Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Truth is Stranger than Dreams

I've been playing a bit of Leviathan: Warships, and while I enjoy the game some design choices seem a little strange to me. Namely, energy shields, cloaking devices and a number of other high tech objects which feel out of place given the setting. In case you didn't already know I'm a big fan of naval history. I even talked about a dream game of mine awhile back which was basically World War 2 (from here on written as "WW2") style naval engagements in a fictional setting. To some this might sound too limiting. After all, I'm sure the main reason Leviathan: Warships has all those futuristic gizmos is to create a greater variety of designs and tactics than a more grounded real world setting could offer. Here's the thing though, a lot of real life warships were more radical than than you might think.

Monitors were a class of fighting vessel associated with ironclad ships of the late 19th century. What few people know is the design actually persisted well into the 20th century, albeit in a wildly different state. One of the vessels of the British Royal Navy, HMS Lord Clive, was essentially a ship hull dedicated to supporting one huge gun. Fans of anime tropes will find this kind of warship ideally suited as an arch villain's doomsday weapon. Not strange enough? How about if it was submersible like the HMS M1.

While we're on the topic of submarines how about the Japanese I-400 super subs? Longer than most cruisers of the time, these monsters of the deep were a kind of submersible aircraft carrier capable of launching and retrieving a squadron of seaplanes. They had an incredible range and storage capacity, not to mention an impressive armament of torpedoes. They also served as the inspiration for the first nuclear submarines.

Despite the high price tag, battleships have a surprising amount of variety. On one extreme there are the un-built (but fully designed) giants such as the American Montana-class and A-150 "Super Yamato." On the opposite end of the spectrum are pocket battleships such as the Admiral Graf Spee. This German commerce raider had incredible range and the ability to outgun anything it couldn't outrun....or outrun anything it couldn't outgun.

Some battleships seem ordinary on paper, but actually had distinctly unusual weapon layouts. French WW2 battleships were unique in that they sported quadruple (four barreled) turrets instead of the usual one to three. What's more these main batteries were concentrated into a forward firing arc. Then there is the Nelson-class which featured a similarly aggressive looking layout with all its turrets mounted in front of the superstructure. Oddly enough the superfire arrangement in the middle turret meant that it could not fire a complete salvo at targets dead ahead. Perpendicular to this design is the Italian battleships of the Littorio-class which had their single aft turrets on a superfire arrangement. The reason for this was to avoid damaging the seaplanes parked on the poop deck. Basically, the designers had to raise the turret placement to compensate for the real world equivalent of poor hit detection.

By far though, the craziest battleships ever designed were those mated to an aircraft carrier. These hybrid vessels were only used by the Japanese in WW2, but before you dismiss them as something only Japan would attempt, take note that British naval architects also seriously considered building a similar kind of hybrid warship.

As for aircraft carriers, let me mention that a large number of these types of vessels were actually converted from hulls intended to be cruisers or even battleships. The Italian auxiliary aircraft carrier Sparviero was rare exception in that it originally was a luxury passenger liner, complete with a rounded stern balcony. One wonder if the officers on board enjoyed more sumptuous than average  accommodations due to the vessels previous role.

Certain types of battleships and cruisers also saw a rather extreme degree of specialization. The USS Atlanta was essentially a mobile floating collection of flack cannons and anti-aircraft guns. Japan tried to capitalize on its superior "long lance" torpedo technology with vessels like IJN Takao's unprecedented sixteen torpedo tubes. Similarly, Fuso-class battleships had a staggering twelve main guns mounted in six turrets (some of which had embarrassingly limited firing arcs). Needless to say, if you ever wanted to beam spam your enemies using WW2 weaponry these types of vessels were custom built for the task.

Min/max munchkins might get a kick out of Novogrod or her near-sister (brother?) ship Rear Admiral Popov. Unlike the underwater part of most ship hulls which vaguely resemble fish in shape, these odd looking craft had more in common with sea turtles. Personally I think whoever approved the design must have been far more concerned with statistics than aesthetics

If floating gun platforms don't sound static enough for you how about the Norwegian fortress of Oscarsborg? Set on a pair of island in the middle of an inlet, this fortification not only consisted of two of eleven inch naval guns, but also water level torpedo tubes. Despite being antiquated by the outbreak of WW2, the garrison of draftees managed sink the new heavy cruiser Bl├╝cher and repulse it's escorts. This unexpectedly fierce resistance not only killed an important portion of the Nazi occupation force, but also bought the royal family of Norway enough time grab their treasury of gold and escape to England.

The last thing I want to cover in this blog entry is the configuration of aircraft. While tractor type prop planes are by far the most common design seen in the world, there is a viable alternative. Pusher configuration aircraft are distinct in that they have their propellers mounted to the rear. Obviously this changes the handling characteristics considerably, but it isn't inferior. Rather, pusher planes have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. For one the cockpit visibility is generally better. Forward gun placement is also less of a headache, although rear angled weapons can be a bit more tricky. The same goes for pilot protection in that the engine acts like a kind of shield. Hence, tractor planes fare better when it comes to surviving frontal attacks while pusher type aircraft are more resistant to bullets in the backside. A variety of pusher planes were designed and built during WW2, but the concept never saw mass production. This probably had to do with the unwanted hassle of having to retrain aircrews, mechanics and carrier personnel. Still, if pusher planes had been more common before WW2 we might have seen them used in larger numbers.

Video games didn't exist during the second world war, but based on some of the designs I mentioned above I think it's clear that the gamer mindset had already been adopted by designers and architects. It's really too bad they couldn't play games like Leviathan: Warships. If they did, I have a feeling they would have mulled some of their more outlandish concepts and ideas before they became reality.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Next Gen Can'O'Worms

Thanks to the impressive power of next generation consoles, video games are looking more realistic than ever before.  Unfortunately, the problem with all these 1080p high res textures and motion capture performances is they invite audiences to make comparisons to the real world a lot more than some stylized 8-bit pixelated indie title.

Regrettably, this leads to a lot of triple AAA games not holding up well under scrutiny.  Granted, what we have seen thus far is stuff still in development, but much like The Spoony One and his long running obsession with Final Fantasy flaws, I too have noticed far too many nagging inconsistencies for the MST3K Mantra to work (regardless of how many times I chant it).

Despite video games boasting fancy physics engines for at least a decade now, it feels like game designers have deliberately been ignoring Issac Newton's three fundamental laws of motion.  Yeah, yeah, I know...rule-of-cool, right?  Titanfall just wouldn't be as awesome if those huge bipedal war machines compressed the ground underfoot, cracked pavement with each step and smashed through buildings like you'd expect them to...wait  a second!  That would be way more impressive than what was actually shown.  Red Faction: Guerrilla already had this kind of thing locked down last gen, and if you want to get technical Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2 nailed the essence of the square-cube law long before that.  Sorry Respawn Entertainment, it doesn't matter if you're on another planet because gravity is still going to cause objects to weight proportional to their respective mass.

Moving on, Destiny boasts breathtaking vistas, but doesn't seem to have much in the way of fluid dynamics aside from some faintly animated splashing textures when a character runs through a stream.  Speaking of disrupting liquids, what is the deal with Ryse: Son of Rome?  We got gory dismemberment and flashy finishing QTEs, but straight up whacking barbarians with your gladius doesn't leave so much as a red mark.  Silent Hill: Homecoming did accurate damage modeling back in 2008, yet five years later (and with more than 30 times the RAM) Crytek can't?

As you've probably gathered by now, there's still quite a bit that can be found in older titles that is sorely lacking in next gen experiences.  Don't get me wrong, The Division having realistic bullet holes in car windows is neat and all, but how about including features we had in games long ago such as Prince of Persia way back in 1989?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Opening Salvos

Using the analogy that PS4 and Xbox One are dueling battleships, we could think of the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo as the first broadsides in what will undoubtedly be the main engagement of this upcoming console generation.  Obviously, tactics play a big part, but so does overall strategy and even basic design.

I think we can all agree that it was a good day
for black rectangles 
Lets talk briefly about the box makers themselves, shall we?  It's important to note that Microsoft is, at heart, a software company while Sony has traditionally been a hardware manufacturer.  You might be tempted to conclude from those facts alone that it's no surprise Sony is ahead right now, but remember that their obsession with the PS3 cell processor led to a lot of headaches for game development down the road. Conversely, Microsoft has had reliability issues with a number of their early model Xbox 360s.

Taking on a more macro view, I think Sony pulled a rather clever ruse leading up to the big press events at E3 in Los Angeles.  Going in, there were a lot rumors that Sony would follow suit with Xbox One's DRM schemes, but as it turned out this was a big pile of falsehoods.  Couple the deception with PS4's $100 cheaper price tag and you have a brutal one-two-punch against Microsoft.  Now, there's still things Xbox One can do though.  Subsidized price plans, early release dates and lots of exclusive content would ensure that the console war is far from over.  That said, there's one really huge factor that could spell doom from Xbox One - demographics.

The only Xbox One exclusive
that really caught my attention
A lot of American gamers tend to forget the Xbox 360 really only outsold PS3 in the USA.  Europe and Asia are smaller markets, but the fact remains PS3 dominated in these regions.  The result is Sony catering to a much wider international audience while Microsoft feels like it is contracting in terms of core customers.  Still, there are a lot of people who enjoy sports TV and games as well as online focused first person shooters.  However, I don't believe these "Dude-Bro" gamers make up the majority.  If anything Microsoft needs to cast a wider net.   I'll give you a hint, securing stuff like Titanfall isn't going to do it.  That game really only appeals to the aforementioned Dude-Bro player base.

What we are left with is a situation in which Microsoft could very well go the way of Nintendo and the Wii-U, clinging to a small market share of hardcore fans.  I guess you could say Microsoft came into this expecting a stand up big gun fight and instead got torpedoed.  Maybe they can contain the flooding with skilled damage control, but the fact remains the waters around Xbox One are seeded with mines.  

Friday, June 7, 2013

Excessive Exclusivity

If you look at the roster of most video game studios, you'll find that pretty much everyone who works in the actual design process has one of two professions. They're either an artist or they are a coder (the motion capture team, voice actors and music composers aren't allowed at the table when when discussions about the next game come around). Every once in a while there will be a token V.I.P. that pitches some monetization related advice to the development team for a short period of time, but that's about as far as exceptions go. Even people with English backgrounds tend to end up in journalism or some other public relations field, rather than a more obvious role like script writing.

I find this odd especially when you compare video games to other forms of media. After all, novelists come in all kinds. Movies too need an ensemble cast and crew with a broad range of expertise in order to turn out quality work. So why is it video game development comes off feeling overly limited? I can't think of a good answer to that question, but I am convinced that the lack of diversity contributes to the limited variety of the games themselves.

Part of what gives Dwarf Fortress its unique ambiance and complexity has to do with one of the two developers being a historian of classical antiquity and the other mathematician. Bioware's early (and arguably best) RPGs were conceived by a pair of medical doctors. Then there is distinguished game designer Ken Levine, a man who studied theater drama and film making before eventually starting off at Looking Glass Studios.

Personally, I doubt my ability to be good game designer. However, I am confident that there are a lot of talented people who could dramatically enrich the industry. Sadly, such individuals will probably never have an opportunity to shine under current conditions simply because they don't have C++ experience or some art program certification printed on their resume. Perhaps if, and when, computer languages become more accessible things might change. Editing and creation tool sets becoming more common would be a big help too. Off the top of my head House of the Dead Ninjas and CD Projekt RED's REDkit *whew* are the only recent feature sets that come to mind. I'm sure Media Molecule has something special in the works for PS4 though as well. Sadly for now the barrier to entry remains exceedingly high.  A shame since it is to all our detriment.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Siren's Call

An American TV crew goes to Japan
Looking for weird stuff
...It doesn't end well for them
When it comes to the Silent Hill series the second entry tends to receive the most praise by critics and fans alike.  For me though the first game was the most enjoyable, and while I had fun playing the sequels they never quite had the same spark as the original.  This could be just another case of franchise fatigue, but I have a feeling it has more to do with the departure of certain key members from Konami after the original PSX release.  What happened to these folks?  They went on to create one of the most esoteric survival horror games ever - Siren.

Right off the bat Siren distinguishes itself in a big way by use of the second person perspective.  Unlike most video games, which limit your line of sight to what the player controlled character's can see, Siren  uses a default over the shoulder third person view that can (and must be) shifted to nearby ally or enemy view points via "Sightjacking."  It's an important gameplay mechanic for figuring out where your foes are, and in some cases, such as when you control a blind character, is essential to navigating the environment.

A total of three games were made.  The first two were both PS2 titles.  In order to get the most out of the hardware of the time the development team made use of facial texture mapping in which a variety of expressions were taken from real actor's faces.  The images were then pasted onto polygonal models creating a uniquely bizarre effect to say the least.  It also gives a subtly disturbing impression that everyone is wearing a mask.

Dr. Miyata has some strong parallels to
Dr. Kaufman from Silent Hill
Environments and locals are reminiscent of modern day rural Japan, except they are foggy, dark and rundown with claustrophobic overgrowth. Pools of mysterious red water can be found everywhere (it even falls from the sky). The player's adversaries are primarily "Shibito," a word created by combining the kanji for "death" and "person." One might be tempted to call them zombies, but the truth is a bit more complicated. Shibito are not dead, nor do they die easily. They do not age and while they can be incapacitated by physical trauma, their wounds will mend in such short order that they essentially unkillable baring complete immolation by fire or some other highly destructive force. How did these being come about? Spoilers ahead...

The story of the second Siren game is a bit of an aside, taking place in an alternate reality in which Showa Era Japan did not end.  For that reason it feels like a separate story meant to promote a movie tie-in.  So for that reason, I'd like to focus on the first and third games which are based more heavily on ancient Japanese folklore.  In Asuka period Japan, the remote mountain village of "Hanuda" is experiencing a terrible famine.  By chance the body of a inanimate alien creature is discovered lying in a patch of barren farmland.  It is brought to the town proper on  a crude wood plank stretcher (an object which later becomes a holy symbol).  Driven recklessly desperate with sever hunger, some of the starving simple minded villagers decide to eat this unknown entity.  Not yet completely dead the alien lets out a final cry as it is being consumed which sounds much like an air raid siren.  From that day forward those who ate the flesh, and any of their future offspring (called "Kajiro"), are cursed - they become Shibito.

Are those wings?  Sensing organs?
Limbs for interacting with 5-D objects?
This might sound like fantasy, but it actually has a bit of a science fiction twist to it. The devoured creature is actually a "Datatsushi," a being reminiscent of a giant crustacean/insect which exists in a higher number of dimensions than humans. By consuming the flesh of this organism part of its tissue's dimensional properties become integrated into the cells of those who ate it.

For all outward intents and purposes Shibito appear to be ordinary people living humble lives atypical for rural Japan.  The cult of "Amana" springs up though for those who carry the curse.  Unsurprisingly, Amana's religious dogma is centered around a self-sacrificing deity called "Kaiko" who will lead its chosen few to paradise.   Holy relics called "Uryen" are actually small objects that were found near the Datatsushi.  I don't want to give away everything, but lets just say things don't stay static forever.  After all death is only permanent so long as time, in relation to space, follows a single continuous path.

It is this break in human perceived reality that makes Siren difficult to comprehend.  Events in the games take place non-linearly over period of three days.  The large cast of characters is difficult to keep track of too due to the jumbled chronology.  Once things really start happening the Shibito also change physically and mentally, taking on traits similar to the Datatsushi.  Their notion of paradise turns out to be a horrifying form of mutation and insanity, at least from an outside perspective.  I guess they are happy after a fashion though.

70 year old Akira Shimura
 is about as tough as they
come in Siren
Finishing any of the Siren games without a detailed guide or FAQ is practically impossible.  Oftentimes locations are visited multiple times but by different characters.  This leads to situations where if certain seemingly irrelevant  but necessary actions are not taken earlier in the game then later progress is unobtainable.  Couple this with the frail, often poorly armed player controlled characters and you have a fairly unapproachable game.  Nothing is more discouraging than trying to escort slow moving dead weight people through an unlit, maze-like countryside guarded by an invincible flying sniper that can pick you off in two shots (and that's only the second mission in the game!).

So, Why would anyone want to play Siren?  Well, the reason I was drawn to the series had to do with the way horror elements are presented.  Much like Resident Evil or Dead Space, body horror and creepy atmosphere play a big part, but what gives Siren a deeper sense of substance is the other ways it gets to you.  Just check out this commercial to get a small taste of what I mean:

The lines between friend and foe are sometimes blurred in other ways too.  A doctor who dissects the Shibito in order to understand their physiology better comes across as both no nonsense hero and ruthlessly pragmatic villain.  Characters are often undone by their own failings as much as any external threat.  More than once I found myself feeling sorry for the Shibito since not all of them are willing participants in the transformation which they undergo.  Players are given control over Shibito as well, allowing a glimpse of what they experience and raising them above the level of mindless monsters.  All this is a far cry from Dead Space 3's cheap jump scares and heavy handed message of "Unitology and Markers bad...m'kay?"  One of my favorite bits from the Resident Evil series comes from the end credits of the fourth mainline installment.  It's incredibly disturbing to see still hand drawn images showing the slow and cruel corruption of a small community of Spaniards by the Las Plagas parasites.  It also did an excellent job of putting into context how these people ended up a bunch of brainwashed militant pagans.

digressions aside, Siren is one of those games that asks a lot of the player, but also rewards effort.  Perhaps if it had been a bit more forgiving, had a stronger central game mechanic, or simply been told through a different form of media the degree of commercial success would have been greater.  Regardless, I have to hand it to the development team.  They made the game they wanted to make.  A rare thing in this day and age where everyone feels the need to adhere to overused formulaic templates copy and pasted from passed hits.  In Europe Siren is called Forbidden Siren.  A apt title considering the direction the development team chose to go in.