the body of a hapless Resistance member).
There is room to move a little and attack problems from different angles, but the linear nature of your overall progression is hidden better than any other game out there. Unlike games where you are shown only a straight corridor (which you take) or games which force you to a narrow path via arbitrary obstacles like low fences or sleeping cats, Half-Life 2 presents a landscape that would in many places be perfectly open and traversable if it wasn't for the environmental and battle damage. You don't question that there are only a "few" places to wriggle through the rubble, and you don't realize until several replays later that the door you freely chose as the best way to proceed is in fact the only door that goes anywhere.

The designers are just that good with planning layout, managing detail, painting with light, and predicting which way the player will look and where they will naturally try to go. It almost never feels constrained or limited; it feels natural.

Of course, this is helped by the fact that the first part of the game sees you being harried by ever-growing numbers of pursuers as you try to escape City 17, and the later parts of the game see you trying to get to a specific objective. So in both of these, being guided to a specific path doesn't feel like it is limiting your choices.

(And, yes, this isn't accidental; the designers talk at length in the optional in-game commentary about how they achieved this.)


As part of this is the famed Valve in-game tutorial. Take one example from the game; you exit a section of sewer pipe, and just as you un-crouch and head towards a gap between two other obstacles, you notice a crow alighting on the ground ahead. Which is immediately snagged by a Barnacle hiding in the shadows overhead. As you come out into the small open space, you get to observe the Barnacle feeding, and realize you would have been its meal if not for the crow. And you are now warned; the next time you crawl out of a narrow tunnel, you look up before you proceed.

A lot of games would kill you and force you to replay from a saved game. A lot of designers seem to delight in having these "no-one will escape this unless they read a play-through before starting" moments. Valve instead rewards the player for being attentive to the game they are playing.

Valve has summed up their approach (saying as much in the in-game commentary in Portal) as illustrating a concept once in a safe context before using it in a game-critical way. Then reinforcing it with a second usage so it will stick in player's minds for a while and thus can be drawn upon again in later play.

A typical example is ramps and jumps in the airboat sequence in Half-Life 2. You encounter the first ramp in a place where you can easily steer around it, but you can also see the whole thing and be tempted to try it out. It is a low-cost experiment; nothing can go wrong if you miss the jump. The next time you see a ramp, it is necessary to use to proceed. A little later, a ramp is presented in the middle of an action sequence where the player needs to be comfortable in using that route and do it essentially by instinct.

There are a few short unobtrusive pop-ups explaining how to use the controls. Especially in two places; when Alyx teaches you how to use the Gravity Gun (by playing catch with D0g), and in a scene right near the start of the game with a bored Civil Protection.

"Pick up that can!"

Gravity Gun

The game was also one of the first to really make use of a physics engine. They were unable to resist the temptation to show off with a few physics puzzles.

But more than that, the physics engine underlies the game world; the vast majority of objects are physics objects, and the engine not only interacts to check for collisions and to apply gravity, it also applies the correct sound for interactions; so moving, hitting, or stepping on a wooden crate has a consistent sound, which is different from interactions with a metal oil drum. And if you step on them, hit them with your car, or set off a grenade it can nudge, toss, or break them appropriately.

As I alluded to earlier, the game is entirely presented to your POV. It has a minimal on-screen display, this excused in-game by the high-tech "HEV" suit you are wearing (indeed, the HUD does not appear until after you don the suit.) There is no map widget, no journal, no accessible list of current inventory or current missions or names you need to remember. But then, the game doesn't need any of this; the play is linear enough, and even in those places where someone choses to lecture to you about the situation or your goals you are free to walk away in the middle of the conversation.

When you operate either of the two vehicles provided at different sections of the game, the console for said vehicle appears around you. Otherwise you still have free camera movement. And the vehicles exist in-world, within the same physics environment; you can get out and proceed on foot at any moment, and even go back and shove your own vehicle around with the Gravity Gun.

Which brings us to this game's big "trick," and the signature device from it. Where Chel depends on her ASHHPD (more familiarly known to Portal players as the Portal Gun), and Commander Shepard swears by his/her N7 Valkyrie, Gordon Freeman's signature tool is that manipulator of the in-game physics engine, the "Zero Point Field Energy Manipulator" or Gravity Gun. With this tool, you can drag objects towards you, stack and place objects to make improvised stairs or barriers, and throw them with great force.

Gravity Gun prop by Harrison Krix

A well-designed First-Person Shooter game will have a mix of weapons and a mix of opponents, requiring a mix of tactics to best utilize the one against the other. There is a certain Roshambo aspect in good game design (the game known in the West as "Rock, Paper, Scissors") in that no one method is perfect for all situations.

A good game also works to break things up so it doesn't become monotonous. Valve consciously put in platforming sections in order to "give the player a break" (their words) from the heavy combat sections. This is however an imperfect answer. I would have preferred exploration, or puzzles (perhaps even more elaborate physics puzzles). I agree with famed snarky reviewer Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, and even (the only time I'm likely to agree with him) controversial "Let's Play" creator Phillip Burnell (otherwise known as DSP Gaming); platforming in first-person perspective is a mistake. You can't see your feet, you often can't judge distances correctly, and it becomes a frustrating exercise in trying to guess where your invisible bounding box is in relation to the rendered scenery.

Still, it gets the job done. Half-Life 2 ranges from sniper duels to driving sections to managing a squad during a large-scale combat to close-in hand-to-hand against zombies. With a few dialog and exploration and clambering around scenes to give a breather from the action (the later, however, has some of the most seat-of-the-pants tension. Such as using the Gravity Gun to maneuver boards and other debris to allow you to cross an expanse of sand without triggering the sensitive antlions.)

From Survivor to Savior

Besides changing up the gameplay and the style of combat, Half-Life 2 also changes your overall path and goals. You begin as a stranger to a dystopian future, on the run from the oppressive police force, and trying just to survive and get to a place of (temporary) shelter.

You end by striking a major blow for humanity's freedom. But this shark is jumped in such slow motion there is never a clear moment at which you see a motorcycle ramp set up next to the fish tank.

You begin as Gordon Freeman, a recent MIT grad who apparently was working at the highly classified Black Mesa project in the Arizona desert. Things went wrong, and at the end of it all (that is, the end of the first game) you were snatched up by a mysterious entity known by fans of the game as the "G-Man."

Not that anyone sits you down and explains any of this to you. In fact, you never even see your own face. You grasp all of this about your character and history from how people react to you and what they say about and to you.

I am a bit sorry the game doesn't do more with the idea that since the G-Man ripped you out of time and sent you forward twenty years, dropping you into the middle of City 17, you are a man without a number. This in fact is a concept (that the authorities literally have no idea who you are) that I only learned about when I turned on subtitles to take screenshots for this review.

Instead, the Resistance seems interested in you because they are pinning their hopes on developing scientific counters to the alien Combine who have invaded and taken over Earth, and the core group of those Resistance scientists are oddly enough from Black Mesa. It doesn't explain why they think their one-time lab assistant is going to be a big help to them, though. Perhaps MIT graduates are really rare in the future.

In any case, the Quisling who runs the planet for the aliens also recognizes you. And I have to think he knows something, because he mobilizes everything to find you. So your escape is an ever-escalating effort by the enemy to stop you -- and in the process the long-established Underground Railway (yes, they call it that) of the Resistance gives its all and is essentially wiped out.

You make it to Eli's lab intact, but that is where the story begins to change. He is taken by the Combine in a raid, and for some reason you are pressed into an increasingly quixotic attempt to rescue him.

There is another of those change-ups in play here; following the attack on Isaac's lab you go through a sequence that is essentially survival horror -- up to and including the limited flashlight (the better to let enemies sneak up on you in the dark). This is also, however, an extended tutorial on getting the most out of the Gravity Gun. Because Ravenholm functions as what has become an increasingly popular chapter in certain style of game; the chapter where all your weapons are taken away from you.

In some ways Ravenholm is the most fun sequence for replay, as you are forced to conserve your limited ammunition, and are required to make use of an increasingly imaginative array of improvised weapons -- basically anything you can hurl at the oncoming enemy with your Gravity Gun.

Once free of Ravenholm you head across country again, this time in a near-indestructible dune-buggy. And through the journey, as you battle larger and larger Combine forces who are closing in on the Resistance, you also become a key figure in several successful responses.

You are in short gaining a reputation. But a large part of it is un-earned in game play. Because the Vortigaunts, alien antagonists from the first game, are now allies, and they have a limited prescience born of a shared telepathic awareness between all Vortigaunts, and, well, basically you are the Chosen One of Prophecy. It's a little subtler than that, and better done, but still...!

So the Vorts give you your first squad, consisting of the antlion's you've become all-too-familiar with through your journey up the coast. And your journey has changed from pure escape, to a dangerous scouting mission in hopes of finding a way to stage a rescue, to an armed assault on a Combine stronghold.

Indeed, Director Breen (the sell-out himself, and fond indeed of the sound of his own voice) lampshades this during your one-man (and many large bug) invasion of Nova Prospekt: that you are not some super-soldier, not some legendary figure, just a young graduate whose major accomplishment in the world of physics was working as a lab assistant.

The last third of the game finds the Resistance (and general resistance from the population) rising in response to the damage you did at Nova Prospekt, and takes you back to City 17. This is street-to-street fighting, now against signature Half-Life 2 enemies like the Strider (a war tripod a la H.G. Well's War of the Worlds, but cyborg animal instead of machine). And for some reason you've become legendary; people are choosing to form up behind you, meaning through most of these sequences you have a small squad of Resistance fighters to control in addition to your own weapons.

They also get killed in job lots. This is a dark universe indeed, almost black humor in places.

And of course the final chapter is completely different again. The one NPC who has fought at your side without getting killed, Alyx, daughter of one of the Black Mesa scientists, is also taken by the Combine and you chose to attempt your one-man raid of their heavily fortified Citadel.

Which is all alien, weird metal and geometric shapes and so forth and very different in look from anything else in the game. So is game play. All your weapons are taken from you but the Gravity Gun gets super-charged. Good thing you practiced so much with it in Ravenholm, then!

The game ends on a typical Valve downer, with the Citadel blowing up and you and Alyx at Ground Zero. Of course, there is (sort of) a Half-Life 3...


It isn't perfect. No game is, and I believe no game can be; even if all players could agree on what they most liked in a game, the various design goals are contradictory. The railroading and the lack of any choice means you can cheerfully ignore any and all dialog, never understand what it is you are fighting for, and merely charge in whatever direction the game points you. You end up in the same place in the end.

There is a certain disinclination to become emotionally involved; you begin to treat the minor characters as puppets, because they get killed off so easily and there doesn't seem to be any way you can actually protect them through your own actions. The artificial intelligence is so bad (or at least the design intents are so bad) that you will in fact find yourself wanting to shoot them yourself at times; they keep blundering into things, friendly fire included.

And as far as enemies go -- the game doesn't exactly encourage sadism, but there is a certain delight in killing a Combine soldier by throwing a toilet at him. And the Headcrab Zombies are just so hilarious (in a very, very black humor way) when you set fire to them, and the game gives you far too many opportunities.

There isn't a way to explore the universe more deeply. You can chose to listen to the "Breen-Casts," or you can tune them out. Or even throw the Orwellian always-on, always lecturing televisions out the windows when you encounter them!

You can at least chose to bypass enemies. Especially in the vehicle sections, driving fast is perfectly legitimate, and pretty much as safe as slowing down enough to engage them properly. Unlike some games, it doesn't force you; it doesn't even force you to complete the puzzles its way (there's a spot where you can fight your way through an entire building -- or shoot an explosive barrel from the safety of the canal and open the lock doors that way instead.)

It also isn't Half-Life. The comparison is quite a bit like Alien versus Aliens; the former game is a self-contained saga of personal survival in claustrophobic surroundings, and the sequel is pretty much "This time we take the battle to them." So for all the excellent gameplay, the much better graphics, and the growing friendship with Alyx (developed much more in the following games), it becomes a less focused game -- and a less intense experience.

And it is a pity more isn't done with Gordon Freeman himself, other than being a really lucky guy with a crowbar and a really good (high-tech equivalent of) ballistic vest, the HEV suit he was wearing in the Test Chamber at Black Mesa. Like the Tomb Raider games, most of the time Lara Croft could as just well be a botanist or a metallurgist for all that archaeology is important in the actual game play. Gordon's physics background, as much as it may have motivated the efforts to help you escape the city in the early parts of the game, essentially plays no part in the action.

And this is a pity for another reason. In an genre where thick-necked gravel-voiced heroes are the norm, and white-guy-with-short-brown-hair-and-stubble is so much the pattern you could swap the box art of one game for another without much effort, more should be made of a hero who wears glasses, got a degree in the hard sciences, and is only picking up a gun because there was no other option.

He does, at least, explore some other options in the games -- even if those options are more along the line of exploding barrels.

Barney provides the handy lamp shade


I'm not really the one to say, but this game made an impact on the fan communities. It also was the flagship game introducing the Source engine, which with the open SDK that went with it allowed both other games and fan-made games to appear with the kind of play -- physics engine included -- that had been difficult for people who weren't major studios.

Like the camcorder and the cheap editing software, it is debatable whether there is a minimal bar of graphics et al for a "good" game, but it does seem to be easier to grab and hold an audience if you can look reasonably good. The story and ideas are what are important, but shoddy production values can stand in the way of their appreciation. In all, Source makes it just that much more possible for ideas to find their way into games that a major studio with teams of hundreds and budgets of millions of dollars wouldn't dare.

Of course Valve does. Portal was, however, considered a minor effort, a b-side cut, and the original Orange Box release was practically to fill the open space on the disk; they didn't think it would do well. So even with Valve there is a struggle for a game to test too hard the expectations and trends of the AAA market.

I can say there are props, cosplay, and fan films. There are fan fictions, and there are Machinima (short movies made within the game, using in-game render engine and assets.) Standouts among these various fan efforts would have to be Concerned, a humorous web comic, and the Freeman's Mind web series in which a hyper-active narrator shows what the first game might have been like if Freeman was not a silent protagonist.

(And a word has to be said for "Half Life, Full Life Consequences," especially the animated Dramatic Readings thereof.)

Oh, yes, and there are the remaining games. Of which the last part of the third game, or a complete third game, is likely never to arrive. Which is perhaps a better way to end a popular series; ending without a clear conclusion, ending where the fans can debate and every individual player can construct their own head canon about what eventually happens.

Because as an alternative, you might have Mass Effect 3.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

That Damned Elevator: Mass Effect

I've been catching up on another older game that gets mentioned a lot in the Replica Props community; "Mass Effect," that of the prominently used "N7" logo. It is a 2007 third-person shooter with strong RPG elements from Bioware, with a version distributed by Steam that runs quite well on a Macintosh using Wine. (The only two glitches are some dialog audio getting cut off, and the selection cursor sometimes being missing, and neither is a platform or emulator problem as they happen with the PC version as well.)

So what's to say? Thematically, it is a sprawling space opera (with surprisingly hard science behind much of it) with a certain homage towards trends in 1980's science fiction films. Play-wise, it gives roughly equal time to combat and interaction (primarily through dialog), plus the usual RPG side-tasks of shops, upgrades, and inventory management. Story-wise, it is also very smart (in the Bioware tradition) with a complex and nuanced universe filled with intriguing aliens and featuring difficult ethical questions and tough choices.

And these choices matter, which makes this game nearly unique among the games I've reviewed here. The overall flow of the story is conserved as are many "beats" -- especially key moments such as the confrontation with Wrex on Virmire or the Kaiden-or-Ashley choice -- but otherwise the story is multi-branched, with your actions causing changes from the very small (a Human representative seeking help for his stimulant addiction problem) to the outcome of the game itself.

Compare this to Bioshock. In that game, the only functional choice you have is made each time you find a Little Sister; do you Rescue, or Harvest? However, not only is this only reflected in which cut scene plays at the end, the negative choice can only be made once. Watch that first step on the road to Hell; it's the big one. In the various Half-Life games, the only nuance you can add is attempting to preserve the lives of the various hapless NPCs who chose at one moment or another to "Follow Freeman!" The first game in particular presents -- quite effectively -- an atmosphere of existential isolation, and no matter how many survivors you may encounter in the wreckage of Black Mesa, Freeman's journey is made alone. The later games give you Alyx, but every other NPC has a half-life shorter than Darmstadtium-267.

The important thing to remember when interacting with Bioware's (in)famous Dialog Wheel is that it describes deeds, not words. The short phrases describing each selection can be misleading as to what your character will actually say, but that is because you are choosing not what you say, but the flavor of the choice you are attempting to made.

Which is made clear in some examples; "Can't we talk?" or "Kill them!" are not both dialog choices. In the first, you attempt to talk your way out, using whatever words seem most appropriate to the situation. In the second, you draw. (Or, in the case of Wrex on Virmire, shoot).

My main quibble with the wheel is that rotary controls are ill-suited for mouse. It is awkward to manipulate. I assume there is an option to map it to a scroll wheel, at least in later games!

The organization of the dialog wheel is connected in intriguing ways to two other mechanisms operating in the game. One is Paragon and Renegade points. Unlike The Force in the various "Jedi" games, these are parallel and independent, not ends of a single meter. And there is no requirement to be consistent; you can take the "Paragon" approach to some problems, and the "Renegade" to others. Like so many things in the game, it is nuanced -- like Ashley, who is an honorable soldier, a good friend (and perhaps more), and a humans-only bigot. Or main antagonist Saren, who is at least a well-intentioned extremist -- and whose mind may not be, in any case, entirely his own, making him as much a victim as those he hurts.

As a general rule, Paragon tends towards solving problems without violence, but also obeying authority to a somewhat suspect degree as well as adherence to an overly strict moral code. But again, you don't have to always make Paragon choices; even my prefers-to-talk-her-way-out-of-it Femshep resorted to the Renegade option more than once to achieve her goals.

Renegade maps generally to "get the job done at all costs" but it also includes selfishness, up to an including an extremely mercenary attitude. The far end of the Renegade outcomes for the game move strongly into human-only bigotry as well. However, in dialog choices that are more commentary than functional (aka, "Go on with what you were saying" sorts of lines) the Renegade end of the dialog wheel seems to work out mostly as, "Be an asshole!"

Add to this already interesting mix two skills; Persuasion and Intimidation. Both of them unlock additional options on the dialog wheel -- if you have sufficient points in the skill in question, that is. So having just a few points in Intimidation means you almost never get the chance to use it. Having a lot of points gives you another way out of some situations. They sort of map to Paragon and Renegade, but really you get points in these based on the conclusion of an encounter.

For instance, one of my Shepards ran into a couple of rent-a-cops with guns drawn. I chose the "Intimidate" option, and told them, "We just killed twenty heavily armed mercenaries outside. What do you think we're going to do to you?" They surrendered, and I got Paragon points for avoiding bloodshed.

And, yes, you are going to want something else explained here. Besides the branching story lines, you can also tailor your character. You pick gender and tailor appearance (within reason) and you chose one of three birth options and one of three defining moments. Both get brought up in conversation now and then (I shudder to think of how many sessions the voice actors had to go through to cover all the options!) and generate a unique side story for each.

So a lot of players go through the game more than once to explore different options in the various story branches, and as part of it try out different backgrounds as well. My first Commander Shepard was born in the slums of Rio (Rio is my head-cannon; the game just says, "some big city on Earth"), has a dark complexion to go with the tight curly hair I fell in love with as soon as I saw it pop up on the hairstyle choices, and was sole survivor of the massacre of the rest of her unit during her earlier military career.

But she was also of the Engineer career path. These are options similar to the "fighter, mage, thief" specializations of the old Fantasy RPGs. Engineers and Adepts are the Crunchy Wizards of the Mass Effect world; awesomely powerful later in the game, but liable to get slaughtered in the early stages. And I was unfamiliar enough with the mechanics to be getting killed way too often.

So I started up a second Commander Shepard as a Soldier, and chose Renegade options as much as possible until I got tired of insulting everyone just for the sake of being an ass (or so it felt). Plus I agree with the majority of reviewers; the "Femshep" voice actress is incredible but male Shepard lacks something. He's a neat guy, and has done some good things in his career, but to me it sounded uncannily like a young Marc Singer, or perhaps a little Mark Hamill. Which would work for an Isaac Clarke but doesn't suit the muscled, grizzled, thick-neck Male Shepard avatar.

With that possible exception the voice acting is great overall, with memorable performances by Seth Green and Marina Sirtis among others (Matriarch Benezia is one tough lady!)  Which brings up another odd point; there are a lot of strong female characters, and perhaps none of them are "strong" in the cliched way (as in, wears tight clothing but shoots a gun a lot). Standouts are the Matriarch, crime boss Helen Blake, and Tali and Liarra from your own shipmates -- both are adorable, geeky scientific types in their own way, but emotionally tough enough to confront their fear, xenophobia, secrets of their own pasts...oh, yes, and especially when they level up a little, they kick serious ass with their tech and biotic powers respectfully.

This is undercut slightly by some of the other members of the production team; the background action and even sound design at Quora's bar made my Femshep quite uncomfortable, the Consort plotline is just weird, and the less that is said of Benezia's costume design, the better. (It is, however, a spectacular outfit, even if it does emphasize that the Asari must nurse their young.)

(As do the Quarrians and even the Salarians -- many of the races could be described as well-done rubber-forehead aliens, in that a Turian or Asari would be fairly easy to pull off in cosplay -- even a Volus, if you had the right body type. On the other hand, Rachni and Hanar and Elcor are extremely non-human, with only the later having even a tetrapod body plan. And there's a dozen or more races actually shown in just the first game alone.)

(The game also gets points for avoiding the, "Aliens learn to be more like humans" trope. If you manage to talk some sense into Garrus, for instance, it is really to make him act more Turian -- his problem was he was acting too much like a Human -- of the more renegade persuasion, but still.)

In any case, by the time the game is near the middle you've upgraded both combat skills and the equipment you and your squad carries to the point where even the tiny pistol which is all starting Engineers are allowed to handle is a hellishly effective weapon.

Which brings us to some of the flaws. Biggest among them is an overly elaborated inventory. Mass Effect has the typical PFS set of four; pistol, automatic weapon, shotgun, sniper rifle. You also have combat armor, and depending on specialty a biotic amp or a multi-tool. All of these can be traded up to a better model, even more, they have upgrade slots. There are some twenty different named brands for pistols alone, which in a brand from the same company will be offered in ten different power levels; but a "Katana-III" will outperform an "Avenger-V" in almost every way (and is clearly superior to an "Avenger-IV."

It just isn't possible to remember all the names and variations, and I think I was constantly throwing away good weapons because I needed quick cash and the inventory system made it too difficult to tell which one was which. And this has another dampening effect; sure, you can see that great little pistol in the store, and save up until you get it...but five minutes of game play later you find a copy free in a random locker or upgrade it with a different model. There's no identification, no "Oh, I like this armor -- I'm going to be using it from now on."

Weapons drops are everywhere. You can't walk through a room without finding a weapons locker to raid. The classes roughly track your current inventory, meaning if you hit the same seedy criminal bar late in the game the safe will contain "Storm-IX" and so forth. The stores as well, although the stores seem to fall a few steps behind and in my experience are rarely worth shopping at.

In fact, the balance is all off on the upgrades. Early in the game, you could use a better pistol and there is one in the store, but you haven't anywhere near enough money. Closer to the end of the game, you have money to throw away; you are finding better stuff then is in the stores anyhow.

In the middle of the game, however, you are spending a frustrating amount of time trying to micro-manage, checking every member of your squad to see if they have the best equipment in your growing inventory, and then trying to identify the less-than-best to sell back to a store or turn into omni-gel. And you can't really opt out; you need the gear to win at the fights, and you need the cash from selling off the gear you don't use. I spent a while raiding every locker I could find to convert the contents into omni-gel because dropping a hundred points of omni-gel was a lot easier than playing the Towers of Hanoi mini-game you otherwise need to in that particular episode.

Combat is also overwhelming at first, with multiple weapons options, powers options if you opted for a character class with them, management of your Shields and First Aid, and giving directions to your squad. And I still regret letting Tali learn "Singularity," because either I have to hand-manage everything my biotics and techs do from moment to moment in battle, or live with her tossing a micro-black hole right in the middle of the melee -- at the most ill-timed moments, too.

The enemies scale with progress in the game. This means if you take a lot of the side quests, you come back to the main story-line significantly buffed and encounters tend to the one-sided then. There's another in-built unbalancing aspect to progression; skill points are accrued basically to number of enemy dead (as well as, thank you! significant skill points from non-combat actions.) This means as you get more skilled, you gain points faster, meaning your progression starts slow and then increases geometrically (always assuming there are targets to go after.)

In a continuation of the same, the hacking mini-game is not fun at all, and you have to do it constantly to keep combing through lockers for new gear. Or face even more time laboriously converting one item after another into omni-gel (which allows you to skip the hacking mini-game).

The Mako -- a six-wheeled armed transport you use to explore planetary surfaces -- is a bugger to drive but cool enough that I forgive it. The maps are essentially open at all levels; both various story lines and even the room-to-room fighting of some episodes does progress more-or-less linearly, but you are given a lot of option throughout the game to go in whatever direction you feel like.

The designers did amazing work in predicting and working around most of these choices. If you put off looking for Liara until after Virmire, there is some twenty minutes of unique dialog triggered from her (as she has been suspended in the security field long enough to start hallucinating). If you randomly decide to turn over the incriminating evidence to the corrupt executive, there are complete scenes of various characters reacting to this.

And they remember. If you cut the Council off during a radio transmission, they'll comment on it the next time you contact them. And if you do it again, they'll start getting really angry!

They can't get it all -- I hit one of the subsidiary labs first in one episode and my squad mates kept going on about "Now Haslet's soul will rest easy." Err, who? Oh, right. You find his body when you hit the main base. But this is remarkable work and contrasts almost more than can be described with the cruelly meticulous lengths the Tomb Raider 2013 designers went through to make sure you play the game only the way they meant it to be played, and in the exact order.

(Invisible walls weren't enough for the Tomb Raider designers. They actually block off your movement controls and even camera control to make sure you walk where they wanted and look at what they wanted to show you.)

Yes, the weapons balance issues are a problem. The cover-based mechanism is primitive and has the now-familiar problem of getting you stuck on scenery (your character insisting on hugging a wall instead of going through a doorway). The dialog wheel options are not always clear as to what they will entail ("That's not what I thought I was going to say!") And as mentioned above the inventory management is an exercise in frustration.

(And don't get me started on the ridiculous loading screens, disguised as the worlds longest elevator rides. I've even got one of the damned things on my ship. Why? Why would I put it there! Did I enjoy the ones in the Citadel that much? Well -- at least the Citadel had Muzak in theirs.)

But the story is genuinely thought-provoking (even if many of the ideas are familiar currency to the science fiction fan), the universe deep and detailed (it is a universe with a long history; cycles after cycles of civilizations rose and fell but there are epic savage wars within the memories of some of your team mates, and wreckage in orbit with many a tale to tell). It is a lived-in universe to an astounding degree, with all sorts of barely-glimpsed side stories (what was up with that Salarian making a harried phone call to his brother?) And they knew their science -- the planetary surveys reveal an understanding of planetary geology that is at least equal to my own, and include subtle references to recent discoveries about bodies in our own Solar System. Even if the science is abused for the sake of spectacle or game mechanic; BEC's are "cool" (literally!) and very real, but they don't make a Freeze Ray possible.

The character (and alien) design is strong and the voice acting very nice. And I think the fact that you are interacting in conversation -- that you can do more than space-bar through the cutscene, but actually influence the direction it goes -- largely bridges over the Uncanny Valley. I found myself treating more of the characters in this game as "real" than I did in, say, Half-Life2. Superior graphics isn't everything.

All and all, I'd call it still well worth playing. And playing more than once, to explore some of the different options.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Dai-San Francisco Binbō Seikatsu Manual

I managed to squeak by for a rather astounding amount of time on odd jobs and favors; trading rides for meals, a favor for help with utility bills, being a tenant manager in return for half rent, wearing only shoes I found by the curb, repairing my own clothes, cooking cheap meals of mostly rice, etc.

But my infrastructure was failing (I couldn't afford auto repair, dental work, or much in the way of replacing tools, furniture, clothes, etc.) And I am still carrying a credit card debt.

So full-time work is GREAT. I intend to keep at it for a year, then I'll evaluate. The commute is short and the dress code casual so it isn't adding significantly to my expenses; that means I can put about half of each paycheck towards paying off all that debt ten years of near-poverty living accrued.

I do miss design. A couple evenings ago I went to market just as the sun hit that marvelous range of color, amber through rose, and I looked forward to doing lights again. And there's a few companies who are going to be calling -- one already did, but fortunately their first show isn't until January.

As I'm settling into the work schedule, (and as the days are finally getting cooler!) I'm getting out to the shop or getting some prop work done at home. I have promises I've made, so that prop work takes priority.

M40 grenades. I have two orders in progress. I've been communicating regularly and I was smart enough not to take payment up front. But they'd like me to finish and there's likely to be more coming along over time.

Since I have a bunch of metal and two larger orders, I'm taking the opportunity to make as many as I can at once and take some pictures to show that off. Pity I don't have one of the boxes from the movie too.

And as long as I'm doing that...

This is a picture from Matsuo, of his original design for Pulse Rifle ammunition. Never shown in the movie; all that is revealed is it is caseless, 10mm, and armor piercing.

Seems like a natural for 3d printing (but casting wins out to make a lot of them). The bullet itself, I have. Bought a bag of ones for reloaders.

The Holocron still bugs me. There's elements about the design that don't work for me. I've thought of some ideas but haven't had the time or concentration to get them drafted up in Inkscape and engraved on the laser.

There's also growing competition. I've seen some really nice holocron designs by other people, and the state of the art of the prop is moving beyond laser-cut acrylic and metallic spray paint.

In any case, I got some chunks of acrylic at Tap before my water pump blew, so ready for more experiments.

The people who have been looking to purchase a holocron are very interested in a proper electronics package for it, too. Which means I need to spare some time in Eagle to make up a new PCB. And a certain amount of experimentation there, as I intend to include an integrated LiPo charge circuit.

Pity my software skills are just not up to the USB stack, because I'd love to be able to have them serially programmable.

On the home front, a lot of cleaning and repairing. And if a design does show up, I need to do some organizing and repair of my audio gear as well.

Related to that, I really should put some time into making those tools I've been thinking of so next time a show needs one, I don't have to spend all night soldering and end up with a compromise. Primary among those being the remote linking devices; computer-MIDI-sensor-LED.

There are too many different kinds of problems to solve with one device (not and keep it in a reasonable footprint and price) but the programmable LED light (with option for remote control) has been something I've needed and had to cobble up so many times I really, really need to work up the PCB for version 2.

The related device is remote sensor back to computer -- generally to run sound cues, but integration with lighting or even just status display would have been wonderfully handy in a bunch of shows.

But, alas, the next few paychecks are probably going to go to the dentist. And this weekend will be mostly spent being in pain and not getting a lot done.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dreamgirls III

Okay, the progress report would really be that this was the System Design phase. I read up on the manual for the sound board (Allen & Heath digital mix surface and two digital "snakes") and worked out potential system delay chains on paper for the idea of providing a coherent sound to the audience without a compromised monitor sound for pit orchestra and stage singers.

I also spent quite a while with emails and phone calls back and forth trying to arrange delivery of the key gear to the theater and schedule of when we would load in, when we'd tech, etc.

This went very frustratingly, with a lot of unclear "We might get to it sometime on Saturday but we might not have the speakers in the truck" replies. And my own car blew a water pump, and the radiator repair I'd just completed wiped out any funds I might rent a car from. And then I got a dental emergency that still has me in enough pain that long trips with or without a car are not worth contemplating (or 12-hour technical rehearsals, either.)

So I bailed. I waited for them to find someone, and they were actually able to, and we cut the gig there. My only remaining connection to the show is I will be lending free of charge my personal rack of wireless microphones.

And that concludes this attempt to document the complete design sequence of a show.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

King of the Rocket Men

I finally got the CAD finished for my "Commando Cody" flash hider.

As a recap; this is a replica prop from at least related Republic serials. The first was "King of the Rocket Men":

Jeff King (played by Tristram Coffin) was the first Rocket Man and wearer of the basic set of helmet, rocket pack, and ray gun. Various parts of the concept and ensemble were recycled into the later "Radar Men from the Moon," "Zombies of the Stratosphere," and "Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe."

The original prop appears to be a war surplus Luger pistol with what is most likely a lathed aluminium piece slid over the barrel. To make sure the piece I was creating was in scale and was cut and drilled in such a way to fit existing replica Lugers, I had to model the latter in CAD as well -- using as reference a borrowed 1917 P.08:

A very complicated shape, but fortunately I only needed the front end!

Unfortunately, there are differences between the various incarnations of this weapon. The popular all-metal Denix replicas, for instance, apparently have too-long barrels (not to be confused with the legitimately long-barreled "Navy" and "Artillery" versions of the gun).

Also, it appears the prop-builders knocked the sight blade completely out in order to stick their fitting over the barrel. Which may or may not work with various third-party replicas, and isn't something I'd want to do with an original issue worth-thousands-of-dollars weapon.

In any case, the model is free from additional charges to print from my Shapeways store. I am going to wait to see how it fits before I start planning how to cut into the chunk of aluminium I bought for the project!

Dreamgirls II

This would normally be the time when I'd make a speaker plot, channel plot, and mic plot, meet with the director, and start creating sound cues. It is also the time when we'd have a Designer's Run-Through; a full-length rehearsal specifically so designers can get a sense of the whole flow of the show (really, really important for the Lighting Designer).

Not this show. It is more like a concert than a show, being practically through-composed. There may be one sound effect. A little vinyl record sound. Feh. I'll dial that up in Vinyl.vst during rehearsal if it turns out to be needed.

And there was no Designer Run. Heck...Sitzprobe isn't happening until the start of Tech Week (and we don't even get the drummer then(?!)) So there's not a lot the designer can see/hear before we are actually in tech. There was one Production Meeting but I managed to miss it. So I'm pretty much approaching this like it was a music performance; set out the mics in a day, and dial them in over sound check.

So of course the producer called me this morning demanding to know why I wasn't in the space "getting ready" today. Well, it could be because we're renting the gear and it doesn't show up until next weekend. But the deeper answer is that physical set-up is a very small part of my task.

Sure, I would get a lot out of being in rehearsal every day, learning the songs as well as the cast knows them, learning all the faces of the cast, and for that matter learning who sings where (I have a scene breakdown, but it doesn't say a single word about who is actually singing in each scene -- particularly a critical omission in terms of off-stage singers and vocal announcements). But that's a whole lot of hours, especially with a two hour commute each way. So I'm even less ashamed than usual to not be doing that.

(That too, and the last company I worked at, when you added up time doing plots and paperwork, time spent creating cues, time spent loading in and in repairs, and time spent during the actual run, my effective pay dropped down under $8 an hour. Adding tens of hours of rehearsal to that would be financial suicide).

I'm not saying I'm doing nothing. I am listening to the Broadway cast recording over and over, I am re-reading the script, I am roughing out a mic plot, and I am reading manuals on the unfamiliar gear I'll be working with. And doing a lot of emails and phone calls working out consumables, security, schedules, inventory, etc.

I'd say about 50% of this job happens before opening night, with the rest of the significant labor being nightly prepping, ongoing repairs, and the actual struggle to mix the show.  But of that 50%, only 10% is actually in the space. Pushing gear around is easy (or should be -- I have almost never had "helpers" competent enough to run cable to a mic). The tough part and the time consuming part is brainstorming it all out, problem-solving the audio issues and figuring out how to stretch channels and other inventory, and crawling through lots of poor documentation from rehearsals to try to figure out what will actually be happening on stage (most of which, they'll change during Tech Week anyhow).

Like a lot of this business, the visible work is the smaller part of it. And that causes other people to get wildly wrong understandings about just what it takes.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


The honeymoon is over. SF branch has made no visible progress in repairing the other lathe, and the one remaining one has been booked solid all week. They also have moved like molasses getting two of the original four 3d printers repaired, or hooking up the new donated machines; the one that did get returned got snatched up by the after-school program, and the one remaining printer is now blocked off access this entire week (and weekend) due to some activity or promotion or something using the third floor.

(Which also shuts down the vacuum former, as well as the injection molding machine and the electronics assembly area and even, if I read correctly, the coffee pot! It would be nice to know what exactly this is and why their money trumps the money of us poor regular users. I mean, sure, events are cool and everyone has them, but all week and not even an attempt at accommodation of the needs of the regular users during that time?)

And just to rub it in, no classes are offered this weekend.

Did manage to get out there Saturday. Took ten minutes as usual to find the wrenches, But after that it was all me. Something odd about the stock I was working with, like it had self-tempered too far or was not quite the right alloy. Had chatter with basically every tool. So cut two more buttons, and make one more grenade body, but was feeling so poorly I called it a day after that. Just as well I forgot the springs.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Harry Potter and the State of Befuddlement

I've read and enjoyed several Harry Potter fanfics. Well, actually -- in many of my favorites, he isn't Harry Potter. In "The Accidental Animagus" he's been adopted by the Graingers (and Hermione is his step-sister), in "Harry Potter and the Invincible Techno-Mage" (a rather one-sided "take that" which is redeemed mostly by the spectacle of various Marvel Universe characters demonstrating what real magic looks like) the Dursleys won their long-awaited Darwin Award whilst touring a factory in America and Harry ends up adopted by Tony Stark, and of course in "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" he is Harry Potter-Evans-Verres (and his adopted father is a scientist).

Which almost gives away why; in each case, the focal characters (often Harry, as often Hermione, rather rarely Ron which seems a bit unfair to me!) are a little more logical, are inclined to look at things rationally, analyze instead of react emotionally. And they also generally have more confidence in themselves than the original cast did.

And this leads me to understand better the story J.K. Rowling created. Harry is, bluntly, a bit of a slacker. He doesn't have any great dreams or wishes; he came out of a background of neglect that leaves him wanting mostly enough to eat and a warm bed, and a certain impossible longing to turn back the clock and have his childhood over again with the parents he never knew. The magical world is strange and scary to him, and there are certainly enough challenges (classmates who either don't understand him or are actively antagonistic, sadistic teachers -- well, mostly teacher -- and of course the threat of Voldemort. That's got to be tough; being only eleven and learned the greatest dark wizard of the age has gotten it into his head that he needs to hunt you down and kill you.)

But Harry is basically reactive for most of the books. The only thing that actually excites his interest is playing Quiddich, and even then he seems to mostly hope that by doing what the coach says it will all somehow turn out right. He is more than Oliver Twist here; he's practically Candide, convinced that all will turn out for the best.

But open the focus for a moment. His major guide to the over-arching plot is Dumbledore. Dumbledore originally comes on in full Ben Kenobi/Gandalf/Merlin mode; the wise elder. Unlike many of those he waits until the beginning of the final act to kick it, though. Thing is, it is progressively revealed through the stories that Dumbledore is holding back, that he is hiding information, and that his plans are not anywhere near as tight as he might have hoped. Indeed, the final revelation is basically that Dumbledore knows Harry must die to stop Voldemort, and has been working all his plotting to keep Harry unaware of it until it happens. Apparently it never occurs to him to try to find a better solution.

So, sure, it is fun in so many fanfics to snark at this; to show a Harry who thinks a little and asks the questions he really should have asked, and to have people who confront Dumbledore on some of his more inane moments (leaving Harry with the Dursleys, for one, but the entire underplot of "Philosopher's Stone" is a truly insane gambit.) And the magical world has flaws that deserve a few pointing fingers. The wizard prison of Azkaban, for instance, makes Guantanamo seem practically righteous.

But the original tales are in that one way a much realer world. The kind of world of fog of war, of rationalization instead of rational behavior, of people who aren't aware of THE PLOT as a giant puzzle to be solved but instead are just taking each day as it comes and reacting to each challenge as it becomes finally clear.

To paraphrase; winning the battle against Voldemort is something that happens while you were making other plans.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Dreamgirls I

I'm going to try again to document the entire design and production process of a show as an aid to others. I don't know how many shows I will be doing now that I'm working a full-time day job; this one is grandfathered in, as I accepted the new job under the assurance that I would be taking time off to honor that previous contract.

I've been slow starting this one. It is a new company and a new space and my time is limited so basically I'm going to play it by ear and make it all work during Tech Week. This wouldn't of course work if there were complex effects that needed to be created.

So what have I done? Read the script. Started watching the show on YouTube -- not always the best approach, as you want to be attuned to the unique production not copying what someone else did, but sometimes necessary if for nothing else than to get a feel for how the thing flows. Communicated with Director and Music Director and asked a few questions.

Saturday I made a site visit; met people, showed my face, inventoried equipment, looked at and listened to the space. Which is very challenging; the geometry there is not friendly and my assets are not generous. Not sure how I'm going to set up speakers that will actually work.

There's a fair bit of work to do before Tech Week. Some unfamiliar gear and I'll be reading a lot of manuals. Look at the cast breakdown and see if I can chart some of the microphone use and otherwise start marking up my script. Make a rough channel plan.

And oh yeah -- I've got two weeks to either repair my car enough to handle the long commute down south, or to come up with the bucks to rent one for at least tech week.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Two jobs maybe

Three weeks in, and they are asking me to apply for a better-paying position at the company.

I finally managed to go out to TechShop after work, pulling a four hour shift on the lathe after my eight at the day job. Was a bit tiring, though. And today was my first visit to a show that's in another town two hours away. Just making a visit and looking around the building ate up eight hours all told. With that kind of commute, I don't think I can handle show calls and day job without collapsing. So I'm basically going to lose money doing that show.

But it is an experiment as to whether I can take on design work while working full time. And more importantly, I agreed to do the show before this job showed up, and I don't like to back out on a commitment.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Cheap Eats

I'm not eating cheap at my new job. I'm actually having a nice sandwich or a fresh rice bowl every day. My theory is that when work is tough it pays to take care of yourself. Eat well enough to keep up your strength.

So the nicest eats I'd ever make at home and bring to work were my fake Brötchen; deli meat and cheese in a sliced whole-wheat roll purchased at Acme Bread. I made them dry so they didn't get soggy before what was often a very late lunch; just a little butter in the roll.

A lot of times my standard when I was mixing sound at the Playhouse -- especially on those two-show days -- was something I picked up ages ago at Berkeley Rep; pita bread and hummus, often with an apple to go with it.

When there's no time to actually eat, the best work-with-one-hand-eat-with-the-other is the Cliff Bar. Unlike most energy bars it isn't all sugar and chocolate; the Cliff is almost as hard as Dwarven "Cram," and fills you up as well, too. They last nearly forever so you should always have one or two at the bottom of your gig bag for emergencies.

I recently found a new roll at the Bowl which is much like the whole wheat raisin roll I used to get at Acme (before they raised the price on it a bit too much for my liking). They are both filling and just sweet enough to be palatable with nothing but a little coffee or cold water. These aren't pastries, mind you; they are also solid, serious hunks of bread in the schwarzbrot mold (though nowhere near the seriousness of the latter, and very far from the tooth-breaking solidity of Dwarven Battle Bread).

Which basically segues to eating cheap abroad. My London trip typified my approach; I was at a four-star with continental breakfast, so I ate heavily in the morning, then got through a full day of walking and museums with nothing else but perhaps a cup of coffee and an apple saved from breakfast. Then evenings I'd quiet my stomach enough to make it to breakfast by making full use of the tea and biscuits room service would have left for me.

When I was staying in Montemarte I started with omelet and potatoes, then picked up Parisian street for for a late lunch/early supper; especially the Paris "gyro," a baguette slathered in red chili mustard then stuffed with sliced meats and frittes, all of it wrapped in paper and served open like an ice cream cone. For a lighter repast, crepes made in front of you at tiny crepe stands. I'd stop by the patisserie and fromagerie on the way back from breakfast to my room, and the evening meal was a light snack of bread and cheese or perhaps a little jam.

Tokyo is of course rather expensive, and I had to make do with the chillingly small "morning service" of one egg one slice of toast and a cup of coffee all for the special price of only 450 yen. The big meal of the day was -- when I remembered -- curry rice from one of those peculiar places that sell the food via vending machine token, food which is eaten standing up. But you get a lot of curry rice for a very good price.

My cheap eat at home right now is a three-day curry rice. Takes curry paste, coconut milk, tofu, canned albacore and baby corn and water chestnut and sometimes bamboo shoots so is close to ten bucks to make, but stretches to three servings, meaning I can make it one night and then just nuke the remainders for as many as two more.

Well, with luck I'll be able to spend a little more on food in the future. My boss says he'll be calling the temp agency as soon as a full month has passed (he'd do it now but is worried that it looks too weird) and upgrade me to full employee.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Cut Test

Second full week of work. Starting to settle into the routine. Today I meant to go out to TechShop in the eve after work, but the lathe has been booked up since a couple of days ago. If it continues being booked up like this I might have to think seriously about using the one at work. I just don't want to be asking favors this early. A raise is more important to me now than easier tool access.

At least I got a few grenade bodies turned over the weekend. Still have to complete machining them to fill those outstanding M40 orders, though:

Of course, I could get time on the laser engraver, the 3d printer, or the CNC router -- with three of the latter, there's almost always one of them free. But unfortunately, the "CAD" (well, Inkscape files for all but the printer) aren't ready yet. So I guess the trick now is seeing if I can concentrate enough after a long work day peering at serial numbers whilst trying to rationalize the pneumatic tool logbook.

At least it is a little cooler this week. I still think maybe my first project should be a personal cooler I can point at my face for a little spot relief. I just can't sit at my desk and concentrate when it is as hot as it has been.