Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A good one, without any feaaaar...

And a very thingy new thing to all my reader, all of him. Well and so, The Great Matter is done and dusted, mainly home and fairly hosed, and I have my life handed back to me, which is no bad nor small thing. My thanks for all your support, let us prance onwards and upwards. A brief shout out to my compadre Relaxer's fine salon du web: www.neilposts.com

Various plans for hemispheric annexation and then outright global domination are afoot, but first I have to move flat and set all manner of things in order. Once re-established in opulent luxury, the stuffstream shall flow again, willy nilly, hither and yon, and quite possibly huggermugger also.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sorry I'm late, a dog ate me...

Nearly surgically busy as we approach the vinegar strokes of The Great Matter, no spare neurons to spare, so no brain-sneeze posts, so new posts at all in a long time.

Have fallen hard for FaceBook, however. Always hated Mice Pace (owner, interface, functionality, the works) but as if borne by ruby slippers, I find myself sucked directly into the shiny, spangled world of the 'Book and bang, back in touch with people I haven't seen in decades. Very odd to have all the written-on-the-back-envelopes and beermats of one's life side by side. More, soon, hopefully, as well as milk, honey, apes, ivory and peacocks.

Oh, and Danny Baker has a podcast. Perfecter and perfecter...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Betterer Neverer Than Later

Still molar-floatingly busy with The Great Matter, so posts remain far between and few. When I cast my bloodshot eye over previous post drafts, they seem worlds away. Some are have been abandoned so long they've waned and waxed from being vaguely timely to tangentially relevant to sadly irrelevant right through to bafflingly prescient and vitally current. Never mind them though, here's something of no relevance or timeliness whatsoever, but it's the very fact that it's a million miles away from most of my working thoughts, and I just want to type it out and feel the names 'neath my digits.

Here's David Denby's latest movie review in the New Yorker, which is nearly as good as this. I'm not usually too keen on reductivist rules of thumb, but "What Does An Actor Want?" seems a fun way of looking at actor's careers, particularly as it's homophonous with the slavish Stanislavksy Method's view of actors' characterisations.

I'm not an enormous fan of David Denby's work in the New Yorker. He's by no means a bad writer, it just seems like he could be writing anywhere, and there he is arrayed alongside the likes of Adam Gopnik, Sy Hersch and the frankly godlike Anthony Lane, whose collected reviews Nobody's Perfect I have placed on a pedestal plinth as a prize and reward for finishing The Great Matter, should I ever do so.

Cooing at Lane's collected goodness reminds me I still have John Bayley's The Power of Delight to wade into. I tried before and sort of slid off its glacis - it was clearly very very good, but I had to bring my A-Game, and A-Game I had not. All I can remember of it off the top of my head is a bit about Tolstoy's use of detail, which absolutely nailed for me how great writers use character detail in ways that make the characters and world seem larger in every dimension while poor writers narrow down their characters and their world with every new specific. Oh wait, here it is:
At their best, Tolstoy’s details strike us neither as selected for a particular purpose nor accumulated at random, but as a sign of a vast organism in progress, like the multiplicity of wrinkles on a moving elephant’s back.
As the words crystallised into focus on my mind's page, I realised that the page is the wrong size for the book. So I must have read them in James Wood's review in the LRB. Wood is another Must-Read Merchant. I'm still trying to digest Wood's The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. I've read it through twice and re-dipped heavily to only limited avail, but it's quite possible that I'm just not bright enough to get what he's on about. Oh, and I still haven't touched his novel The Book Against God, although if I'm going to read a critic/writer's novel, I fear I'll just end up re-reading the Olympian James Meek's The People's Act Of Love, or track down his McFarlane Boils The Sea. I love James Meek. I love everything he's written. His Guardian pieces on Rail privatisation, the SA80 debacle, his LRB review piece on the London Underground. I once, as an exercise, tried to adapt his The Brown Pint of Courage. Utter failure, as I couldn't bring myself to cut a line.

Anyway, I'm in love with the notion that the LRB's James Wood is actually one and the same as Smirking Snarlmeister-General actor James Woods, and who cannot picture him dashing off these feuilletons in the breaks between shooting scenes of Shark or, since we're fancifulfilling, Oliver Stone's Salvador or James Carpenter's vampire thingy.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Right Stuff, We Hardly Knew Ye

Aw man, Wally Schirra has died. Great, great man, not least for uttering the last word about space travel, and mankind's manifest destiny among the stars:

"Mostly it's lousy out there," Schirra said in 1981, "It's a hostile environment, and it's trying to kill you."

Which space captain would you rather have a drink with, Schirra or Kirk? Hell, who else would you rather have a drink with, period?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

This just in: I'm a cretin.

Not actually News, I grant you but as People of Science, we must test even our most evident axioms. So I finally post a comment on The Volokh Conspiracy, manage to hit send too soon and post a credibility-shredding study in incomprehension. A fairly definitive demonstration of ineptness, almost calculated to disappoint. Had I formed a month-long working party to blacken my name, I could have done little better.

Still, was a little disappointed at the previous comments in that thread, just as I am when PZ Meyers or his Squiddies resort to ad hominem over at Pharyngula , or any of the Crooked Timber-Wolves get Leftier-Than-Thou. Who'd have thought we'd use the InterTubes to be so Tribal, as virtual stables for our hobbyhorses? Using this revolutionary new form of interactivityu and communication we can...find like-minded people and agree with them. It smacks of the playground to me, something to ignore, most especially when you agree with the general sentiment.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

I Spy...

I was vastly tickled to see this - How To Measure Anything With A Camera And Software (via this). Not just because it's a great idea, not just that its such a cunning application of the most basic maths and geometry, but because it reminded me of the "Kennedy Assasination Tool" - a virtual reality/real-life geometry simulator in a fabulous old game called Spycraft (Activision 1996), which probably isn't as well known as the still largely forgotten Majestic (EA 2001) - a game so odd it deserves its own post.

Anyhow, Spycraft was an adventure game - you played a CIA rookie who gets pulled into a sprawling, urgent web of espionage, counter-espionage, corruption, assassination and lots of puzzle-solving. All this tool place in a gameworld composed of actual video footage, requiring six of the then-new-fangled CD-ROMs. Moving from scene to scene required a lot of disc-switchery, turning you into a ham-fisted action DJ. That said, the long load times didn't feel too onerous as they were as much a result of your own limited discular dexterity as the game tech, and acceptable load times were measured by the hour in those days). I just checked the min spec: Spycraft required a whopping 8MB of RAM. Lunacy.

Spycraft was almost spookily (no pun intended) ahead of its time. When I played it back in 1996, it seemed odd, sui generis, and unconnected to much else. Now its themes and memes seem more than prescient. It was all about the rights and wrongs of national security counter-terrorism, the limits of state power, the use and abuse of self-surveillance, the digital fabrication of evidence, the balance of SigInt and HumInt and not least, the legality and effectiveness of torture.

(respectful pause for Jane Meyer's brilliant New Yorker piece on 24 Producer Joel Surnow)

The cultural and emotional terrain has changed, of course. We're not just post-Cold War. We're not even just post-X-Files (which was itself post-Watergate, post-Three Mile Island), we're post-9/11, post-24, post-CSI and still nowhere near being post-Global War On Terror. I really hope developers and publishers can make a game even half as good as Spycraft today.

But chief of Spycraft's splendours was that it not only had creative input from but actual in-game/on-camera appearances by the actual former CIA director William Colby and former KGB Major-General Oleg Kalugin. I can't remember Kalugin's bits, but can't shake from my mind the extraordinary scene where you sit in a room while an actor (the marvellous James Karen, I think) and William freakin' Colby dispense advice on how to find Moles. In stilted, spookish, scripted manner, he describes the various classic Mole profiles, the only one of which I can recall being The Upgrader. "He's not going to mention Aldrich Ames, is he?" I wondered. "Ames was an upgrader..." Colby re-assures you, "...and we got him". Yeah, nine years too late, after he'd Xeroxed the KGB your entire NOC list. What a triumph for the CIA that was.

Oleg Kalunin remained an outspoken critic of the KGB's leadership and by extension - one assumes - Vladimir Putin. In 2002 Kalugin was put on trial in Moscow and found guilty of spying - in absentia, as he had become a naturalised US citizen and currently runs a counter-espionage consultancy in Washington .

Colby died in mysterious circumstances in 1996. Kalugin is presumably very careful about his teacups.

Who's the most important person to have appeared as themself in a computer game? And can you imagine any appearance more chilling than a spymaster who talks about spycatching and is then apparently murdered?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Games and Movies, more dreadful truth

Clearly inspired by my startled shrieking response to Chris Avelone's piece on researching game design from (amongst other things) movies, Kieron Gillen, author of the definitive screed on games journalism (no, not that, this) delivers yet again with this heady salad. Every single wordleaf a metaphoric glittery jewel of literal Truth.

Although no further evidence for the prosecution is required, let me admit this. A teacher chum in Chicago sometimes forwards me those of her student charges requiring equine-oral quotes for their papers. One of 'em asked me about the games I'd worked on thusly:“Did some of these ideas come from movies that you had seen in the past or from another form of media, and is there some connection in the games to movies?

My reply condemns me still:

I can’t stress this highly enough: the point of reference is almost always a movie. Even if we can come up with a better idea, we’ll tend to dress it up in a way we’ve seen in movies. Movie production design is a common point of reference for all our players, with lots of implicit ideas and emotional baggage. If we make our soldiers look a bit like the Marines from Aliens, players will be reminded of the brutal cool of that movie, the gruff talk, the sense of imminent violence. We’re trying to suspend the player’s disbelief. If a player feels like they’re looking at a screen, squidging buttons and massaging a mouse, we’ve failed. If they feel that they’re into the game world, running around and shooting things, we’ve got ‘em.

For many if not most video games, the main influence on their visual design is Cinema. In some game genres, such as Action and First Person Shooter, overwhelmingly so. Do not be distracted by the mere handful of movies that have been based on games: the traffic is almost entirely the other way. Movies have bigger budgets and better facilities for coming up with cool-looking stuff: if something has been made to look and sound cool in a movie, it’ll end up in a game, simple as that. That’s why games lean so heavily on movies – they supply pre-existing norms and a ready-made common visual vocabulary. If your game character is a glowing pink amoeba, it’s not clear what you have to do. If he looks like the chap out of Terminator, you’ve got a pretty good idea.

Although some games have created their own unique visual aesthetics (particularly Japanese ones, although a lot of them lean on Manga and Anime conventions), the biggest influences – almost always uncredited and unacknowledged – are movie production designers. It’s production designers who create the look and feel of what we expect in movies, they’re the ones who establish the visual vocabulary we all draw on.

Perhaps movies are uniquely usefully to game designers, but it’s not like it’s only game designers who are influenced by movie production designers. The great Ken Adam created all those great Bond villain bases, as well as the President’s War Room in Doctor Strangelove. Adam was told that when Ronald Reagan was elected President, the first thing he asked on moving into the White House was “Where’s the War Room?”, only to be met with polite frowns. I don’t know for sure that the story is 100% true, but it’s undeniable that movies influence everyone – not just games or game designers.

There. I am now reduced to quoting myself. Dispensing blowjobs for chump change in bus stations can surelynot follow far behind.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Game Design Research Orgy

Obsidian's Chris Avellone, guest-posting on David Edery's fine Game Tycoon, has some interesting things to say about game design research. He gets to research the Alien universe for to make a game thereof, the lucky bugger. Anyhow, I left a huge, rambling comment on it, repeated here just to slow down the IntarWebs:

This is great stuff, Chris. I’m absolutely in agreement with you about the importance of expanding your frame of reference. There are already enough games made out of bits of other games, TV made from more TV, movies made of elements of movies. My feeling is that most geeks/devs don’t need much encouragement to keep on consuming the media they’re already into, but need as much encouragement as they can get to start checking out new stuff, especially when it’s old stuff: history, literature, visual arts, let alone news coverage, scientific research or, gulp, Real Life.

You make some excellent points here and your illustrations would drive me mad with envy if they didn’t make me giggle so much, but I’d emphasize the difference between raw data and usable knowledge. For me, it’s part of what separate Pro’s from Paying Punters – Paying Punters point and clap at the puppet show; Pro’s get themselves backstage and work out which string pulls which limb. I don’t think people need much more practice at remembering the Cool Bits from games and movies and TV shows, but almost everyone needs more practice in working out why they’re cool, what it is about that technical solution that made it better than another, how was it put together, and what was so compelling about its presentation: the What isn’t as important as the Why and How.

For instance, why did New-Monster-Every-Week one-or-two-episode morality play SciFi TV series like Star Trek and Doctor Who come up with the Transporter beam and the Tardis respectively? To what production problem was that the solution? Why didn’t they go with an expensive but heavily repeated sequence to get their protagonists to and from their weekly new locations, like Thunderbirds? The relative production costs of a single special effect shot compared to a three-minute model montage will tell you more than any retro-con backstory explanation.

So my addendum to your advice to budding devs is to take all the games, TV shows and movies they love, and see those finished works not as monolithic blocks of Cool, but as a consequence of a series of design, direction and production decisions, decisions that can be analysed and reverse-engineered. Steal from the very best, I say! Just learning a few of the technical terms used by screenwriters, storyboard artists, directors, coders, sound designers, composers, actors and developers will give you more insight than memorizing every line of dialogue in every episode of every season of every franchise of StarTrek. Technical language is a kind of toolkit that lets you build something new, not just repeat something old. Knowing every episode featuring the character Data is just, well…data.

Being able to analyse the Cool Bits doesn’t mean you appreciate them less, quite the reverse – it makes the Cool Bits cooler. As an example, take the famous lots-of-short-shots montage technique pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein. Every movie nerd will be able to tell you about the famous Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin, and most will know that Brian DePalma recreated it almost shot-for-shot for the train station shootout scene in The Untouchables (even the Great steal from the Best). The more I read about the critical theory that built up around Eisenstein’s technique, the more I appreciated his achievement, and dug the visual syntax of cinema, and how long and broad a shadow it casts on all subsequent movie and TV editing. But this was as nothing compared to the slack-jawed awe I felt when I found out that it was his work-around for a potentially show-stopping production problem: only very short lengths of filmstock were available at the time, so he invented a way of telling stories with very short shots. That’s not just smart, that’s flaming, strobing genius! Future developers, be inspired!