June 29, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle

by peterb

Bear with me for a few paragraphs, while I approach a review of the Disney release of Howl's Moving Castle from a very oblique direction.

I'm one of the people who prefers to watch movies that are dubbed instead of subtitled, all things being equal. This is, apparently, a controversial position. I don't really understand how there can be any debate over this. If you have a movie with a superb dub, and a movie with great subtitles, the dub is the better movie. Period.

Now, it's true that there are many, many movies — particularly animated movies — that have dubs that are bad, or terrible, or completely unwatchable. That, as we like to say in the software industry, is merely an implementation detail. Of course it's possible to record a dub which ruins a movie. It's equally possible to lay down a subtitled translation that ruins the movie. And of course, we can imagine an actor's vocal performance that is so singular that no dub can capture it. But be honest: this is not an issue in 98% of the films we watch. Would you really cry crocodile tears if they dubbed over Kevin Kline's voice in Wild Wild West?

So what I'm talking about here when I say "dubs are better" is: the platonic ideal of a dub is better than the platonic ideal of subtitles. This is because popular cinema — and I'm deliberately excluding experimental film and formalist indulgence — is a medium which makes use of the written word but is not dominated by it. Subtitles dominate movies. Subtitling a movie takes a primarily visual experience ("watching a movie") and converts it into a primarily lexical experience ("reading the dialogue, while periodically flicking your eyes upward to see what happened.")

This is not to say that reading is bad. Reading is one of my favorite activities in all the world. Given the choice between a book and a movie, I'll usually choose a book. But that doesn't mean that I appreciate being distracted from a director's carefully created composition by being forced to read. Neither would I appreciate turning the page of the book I'm reading and encountering a full-motion video.

I'm bringing up this discussion of subtitles in part because I think it's an interesting discussion on its own, but primarily to use as an illustration for how small changes in presentation can transform a work. It's a common phenomenon to hear people who have read the book a movie is based on grumble "They changed everything! And they left out this Really Important Stuff! And my favorite moment from the book was missing!"

Howl's Moving Castle was adapted from a book. I've already read some criticisms of it along these lines.

Popular cinema is a medium. Books are a different medium. The two mediums place different requirements on how a story should be told. Just as putting subtitles on a movie changes its essential nature, so can other aspects of how we tell a story transform the nature of a work. In other words: if you tell the same story the exact same way in a book and a movie, you will end up with either a lousy book, or a lousy movie. The first Harry Potter movie is a great example of a film that would have been better if the director (well, if some hypothetical director with talent) had attacked Rowling's book with a carving knife and used only its heart. Instead, the film was a slavish page-by-page adaptation that removed all the joy from the text.

The reason this discussion of subtitles, audio dubs, and the nature of film as a medium is relevant is because I recently read the Diana Wynne Jones novel Howl's Moving Castle, and had the opportunity to see the Miyazaki film of the same name yesterday. Both works tell the story of a young woman named Sophie who encounters magic and is transformed by it. I enjoyed both immensely. I was therefore surprised when I read Christina's opinion that Miyazaki mutilates and abandons Sophie's story. I respectfully disagree with Christina. I think what Miyazaki is abandoning is the form of the fable, and in doing it he finds Sophie's heart. If the movie had been "true" to the book, it would have been a less interesting movie. The medium required a different view of the story.

Christina correctly points out that the book is strongly redolent of European fairy tales. The movie, unapologetically, isn't. Fairy tales are not personal stories, even though we treat them as such, or though we may feel possessive and intimate about them. Fairy tales, at their heart, are archetypal stories meant to scare children into behaving and listening to their elders. Little Red Riding Hood is a story about rape, murder, and cannibalism. Scratch a fairy tale, find a nagging parent: look no further than The Boy Who Cried Wolf. This is why the witch in Hansel and Gretel is so much more interesting than the protagonists, who by definition must be blank slates onto which children can project themselves.

Wynne Jones was telling a fable; Miyazaki was not. This is why Miyazaki's Sophie is so much more compelling than Wynne Jones's dreary young heroine. In the book, Sophie serves merely as a caricature against which the author can reflect the much more subtly realized Wizard Howl. In the movie, their roles are reversed: Howl is the caricature, composed of nothing more than hair and spun sugar, while Sophie is the emotional center of the film. The fact is, while reading the book I wanted to know what happened to Sophie. While watching the film, I cared about what happened to her. This is why if you told me I could only experience Howl in its book or film version (and both are quite good), I would choose the film without hesitation.

It is this empathy that is one of the strengths of film. Books have the luxury of being able to tell you about things. Movies have to show you things, or else be soul-crushingly boring.

On to specifics, without spoilers. The voice talent is of nearly uniformly high quality. There is one high point (Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste) and one low point (Billy Crystal doing his tired-when-he-started Borscht Belt schtick as Calcifer).

Miyazaki, as always, incorporates his obsessions into the narrative: aging, the loss of family, the loss of humanity, war, industrialization, the environment, and above all (no pun intended), the beauty of the fantasy of flight. Some of these elements weren't in the book. But if you haven't read the book, you won't notice.

They used to say that Johnny Cash never did a cover. When he sang someone else's song he took it, changed it, and made it absolutely his own. If you've ever heard his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt", you know this is true. Miyazaki, it seems, is much the same. This Howl is his own.

One thing I feared going in was the dreaded Miyazaki doldrum: as I have alluded earlier, I found some of the middle parts of Princess Mononoke to be slow enough to cause me to gnaw my own leg off, like a trapped wolf, in order to escape the theater. I needn't have worried. Howl has the best pacing of any of his films since Castle in the Sky. If I have any complaint about the film at all, it might be that it wraps things up rather quickly, and a bit too neatly. But this is just mere quibbling about plot.

At its emotional core, where it counts, Howl works superbly.

Posted by peterb at 07:07 PM | Comments (22)

June 28, 2005

NBA Basketball Returns

by psu

I have for the most part avoided watching pro basketball over the last few years. The main reason for this is the recent period of extended futility in which the Boston Celtics have found themselves trapped. But, I think there are deeper reasons for my distaste. It seems to me that the game has lost any sense of flow and grace. Instead, you watch a game and you see ten virtuoso athletes surrounded by their prodigious egos dribbling into an endless series of isolation plays and 2-on-2 pick and roll.

Then, against my better judgement, I watched game 7 of the current Finals last week. As the game stretched into the hours when I usually go to bed, I realized that here, finally, was the team game that I had been missing.

The last time I watched Quality NBA Basketball was the last good year of the Bird Era in Boston. I had moved to New Hampshire and could get all the games live on local TV. Here was a team that at its best, had everything. In Larry Bird they had a truly dominant superstar. The rest of the front line, Robert Parish and Kevin Mchale provided strong play in the low post. This meant that the offense could flow through any one of three players at any given time. Around this front line, various guards and backups rounded out the team. In the late 80s, the back court was Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson.

When the Celtics played well, it was fun to watch team basketball, even when Bird decided to take over a game all by himself. While they primarily played a slow paced half court game, they excecuted the half court offense with flare and panache against even the most intense defensive pressure. Every set had three or four different options, and required moving the ball to a cutting Bird, or down to Mchale and then back out to the perimeter. There was motion of both the players and the ball, not just the dribble dribble dribble drive you see so much of today.

Watching Tim Duncan and the Spurs take over the game in the third quarter last night reminded me of my old team because they also did it with a spectacular display of half court offense against an extremely intense defensive team. The inside/out low post motion offense that the Spurs ran, combining Duncan down low with Ginobli slashing and good perimeter shooting mirrored the schemes that the Celtics ran back in the day. Of course, the Spurs also have a fast breaking open court dimension the Celtics never did, which is how they dismantled the Suns while allowing more than 100 points a game.

The one area where both Detroit and San Antonio were much more impressive than my beloved Celtics is defense. The Celtics had what you might call a reasonably strong team defense, but they were highy suspect one on one and didn't have the benefit of any legal zone defense at the time. The Spurs and the Pistons have no such problems. I don't think I've witnessed two stronger defensive teams, and that bodes well for the future of the sport, I think. Ben Wallace, in particular, was everywhere. Rebounding, blocking shots, harrassing the inbounds play, and generally making a pest of himself. But what was truly impressive is that the Spurs not only matched the Pistons defensively, but also looked into the face of a defense that good and moved the ball, set picks and hit shots anyway.

So, there you have it. One late basketball game, and at least part of the faith of one fan is restored by a team that can do anything. They can run and gun, they can make you work for every point you score, and they can slow it down and score against a stifling defense. You don't see this very often in a team. Bravo.


Another ode to the Spurs got me interested enough to watch one game until the end. I'm glad I did too.

Posted by psu at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2005

Playable Classics: Escape Velocity

by peterb

People have been making "space opera" trading games for 25 years. Among these is Ambrosia Software's Escape Velocity, first developed in 1992. It is the best game of its kind. The most recent version, Escape Velocity Nova, is available for both Windows and Macintosh, and provides varying levels of challenge for the novice and for the experienced player. It is a classic, and everyone with a soul will enjoy it.

I don't want to discuss the geneology of space opera games in detail here; I've already done that in my review of Star Sonata, and if you're interested you can read that article instead. The core thing to keep in mind is that there are tens of games that have essentially shared the same core gameplay (Elite, Galtrad, Privateer, EV), and most of them aren't at all playable any more.

I started thinking of EV when I recently learned about an open-source project to remake the classic Origin game Wing Commander: Privateer. It's a cool project; like The Ur-Quan Masters project to revitalize Star Control, the Privateer Remake project lets you play this ancient game on your modern Windows, Mac, or Linux machine. The port is good enough that I was considering designating it a Playable Classic. After spending some time reviewing the genre, I've come to the conclusion that Escape Velocity deserves the nod, instead, for a few reasons.

Part of it is that the EV games were published a bit earlier. But that's only a small part — if it was just a matter of picking the earliest possible still playable game, I'd be out here pushing Galactic Empire on you, which I'm not. The attributes which make Escape Velocity significant, to me, are:

  • It was published by a small, independent publisher. I have a soft spot in my heart for Andrew Welch's Ambrosia Software, ever since using his Easy Envelopes utility back in the early '90s. This little company has been putting out great, fun, innovative games every year. They are software heroes, and they deserve some recognition for it.
  • Escape Velocity intelligently separates graphical glitz from gameplay. Privateer was, at the time, jaw-dropping. I remember seeing the Wing Commander games in the public computer cluster at CMU in 1991, and people would gather around to gape at it. That was 15 years ago. Today, they look primitive. Escape Velocity, on the other hand, is rendered in an isometric perspective where individual objects have a somewhat 3D look, but the gameplay itself is unapologetically 2D. EV today looks pretty much exactly like it did in 1992. And it still looks great.
  • Escape Velocity uses an extremely extensible plugin architecture. This has a few nice side effects. First, it means that when you're finished with the game, you can install user-written add-ons. More significantly, there are "total conversion" kits that allow you to purchase the most recent version (Escape Velocity Nova) and effectively play the first two games in the series, gratis.
Here's a brief walkthrough of the beginning of a typical game of Escape Velocity. You begin on your home planet with a little bit of money and a little shuttlecraft. Your shuttlecraft has a hyperdrive, some space for cargo, and a small gun that, on a good day, could be used to frighten very small children.

This little ship is, theoretically, capable of going anywhere (as long as it can find a place to land and refuel) and doing anything. In practice, you'll find it somewhat limiting. You can only carry so much cargo, mount so many weapons, and take so much damage. In order to upgrade your ship, you'll need to make money. In the early stages of the game, you'll make money by trading commodities, ferrying passengers from one star system to another, or by performing "special deliveries" of certain cargos to a certain star system within so many days.

One of the exciting things about Escape Velocity, to my taste, is that there is an ongoing galactic conflict beyond what the player is involved in doing. Star systems may belong to a given political entity, which will enforce the local laws. If you want to be a simple merchant, plying heavily patrolled space lanes, you can do that. Occasionally, your defenseless ship might come under attack, and often you'll see that system's police force swoop in to save you.

Eventually, though, you might feel brave enough to blow up a few pirates by yourself. And as you develop a reputation as someone that can defend themselves, an interesting thing happens: people will start approaching you in the spaceport bars, and offer you more interesting work than the standard missions. Often, this work will be on behalf of one of the various political factions in the game. Perform enough of these, and not only do you start visiting remote corners of the galaxy, but you start making friends — and enemies. Suddenly, the Galaxy gets a lot more complicated.

There have been three major revisions of EV: the original (now called "Classic"), EV Override, and the current incarnation, EV Nova. For anyone who hasn't played any of them, the differences aren't truly significant: simply put, the three games have nearly identical game mechanics, but tell different stories. If you own the latest version, you can install plugins to play ports of the previous versions.

But EV Nova has some improvements over the earlier games that make it worth trying first. Most significantly for new players it has an (optional) in-game tutorial, demonstrating some of the basic game concepts. Furthermore, there are quite a few "special" missions that are open to even new players, thus saving you from having to trudge back and forth across the galaxy hauling coal before you get to the interesting parts of the game. This works extremely well.

I've been playing some version of Escape Velocity since it was released in 1992. At one point, I obtained a low-end Mac LC just so I could continue playing the game after I moved to a (mostly) PC environment. This many years later, it's still fresh, it's still fun, and it's still memorable. It's a great game, and deserves the name "Playable Classic." If you try it, I'm sure you'll think so, too.

Additional Resources

  • If you're confused about what a "Playable Classic" is, this explanation might help.
  • You can download the demo of Escape Velocity Nova from here. The 30 day demo lets you do nearly everything except play "game mods."
  • Once you agree with me that EV is the best game ever and purchase it, you can download the classic EV total conversion (for Windows or Mac), the EV Override total conversion (for Windows or Mac), or any of hundreds of others game mods.
  • The Wing Commander: Privateer remake is available for free download, as well.
Posted by peterb at 05:52 PM | Comments (0)

June 24, 2005

Berry Alert

by peterb

The first ripe wild black raspberries (rubus occidentalis) of the season have been spotted.

And eaten.

Posted by peterb at 08:15 PM | Comments (3)

June 23, 2005

The Carnival of Gamers

by peterb

If you like the game-related articles you read on Tea Leaves, you should definitely visit the third installment of The Carnival of Gamers, a collection of some interesting gaming-related articles. Tea Leaves is honored to have been able to participate.

Posted by peterb at 08:47 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2005

You are Not the Boss of Me

by psu and peterb

Video games, like all forms of entertaiment, have their own set of idiosyncratic formal conventions. All the Zelda games have a series of dungeons, broken up by exploration, where you collect items to defeat the final enemy. Horror games have a slow pace, shuffling zombies and stupid camera angles. Platform games have hateful jumping puzzles and take place in a strange world where whacking a box turns it into money. Conventions like this can be useful because they provide a formal framework in which the game designers can work. The form gives the player context and helps to set expectations, the same way the formal structure of a film or a piece of music informs the viewer or listener about what should be coming next.

However, while some gaming conventions are useful enough to have evolved into a sort of form, most head over the line into the territory of annoying cliché. There are too many such game design sins to list here: useless backtracking for keys, juvenile puzzles involving 8 tiles in 9 spaces or the Towers of Hanoi, and of course, stupid savepoints. However, the single most damaging game design crutch is the Boss Battle. We are here to say that Boss Battles are stupid and should be annihilated.

Bosses are a mainstay of action, RPG, platformer and shooter games. They tend to appear at or near the end of major stages of the game. The end of a game may also be structured around a climactic "final" Boss, which is usually like one of the intermediate Bosses, only more tedious.

Boss characters share a few common characteristics:

1. They are very powerful. Typically, they take a long time to defeat but can defeat the game character very easily.

2. In games with a narrative, they might be characters from that narrative transformed by some bizzare power into a huge deformed killing machine.

3. While powerful and deadly, they are not smart. They generally have one or two patterned attacks that they use over and over again.

4. There are usually only one or two specific ways to actually do damage to a boss.

Note that we want to distinguish between a "boss," who is simply a strong enemy who may provide drama and challenge, and a "Boss," who you can only defeat if you apply a set of nonsensical and arbitrary rules for a hideously long time. From now on, we will refer to the latter as a Boss with a capital B.

For the most part Boss fights are always the same. You figure out the pattern in which the Boss is moving. You therefore figure out how to dodge its attacks. Then you read the walkthrough to figure out how to do damage to the thing. Then you sit with your controller for fifteen minutes and dodge, hit, dodge, hit, dodge, hit until the Boss dies or you die and get to start over again.

In modern games, Bosses have become a crutch for both the game designer and the player. The "hardcore" gamer contingent wants Bosses because they are the traditional narrative hint that the end of a stage is approaching. They also feel like beating a Boss makes them bad-ass. Game designers use Bosses as an automatic way to change up the gameplay and thus provide some variety. Unfortunately, there are few fresh ideas in Boss design. This means that rather than creating a nice change of pace, Boss fights just replace whatever you might have been enjoying in the game with a task that inevitably boils down to a deathmarch of twitching and boring pattern matching.

Proponents of the Boss battle may argue that the Boss provides not only a climactic moment to finish off a stage of the game, but also a chance for the game player to utilize newly acquired skills or items. This happens in the Zelda games. You will go through a dungeon and pick up a couple of new things. The game then gives you some interesting things to do with the new stuff so you get some practice in using it. Then, just as you are really enjoying the game and your new toy, everything is ripped away and replaced with a huge stupid boss which you can only defeat if you puzzle out exactly how your new item can be used against the bad guy.

The question is: why not just stick to the fun gameplay that came before the Boss? Zelda is certainly not lacking for great gameplay. But rather than stick to it, the game leads the player into a boring twitchfest combined with boring puzzle solving. Why not allow the core gameplay to stand on its own terms?

Games that are true to their core gameplay are always better for it. For example, why, after providing 15 hours of high energy combat goodness did Halo 2 feel the need to throw in a completely redundant and unoriginal Boss fight at the end of the game? Did the designers lose faith in the meticulously tuned and balanced gameplay that had served them so well up until that point? Or did they just throw it in because the moron hard-core fanboys had complained about the fact that Halo did not have a "real" Boss at the end? They should have stuck to their guns, so to speak.

The Splinter Cell games never had any Bosses. The designers just made the final levels ratchet up the difficulty as you got close to the ultimate objective. This is just one of the ways that Splinter Cell is infinitely superior to Metal Gear Stupid.

RPGs lend themselves to a structure involving bosses, rather than Bosses. This is especially true in the turn based games since it is hard to design a Boss battle in a turn based battle system. If the combat is not in real time, stupid pattern attacks are easy to observe. And yet, a game with the stature of Knights of the Old Republic actually had a completely pointless final Boss, complete with puzzle combat.

On the other hand, more recent RPGs, including Shadow Hearts: Covenant and Bioware's own Jade Empire did a good job of — for the most part — avoiding pointless Bosses. Occasionally you would run into stronger enemies, but they were just that. They were not mysteriously powerful macguffins who you could only damage if you sliced them behind their left kneecap. On a day with a full moon. While spitting. Perhaps we can take the fact that KOTOR had a Boss, but Jade Empire didn't as an indication that Bioware agrees that the concept is outdated. As Corvus points out, below, Jade Empire did have some Bosses, but as they were (comparatively speaking) easy to dispose of, they were not as disruptive to the pacing of the game. Perhaps we can hope that Jade Empire II disposes with their use altogether.

Looking at platform games, we can draw a comparison between the best platform game ever made, Banjo Kazooie, and a later effort by the same company, Donkey Kong 64. There were a number of things wrong with DK64, but it's a fair approximation to describe it as "Banjo with Bosses." This is one of the reasons it is universally acknowledged as one of the worst platform games ever created. The other reason would be its "must backtrack through every level 5 times to win" nature, but that's the subject of another rant. The reason Banjo succeeds where DK64 fails is pacing. The player is always in control of their game experience, and is always applying their skills in a straightforward, measured way. New dangers are introduced at a steady rate. In DK64, at the end of every level comes a Boss who squashes the player like an insignificant bug, until they figure out the "trick," which takes the pacing and throws it out the window.

Sports games never have Bosses, and yet somehow they provide enough variety for people to finish all 5,000 races in the Gran Turismo or Forza career mode, or for would-be football coaches and armchair quarterbacks to run the Madden franchise mode for the better part of a simulated century. These games don't fall back on the Boss crutch because their core gameplay is designed to provide variety and also because they provide some variety in other ways (franchise mode, tuning cars, mini-games).

The following thought experiment may elucidate just how stupid Bosses are. Just imagine if Madden were designed in the same way that your average third person action game or RPG is designed. Just as you get to the final minutes of the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl, suddenly the quarterback on the opposing team (let's say it's Peyton Manning) runs out into the middle of the field and lets out a deafening gutteral scream as he raises his arms and transforms into a flaming blue lizard beast with 15 eyes. In order to win the game, you must now repeatedly run over to the ball-boy and grab footballs which you throw at the eyes. If you hit one, Manning's helmet temporarily opens up so you can bean him in the head with other footballs. Meanwhile, you have to watch out, because the lizard beast periodically whips his tail at you as you attempt to target him, so you have to be sure to dodge these attacks, since one or two hits are enough to take you out of the game. Once you destroy all the eyeballs and hit Manning in the head 20 or 30 times, he falls over, transforms back to his human form and is taken off the field on a stretcher and you can return to the rest of the football game.

It is understandable why designers want to use Boss fights: they want an event that provides a dramatic moment, similar to the climax of a movie. While this desire is noble, Bosses are a monumental failure in this regard. No game in recent memory is at its best during a Boss battle. The true highlights always spring forth from the core design and narrative of the game rather than some artificially constructed battle with an ultra-powerful beast from beyond. What we can hope for is that these "core gameplay" moments — consider how well most of Halo 2 worked with its "Sneak, assassinate, grenade, firefight" dynamic — will become more and more integrated into the dramatic climaxes of games, and the Bosses can be sent to some far off land and be retired forver. It's a noble goal to strive for because if we reach it, games will have been made better forever.

Posted by psu and peterb at 10:50 PM | Comments (29)

June 21, 2005

Reaping the Whirlwind

by faisal

So it's come down to this. Eleven years after Ayrton Senna's tragic death cast a pall over Formula 1 and made everyone rethink safety, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley have put up a tent and made everyone rethink clown cars.

This weekend's US Grand Prix was the ninth race of the season, the first season of the millennium to not be so boring as to serve as a prescription insomnia cure. All seven teams running Michelin tires did not race, giving Michael Schumacher his first "win" of the season.

The official reason for the withdrawal was that the Michelin tires were not prepared for the Indianapolis track, which is somewhat cobbled out of the oval designed for our "go fast, turn left" style of racing. However, rules changes were offered that would have let the race go on as planned — changes that weren't accepted. This begs questions about Max and Bernie's respective grips on (market) reality. Are they mad, power-mad, or just plain desperate for Ferrari to win? Since Bernie and Max have made careers — and billions of pounds — by running F1 (into the ground), we can't assume they are idiots, but it's worth looking at the series of events which brought us to this point.

In the mid-nineties, when Ferrari couldn't win a race if their life depended on it, many people thought that Formula 1's fortunes were rather tied to Ferrari's. From all outward appearances, Bernie and Max joined the Ferrari team in an all-out attempt to make sure Ferrari was once again competitive, and by "competitive" we mean "dominant". This may not actually be what the Formula 1 powers-that-be set out to do, but it sure looks that way from the outside.

At first, Ferrari could use all the help they could get — their car was actually less reliable than Jaguar's. Yes, they had Michael Schumacher, but while he's quite good, there's a reason Wikipedia lists him with the passionless "statistically the most successful F1 driver ever". He's no Senna, and he's certainly no Fangio. Some days he isn't even a Damon Hill.

But, with Hill retired and the rest of the field relegated to teams who weren't willing to pour nearly as much money into winning, Schumacher and Ferrari's dominance was assured. Schumacher had a car he could drive the way he wanted, and Ferrari had a driver who would win races. Sponsorship revenues soared, fans went wild, and vendors started paying attention. And still, the F1 governing authorities seemed to do whatever was necessary to ensure Ferrari owned the field.

Over time, though, the shine faded. Who were the new drivers? Where was the excitement? Who cares? Of my four friends who would obsessively watch F1 at race time in 2000, only one still occasionally catches a race in replay. While he still makes the pilgrimage to a couple races a year, he now comes back with stories about the parties which are far more interesting than the stories about the race.

Still, the Ferrari-favoritism lived on, with no apparent end in sight. Yes, every year they rolled out new rules to make it look like Ferrari was at risk of losing, but every year Ferrari seemed to grow more entrenched.

Until, quite by surprise, this year. Suddenly, we were eight races into the season without a single Ferrari victory. Suddenly, Fernando Alonso was dominating the Drivers' Championship, and Michael Schumacher was third behind Kimi Räikkönen. Suddenly, Schumacher was taking home over three million dollars per race he lost.

What went wrong? Fingers point everywhere. A month ago, Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo blamed Bridgestone for failing to make competitive tires. Yet Ferrari's tire problems were of their own making -- after years of pressuring Bridgestone to pay more attention to Ferrari, Bridgestone wasn't supplying any top-tier teams with tires. With this year's more radical rule changes, Bridgestone had no other competitive cars on which to test tires, and Ferrari was suddenly running inadequately tested tires.

Fans joked that Montezemolo was blaming Bridgestone for making the season interesting, but suddenly the season was, yes, interesting. Which brings us to another question: is Ferrari still competitive? They clearly know how to dominate, and they know how to keep winning, but have they forgotten how to win in the first place? Is Schumacher past his prime? And can he win again now that people realize he isn't invincible? It's worth remembering that Schumacher has won the championship by a close margin in the past, and on some days that margin put somebody else into a tire-wall.

Which brings us, then, to this past weekend.

During qualifying, Ralf Schumacher's tire blew in Turn 13, and Michelin realized that their tires were not safe for the speeds through that turn. Michelin is familiar with the United States' reasonably prudent person standard for legal liability, and warned everyone that the tires were not safe.

[queue dramatic music]

Michelin teams wanted a chicane installed right before the turn.

Ferrari didn't want the chicane.

The Formula 1 governing bodies — who usually seem willing to arbitrarily change the rules "for reasons of safety" whenever and wherever it furthers Ferrari's chances of winning — engaged in professional hand-wringing.

Eventually it was decreed that drivers running Michelin tires should slow down in turn 13.

Having told professional race car drivers to maybe not drive so fast, the FIA sat on its thumbs and waited.

Every team running Michelin tires withdrew from the race, citing safety reasons.

Ferrari and Jordan engaged in the ritual of "hey, free points". They were joined by Minardi, whose boss, Paul Stoddart, promptly went on Dutch TV and called the entire race "a farce", apologized to the fans, expressed sympathy for the Michelin teams, placed the blame squarely on the FIA's shoulders, and then switched to more colorful language.

Fans - many many of whom paid over $100 per seat, took time off from work, and flew in for the event - walked out.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George refused to wave the checkered flag, took a bath on the proceeds, and may not allow F1 back next year.

Other fans are suing everyone in sight.

And now, facing a backlash, Max Mosley — who apparently learned his management skills from his father — has summoned all Michelin teams to explain why they dared to consider their drivers' safety and the safety of the fans to be more important than the safety of FIA's pocketbook.

The unanswered question is: why did the FIA not adjust the race rules so there would be an actual race and not a farce? History and appearances would suggest that Ecclestone and Mosley were desperate for a Ferrari win, any Ferrari win. But, that may not be the case at all, and the decision was so bizarre that it's almost pointless to pontificate.

Instead we need to ask a different set of questions: why are the teams taking the heat for this? For all of the FIA's historically tense relationship with the teams, why did Mosley think the solution to this problem was a giant game of safety chicken with 100,000 fans in the middle? Why does Mosley still have a job? Is F1 dead in the US? When will the FIA management relent from the WWF style antics, put fans first and let competitors compete? And will anybody still care by the time it happens?

The clock is ticking.

Additional Resources

Posted by faisal at 10:42 AM | Comments (3)

June 20, 2005

One Gear Higher

by psu

I've actually done enough riding this year to progress past the "start gasping for air every time you come off the downhill" stage of fitness. More books than I can list here have been written about training for cycling. Certainly, the success of the more systematic methods used by Lance Armstrong and such to win the Tour De France over and over again have gotten a lot of attenion if for no other reason than they use cool toys. But, for normal people who are not racing bikes, there is a pretty simple measure of fitness that is easily applicable without any sophisticated data collection tools.

I think all of the training jargon and mumbo-jumbo translate into tracking two things while you are riding:

1. How long can you ride before your legs hurt a lot and don't generate power. This is typically somewhat longer than the longest ride you have done recently. I do mostly 20 mile rides, so I expect that a 30 mile ride would make my legs hurt, especially if i did it fast.

2. What is the low gear you use to climb most hills.

For as long as I've been riding, the main indication that I'm getting more fit is that I can climb hills in higher gears without blowing up. Pittsburgh is a nice area for this fitness measurement because while the climbs are not long, there are very few rides you can take without a bit of up and down. These rollers act like automatic interval training areas, and give you a constant indication of your fitness level.

So there you have it. The way you tell if you are getting in shape is if you can climb that hill one gear higher than you did before.

Posted by psu at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2005

Wrath Unleashed

by peterb

It is well understood that there is nothing new under the sun in video games. I recently borrowed Wrath Unleashed from the local library, not knowing what it was.

What it was is a remake of Archon.

Archon, for those of you who have never heard of it, is on every old computer game player's list of The Greatest Games Ever Made. The basic idea is: it's chess. But when your pieces occupy the same square as your opponent's piece, you move to an "arena" and the two players fight it out in arcade-like combat. Each piece has different powers, so while one can in theory win any battle in combat, the strategic element is very significant: you really, really, really don't want to try to fight a Basilisk with a Knight.

Remaking Archon is something everyone seems to do, sooner or later. It seems like such a good idea. Archon itself is a remake in a manner of speaking, being clearly inspired by the "chess game" in the original Star Wars movie.

The fact is, remaking Archon is a bad idea. The game itself had some sort of magical, alchemical balance wherein it was only fun if you played it on an 8-bit computer. Even in emulation, it's not any fun. You need that big clunky Atari joystick to make the game playable. The authors even tried to remake it, twice. The first attempt, for the old 8 bit computers, was Archon 2: Adept. It almost worked, but the simplicity of the first game's chess board was replaced by a zone-based game of concentric rings, with odd rules about moving between them, and mostly what you thought when you played it was. "Huh. This is pretty neat. But I think I'd rather be playing Archon." SSI remade the game for the PC as Archon Ultra in the mid-90s. This remake got the mechanics right, yet it was soulless. I bought it, but felt empty inside, like a child whose ice cream cone has dropped in the middle of the street.

Wrath Unleashed, by Lucasarts, is Archon Ultra with even less soul. The game mechanics are nearly the same as those of Archon 2, down to letting your "wizards" cast spells in addition to sending your pieces in to combat. So I'm not really going to talk about the mechanics. I want to talk about the window dressing. I want to talk about the game's presentation.

Remember that guy in your homeroom, in high school? He wore denim everything and listened to metal and seemed sort of stupid, except he could draw these really bitchin' little cartoons of metal dudes riding motorcycles while smoking a joint with a naked chick in the pillion seat who was waving a chainsaw and killing zombies? Well, that guy did the production design for Wrath Unleashed. The game is so thoroughly a paean to arrested development that it can only be on purpose. Somewhere in Lucasarts is a Marketing Requirements Document that identifies the specific vertical segment they're aiming at as "morons with disposable cash and deep-seated issues with their sexuality."

Some of you may remember the movie Heavy Metal.  I suspect this movie had a similar MRD, and it specified that the viewer would be 17.  With an R rating, 16 year olds wouldn't be allowed in to see it, whereas 18 year olds might have met actual women by then.  With the customer base so ruthlessly narrowed, the authors were free to dispense with all manner of elements normally associated with the filmmaking art (plot, drama, a point).  Since I actually saw this movie at the age of seventeen, I thought it was cool.  Then I turned eighteen.  Then they made a sequel that failed on all counts, because fans of the original had long moved beyond the "puberty" phase of their lives. This game manages to be even more pointless than the sequel to Heavy Metal.

To make room for this garbage, they cancelled Sam and Max: Freelance Police. There is no justice in the world.

Two of the four Gods in the game are women. 2 of the four Gods in the game are wearing skimpy clothing. One of them, in particular, is wearing a bra shaped like a pair of hands that are groping her breasts. I'm sorry, but I just can't respect a goddess who is in an abusive relationship with her lingerie. The concept artists who came up with this have violated the Gamer's Bill of Rights Clause 3. They must be punished.

The four gods in the game are (basically) the gods of earth, air, fire, and water. This bothers me, for two reasons. First, this is the second Lucasarts game in 2 years to have gods of earth, air, fire, and water, and they have completely different names. You'd think that Lucasarts, of all companies, would recognize the importance of keeping a consistent cosmology in their products. And apart from the marketing aspects, consider the practicalities: what's going to happen to Lucasarts when the gods of earth, air, fire, and water discover that their names are being mangled? There will be a whole lot of smiting at Skywalker Ranch, let me tell you.

Second, why is it always earth, air, fire, and water? How about having some different gods for a change? Why not have us live under the dominion of the mighty Gods of Blood, Bile, Choler, and Phlegm? Weep at the mighty passage of the lords of Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and the apostate devil Umami? Think of the narrative possibilities of a game chronicling the mighty conflicts between the followers of Jo'n, Paül, Jorge, and Ring-o.

My point, to the extent that I have one, is: have you no shame? It's not like putting the zombie-hand bra on the game actually helped the game sell: Wrath Unleashed plopped into the marketplace with all the allure of a frog in a milkshake.

They say that sex sells, but not even sex will sell if it's sufficiently stupid.

So, Lucasarts, maybe you should look at the decisionmaking process that led up to green-lighting Wrath Unleashed. You're looking for a brand identity outside of Star Wars. You're not going to find it in zombie-hand bras and bombast; any junior-high school metalhead can do that.

Maybe it's time to see if smart might sell.

Additional Resources

  • Dear Lucasarts: stop publishing garbage, and start making Sam and Max: Freelance Police instead. Thanks.

  • I spent hours playing Archon in the mid-80's. If you're of a certain age and geekritude, you probably did, too.

  • Thanks to Faisal for suggesting the connection with Heavy Metal.
Posted by peterb at 11:50 PM | Comments (7)

June 16, 2005

Going to the Movies

by psu

The office had a trip to see the new Batman movie. The movie itself, while flawed in some ways, was for the most part enjoyable. However, the whole movie-going experience itself has become tedious in many ways.

First, there was lunch. The theater is actually only close to a bunch of boring box restaurants, and one of the people in our group required gluten free food. So we ended up at P.F. Chang's. I see no reason to amend my previous comments on the place. The food was generic, expensive, too salty and generally completely lacking in any genuine character besides the color brown. Two points missing from my previous rant: they serve brown rice (ewww) and charge a ludicrous amount of money for pots of tea. But, even with all this going against it, it's really no worse than any of the other food down at The Waterfront where the theater is. Why can't someone put a decent place to eat close to the megaplex?

Second, we had the trailers. Of course, the first four trailers are now commercials, two of which must be for Fandango. They do this in France too, but in France I can't understand the dialog in the commercials, which makes them far more interesting. 'Nuff said.

The trailers themselves were for other films that Warner is releasing, and they mostly made you wonder why Warner is releasing the movies. Based on the trailers, I predict that Serenity will be too long, War of the Worlds will be overwrought and Spielbergishly manipulative, and The Dukes of Hazzard, if I watched it, would make me want to claw my eyes out and roll in the aisles of the theater screaming for my mommy. I think there was also a trailer for a cop film or some comedy with Jamie Foxx, but I can't remember it.

By this point in the proceedings, I was already worn out. And the movie hadn't even started.

Oh, the movie. I found the latest Batman to be a lot like the first "serious" Batman film with Michael Keaton, but with less style and higher production values. The film maker was eager to show us how hard he was working to, if nothing else, make a well crafted piece of summer film schlock, rather than just let the visuals carry the experience. These days, you have to be thankful for a film that sets up plot points in the beginning, and actually has them pay off 1.5 hours later. Most movies these days assume that the viewer doesn't have the intellectual capacity to remember three lines of dialog for more than five minutes after the fact. So, kudos there, even though the plot points were pretty obvious.

My main complaint about the film is that for all of its craft, production values, and cost, you would think there would be a single person on the crew who could shoot a fight scene. Every single fight in the film was shot close up, hand held, and with jump cuts every 10 to 15 frames. The result is that instead of a clear view of who is kicking whose ass, all you see is a blur of black, gray and brown along with sound effects that imply the carnage that should be visible.

Compare this with Jackie Chan's magnum opus, Drunken Master 2. The very first fight in this film happens under a train car with two people going after each other with poles (or was it spears). Every single attack, block, counter, jump and punch is perfectly framed and it's always clear who is going in which direction. And this all happens in incredibly close quarters and yet is never confusing. American directors have to go back to film school and learn to shoot fight scenes.

My secondary complaints about the film are that it was too long, and the sound was mixed too loud. Leaving the theater, my bottom was sore and my head was ringing a bit from THX-boosted bass-laden sound effects. If you can live with these things, this is probably as good an adaptation of Batman as you will ever see.

Posted by psu at 07:34 PM | Comments (8)

June 15, 2005

Cocoa Rouge

by peterb

My chocolatier, Amy, said "I've got something special for you."

OK, so she's not just my chocolatier. She owns the store where I get most of my chocolate. For a while now, I've been getting most of my cocoa powder from Mon Aimee Chocolat in Pittsburgh's Strip District.

As it happens, I drink a lot of cocoa. So when it comes to this particular commodity, I'm what is known as a "value" shopper (or, as psu would call me, a "cheapskate").

I don't think the "cheapskate" label is actually warranted here, though. There's an awful lot of bad cocoa out there, and bad cocoa is not worth buying no matter how cheap it is. For purposes of this discussion, if the cocoa is not dutch-process, it is not worth drinking. So this automatically excludes Hershey's or Nestle's, or anything you might find in your local grocery store. If you can find any, that is. It's a constant source of vexation to me that every Giant Eagle has an aisle labeled "cocoa" which only has instant hot chocolate.

If your local grocery store is Whole Foods, they will have a nice selection of non-dutched, organic, fair trade cocoas, each of which costs twice what Hershey's does, but is just as terrible. Occasionally, they get Droste, which is a little pricey, but good. Droste is more or less the yardstick you can measure other drinking cocoas against.

As I said, I shop at Mon Aimee. Their standard dutch-process cocoa is from Guittard, in San Francisco. They typically carry two varieties, a medium-dark blend, and a full dutch process. At Mon Aimee, the full dutch runs about $4.50/pound, less than half what you'll typically pay for Droste. And it's comparable in taste and body. It's not a cocoa revolution, changing the way we think about chocolate forever. It's just decent cocoa at a price so low that it might as well be considered to be free.

What Amy wanted to show me was Guittard's "cocoa rouge," a different variety of cocoa with a darker red hue and a higher price tag ($8.50/pound). So of course I had to buy some of each and have a taste test.

The cocoa rouge is striking when compared to the full dutch. It's a deep, rich, red color with a scent that is a bit floral, almost candy-like, whereas the full dutch has an assertive, pleasantly bitter chocolate nose.

The big difference between the two comes out when you make them into drinking chocolate. I used a standardized recipe for both: 1/2 cup of cocoa powder, about 32 ounces of milk, and a pinch of salt to open up the flavors a bit. That's it. It is not a typo that there is no sugar in this recipe.

The first difference you can see almost immediately is that the cocoa rouge has a much higher fat content. Both cups will leave little blobs of cocoa butter floating on the top of your cup, but the cocoa rouge is full of them, rim to rim. The mouth-feel is a correspondingly silkier as well. It goes down easy.

Another major difference is in the sediment. The Guittard full dutch throws off a significant sediment, particularly if you make your drinking chocolate as stupidly strong as I do. I don't mind the sediment at all — like the little bits at the bottom of Turkish coffee, I think they're part of the experience — but others, who are used to corn-starch style chocolate, may not like it. The cocoa rouge was made for these people. Even the next day, the leftovers in the fridge had thrown off almost no sediment at all.

The flavor was good. Less bitter than the full dutch, it had a musky, full flavor, and the somewhat candylike aroma comes through in the taste as well.

Is it worth it? That's the question. It made a nice change, but since I enjoy more bitter flavors and accept cocoa mass participate as the best part of the drinking chocolate experience, I don't think I can justify paying twice as much for it. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Try it for yourself. Visit Mon AImee in the strip, right across Penn Avenue from La Prima, and tell them peterb sent you.

Posted by peterb at 08:51 PM | Comments (2)

June 14, 2005

Black and White Blues

by psu

Back when I shot film, I had evolved to shooting almost 100% black and white. There were various reasons for this, but ultimately it was just because I liked the look and I liked printing. One place I especially liked shooting black and white was Paris. I have hundreds of pictures in my files from there that I will hopefully get back to printing later in my life.

With the switch to digital, I hardly make any black and white pictures. "But wait", you will protest, "desaturate in Photoshop puts you just one button away from black and white." While technically this is true, it just doesn't work for me. I think that the reason for this has to do with how you interact with the picture after you push the button.

Here is how the flow goes in black and white film:

1. Stare at the scene, imagine how it might look in black and white. I personally don't take this notion of "pre-visualization" too seriously. Really I just try to pay more attention to light, shadow and form than color.

2. Set the exposure to make sure the dark parts of the picture won't be completely black.

3. Develop the film, stare at the negatives. Good negatives have an encouraging psychological effect on you. You look at the picture all reversed and in your mind, you see the latent image that you had in mind when you shot it and you start to formulate how you will make the print bring out the strong aspects of the picture.

4. Next you make contact sheets and proof prints. This is where you see the latent image made "real" for the first time. I find it's good to keep proofs around for a while and stare at them before deciding which ones to print.

5. Finally, you make the "fine" prints. This is where the negative you originally shot turns into the picture that you "saw" in your head. Actually, it turns into the picture you thought you saw in your head while you are printing.

Contrast this with shooting digital:

1. Stare at the scene and compose the picture.

2. Set the exposure so the bright parts of the picture do not go white.

3. Look at what you shot in the back of the camera (e.g. do some chimping).

4. Download pictures into your computer.

5. Stare at them in Photoshop, pick one or two to desaturate and manipulate into a "final print".

Aside from the technical issues around composition and exposure, I think the key aspect of black and white shooting is that from film to print, you are always evaluating the image in monochrome, and the key aspect of digital is that you must deal with the picture in color until you take the color away in Photoshop. I'm not sure why, but in the majority of circumstances, looking at a photograph in color makes it hard to interact with the image in black and white later. You have to have a really strong idea of the picture as a black and white image to fight through the color representation. Since this only happens rarely, you end up with a large collection of color pictures, with a few black and white sprinkled in. Making black and white pictures with a digital camera is like shooting shooting color slide film and using that as a basis to create black and white pictures. There is no technical reason why you can't work that way, but it's not ideal.

I think it would be "easy" for digital camera makers to fix this problem for me. Most digital SLR cameras capture a JPEG proof image along with their CCD RAW file. This image is used for previewing in the camera and initial proofing in Photoshop or other image browsers. My humble request is to have a setting that captures these JPEG files as black and white images, so that the initial proofing steps in my digital workflow could be done in black and white. Apparently, the Canon EOS-20d does this, as does one very nice niche camera. Most point and shoots give you the choice of capturing only a black and white JPEG. Sadly, my D70 only allows for color preview.

Of course, none of this deals with the real problem in digital black and white, which is that the images don't look like 35mm Tri-X and are therefore inherently inferior. Oh well.

Posted by psu at 06:33 PM | Comments (2)

June 13, 2005

I Saw the Best Critics of My Generation

by peterb

Stephanie Zacharek of Salon doesn't like the new Hayao Miyazaki film, Howl's Moving Castle.

I felt ambiguous at the prospect of seeing this film: Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke was epic, luminous, and put me to sleep, wheras the pacing of Spirited Away was just right. But Zacharek thought that Howl, based on the book by Diana Wynn Jones, was somewhat boring. Zacharek, helpfully, is always completely wrong about everything, so I'm taking that as a sign that Howl is probably pretty good, although not as good as it would have been had she thought it was a pile of unwatchable tripe.

Posted by peterb at 06:18 AM | Comments (2)

June 09, 2005


by peterb

Our Internet provider suffered a significant outage today, just in time for our Carnival of Gamers entry. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Posted by peterb at 11:47 PM | Comments (0)

June 08, 2005

The Dreamhold

by peterb

I'll start off with a disclaimer. I know Andrew Plotkin, the author of The Dreamhold. We've worked closely together. We run into each other at the library on occasion. I consider him a friend. So as I discuss the game, I'll wear my bias on my sleeve: I think Andrew's games are great. Despite (or because of?) that, I think I have some interesting things to say about it.

I like to think that I inspired The Dreamhold. This, of course, is a damnable lie, but I like to think it anyway. This thought springs from Andrew's reaction to my review of the independent game The Witch's Yarn. In that review, I characterized The Witch's Yarn as being in part a response to the inability of most players to enjoy the idioms and interface of the modern text adventure. In doing this, I fabricated a sample transcript from a nonexistent adventure game, trying to demonstrate the sorts of problems that, I think, turn people off of the genre.

I received two very different responses to that article. Andrew's response was disappointment that I had made up a transcript, because he felt that the specific examples I gave weren't really valid. If you start up a typical modern IF game, you won't encounter all the problems in my condensed, artificial example.

The other response I got, from several people, was along the lines of "Yes! That is exactly why I stopped playing text adventures."

I think both points of view are valid. My example might not be strictly accurate, but I believe it captures the overall sense of frustration you feel when you hit a rough spot in a text adventure game. It is a frustration that comes not from the difficulty of the puzzle, but from the difficulty of the interface.

When faced with a user interface problem like this, a game designer really only has a few options. One option is to change the UI in some way to try to make things easier for the user. The Spellcasting 101 series of games tried to do this by adding a menu of actions and objects that the user could select with a mouse. Graphical adventures such as Monkey Island managed this by reducing the number of actions to a minimum ("open", "use", "push") and by having the player use mouse gestures instead of typing.

The Dreamhold takes a different approach to this problem. Instead of changing the UI, it teaches the player how to use the interface. It is an introductory game which tries to show the player not only the mechanics of playing a text adventure, but also some of the common idioms and patterns common to the genre.

I don't want to discuss the plot of The Dreamhold in detail, for obvious reasons, but I can say that it begins with you, the protagonist, waking up on a cold stone floor, with no memory of who you are, or how you got there. The game is, in some sense, a story of self-discovery. And despite its being an "introductory" game, I had a lot of fun playing it.

It's hard for me to say whether The Dreamhold achieves its goal of being a good "teaching tool," because I've played a few hundred too many text adventures to be its target audience. It feels well-balanced to me. Right off the bat, the game tells you how to get help. As you play the game, an anonymous voice pipes up and makes helpful suggestions. For example, after you move out of the room you have woken up in...

You are standing in a short windowless hallway. To the east is the foot of a flight of stairs, which rises out of sight. To the west, the hallway narrows, ending in a small gap of a doorway.

[Looks like you've taken the first step. Well done.

Let me introduce myself. I am the Voice of this tutorial. Most games don't have me; but in this game, I will watch over your shoulder and give you some help. With a little practice, you'll soon be moving around the text adventure world in style.

Back to the story. Remember what's going on? Actually, you don't. As the introduction said, you can't remember who you are or what you're doing here!

Amnesia. Yes, it's a cliché, but it'll do for a tutorial.

I'll let you go on exploring. The west corridor leads back to the cell where you started, so you'll want to try up the stairs instead. Type "up" or "climb stairs".]

The game makes suggestions about mechanics, but doesn't spoil the story or puzzles unless you specifically ask it for help. Plotkin strikes the right balance here: the anonymous narrator will often point out puzzles as you wander through the game world, but it doesn't spoil them by giving you clues you haven't asked for. The game also aggressively tries to help you avoid both "guess the verb" and "guess the noun" problems, and introduces meta-game concepts at just the right points. For example:

It is dark, as dark as you could imagine -- a lightless dream beneath stone.

[Oh, dear. You've walked into a very dark place.

Going "south" probably won't get you back; you can't tell directions in the dark. So what now? One option is to type "undo". This will let you "back up" one move -- back to just before you walked in here. Everything will be the same, except that you'll be in the Natural Passage, and you'll be able to see.

In this game, you can only "undo" one move in a row. So if you do something else now (even "look" or "south"), you won't be able to jump back to the lit Passage. The "undo" command is intended only to fix immediate mistakes.

If you want to go back more than one turn, you'll have to use the "restart" or "restore" commands. Type "help saving" for more information.

Or you could stumble around in the dark, and try to find your way out. Since this is an introductory game, there is a way out. And maybe more to discover, as well.]

This is, I think, a perfect example. He explains the situation, he introduces some commands that might be relevant without demanding a specific solution, and he provides reassurance that there are several ways to solve the problem. The entire game is full of moments like this (and if you're an experienced player who finds such interjections distracting, you can turn the Helpful Voice off). All of this combines to allow novice players to feel at ease with the mechanics so they can concentrate on the story.

As regular readers know, I typically enjoy the narrative of a game as much if not more than its mechanics. I can't help it. I've read too many books. I'd rather play a game with a good story but poor game mechanics than a superbly designed game with a flat narrative. The Dreamhold takes a somewhat tired archetype (the amnesiac protagonist), puts it in a setting that could be clichéd (you'll see when you play it), yet tells a story that is both unique and eloquent. I loved the plot. I loved the way it was told. I will play it again, because I want to read it again.

My love of the game was not a foregone conclusion. Andrew Plotkin has a large body of work, and some of it is not to my taste. At his worst his prose can be affected and somewhat elliptical (I may be the only person who found parts of his work So Far to be artificial in a disagreeable way). But the writing in his games has continually improved. Where his early prose was sometimes as abstruse as his puzzles, he now writes clearly and directly. I don't think it's a coincidence that my favorites of his works are The Dreamhold, where he is writing didactically, and Hunter, In Darkness, which was pseudonymously submitted to a competition. In both of these, Plotkin consciously toned down the verbal frippery that marked some of his earlier writing.

Compare the opening of So Far...

Hot, foul, and dark. How did indoor theater become so fashionable? Well enough in spring rain or winter, but not in the thick, dead afternoon of high summer. And though Rito and Imita looks very fine, shining with electric moonslight in the enclosed gloom, you're much more aware of being crammed in neck-by-neck with your sweaty fellow citizens.
...with just the merest fragment of Hunter, In Darkness:
You are lying in cold still water. It licks at your cheek and arms, and across the backs of your thighs. The chill makes your bruised knees and chest hurt all the more; your neck screams from craning high enough to breathe, but there is no room to sit up. No room to turn. No room.
I'm deliberately omitting excerpts from The Dreamhold in this comparison because, hopefully, you will read them for yourself. But the feel is similar. Sometimes, it has felt to me as though Plotkin's more ambitious words were squirming out from under him, leaking into his text into places they didn't belong. "Look at me!" they would shout, and you would look at them, and in so looking lose sight of something perhaps more significant. In The Dreamhold, his words are under lock and key, and exist to serve the story he is telling. The text is stronger for it.

The Dreamhold has an interesting internal logic and geometry — in places it actually evoked certain moments of Ico — and an arc of character growth that is drawn with words that are precise, economical, and subtle. If it were a short story, it would be worth reading. As a game, it is worth playing. And it is worth discussing.

The philosophical technical premise underlying The Dreamhold is, it seems to me, correct: bring the players up to meet the game. Making major changes in interface (see the Witch's Yarn) may indeed make a game more approachable. But you can change the interface of a piece so much that you catapult it into a different medium. It doesn't make sense, in an artistic context, to destroy the village in order to save it.

It is clear that text adventures are, today, no longer commercially viable. That lack of viability may simply be due to a failure of imagination and marketing ability on the part of game publishers, or, more likely, to a real change in the requirements of today's game players.

It does seem odd to me that text adventures aren't viable. The common wisdom seems to be that gamers do not want to spend their entertainment time playing games that don't have graphics. While I'm willing to accept this as true (I'm not publishing games for a living, so I'm loath to argue the point with those who do), it does strike me as singularly strange. The publishing industry in the US is a $220 billion dollar industry. People spend a lot of money on books. I and many others pay the New York Times cold hard cash in order to be able to do their crossword puzzle online. Yahoo! games has an entire section devoted to word games; at the moment, I see 15,000 people online playing them. Other gaming sites devote similar real estate to them. Now, perhaps there are explanations for this. A word game such as Boggle is qualitatively different from a text adventure, if only because Boggle is competitive. But I think the pat answer "people won't play text adventures because there are no graphics" is not adequate to explain what's going on. I certainly don't have a good explanation. But my instinct is that this comes down to marketing, packaging, and development cost. It would be interesting to know if there's a successful business case that can be made on behalf of the genre.

Whatever the reason for the recent disappearance of text adventures from the marketplace, they are still being written. Just because we don't generally buy and sell text adventures anymore doesn't mean we can't write, play and enjoy them.

Art is enjoyed — at least in theory — because of what it is. Not because of whether or not it is for sale. You wouldn't (I hope) tell a black and white photographer he should switch to working in color digital video because more people will be willing to pay for his work. A well-written piece of interactive fiction is enjoyable art. The Dreamhold is very well-written.

There are, I think, some changes that could be made to text adventures that would make them more approachable without fundamentally changing their nature. That's really the subject of another article, but I'll mention one here: bundle the interpreter and the story file into a single application. Most of the games that interactive fiction authors are developing are distributed as story files, which are then loaded into the user's interpreter of choice. This is all well and good, but it automatically means that the bar is higher for any user that doesn't have an interpreter installed, let alone those who won't even understand what an interpreter is. The "play as a Java applet" links are a good start, but why stop there? Release your games as executables that the naive user can download and double-click to play. Yes, you're adding a few hundred kilobytes onto the size of every game. It's 2005. Disk space is free. Knock yourself out.

The other thing that needs to change is that these games need to be publicized more. How many years has it been since a text-based game has been reviewed in a major gaming magazine? How many gaming weblogs fail to even consider reviewing or talking about these games, not out of malice, but simply because they don't really understand that they are still being developed? Get one article about a text adventure on Joystiq or Kotaku every few months, and just maybe you'll reach a few people who'll discover that they love a text adventure game who otherwise would never have known they exist. It's worth a shot.

If you want to play The Dreamhold, for yourself — and you should — your best bet is to start at its home page. You can play there via a Java applet (without the ability to save or restore games), or you can download the game itself and an interpreter to play it on. And, knowing Andrew, despite my arrogant thought that I "inspired" the game, I have no doubt he was working on The Dreamhold for months before my review of The Witch's Yarn was even the merest glimmer of an idea. Whatever inspired this creation, I am glad it is here.

Additional Resources

  • The Guardian gamesblog asks an excellent question, which is: given obscure games with no marketing budget, how do you discover them? And how do you know which ones are any good? With regards to modern text adventures, the answer is pretty easy. Start at ifcomp.org, look at the lists of previous Competition winners, and download the top three from each year. Once you've done that, look for more games by the same authors.

  • One of the best ways to keep tabs on what's going on in the gaming world is to make sure you read The Carnival of Gamers. The second edition is available now.

  • Though one shouldn't force a photographer to take commercial photos, that doesn't mean commercial photographers are evil. The Witch's Yarn is an interesting attempt at refactoring interactive fiction to appeal to a wider audience. It was not my cup of tea, but I applaud the attempt.
  • Posted by peterb at 08:06 PM | Comments (0)

June 07, 2005

Sagacious Jade Golem Stupid Boss

by psu

After a short detour through the land of zombies and the land of slam dunks, I'm back into Jade Empire. Overall, I have found the experience satisfying in that KOTOR but with Kung Fu way. But I must complain about the recent boss fight.

Here we have a triple wammy of bad game design.

1. The Boss is much much harder to kill than the entire sequence of enemies you just dispatched all at the same time.

2. You cannot save the game just before the battle starts due to an unskippable cut scene.

3. Every time you fail, you have to endure two ludicrously long load screens and two unskippable dialog sequences before you get to try the combat again.

While this isn't quite as bad as the Zelda brain death from before (btw, I gave up on Wind Waker for now), it sure was painful to do this cycle five or six times. A big raspberry to Bioware. They score a big win for save-anywhere, only to fall on their faces with this nonsense.

Additional Bitching

tilt's complaints about the Jade Empire combat system reminded me how painful this particular fight was.

Posted by psu at 08:22 PM | Comments (3)

June 06, 2005


by peterb

I don't know a lot about coffee.

This surprises people who know how much coffee I drink (a lot) and who know how obsessive-compulsive I can get about other things I drink, such as tea or wine. With those drinks, I'm always branching out to try new styles, while simultaneously deeply exploring the styles I know I like, trying to discern and describe small differences in taste.

With coffee, though, I more or less just walk into a good coffee shop and drink whatever they hand me. The reason I think they're a good coffee shop is that I can do that, and get a good cup of coffee.

This posed an interesting problem for me the other day when I went into Coffee Tree in Squirrel Hill. On their board for brewed coffees were three that I'd never heard of. How should I decide which one to get? Do I pick the country that I want to support the most? Do I ask the server to describe their tastes and bodies in detail? Presented for your amusement is the entirety of my internal monologue and decision-making progress.

"Hmmm, I've never tasted any of these. Nothing in the names tell me anything about what they might taste like. Hey, one of them is named Sumatra Iskandar. Iskandar was the name of the planet the crew of the Argo was trying to reach in Star Blazers, that cartoon I watched in Junior High. OK, I'll get that one."

The Iskandar turned out to be really enjoyable — it had an earthy taste, and a very musky (but not unpleasant) aroma — but that's not really my point. This is the Axiom of Choice in action: presented with an array of choices first thing in the morning, I applied a nonsensical heuristic to just make a choice and get the decision out of my way. It would have been better, for that transaction, if someone had just handed me a cup of coffee that they picked, and said "Here. You're drinking this."

I'm not saying that choice in a coffee shop is bad, by the way, any more than I'd say such a ridiculous thing about choice in a liquor store. Surely, if I'd just said "house coffee, please" at Coffee Tree, they would have handed me a cup of joe instead of arguing with me about it. I'm just musing over this class of transactions, and wondering how one can maximize the customer experience for both the person who just wants "coffee" (or "tea" or, potentially, "booze") and for the person who knows very specifically that they simply must have Tanzanian Peaberry (or Keemun Hao Ya "A", or the Hetszolo 3-star Tokaji Aszu).

Perhaps I can turn "choose food products based solely on the TV shows you watched in Junior High" into some sort of nightmarish general principal. I wonder what I'd end up spending my money on.

Additional Resources

  • It turns out that Star Blazers is available on DVD.
  • If you feel the same way about alcohol that I do about coffee, you should keep a copy of the Tea Leaves "What To Drink" guide handy.
  • If you think I'm not aware of the irony of vaguely complaining about being given too many choices just a few days after I ranted about not being given enough choices, you're wrong. I claim that both points of view are true. I want to not have to think about choice when I don't care, but I want to have it when I do care.
  • Despite not knowing anything about coffee, I'm strangely compelled to read Fortune Elkins' weblog on the subject. I think she's witty, and I appreciate her ardor, although I am considering starting a grass-roots lobbying campaign for the proletariat to demand that she start using capital letters.

Posted by peterb at 07:59 AM | Comments (2)

June 03, 2005

Better in Paris

by psu

For several years of my life, I have had a tag line attached to me that goes "Oh, those are better in Paris." While I believe that this tag is somewhat unfair, there are definitely a few things routinely available in France that seem to have no counterpart of comparable quality back here at home.


Every single time we are in Paris we visit the cheese shop. Two particular varieties of cheese stand out here. The first is Camembert, a soft ripened raw cow's milk cheese. I have not found anything like this cheese anywhere on the North American continent. Even in Canada, where it is legal, the stuff that you can get just isn't any good. The Camembert from Marie-Anne Cantin has a depth of flavor that is hard to put into words. Where soft cheese in the U.S. always tastes like some kind of white paste, the French Camembert has layers of flavor, saltiness, nuttiness, and sweetness all rolled into one. It's like comparing fresh ripe tomatoes to the pink California ones at Giant Eagle, or Maine wild blueberries to frozen ones, or a dry aged New York strip steak to Steakums.

The second cheese we always get is St. Marcellin. This is also a soft raw cow's milk cheese, but is runnier and milder in flavor compared to the Camembert. Like the Camembert, it shows that soft cheese in the U.S. has about as much character as a wet piece of toilet paper. There is nothing better than some of this cheese spread thick over a warm piece of bread.

A note: You may find yourself in Whole Foods or your local yuppy food emporium and spy a piece of cheese labeled "Camembert" or "St. Marcellin". Do not be fooled. If you try one of these items expecting something like the real thing, you will weep bitter tears of pain and sadness. You have been warned.

A second note: The reason these cheeses cannot be found in the U.S. in any decent form is because they are made from unpasteurized milk, and are not aged all that long before selling. The FDA bans such foods because they are "dangerous" but they allow you to risk sickness and death every day of your life at McDonalds, where you can eat ground-up cow meat taken from cows that were also eating ground-up cow meat.


I don't know why, but every crappy café in Paris has a little crock of this mustard at every table. It's mostly for the potatoes or salad that you might get with lunch or dinner, but it is better than any mustard I have ever had. It's strong, with a great wasabi-like kick. But it isn't overpowering, and tastes like something besides vinegar. In Paris, you can go to the equivalent of a Target and buy this stuff by the gallon. I've never found it in the States.

If you can find something like this for me, I'll be your friend for life.


The baguette here are just not right. I don't know what's wrong with them. Not crusty enough, too chewey, tasting too much like sourdough. Something is just not right. I find this confusing, since there are good croissant here.

That's really all I have. I'm sure my old acquaintances will be surprised.

Posted by psu at 08:43 PM | Comments (13)

June 02, 2005


by peterb

Apparently, controversy still rages about my article The Best Review Money Can Buy, which was included in the recent Carnival of Gamers.

In particular, Matt at cgonline.com was quite upset. He feels that I'm painting mainstream game reviewers with too broad a brush, and that my description of them as lacking credibility was not fair.

I stand by my article, hyperbole and all. Clearly, though, I'm going to have to start adding little smiley faces whenever I talk about how ultra-credible I am: some folks didn't get the joke. We all know that there are reviewers whose opinions we disagree with. And we can find examples of credibility problems in other fields, as well — for example, in Pittsburgh about 15 years ago, there was a restaurant critic who was revealed to have been taking payola in return for positive reviews.

But be honest with yourself. When was the last time you read a review at Gamespy, or Gamespot, or IGN, and simply said to yourself "Wow! I'm not at all worried that this review might be complete fluff." To use an old but perfect example — we are talking about a group of people who universally lauded the bug-laden, unplayable, and execrable Black and White as the apotheosis of a superb gaming experience.

And isn't this the crux of the problem? Even a movie reviewer with whom I always disagree with has some value. I regularly read Salon and say to myself "Oh look, Stephanie Zacharek liked that movie. I'd better avoid it, because it will be terrible." Stephanie Zacharek, therefore, has more credibility (in a sense) than a reviewer who simply pimps the games with the pretty graphics and the big budgets. Because I can't use that reviewer's work to distinguish between Jade Empire and Gran Turismo 4. He's just going to blather on about how great both of them are. Thanks, but no thanks.

Forget the conspiracy theories about collusion between the game reviewers and publishers. These game reviewers' lack credibility because of what they write.

The other issue I directly raised in my critique that none of the apologists have touched with a 10 foot pole is that of independently produced games (be they commercial, shareware, or freeware). The issue of industry freebies determining what games you review is important, no matter how much you protest, because it means that you are letting the marketing departments of the games industry guide your editorial process.

Spiderweb Software's Geneforge 3 was just released. Did Gamespot review it? Did Gamespy? Did you review it, Matthew? No. Did you review any of the games in last year's Interactive Fiction Competition? No. Any of Everett Kaser's superb logic games? No. Let's make it even easier. There were 78 entries in this year's Independent Games Festival. What percentage of them did the major sites review? Half? 25%? Even that many? CGM did interviews with the makers of Gish, and N, and Lux, and a couple of the other more well-organized entrants. Hey, that's a good start. But why aren't you doing more?

Let me back away from the criticism, and put this in completely practical terms that you might care about. Choosing a game that I enjoyed (and, to be fair, that I reviewed also) I don't need you to tell me about Jade Empire. Everyone and his goddamn uncle is telling me about Jade Empire. Microsoft's marketing department is doing an excellent job of ensuring that I can't even go to the bathroom without hearing about Jade Empire. What this means to you, as a game magazine publisher, is that as long as your agenda is being set by the marketing departments of game developers, there is absolutely no difference between you, and Gamespy, and Gamespot, or IGN, that is worth mentioning. You have no brand identity. Which one of your reviews I read is probably more dependent on which site I happen to have bookmarked than on any desire to read your special, unique take on the game.

Now imagine that Gamespy, Gamespot, and IGN have only cursory coverage of independent, shareware, and freeware games. And imagine that you have deep coverage. Imagine that people know that you have deep coverage. Sure, you're still reviewing Jade Empire, but it's not the marquee item. Your readers know that every time they visit your home page, they'll also read about the games other major media sites aren't covering. Every time I visit your homepage, I learn something new. Every time I visit your homepage, I learn about a game I hadn't heard of before.

Now that's a site that has brand identity. And that's what weblogs — even the lousy ones like mine — are bringing to the table.

Absolutely nothing is stopping you from doing the same thing.

Let me make an analogy that relates to another subject I care about, which is food. Imagine that you write restaurant reviews. If what I paint, admittedly with a very broad brush, as the "major game review magazines" were instead reviewing restaurants, we would have web sites and magazines filled with glowing (or critical) reviews of P.F. Chang's, Bravo Italian Kitchen, McDonald's, Panera Bread, and Starbuck's. If I chose where to eat based solely on Gamespy Restaurant Reviews, I wouldn't know that little hole-in-the-wall Chinese places or quirky independent coffee shops even existed.

Look, I don't determine your editorial policy, Matthew. You do. If you feel the most important contribution you can make is to focus on reviewing the big chain eateries, I can't stop you.

But don't get mad at me for pointing out that in so doing, you aren't as useful or as important as Zagat's.

Additional Resources

  • There is some more commentary on this foofaraw at Cathode Tan
  • In his commentary on this issue, Thomas discusses a certain game magazine and says "It is a tribute, not to playing games, but to purchasing them." This one eloquent sentiment cuts to the heart of the matter. And I wish I had said it.

Posted by peterb at 06:05 PM | Comments (10)

June 01, 2005

NBA Street V3

by psu

One of my more beloved games on the Xbox was NBA Street V2. But, pulling off the advanced tricks with the Xbox controller was always too hard because the Xbox controller only allowed you three "turbos". Still, when you got in the right rythm, your little avatars could dance around, pass the ball off someone's head and then through the air to a thunderous dunk. This made for more fun in 3-on-3 than my other Xbox basketball experience.

So, when V3 of the game came out, I made sure to pick it up on the PS2 so I could use all four triggers for turbo dunking.

The new version of the game has a flashier look, more detailed character models, and a more complicated trick system. Rather than just holding down a trick button (square on the PS2), you can now hold the triggers down and push the right stick around to perform dribbling tricks. This seems cool, but in practice I can't remember more than 2 or 3 moves anyway. All the old dunks are still here, plus the magic head passes.

Minor complaints are that it seems to be hard to pull off the most advanced tricks without perfect timing on the turbos. Holding down the four triggers, plus circle and having your player move towards the basket is harder than it looks. Also, none of the camera modes are really quite right, which can make it hard to follow the game.

The other major gameplay change is the "interactive" gamebreaker. Here you make your player fly ludicrously high in the air, and if you are fast with the stick, and good with your timing you can throw the ball around and pass it to your teammates for a multiplayer alley-oop and rack up a huge combo that swings the score of the game up to 5 points in your favor. Again, this is flashy but too complicated for me, because I am old.

Overall, if you liked V2, V3 is more of the same, only shinier, and with online. I haven't tried the online, since my PS2 is not on the network. I wouldn't want to play this game with strangers anyway, since I'm sure to lose.

Posted by psu at 09:16 PM | Comments (1)

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