Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Design ratios

Just a quick comment about user interface design and game programming after reading various comments on Unangband UI, Dwarf Fortress vs. Minecraft and Civilisation V.

I find that you need to spend about 3 to 5 times the amount of time and/or effort on explaining the features of the game, as implementing the features in the first place. This includes user interface design and documentation and is probably an underestimate for games in general, because I design most of the documentation to be generated rather than hand written.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Roguelike Release Day

I'm going to take advantage of a) the timezone difference in Australia, and b) the generosity of strangers to contribute very little to Roguelike Release Day a day late.

Please consider Hajo's Iso-unangband WIP4 to be the Unangband Roguelike release for this day.

You may want to check out the official page for Roguelike Release Day.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Designing a Magic System Redux - Part Three (Magic Items)

You are encouraged to read parts one and two of this article series, and are strongly encouraged to read the original Designing a Magic System series of articles if you have not already done so. This article also incorporates most of the text from another blog post which you may want to refer to the comments of.

I've been working on adding items with multiple 'pvals' to Unangband, and this is probably the most wide ranging set of changes I've made to the code since I began developing.

In Angband-speak, a pval is the value associated with a particular magic item flag: the +3 in a ring of Strength +3. Angband and many variants only allow you to have one numeric value per item, which was also historically overloaded with additional meanings such as the number of charges a wand would have. I've separated out that meaning (there is now a separate charge value) - and I'm now in the process of allowing items with multiple different numeric values e.g. a ring of Strength (+3) and Size (+7).

I'm not the first variant to have done this: so I'm taking an approach similar to Sangband, where the pvals are represented by a small numeric array of values, and then the flags to which pvals can apply become a bit array. So you end up with a situation where you might have pval[1] which is +3, and pval_flag[1] which is Strength, which in combination mean Strength +3.

The alternative is to have an integer array equal to the size of the possible different flags: the example here would be pval[STRENGTH_INDEX]=3. This obviously uses up a lot more memory and storage for each item, but with modern computers, the performance impact would be negligible. I've chosen the Sangband approach as much as a design constraint as a technical constraint - I have a hunch that people will have problems comparing two items which have more than 7-10 different discrete numeric values.

I have made a decision which increases the amount of code I've had to alter but should make it simpler long term, by also making item abilities such as to-hit bonus and to-damage bonus, weight and armour class, included in the pval framework I'm developing. To make this clearer, I've retitled them avals, short for ability values. An item now has abilities, associated with avals and which vary over an integer range, and flags, which are either on or off.

One possible abuse of the ability to use Angband items in multiple ways is the ability to throw ammunition instead of shooting it from a bow or crossbow. Ammunition is light, which means you can carry a lot of it, and throwing it is 'abusive' because the damage bonus that is applied to firing ammunition is also applied to thrown ammunition, without penalty. This is exacerbated in Unangband because the damage bonus was until the latest version counted twice for thrown weapons and not multiplied by missile launchers, which meant that throwing an arrow (+9,+9) may be more effective than firing it from a longbow.

The damage bonus in this example is insensitive to it's context - it is applied equally when the item is thrown, set in a trap, or fired from a missile weapon. And if you think the ammunition example could in some way be construed as sensible, consider that the damage bonus a bow applies to arrows fired from it, would also be applied if you threw the bow instead.

At the moment, I'm changing this: damage bonuses will be able to be context sensitive - a weapon that adds damage while fighting, won't necessarily benefit shooting, but may, for example, benefit being used in a trap.

I have the flexibility to allow missile weapons with incredibly good trap damage but no shooting damage bonus, but it is unlikely that a player would ever choose such a weapon over a missile weapon with superior shooting damage and no benefit in traps. Whereas if the weapon was multi-functional, it is more possible the player will attempt to take advantage of 'free' additional functionality at some point. I can do either approach with the approximately same level of cleanliness in the code: it is a data design issue, rather than code overhead cost.

There is a separate but related question about worn vs. wielded items. If a sword improves your ability to fight with it, does it also improve your ability to fight with another weapon if you hold it in your off-hand or even just strap it to your body? In particular, if you get one more blow per round with it, do you get that blow if it would be from another weapon?

On consideration, there are two related ways of thinking about magic items: firstly, how the abilities (avals) accumulate if the character is using multiple items which have this ability, and secondly whether the player inherits the power (ability, flag) of the magic item at all.

The simplest example is weight: if a character picks up two objects, both of which have weight, how is the character's overall encumbrance affected? This example is seemingly straight forward: the weight of the two objects is added together to give the total encumbrance.

But what if we measured encumbrance as the sum of weight, plus volume, plus length, which may be a more realistic way to model how difficult it is an item to carry? It may be possible to stack the two items side by side, so that the length of the total isn't the sum of the longest axis of each of them. So even this simple example can be complicated through extrapolation.

Then there is the problem of accumulating numeric values. +3 to hit, and +6 to hit is seemingly straight forward (+9 to hit), but how does one item which gives 50% resistance to fire, add to another item which gives 33% resistance to fire? Should it be additive, so that the player gets 83% resistance to fire? Or multiplicative, so that the player gets 66% resistance (1- (1-.5) * (1-.33))? I am a big fan of geometrical progression for resistances - because they provide a big impact initially which tapers off, but is still useful when added together. In the most straight forward geometrical progression scheme, level 1 resistance gives 50% resistance (1/2), level 2 gives 66% resistance (2/3), level 3 gives 75% resistance (3/4) and so on.

This also depends how you model fire damage to start with. What does 50 hp fire damage actually mean? Is 100 hp fire damage twice as hot? In which case, if you are modeling resistance to fire damage as ability to tolerate a temperature range, someone with 50 resistance may be able to ignore 50 hp completely, but take 50 hp damage from a 100 hp attack.

Specific versus damage bonuses are another tricky component to balance. In Angband, weapons have the ability to slay particular types of monsters for double, triple or higher damage, or branded with an element which does additional damage from fire, cold and so on. The Angband approach is to use the highest multiplier, rather than add the multipliers together. This is simplifies the creature design process as the designer is free to create a creature which is a hybrid of e.g. dragon and undead, without having to worry about this creature taking more damage from the weapon which is effective against both dragons and undead than against creatures which are just either dragon or undead.

The same applies to brands, even though we could model a weapon with multiple brands as doing both extra extra fire damage (which creatures immune to fire ignore) and extra cold damage (which creatures immune to cold ignore). If we treat this weapon as doing extra damage from each element, instead of picking the highest multiplier, creatures which are neither immune to cold or fire would take both sets of damage, which would make weapons with multiple brands much more effective than weapons with multiple slays.

But should this 'highest multiplier' approach be used across multiple items where e.g. a character could have a weapon with a fire brand, and also a ring which imparts a fire brand to the weapon. If yes, then there is no benefit to specialising in fire-based equipment, while there are plenty of draw backs. If no, and the multipliers add together, you have to balance for the maximum per item multiplier is multiplied by the number of possible items that the player can gain benefit from at the same time. Be sure to come up with a good reason for being unable to wear a ring on each finger and toe, and pierced through any available flap of skin.

With the inheritance question, it is clear some abilities are straight forward: they should be applied to the player if the item is equipped (fire resistance), or only apply to the object in question (proof against destruction by fire). It is specifically the 'use the item in question to perform a task' abilities which are not so clear. Take the ability to increase the amount of damage the player does.

As I highlighted earlier, it makes no sense to have the bow's damage bonus apply to the weapon when throwing it. So to address this, damage gets separated into 'damage while shooting', 'damage while setting traps' and so on. These are simple enough to apply to the player: or are they?

The dual wield problem, when a character is using a sword in his primary hand, and a dagger in his secondary, show that this is not necessarily straight forward. Does the dagger's 'damage while fighting' apply to attacks with the sword? In all likelihood, not (If you disagree, replace damage with fire brand. Does the dagger's fire brand also brand blows from the sword?). So we have to consider 'damage while fighting' as a specific property of the item, which we add at the time the item is used, as opposed to inherited by the player.

But this means that the same item ability is used in two different ways: an amulet of 'damage while fighting' is inherited by the player, but a dagger of 'damage while fighting' is only applied when we use the dagger. In which case, it may be simpler for some items to have a straight 'damage bonus', which is used whenever the item is being used, but not inherited by the player at all, whereas other items have a specific 'damage while shooting' bonus, which applies only when the item is being fired.

(I'm going to complicate this by also having rings apply some abilities only to items wielded in the hand they are worn on. This will be the left-hand for shooting and secondary weapons, and the right-hand for primary weapons.)

In the part five, I'll look at how Unangband evaluates the relative power of magic items, taking into account the inheritance or non-inheritance of various flags while keeping the above issues in mind.

But first, in part four, I'll take another look at skill acquisition.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Review: Minecraft

A theatre lobby, filled with speakers whispering the most innovative advertising campaign in movie release history: 'What is the Minecraft?'"

CUT TO

The scene on the screen inside. Outside a hotel built from cubes of rock.

ZOMBIE LIEUTENANT: I sent two units. They're bringing her down now.

SKELETON SMITH: No, Lieutenant, your men are already dead.

CUT TO

As the ZOMBIE COP moves forward to cuff her, TIGDB kicks a shell which knocks him down and then double jumps onto the head of the second ZOMBIE COP. The camera pans as she rewinds time and jumps onto the head of a third ZOMBIE COP who explodes in a shower of coins. She throws a bomb which blows a hole in the wall, and shimmies down a rope outside it.

A chase ensues over a procedurally generated roof top.

CUT TO

NEO GEO is lying face down in front of his computer. On the screen appear the words 'Press play on tape. Loading...' He wakes up. The words are followed by 'Follow the white Lolcat...'

There is a knock at the door. He opens a copy of Raph Koster's The Theory of Fun and takes out a CD which he gives to the couple outside. He notices the girl has been skinned with a white Lolcat on her shoulder.

CUT TO

NEO GEO sitting in his cubicle, having signed for a Fed Ex package. He opens the parcel, inside is a cellular phone. As soon as he picks it up, it rings.

NEO GEO: Hello...?

DWARF FORTRESS: Hello, Neo Geo. Do you know who this is?

NEO GEO: Dwarf Fortress?

DWARF FORTRESS: Yes...I've been looking for you, Neo Geo. I don't know if you're ready to see what I want to show you, but unfortunately you and I have run out of time. They're coming for you, Neo Geo, and I don't know what they're going to do.

NEO GEO: Who's coming for me?

DWARF FORTRESS: Stand up and see for yourself.

NEO GEO looks and sees SKELETONs SMITH, BROWN and JONES entering the office.

NEO GEO: What the hell do they want from me?

DWARF FORTRESS: I don't know, but if you don't want to find out, I suggest you get out of there. The cubicle across from you is empty.

NEO GEO tunnels from cubicle to cubicle across the office and into a supply room. He is finally caught by the agents and interrogated.

CUT TO

He wakes up in his apartment, the phone ringing.

DWARF FORTRESS: This line is tapped, so I must be brief. They got to you first, but they're underestimated how important you are... If they knew what I know, you would probably be dead.

NEO GEO: What are you talking about? What is happening to me?

DWARF FORTRESS: You are The Toady One, Neo Geo. You see, you may have spent the last few years of your life looking for me, but I've spent my entire life looking for you. Now do you still want to meet?

CUT TO

NEO GEO under a bridge when a car pulls up.

TIGDB: Get in.

NEO GEO gets into the car, as the driver, a blond woman named Witch, turns around in her seat and points a gun at him.

NEO GEO: What the hell is this?

TIGDB: It's necessary, Neo. For our protection.

NEO GEO: From what?

WITCH: Listen to me, Voxeltop. We don't have time for twenty questions.

CUT TO

DWARF FORTRESS: Do you know what I'm talking about?

NEO GEO: The Minecraft?

DWARF FORTRESS: The Minecraft is everywhere. It's all around us, even in this very room. Unfortunately, no one can be... told what the Minecraft is...you have to see it for yourself.

DWARF FORTRESS opens a chest which holds two pills : a blue one, and a red one. He puts one in each hand, and holds them out to NEO GEO. NEO GEO swallows the red pill. As NEO GEO looks at a mirror, its reflective surface starts moving up his hand, revealing specular highlights and a bump mapping that previously didn't exist. The bright colours run into a phong shaded muddy brown with diffuse shadow maps and an unnatural shiny surface. He passes out and wakes with DWARF FORTRESS standing over him.

DWARF FORTRESS: Welcome... to the Unreal engine. You believe that it is the year 1990, when in fact it's closer to 1999. I can't tell you exactly what year it is, because we honestly don't know. Come with me, see for yourself.

NEO GEO follows DWARF FORTRESS through the door.

DWARF FORTRESS: This is my ship, the Left4Dead2zer... Most of my crew, you already know.

TIGDB nods and smiles

DWARF FORTRESS: This is Hunter, Witch, and Smoker. The ones you don't know, Tank, and his big brother, Boomer... The little one behind you is Jockey.

CUT TO

DWARF FORTRESS: Welcome.....to the texels of Unreal...We have only bits and pieces of information, but what we know for certain is that some point in the early twenty-first century all of mankind was united in online gaming. We marvelled at our own magnificence as we gave birth...to V.E.

NEO GEO: V.E. - you mean Voxel Engines?

CUT TO

NEO GEO and DWARF FORTRESS fighting in a dojo.

NEO GEO hits DWARF FORTRESS in the shoulder and severs an artery.
DWARF FORTRESS hits DWARF FORTRESS in the knee and breaks a bone.

DWARF FORTRESS: Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? You think that's 0x02 you're breathing now?

NEO GEO throws a coin at DWARF FORTRESS and severs his head.

CUT TO

NEO GEO looking at racks of weapons.

NEO GEO: The twelve gauge pump 3dfx Voodoo Extreme. The .45 Matrox G200 with laser sighting.

GUNSTORE OWNER: Those are brand new, we just got them in.

NEO GEO: A quad core Radeon HD 5970 in a dual SLI configuration.

GUNSTORE OWNER: Hey just what you see pal.

CUT TO

A hotel lobby, the pillars of which are getting blown apart as TIGDB and NEO GEO kill security guards rushing to stop them.

CUT TO

NEO GEO sinking to the ground, shot. His eyes snap open again and he stands up slowly. NEO GEO looks at SKELETON SMITH, and runs towards him. He appears to go inside SKELETON SMITH's body, eventually bursting through his skin, as pieces of the agent fly all over the room. For a moment, we see the room as it is through Neo's eyes now, 2D ASCII code.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Mashups

I try to use the reviews at ASCII Dreams as writing experiments: from fiction writing, to New Games Journalism, to advocacy for games which I feel have been overlooked (good and bad). I started wanting to say something about Arma II, but ended up with a completely vanilla, and somewhat negative review. But luckily, I'd also been thinking about the similarities in design between Arma II and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - particularly the visual design and I suspect common texture assets - and how it would be great to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in the Arma II engine (or at least a sequel to the original) which has the open world capabilities that GSC were never able to achieve.

That is why my A.R.M.A. II review ended up as a mash up of what I originally wrote, interleaved with paragraphs from an earlier S.T.A.L.K.E.R. review. To underline the point - and give you a chance to figure out what was going on before I did the reveal here - I've shamelessly interleaved the majority of the Eurogamer reviews of Half Life 2, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to review another great mash up Half Life 2: San Andreas. (This second review also highlights the amount of interchangeable discussion about the hype each game warranted at the time which the reviewer felt they had to address).

Unlike other mashup culture, game mashups are unlikely to occur, unless officially sanctioned, because combining the disparate underlying technology is a much harder feat than remixing a song, or interleaving two strands of literature. The best known game mashup combines the rules, characters, art and level design of multiple different 2D games in a new game engine: 3D engines are more complex because of the need to decompile the 3D level which may incorporate textures, bump maps, lighting, collision and physics geometry, navigation meshes and scripting which may be implemented differently between engines. It is possible that a seam or gap in one 3D engine may be unimportant but might result in characters falling through the floor of the world in another engine. Similarly a 3D map - or even objects like guns in the HUD - may only contain geometry visible from locations that can be accessed when traversed using the rules which limit movement in that game; when accessed by an avatar which can move more freely, the map may fall apart like a Hollywood set.

Open worlds pose the additional challenge of bespoke map design: there is no common 3D standard for maps of the scale and streaming speed required of a particular world, whereas the BSP levels in Half-Life or static meshes of Unreal 3 may be interchangeable between games. It may be possible to virtualize the game in such a way that the video card representation of the level could be imported into another game to avoid having to build a custom import tool for the map itself: this would involve virtually mapping out the scene graph in the same way that special effects artists map out the geometry of the real world in order to digitize it.

The abstraction of games into engine, data and scripts (using common script languages like Lua) point to another possibility which has not been explored as much: importing the game data into another engine or rule set. Unangband's monster list consists in part of monsters invented in other Angband variants and then pulled across and reshaped to fit the Unangband game world.

Amateur enthusiasts are also prepared to spend significant amounts of time reimplementing older games in newer engines, but this is more to preserve the fidelity of the older game to keep up with the sensibilities of modern gamers than to mash up two games into a third. Open source reimplementations of games like FreeCiv allow different rule sets, to allow mashing up a game with it's sequels, but little beyond that. And fan fiction-like appropriation of one game into another, notably Little Big Planet's level's derived from Mario, Metroid and elsewhere, point to another possibility: user generated content allowing mimicry of multiple older games in a newer space. Think a Second Life world which has the island of Morrowind offshore from Liberty City.

What games would you like to see mashed up this way? Feel free to contribute a 'fake' review if you want. My inspiration for these particular mashups grew from playing both games at around the same time, and letting the ideas peculate and pollinate between the two in my mind. What games are you playing together at the moment?

Review: Half Life 2: San Andreas

At a time like this when you've got a game with such massive expectations heaped upon it, it's almost futile trying to offer anything but the most positive comments you can possibly come up with. With Half Life 2: San Andreas, where we've been fed more pre-release information and preview opportunities than just about any game in history, it seemed impossible that the game couldn't be anything other than absolute mind blowing genius. Everything we'd seen, read and heard spelt out that this was a title so far ahead of the sorry pretenders that there simply could be no other game out there worth playing. The game of the generation. The game to end all games. Technically advanced, bigger, better, even more controversial. But you all know how it works. They would say that wouldn't they? The first commandment in the law of games is 'Thou shalt hype'.

At this point the Internet is quite possibly melting as hundreds of thousands of devotees all around the world simultaneously stress Valve's servers to breaking point. We haven't seen the likes of it. It's truly a momentous, agonising wait as we cross fingers and toes that Valve hasn't screwed up and underestimated demand; we were fearful, but like something approaching the Space Shuttle launches of our youth over two decades past, we have lift off.

But it was not always like this. Half-Life slipped out to zero fanfare, and worried PR types pleaded with journalists to not mention the violent aspects of the game, lest the British tabloids pick up on it and demand to have this 'sick filth' banned (only three years late, eh?). Even Opposing Forces emerged a healthy shade of pink, with a mere handful of screenshots to tease us with in the run up to release. The same deal with Blue Shift. And then suddenly Valve decided to go from one extreme to the other, literally bombarding our mail box with new shots, exhaustive documents going into meticulous detail about the various new features that have been shoehorned into the game. Then followed three preview events, but yet not one opportunity to wrestle the joypad off them; and no opportunity to review the game until the finished boxed copy was finally delivered just three days ago. It was akin to a starving man being forced to watch a culinary dish being prepared, cooked, tasted and savoured in front of him. "Look, smell, but don't taste. We'll give it to you when we're good and ready." Oh the agony.

But not everyone has such a smooth, seamless ride. As we rocket into the stratosphere we can just about make out the crimson faces of those left behind, venting furious, jealous, indignant anger at Valve for managing to mess up their dream journey, furious that even retail boxed copies fail to authenticate. It's a moot point, and a discussion that's still raging.

Somehow we preferred the enigmatic media blackout of old. Leave the surprises to be discovered. Let the word of mouth spread the game's gospel. That's how the last two worked; did Valve really need to go to such lengths to effectively spoil a lot of the game's surprises? The game could have hit the shelves today with zero advertising and no reviews and still sold out. It's that type of game. The less we know about it, the more we want to find out what's in there. The pre-release media splurge was a novelty; we thirsted for every morsel to begin with. Of course we did. Everyone did. Towards the end of the campaign, though, we actually couldn't believe quite how much Valve was prepared to spill and we politely declined to attend the final preview event for fear of spoiling it for ourselves, never mind everyone else. The very charm of the Half-Life games was the element of surprise; the exploration factor. Ringing your mates up excitedly reporting on your progress and all the craziness you've come across. Comparing notes. Playing through San Andreas did reveal a few surprises, nevertheless. It's that sort of game. You could write an entire book on the game and still only find yourself skimming over certain elements of it.

But after the roar of take off, a serene silence gives way. The G-Man looms large and loud and it takes somewhere in the region of two seconds to realise what all the fuss is about. Another stylish intro. A quickening of pulse, a shallowing of breath. A downtrodden yet magisterial air as another commuter journey begins. An atmosphere to savour. An oppressive beginning that gives a small taster of what we're about to experience; a world we have been trying hard to imagine for months, years. Blocking it out of our minds, trying not to spoil it for ourselves, yet filling time and column inches with games barely even worthy of the name, rushed out into the market only to let us down and chip away at our eternally optimistic resolve. Valve's approach was different. Valve's purpose was to take things forward whatever it took, however much it cost, and seemingly no matter how many people it pissed off along the way. And now the future is here.

But we're not here to exhaustively run through the myriad of things you can do in the game, but more whether they're actually fun and whether the game's really what it's cracked up to be. The first thing that cannot be overstated is that Valve really weren't making it up when they said it was a big game. It positively redefines the concept of what constitutes an epic game. There is absolutely no question that San Andreas is in the region of twice as big as previous Half-Lifes. Maybe even three times, depending on what lengths you'll go to. To even work your way through half of the missions alone would take more time than it would normally take to finish two average sized action-adventures. In value for money terms it's hard to imagine another game like it.

If Half-Life 2: San Andreas achieves one single thing, it's to put into sharp focus how far gaming has come, and more specifically how far behind some of its competitors in the FPS genre really are. Some doubted that the Source engine could match the technical brilliance elsewhere, but it has not only surpassed anyone else's achievements, it has done so without forcing people to invest in ludicrously expensive hardware. Reports persist from amazed gamers with mid-range set ups that have been blown away by how well the game runs on their systems. That Half Life 2: San Andreas looks more convincing, more understated, more realistic, more interactive and definitely more stylish than its peers yet manages it with far lower overheads is not only an impressive feat, but commercially a masterstroke. Not letting a fair chunk of your loyal customer base play the game because your content delivery system can't cope, however, isn't - although some would argue that the fact that a hacked version of the game didn't appear until day of release meant that the ends were worth the means. To an extent we'd have to agree; how much more money was earned as a result of slowing down the hackers we'll never know; but a hunch says it's a lot.

Pile on the extras and it's almost too much to comprehend. Pimping missions, Trucking, Driving school, Ammu-Nation challenges, Dating, Territory occupations, and more join the usual distractions on offer such as Taxi driving, Vigilante, Ambulance, Fire fighting and the ongoing quest to find hidden items; in San Andreas' case they're not as prevalent as you'd expect, but seek and you shall find.

But we don't want to get bogged down in the relative merits of Steam, the shoddy packaging of the boxed version or any of the periphery issues that have clouded this momentous launch (the forum's choked with enough vitriolic bile to melt Gabe Newell's face as it is). We're here to talk about the game. And what a game. 14 chapters, 18 or more hours (skill/approach dependent) of almost relentless, fat free entertainment that's the gaming equivalent of watching several blockbuster action movies back to back. If this game isn't worth the asking price, we don't know what is.

As veterans of previous campaigns it's easy to come to hasty conclusions about San Andreas. Your expectations really don't help. What we perhaps expected was more of the same. Much more of the same, with tweaks, technical improvements and the benefit of an entirely contrasting set of scenarios, characters and, naturally for a game set in 1992, the soundtrack. What you don't expect or even particularly acknowledge at the time is how the game lurches dramatically in different directions, often throwing you completely off balance into the bargain, and not always in a positive sense.

Sometimes we like to utter a few sentences on the back story to give you a flavour of what to expect, but Valve being Valve has elected to keep things as enigmatic as possible. It's not possible to know this by just playing the game (and there's no manual anyway), but apparently the game takes place 15 years after the Black Mesa incident. No one knows (or even hints) what has happened in the intervening years, or why you're on your way to City 17, or what role you're supposed to perform once you get there. Suffice to say it's a grand city under an oppressive police state rule, with scary looking Tazer wielding-grunts (known as the Combine) armed to the teeth should anyone step out of line. It's part Big Brother, part Matrix with Eastern European architecture lending the setting an impossibly beautiful backdrop almost totally at odds with the climate of fear that perpetually pervades the environment.

You start out, of course, in Los Santos as Carl Johnson - a twentysomething former Grove Street gang member returning to a less than enthusiastic welcome after five years in Liberty City exile. Soon it becomes apparent the game's much less of a clich├ęd Half-Life; it's about a low-down bum working his way up the crime tree, and far more focused on the ins and outs of gang culture, the relationships between the 'family' and restoring the gang pride of old. Soon, of course, stamping your authority on the immediate vicinity and taking out frustrations on the rival Ballas gang becomes the priority.

Although this is 'the future' we're dealing with, it's a more realistic vision of the future, blending the more pleasing elements of the architecture of past with the cold sky scraping steel monoliths of the future. This isn't A.N.Other Blade Runner rip off, with neon skylines and hover vehicles. It's something distinctly fresh, and believable, all rendered with craft, life, logic and intelligence. If the devil is in the detail, then Half-Life 2 is Satan in a party hat, kicking back with a beer and engaging his fiendish accomplices in a toast to the future. Cheers.

Ruling Los Santos proves to be an early highlight, and immediately sets the game apart from the other Half-Lifes by virtue of its focus on dialogue, narrative and constantly going that extra mile to set the scene - not just via the between-mission cut-scenes, but through regular colourful exchanges as you're driving, and all manner of banter during each mission. As a cinematic experience it goes to inordinate lengths to get things right, with a quite staggering attention to detail providing endless opportunities to truly immerse the player in a convincing environment where every character, every pedestrian feels as part of the day to day life as you are. Check out the huge roll call for the pedestrian voice actors to see the crazy lengths Valve has gone to make sure the ambience of the environment matches up to the quality on show elsewhere.

The moment you start wandering the game's first locations a feeling of arriving somewhere special kicks in and barely lets go until the credits roll 13 chapters later. As if to deliver a cheeky nod about being in a new playground, Valve even drops one in the game's opening location, almost entirely pointlessly, other than to remind us all that's what this is all about. It's not about re-inventing the wheel, but pimping up that wheel with spinning hubcaps, bass boxes, neon strips and gadgets that would humble even Bond himself.

Once again the voice acting and radio stations are simply incomparable to any other game out there. If anything, the musical variety is even greater than before, drawing on a greater diversity of genres, ramping up the DJ humour to almost genius levels of parody and providing an excellent template for the game that no other game has yet to come anywhere near close to matching. Even after 40, 50 hours, you're still hearing fragments of dialogue, spoof adverts and songs that you've somehow never heard. It's the sort of thing you'd be happy to pay money for on its own; that it's such a throwaway part of the game just goes to show how far Valve is willing to run with this excellent concept. Sure, the music won't always be to your taste, but somehow in the context of what you're doing it all fits, so you don't mind while the truly cringeworthy "All My Exes Live In Texas" or "Queen Of Hearts" play for the third time that evening, or, if you do, flicking to another of the ten stations is but a mere D-pad nudge away.

But Freeman is no double-O. If anything, he's the most personality-free zone in the history of gaming. Once again he never speaks, you never see him (not even so much as a reflection) yet everyone greets him like the ultimate living legend. Not bad for a "man of few words". If he ever uttered a thing our hearts would probably stop with the shock, but somehow the game gets away with pulling the same silent narrative trick of the original, engaging you this time with characters of far greater emotional depth than any FPS has dared to venture. All of this comes, as the original pioneered so successfully, from a combination of scripted set pieces that you watch silently unfold and various events that kick off with your arrival. By necessity and by design it's another story-lead on-rails shooter, and can only stray outside of those barriers to a minimal extent. To some this may come as a slight disappointment when it transpires that there is generally only one way to solve whatever your current dilemma is, but where Half-Life 2: San Andreas succeeds beyond any doubt is in its ability to consistently and repeatedly create richly diverse and believable environments that enrapture the play experience with a suspension of disbelief that makes the thrill ride just as enjoyable as we expected to be.

And as if the pedestrian voices and DJ scripts aren't enough, you get hit by the likes of Samuel L Jackson and Chris Penn making you realise just how good and how compelling gaming narrative can be when you're prepared to hire the right talent for the right price. The constant swearing might not be to everyone's taste, but when you've got a Valve game about hardcore gangsters, what does the audience really expect? In truth, some of it does veer a little into the realms of shock for the sake of it, and the way certain characters flit in and out of the storyline doesn't always make for a coherent, logical plotline, but for the most part they're enjoyable, amusing, and energetic, and a lesson to many publishers as to not only use as a plot device, but for pure entertainment and reward for the efforts you've put into playing some often intensely challenging missions.

Just like any game there are high points and low points, but when you bask in the warm glow of completion there are so many high points to recall it seems almost pointlessly pig-headed to find serious fault with what you've just experienced. If you can seriously come away from Half-Life 2: San Andreas disappointed, then ask yourself which first-person shooter is better, and why? For the vast majority of us, the overwhelming emotion will be the pure joy of having experienced something that sets new high marks in so many areas as to reaffirm your belief in the ability of game developers to push things forward.

Review written with edits under fair use provisions. Please refer to here and here for original material.

Review: A.R.M.A. II

It turns out, ten hours into Arma II, that everything great about the single player campaign I've experienced so far can be found in the demo, as well as most of the terrible parts. The terrible parts almost entirely consist of attempts to script parts of the game engine - hilarious scenes where you are liberated from capture, but your guards don't react to the flash bang attack and silenced bullets to the head until their walking animations finish playing some ten seconds later; or you encountered villagers on the road arguing about the invasion and then drive through them like a ten pin strike on your return.

And this attachment to your fellow stalkers forms early in the game, possibly at the first encampment, where other loners gather on the edge of the Zone, unsure of whether they'll move inside or stay here as outsiders. The black marketeer you start out getting missions from seems less enamoured of humanity: he points out the in-game stalker rankings and suggests you can work yourself the way up the list, perhaps by shortening it a little. He gives you assassination missions - I accepted the first, and then didn't have the guts to go through with what seemed the pointless murder of one man among many.

The great parts involve pointing your sighting reticule at a ten pixel high man a kilometer away and clicking the mouse button to make the clump of pixels fall over. It is impossible to describe how rewarding this experience this is without including the Herculean effort required to get to this point: the monotony, the battle with the overburdened control scheme (which makes perfect sense and is easy to use once you master it), the graphical and AI glitches, the lack of foreshadowing which allows you to blunder into the enemy and spend the entire firefight writhing on the ground in a pool of blood, the poor check pointing and game design which makes you wonder if you're doing the sensible thing at all. Arma II highlights the importance of authorial intent in games: not in the sense of a scripted roller coaster providing a guaranteed quotient of fun, but in the sense of 'am I doing the right thing traveling 15 real world minutes in this direction or am I just wasting my time?'. Ironically, for a game which needs this direction more than most, there is an incredible paucity of walkthroughs and FAQs on the Internet.

What keeps you attached is the relentless and inhospitable nature of the zone. The mutated beasts that roam it, and the anomalies that sparkle in the twilight. Existence is fragile here. And the world is alive and continuously changing. If you confront the pack of blind dogs, they're as likely to surround and savage you - no matter how powerful the punch your automatic weapons pack. But if you leave them alone, you'll come back to find them chewing on the body of a fellow traveller. And when you find a scoped rifle, you can watch the pack sit and play in the distance, animals to the end. Guilt grows until every encounter becomes a mess of indecision.

The first five seconds of any time you move is also great: the incredible fidelity with which your interaction with the environment around you, crawling through grass, peering around a corner, running to cover, the squeak of your rubber boots as you start a forced march, the way the grit and dust accumulates on your wind shield. The problem is the 15 minutes following those first five seconds during which you continue to crawl forward, run in a straight line, drive while staring out the tiny view port of a LAV-25, the blur of Eastern European villages and fields and meadows and forests. Especially if it's the indeterminate wait while you lie bleeding out, while the bodies of those colleagues trying to heal you accumulate around you. If this is an accurate simulation of war, then it must be even more terrifying than I suspected.

I avoided the bandits who shot at me unprovoked and bypassed the military under the bridge while they engaged in a fire fight elsewhere - but murdered my way through a checkpoint into the second zone area. I had to progress; and there seemed no other way. Then a distress call: some of my fellow stalkers were in trouble in a junkyard. A bloody and messy close encounter in which, submachine gun ammo depleted, I had to engaged point blank with a sawn off shot gun and pistol. The grass became strewn with bodies between the wreckage of old cars. I was angry that I'd been forced to this pointless existence.

Arma II has one innovation that makes it stand head and shoulders above any other open world game: you can get someone else to do the driving. Bring up the map, press space bar and click, and (provided you've marshaled everyone into the vehicle correctly) your driver will execute a ten point turn and then smoothly drive you to your destination.

One of the bandits lay dying, groaning, cursing. I aimed down the pistol at him. Damn you for this. And shot him, unblinking.

(Based on others experiences of the game, I wouldn't trust a pilot to do the same).

It wasn't until later, presented with this option again, I reconsidered. Did everyone have to die? Everyone has a name here. A roll-call of stalkers, bandits, people, some suggestive of a history, a physical defect. It shows you the name when you loot the body, to remind you, under the gun sight when you aim. I looked down the barrell of my much improved rifle at the mercenary clutching at his guts.

Arma II is a awe inspiring accomplishment of a game; but one which needs the camaraderie of multiplayer, the tyranny of others to share your miserable, muddying experience on the battlefield. Find yourself a real person to walk you through the learning curve, in the same way that you could shyly sneak down to the local game hobby shop to learn how to push around miniature armies on hexagonal paper. Read Tactical Gaming Done Right to get excited about it, then reach out to some military simulation grognards.

The enemies: When you find an injured enemy, you are not given a choice. You cannot talk to him, heal him, help him in any way. If you walk away, he'll die. You can't loot the body while he's alive. It becomes a trade-off. Guilt, as the blood spatters and the body twitches and rolls. No one carries much here: vodka, some sausage, anti-radiation drugs. The price of a life. But if you walk away, his cries follow you, pleading, angry, alone.

Decisions.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Iso-Unangband

Despite my attempts to dissuade him, Hajo appears to be insisting on doing an isometric graphics version of Unangband. This will be a much improved version of the experimental Windows code I had previously included. You can follow the thread at angband.oook.cz.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Proceduralism: Part Five (Perspectives)

[You'll probably want to read the original article series that inspired this follow up, then start with parts one, two, three and four of this series.]

It is easy to conflate procedural content generation with sandbox play and emergence where these should be seen as three separate properties which often coincide in games which feature procedural content generation. If you consider an actual sandbox by way of analogy, a game without procedural content generation is like coming to a sandbox every day that has been raked over and smoothed out. With procedural content generation, you instead find the sand furloughed and heaped in piles in a way that may or may not be randomly distributed but is different every day. (Emergence in this example is having the castles you build fall over when they get too high).

In this procedural sandbox, you may choose to ignore what you find and start over, ascribe the distribution of sand to a preexisting external agency (the actions of the last kid to play in the box yesterday, an earthquake overnight) or invest in an imaginative world building exercise to justify what you find. The concept of repeated play is also important: the first time you come to the sandbox, it is not clear whether the sand is heaped just so because someone intended it that way, or from a process with no underlying intent.

It is the storytelling component of this example which highlights for me the importance of perspective in procedural content generation. When we tell stories, we do so most effectively when we put ourselves in the shoes of someone in that story, which is why games with a single avatar feel more procedural than games with multiple units. The concept of authorship could also explain the procedural uncanny effect I noted: we are building up the concept of a single author providing this story, and in the high fidelity example, anything that dispels your suspension of disbelief also damages your construction of the author behind the story.

The authorship conceit is not the only explanation for the uncanny valley effect: it may be low fidelity play engages us on a more childish level, but high fidelity play corresponds to our inner adult. It would be interesting to rerun this Neverwinter Nights scenario with a child playing the game rather than an adult and see if the reactions are similar.

But I don't think the attraction of procedural generation is solely about forcing us to make up stories. Stories also have a function which is to present a series of what-ifs. And you don't have to invest in an underlying narrative to react to what-ifs in game play. You have to engage your inner explorer.

In part six, I look at building worlds to explore.