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.

Where Am I?

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