Seeya, Gramps

March 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Near the start of 2003, just after the Canberra Bushfires, my Grandmother on my Father’s side died. She’d been sick for a while. When I’d last seen her at Christmas she’d spent most of the day sitting down, too tired and sore to move around, to play with her Grandchildren, the youngest of whom just didn’t quite get what was going on. I knew -in an abstract manner- that she was sick, but it didn’t really click. So when she died, it was a surprise. I was sad, I was angry. I didn’t like the idea that someone I knew could simply be taken away from me in a moment.

On Sunday, my Dad came downstairs, asked if I was nearly ready to leave with my Mum to go and see some rellies, and said he needed me to come outside and speak with him. I knew before I opened my door what he was going to say. I’ve been expecting the words for years now. Overnight, my Grandfather (on my Father’s side) had died. He’d spent the last few months in a Nursing Home, and years before that with a carer at home, dealing with the fact that he was slowly, inexorably withering away thanks to cancer.

They say that a long life is a blessing, but at 85 years of age, I worry that my Grandfather had had a few years too many. I sit here and struggle to find the words to say that I loved my Grandfather, that I think it’s sad that he’s now dead, but that I’m not sad. That I wished it could have ended with less pain for him, less pain for the family. By the end he thought he knew what trouble he caused, he loved that we came to visit him when his health deteriorated yet again, but he seemed to wish that we didn’t have to. I don’t want to say that he’d given up on life, but he’d given up on “being a burden”. For the last few months he was on a no antibiotic order, a death sentence of sorts, once you’re in a nursing home.

I remember when I was young, I looked up at him, grey hair turning to white, he showed me how saggy the skin on his arm was, and I laughed as only a child can, laughed at how bizarre it seemed. We used to whistle at each other, our own little act, since it was something my sister couldn’t do. A little older, I marvelled at how fit he was, compared to my family and I he seemed like an unstoppable force, going for “light walks” at my running speed, always staying active and alert. Once he started getting sick, he slowed down, but we could still sit around, both reading books, comfortable in each other’s presence, comfortable in the silence, with nothing needing to be said. The last time I saw him there was silence, undercut with the unceasing buzz of the hospital. But it didn’t feel the same. It was the silence of things that wanted to be said, but from people who didn’t know how. By the end I’d managed to force out “Love you, Grandpa.” The words strained, though the intent was not.

I look back and choose to remember the good times, the times when I was young, when he was healthy, or at least less sick. I find it sad that I never truly got to know Grandpa (while I’m also grateful that I knew him as long as I did). I never got to see what he was like as a healthy man, through the eyes of an adult. I find it sad that a good man has died, and I find it sad that he spent so long dying, so long as a version of himself that wasn’t really him.

But I don’t feel sad. I feel relieved that it’s over. I look back, and wish that it had been more like my Grandmother. That one day, much to my surprise, I’d been told that he’d died. That I could cry about it as simply as I did back then. But then my goodbye would be too late. An addendum to his life, not a pained farewell in a hospital room. So I can’t really say what’s for the best. Is it better to linger on, or to be snuffed out in a moment?

I don’t know, but I know I’ll miss my Grandfather.

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Smile

October 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve often struggled with what I want in life. Obviously, I want happiness, I’d like money, and I want to be surrounded by people who like me. More than that, I want the people around me to be happy. That’s why I can spend a whole day cooking food, hoping that the people around me are having fun, and by proxy I have fun, because there’s nothing better than a smiling friend.

Yet I often act “jerkish” or “standoffish”. I try to keep people at a distance (for a while both physically and emotionally). I’ll tease and send out jibes at people, with the hope that they know it’s all meant it jest, but with the fear that think it’s the opposite.

Anyway, the point is that I have this weird compulsion to mix insults and jokes because I really want those around me to be happy. That’s really not at all strange, now that I’ve written it down, but it seems stranger in my head, though I guess nearly everything does. As per usual though, I continue to digress.

At work I scan files. After I’ve sorted some files, and started scanning them, there’s not really a whole lot to do so I usually look at the people at the reception desk. A quick glance, a “hey, I know that person” as I wave to my Dad’s cousin or see someone from school. Usually they don’t notice, sometimes I get a glance back. Today I met eyes with a girl, and she smiled at me. Not a condescending smile, or a flirty one, just a nice, friendly smile. Being the adult that I am, I of course responded by quickly turning away, turning redder than a can of coke, and resolutely staring at my monitor until I saw her leaving.

But when I think of her smile, as lame and insipid as it sounds, it makes me smile. It’s like an infection, spreading itself around, forcing the corners of your mouth up. So maybe all I need to do to make others smile is the same.

If only I didn’t look like a gibbering idiot when I did.

Lint: A Review

April 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

It’s an interesting task I proposed, I’ll admit, but I’ve found in life, that once you agree to do something, you have to go the whole way, no half assing it.  And so now I’m doing this.  A host of words on this piece of belly button lint.
It’s something that seems easy, something that everyone knows, even if their mileage may vary.  Some light shreds of cotton, polyester, or whatever your clothes are made of, drawn in, resting where they’re most comfortable, in the warm embrace of your harsh chest hair and gut, like an embryo in practically no ways whatsoever.  You go to change, to shower, to collapse into bed, and you notice something in your peripheries.  This dark ball of fuzz, so you reach down, pluck it out, cringe a little at the disgusting thing you face, and you abandon it like Frollo attempted to do with Quasimodo.  That is to say, down a well.  But think, this is part of you, it has grown from you, this isn’t something you should ignore.  This is something beautiful.
The light shines through it, from a distance.  An ethereal transparency, that transcends description.  It produces a glow that is almost halo like in beauty and power.  Moving closer, a wealth of threads become visible.  Like the invisible threads that hold us all together they intertwine and intermingle, like a Redneck Christmas party.  I try to follow any one thread, but I lose it, I spy another, but it too disappears.  To think of this as a bunch of strings too simple.  It is a living organism, sentient and amazing, like a Jellyfish, except that it won’t sting you, and doesn’t live in the ocean.
I stare at the whole thing.  It’s dark, but not as dark as I’d expect, given my penchant for black clothes.  There’s a streak of colour, a deep blue, normally melancholy, yet strangely uplifting compared to the grey that surrounds it.  Like the light at the end of a tunnel, it speaks of hope, and of the future.  It knows where it is, and what it is, and it doesn’t care.  It only wants to move you, to touch you, like your uncle Larry after a few too many beers.  There’s a hint of brown there, just a tiny speck, swamped by the foreign bodies around it, the black kid in a troubled texan school.  It speaks not of hope, it cares not for dignity, it cares only for survival, to make it through.  Maybe in the future it will find some people who are more like it, in creed or colour.  It might find a nice girl, and settle down.  Eventually the nightmares of its past will fade, years spent visiting a stuffy man in a stuffy room can be thanked for that.  But deep down, at the back of its mind, it will always wonder what it did wrong.  Whether maybe, just maybe, everyone else there was right.
I pick the lint up, throw it into the air.  It floats slowly down, a leaf on the wind, buffeted by minute breezes, and micro climates.  It hovers for a second above my hand, a last ditch attempt to escape, like a hooker nailed to a washboard as the hammer comes striking down.  It resigns itself to its fate and lands.  If anything it seems even more beautiful than before.  Absence makes the heart fonder, and all that.  I know now that it can’t leave.  I must have it forever.  Nobody else could understand the beauty here.  I find the evidence of my past discreptions, my impurities.  They won’t do, that I know.  I burn them, a silent effigy to their successor.  They stare at me as they burn.  Their beautiful past behind them, age has twisted them beyond recognition, more so than the fire ever could.  They should feel relief, they should thank me.  I am doing this for them, not for me.
I hold the most important piece, I cup it in both of my hands.  I breathe in its scent.  A whiff of myself in it, mingling with the scent of clothes, the air outside.  A faint memory of a girl I used to know.  It evokes her, now I see.
This is why it must remain.  This is why I need it.  For her.  The one who I allowed to walk away.
You can never leave me lint.  Never.

My two top games this year

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s interesting -well, I find it interesting- my two favourite games this year are a downloadable title from the Playstation Network, and an adventure game from a studio with a very average history.  It’s also interesting, since they both sit on opposite ends of the “ludonarrative” scale.

The Walking Dead is a series of cutscenes, you have a small impact on what happens, just enough for the story to feel like your own, but everything is shown to you, it’s told.  This is an interactive movie more than anything else, and its use of typical “cinematic” techniques to evoke emotions is a benefit of the style.  The other advantage is that there’s no “ludonarrative dissonance,” that is to say that the gameplay feels like the storytelling, because they’re both the same thing.  All of its elements are consistent between gameplay and storytelling, thanks to the rather clear benefit of them being the same thing.

Journey is a game about exploration and co-0peration, it’s a journey in both name and gameplay.  It has no characters, no emotional hooks, and its “cutscenes” are brief vignettes, which show you what is, and what has been.  Kind of.  Mostly they just show some pretty lights.  Despite this, I loved the world it was set in, and I wanted to know more, I cared about my co-operative partner and felt bad when they were hurt.  When I lost one of them through a poor action I felt genuinely bad, and we called out to each other as I was forced to walk away, a sad cry, weakening as I walked away.  The cutscenes in the game aren’t there to tell the story, but to expand on it.  The story is learned through experiencing it, through its gameplay, and the world around you.  Again, it avoids dissonance by having one of the purest “game” experiences available, there’s nothing in it to cause a mental conflict.

My two favourite games of the year are wildly different, and yet still very similar in their own ways.  They both mad me think.  They both drew emotional responses from my cold and withered heart.  They both presented themselves consistently and well.  These two games show where video game storytelling is at its strongest, the two ends of the spectrum.  And they’re both wonderful experiences because of it.

Inverse Kinematics: An approximate real time history

November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hi, my name’s Sean Richardson, and I have a weird habit.

“Hi Sean.  The first step to recovery is acceptance.”

Why thank you disembodied voice, I was just wondering though, would you like to know about my slightly odd habit?

“Oh.  Uhhh, not really, if it’s all the sa-”

Great!  So, whenever I’m playing a third person game of any kind, I can’t help but stop my character on slopes, and look at their feet!

“I don’t know if that’s that odd, I mean, lots of people do that.”

Do they though?  Do they do it for the same reasons as me?  Do they really understand?  You know what, I can see it in your face, you’re confused, so I’ll explain.

“That’s really not-”

If you’ve ever stopped, looked down at your character’s feet, and thought “wow, that’s some good connection with the ground my character has” then you have Inverse Kinematics to thank for that.  Inverse Kinematics, you ask?  Well, it’s the opposite of Forward Kinematics!  Forward Kinematics is, for the simplest explanation, a process we do mentally every day.  We think to ourselves “I’d like my finger to be there, so that I can type the ‘f’ key” and so we move our muscles so that our finger is there.  In a computing sense, the idea is that you work out the position of something(like a finger) based on all the previous joints.

Inverse Kinematics, is of course, the opposite.  Inverse Kinematics ask “if my finger is here, where would every other relevant part of me be?”  Or, in most cases, it asks about characters feet.  In fact, their legs were so specific that an early paper outlining Inverse Kinemation in animation referenced legs specifically(Computational modeling for the computer animation of legged figures).  Personally, I started thinking about this recently, after noticing the effect in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which was a particularly good implementation, especially for when it was written.

There are problems there, like when you stand with one leg off an object, and it’s also important to note that Wind Waker has an unfair advantage, which is the length of Link’s legs, which make altering the angle considerably easier when compared with someone of relatively normal proportions.  Like say, Link.

Oh, yeah, that’s right, Ocarina of Time featured Inverse Kinematics.  Remarkably, OoT wasn’t even the first game to feature IK.  So far as my research shows, that honour goes to Jurassic Park: Trespasser.  A pioneer in many fields, a jack of all trades, and a complete failure at everything, Trespasser, released in October of 1998(So it’s beating OoT by less than a month), animated all of its creatures using IK, rather than a more standard animation system.  To say that the results of this were laughable would probably be an understatement.

It’s interesting that a Jurassic Park game would be a pioneer in the field of IK, given 1993’s Jurassic Park film set the benchmark for animal animation through the use of Inverse Kinematics.

Of course, over the years the implementation of IK has improved significantly.  For instance, I was impressed when playing Half Life 2, when I noticed a Vortigaunt’s foot angled accurately on a ramp.  Guild Wars 2’s implementation manages to animate well with properly proportioned characters, and it also has a “reposition” animation which helps to mask the IK calculations, and stops the characters limbs from suddenly repositioning the moment they stop moving.

The best use, of course, goes to Grand Theft Auto 4.  Through its use of Euphoria, and the appropriate body based physics that allows, it has easily the best legs in gaming.  It’s a shame that they’re so hard to see thanks to its camera.  The animation system causes a change in how Niko moves if he’s going uphill or downhill, meaning there’s no awkward moment when he stops, and any IK attempts to kick in.  In fact, the engine even tries really hard to avoid awkward overhangs, by moving Niko’s legs so that he’s always standing on things.

It’s hard to tell from the image, but the back of Niko’s foot is just on the stairs, and any attempt to turn him sideways would fail.  Such a strategy should be applauded, given its flawless natu-

Hmm, oh.  Well, at least they tried(Again, my images are terrible, but in case it wasn’t clear, he is managing to hold his entire body weight on his right leg, while standing casually).

Obviously, Inverse Kinematics go well beyond simply feet, and how they sit on things, but as a very visible, and increasingly prominent element of games, I thought a brief look at them might be interesting.

Given the majority of this is pulled from Wikipedia, and my memory, it stands to reason that there may be things I missed, or oversights made(I find it hard to believe that nobody has made a comprehensive timeline of something so trivial), if so, I’d love to be proven wrong.  If not, well, I guess we can think about feet some more.

Gameplay Substance in the Open World

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I get a lot of weird looks when I mention this -or at least, a lot of theoretically weird looks- but I prefer Grand Theft Auto 4 to Saints Row: The Third (henceforth referred to as GTA 4, and SR 3).  And most of this isn’t because I think that GTA 4 is that great(though I do really like it), but because I really don’t “get” what’s so fun about SR 3.  I’ve spent 20 odd hours playing the game, I’ve finished the main story, I’ve done a decent majority of the side missions, I bought the DLC, and I’m still waiting for it to get fun.

Saints Row 3 managed to be a game that was somehow compelling, despite my disinterest in its narrative, while also not being fun.  It has all the elements that I usually like in my open world games.  Big guns, expensive looking cars, explosions, and yet, none of them felt good.  They were simply elements on a list somewhere, checked off on the challenge to making this “game.”  There’s no tension to any of the previous elements.  The cars move smoothly, and cleanly, their maximum speeds pathetic, particularly given the wide gaps between everything in the environment.  To crash in any reasonable form is an amazing feat.  The guns have no weight to them, and shred through the enemies you face.  Killing them is as difficult as matching 2 tiles, the crosshair to their head.  The only danger you face is when you stand in the open, placid and gormless for a while, letting its poorly designed “tank” enemies crush you.

And most disappointing of all are its explosions.  They start strong, a bright moment of glory, but their impact quickly fades, leaving only shells, tangentially related to what was hit.  To help illustrate my very wanky point:

Comparatively, everything in GTA 4 feels like a challenge.  The cars are weighty, and require practice to master.  The guns are imprecise, and if you stand out in the open, you will die.  The fun of it comes from the combined mental and physical challenge of planning what you’re doing, and executing it.

GTA 4 is a rage to better rags story.  Its story is about a struggle, and its gameplay enforces that.  You play the underdog, as unlikeable as he is, and the gameplay reinforces that.  SR 3 has a story of revenge and anger, where things go wrong, and things go right, but as you play it it’s a constant series of perfection.  Nothing bad can happen while you play, everything goes exactly how you want it to, and that’s just boring.

Things in life are better if you struggle to get them, and that’s why I prefer GTA 4.

Choose Your Own Adventure

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I look up at my screen, down at my mouse.  I count the enemies, and my men.  There’s no two ways about it, someone isn’t making it out alive.  I look at my Rookie, one kill for the mission, his first time in the real world, and I look at my Captain, battle hardened, scarred, and ready.  If this were a movie, the Captain would do it.  If this were a movie, my men wouldn’t have died while hiding behind cars.  If this were a movie, everything would be heroics.  But this wasn’t.  So my Rookie runs out, he takes a glancing blow while running over.  He fires on one enemy, killing it.  My captain advances safely, and guns down another.  Two more advance, surrounding the rookie.  The Captain sighs, reaches down to his belt, and pulls out a grenade.  Live bait is always the best.

There’s something wonderful about watching a story unfold before you.  One where you’re more of a puppetmaster than a bystander.  You pull the strings, constantly fighting against gravity, the wind, and children-in-the-audience-who-throw-sticks-at-you.  It’s still a play though, a plot written by someone else, though with details of your own devising.  And it’s this sort of story that shows the strength of games.

When you go to a movie, you’re not seeing your own story.  What you see, and what the guy next to you sees, are both exactly the same.  This promotes discussion.  You stand by the water-cooler, talk about how great this scene was, or how hot that chick looked.  You talk about the same things, and you compare what you thought of them.  Your standard, blockbuster game is the same.  You go through the set-piece, you slip on the hill, and Soap grabs your hand, saving you from death.  This too, can be discussed.  There’s a small amount of storytelling, in the way you got from point A to B, but there won’t really be much variance.

With XCOM or FTL, it’s interesting to see the return of player driven storytelling.  In a procedural world, A and B are still created by someone, somewhere, but the path between them can be winding, or direct.  The equipment you have, the people there with you, all will be different.  These aren’t games where you discuss what happened.  These are games where you tell.  You share your story with others, and they share theirs.  These games appeal to the tellers, not the listeners.  And there’s something wonderful about that.