Monday, January 28, 2013

Jeb's Journey

Where to begin?  I guess my acceptance into the "Space Program" would be as good a place as any.  I was originally a test pilot, flying experimental aircraft such as the Wyvern X and White Archer.  Neither aerospace vessel ever achieved more than suborbital flight.  More than once I had to get creative when touching down too.  But you know what they say...any landing you can walk away from...

After no less than a two dozen missions, I was eventually reassigned to the rocket division.  Some of the guys had already flown around the the Mün and back at that point.  Kerbonauts like Bill and Bob were household names.  But the powers-that-be weren't content to repeat past accomplishments, they wanted to do even more.  The next vehicle the engineering team came up with had a pair of nuclear engines attached to it.  The press dubbed it the Lunar Lion, but to me it was a more of a "Shitty Kitty" than anything else. For one thing the RCS fuel tanks were mounted such that the retractable docking port on top couldn't open. The next big problem was its top heavy design. The thing was nearly impossible to land (more on that later). But the worst aspect of the lander was the command pod. Someone got the bright idea of placing it upside-down so that the flight crew could see the ground and landing gear through the windows. That was all well and good except that the dummies forgot to flip the calibration on the navigation systems. We spent the entire flight having to do everything back-asswards; burning on the retrograde mark when we wanted to accelerate and so on.

Launching and orbiting over Kerbin were surprisingly easy, as was the trans-Müner injection.  After establishing a low (but stable orbit) over the Mün we started to survey for a suitable landing zone.  That's when Bill spotted them.  Around the southern and eastern edge of a particularly large crater were two distinct objects of interest.  We decided to land at the south target first.  And here is where the real problems started.  The nuclear engines ran out energy forcing us to ditch them mid-burn.  De-clawed, as it were, we overshot the landing zone and had to backtrack to the object using our piddly "tail" thruster.  This ended up costing us precious liquid fuel and oxidant.  By the time we reached the place we originally wanted to be the gas gauge was a lot closer to "E" than "F".  Then came the constant tipping.  Every time Bob tried to set the Lion down it started to tip over and he'd have to lift off again.  After more attempts that I can recall (honestly, I was completely focused on trying not to barf in my helmet) we eventually came to an upright rest with nothing but fumes left in the tank.

Disembarking was a pain since we had to drop out of the command pod upside-down   Both Bill and I banged our helmets on the extend landing legs.  after that it was a short twilight jaunt via RCS packs over to the object in question.  As it turned out the thing Bill had seen from orbit was a monument to some guy called Neil Armstrong.  I have no idea how it got there, but one thing I can say for sure, the lander he used looked a lot better designed than ours.

So, there we were.  Stuck on the surface of the Mün, waiting for Kerbin to send someone to come pick us up.  The rescue mission involved two vessels.  The first was called the Chancy Chariot.  It was a towing vessel designed to pull other craft to and from Kerbin.  In this case her cargo was an automated lander call-signed Big Kanga.  I heard there were a lot of problems getting the lander into orbit and docked with Chancy Chariot (something about backward fuel lines).  Regardless both vessels eventually made orbit over the Mün and Big Kanga started its decent.  Now, I should take a moment to point out that in order facilitate a rapid recovery of Bill, Bob and I, the engineering team had equipped Big Kanga with a Müner rover nicknamed Little Joey.  The plan was to drop Little Joey from the bottom of Big Kanga a few meters above the surface of the Mün.  That part went more or less okay.  The problem was the remote operating system stayed with the rover and not the lander after detachment.  Before control could be switched over, Big Kanga ended up splayed out like a beached space-whale.  Several attempts were made to get the lander off the ground and each time failed.  In desperation the remote operator tried using the main engines rater than a combination of RCS and landing legs.  The resulting explosion left only three small pieces of debris.

The rescue mission was a complete and total failure, but we did get one thing out of the unmitigated disaster, Little Joey.  The rover made the trip over to the Lion that night and it was decided that I would take the rover out for an excision.  Plenty of propellant was left in the rover and the other eastern object that Bill had spotted from orbit was still out there.  So, I mounted up at dawn and drove off clinging to the rover grip bars.

For what it's worth the rover performed decent enough up to 40kph.  Pushing it much faster than that though resulted in instability whenever the ground changed inclination.  Of course I figured this out the hard way.  Needless to say Little Joey was flipped more than once during the excursion.  Every twenty minutes or so I stopped the rover to take a break, and each time the words "quick saving" appeared in the upper right corner of my vision.  Another oddity I witnessed was the sentence "Cannot time warp while Kerbal is on the ladder" flashing briefly before my eyes once early on.  Overall it took me more than two hours to reach the eastern object.  At one point I crested a hill and got a direct view of it in the distance.  Unfortunately, I was so focused on the object I lost my grip on the bars and fell off.  Luckily the only thing injured was my pride.

As I got close the rover began to handle different than before so I transfer what propellant was left into the bottom-most tank to improve handling.  All told though Little Joey still had nearly half its original fuel supply when we reached our destination.  And what a sight it was!

So, here I am atop the Müner Arch writing the message you have just read.  Bill and Bob are still aboard the Lion waiting for my return.  The truth is I'd rather stay here though.  The view is nicer under the stars.  Even though my journey has been long, looking up at the sky I can't help but feel that this is just beginning.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Lenses, Filters and Mirrors

The way is shut-It was made by those who are Dead-And the Dead keep it
(A quick disclaimer; I am not talking about things like F-stops, focus pulling and glare angles. Instead, I am using terms like those in the title of this blog in the metaphorical sense.)

So, over the winter break I got a chance to go and see "The Hobbit" in the theater. I (unlike a lot of professional reviewers) really enjoyed the film, but ironically among all those trolls, dwarfs, wizards and elves the thing that stuck out most in my mind was Goblin Town. Not because of the goblins, or even their fleshy bearded king. Rather it was the look of underground lair that stuck with me most of all. It felt almost identical to an area known as Blighttown in Dark Souls. It's interesting to think that both of the Souls games borrowed a lot of concepts and themes from Tolkien's writings, and now those themes are being reflected back into movie adaptations of his works.

Japanese interpretations of American films in video game format is hardly anything new. Need I point out the rather obvious similarities to early Metal Gear titles and "Rambo"? Metroid co-director, Yoshio Sakamoto, freely admits that he was heavily inspired by the first "Alien" film. Themes of isolation and H.R. Giger inspired enemies not withstanding, the fact that Samus is woman owes a lot to Direct Ridley Scott's decision to cast a female for the role of Ripley. To me it has always been interesting to see these adaptations of cultural media, since it has led to some of the best franchises in the history video games. However, it gets even more fascinating when things go the other way.

Samurai/Westerns are nothing new in the world of cinema, as are Americanized versions of Japanese horror films such as "The Ring," "Dark Water" and "The Grudge."  But since we're talking about video games lets touch on F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon). To say F.E.A.R. was influenced by "Ringu" would be stating the obvious, but what many people don't realize is a large number of other Japanese films also influenced the developers. J-horror film "Retribution" is probably the most obvious example with it's ubiquitous revenge driven ghost girl in a red dress. Then there is also the anime "Akira," along with various Asian action films that made heavy use of bullet-time long before "The Matrix."

Quantum Theory on the other hand just sucks.
While it might feel like one culture is ripping off from another. I happen to enjoy these reworkings simply because it acts as a means of seeing our own media from the perspective of an outsider. Plus, it often creates a very unique and memorable experiences in the process. And as I'm sure we can all agree the video game industry isn't exactly busting at the seams with originality. So keep this kind of thing coming, I say. Because it has a proven track record for doing far more good than ill.

Friday, January 18, 2013

They Should Have Been Games

Heavy Rain, Metal Gear Solid, the later entries in the Final Fantasy series...what do these games have in common?  They all feel like the product of a frustrated wannabe filmmaker.  Perhaps these particular stories would have been better off had they used movies as their medium.  Dragon's Lair, especially to me, always felt like it would have made an awesome animated film rather than a clunky QTE driven collection of FMVs.  So, while these phenomenon of the video game industry exist, there's also several examples in the world of cinema that would have probably found a more receptive audience had they chosen to be video games instead of motion pictures.   

Flash Gordon was originally a pulp sci-fi comic which debut in the 1930s as a direct competitor to the similarly themed franchise Buck Rodgers. In 1982 a live action film came out. Then a game was released in 1987, but it pretty much ignored the style of the film. This was most likely due to the fact that the movie bombed at the box office. For better or worse the film has since become a cult classic with its distinctive look as well as quirky tech; such as atomic rockets, lightning fields, and ray guns that go "pew-pew." So, why should this have been a game? Well to start with the blond-haired, square-jawed protagonist is the star quarterback of the New York Jets (Yale Polo player originally). This makes him perfect marketing material. A less snarky reason comes from the world of Flash Gordon (a.k.a. planet Mongo). It's basically a sci-fi version of Hyrule. For starters we have hawk-men, lion-men, and shark-men which correspond well with Deku, Gorons and Zora. Then there is Ming the Merciless in lieu of Gannon, King of Evil. Flash has a love interest in need of rescue, just like Link. Even the respective princesses, Midna and Aura, thematically overlap each other quite a bit. Hammy acting plus black and white morality may seem cliche in cinema, but in video games it's par for the course. Also the soundtrack courtesy of Queen rocks.  

Total Recall (the remake) would have made an excellent FPS had it been picked up by Monolith Productions. Instead though that company has been delegated to making League of Legends with a Lord of the Rings graphics set. A pity since the film felt like a lot of loosely stitched together action set pieces. It would have been great to play, but felt a bit awkward to watch. Also, is it me or do the robot enemies look an awful lot like the ones featured prominently in Binary Domain?

Prometheus was a disjointed disappointment on the big screen, but what if it had been a classic point-and-click adventure game? Lucas Art's The Dig with the horror elements cranked up is what I'm thinking. Or maybe Darkseed set in space...Gemini Rue and Primordia by Wadjet Games are some good recent examples of how to make a fun sci-fi title that's light on the combat. Plus, there is the matter of video games not being required to adhere to a two hour or so format. Imagine having more time for exploration, character development and (god-engineers forbid) answers to some of the questions that the film asks. At the very least the stupid behavior of the science team would make a lot more sense if it were the result of a mischievous player's input. I don't know how anyone else played Space Quest back in the day, but I highly doubt that I'm the only one that wanted to see what happened when Roger Wilco touched stuff.

Well...that's all I got for now.  But before I go let me ask one question.  Why are all these guys looking to the right?  Seriously...all three pictures I posted are from DVD box art and in all three cases the faces displayed prominently in the center foreground are looking toward something off camera to their starboard.  Weird.

Part FPS, part space flight-sim, this could have been an interesting hybrid game rather than a forgettable TV series

Friday, January 11, 2013

Arcade Art (not Johann Sebastian's game)

Here's some art from the classic arcade game Joust. 

I should note that one of these images is not a fan tribute, but actual licensed box art.  If you know which one then consider yourself a true jouster and not pterodactyl food.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beware of Deception

Pirates stealing from publishers is a regrettably common occurrence in the video game industry, but something many people don't realize is theft can be a two way street.  I'm not talking about pay-to-playtest-online schemes, nor simple MMO gold farming.  "Creating confusion in the market place" is a polite way to put it.  Regardless of the choice of words "game developers" do engage scams from time to time.  Let's check out a few examples that happened in 2012, shall we?

Back in February there were a pair of Pokemon apps on the Apple store.  Pokemon Yellow in particular billed itself as a port of the famous handheld game by the same name.  In actuality all it consisted of was a title screen.  Another app called Pokemon - Pocket Edition claimed an enticing number of features, but then in small print admitted to being nothing more than a gallery of pictures from real Pokemon games.  Gotta Catch'em All?  No thanks.

Kickstarter has had a few suspects crop up this year, most notably a title called Mythic: The Story of Gods and Men.  Supposedly this project was being created by a team of ex-Activision/Blizzard employees with motion capture done by Disney/Pixar. If that doesn't sound suspicious enough it turned out that all the artwork, screenshots and pictures of pledge rewards were pilfered from various existing sources. You can read about more details here. Sufficed to say the project was canceled at the end of April after only reaching a little under $5k of it's $80k goal. I personally suspect that at least the one $2,500 backer was probably in on the con as well.

Sometimes advertising can take a turn into sham territory too.  How many game titles have you seen with the words "storm" or "requiem" in them?  War Z is an example of this kind of abusive labeling.  It was pulled down in December after being out on Steam for less than a week.  The game is basically guilty of false claims and only saw strong initial sales because a number of buyers were duped into thinking it was the highly anticipated standalone release of DayZ (a popular zombie survival game currently available only as an Arma II mod).  According to the fine legal print refunds for the game are not possible, but Valve is exercising common sense and has offered purchasers their $15 back assuming they're willing to submit the online request form.

Sometimes the cover itself is another trick meant to exploit customers who are not exercising proper caution when deciding what prodocts to buy.  Take a look at this example book cover on the right.  Look vaguely familiar?  The choice of font and background colors look awfully reminiscent to Mass Effect, don't you think?  It doesn't help that this novel has nothing to do with the Mass Effect universe either.  Personally, I can't understand why you would want to create this kind of false association.  It's not like the Mass Effect novels themselves were particularly good to begin with.   Especially the aptly titled Mass Effect: Deception, an entry in the series so poorly received by fans that Bioware and Del Rey (the book publisher) made an official apology to readers everywhere.  Oh this case perhaps justice has ultimately been served.