October 31, 2005

Shine and Shine and Shine and

by psu

I picked up Lumines for the PSP and have been playing it between levels of Shadow of the Colossus. I don't have that much to say about the game. Others have already provided much more verbiage about this title without, er, illuminating why the game is fun and interesting. I can't possibly add many more words to that discussion. I have just noticed one interesting aspect of the gameplay: I do better when I don't know what I am doing.

To those who might not know, Lumines is like Tetris with a dance floor. Blocks fall from the sky and music plays. These blocks are made up of four sub-blocks which are one of two colors, and you can move them side to side and turn them in 90 degree increments. The goal of the game is to match blocks of the same color. When you land blocks together so that you get a 2x2 or larger area that are the same color, those blocks disappear sometime later. There is a sweeper line that picks them up and deletes them as it goes past. You have to be aware of this timeline, as it can both help you and hurt you in various ways. There are also special mega-blocks that clear not only blocks from the initial area, but also all other blocks of the same color that are connected to the initial area. This is all cool, but it is best not to think about it.

What you should be aware of is the rest of the game. The blocks shine with color and light and your actions have subtle effects on the rhythm and content of the background tracks. From time to time, the color scheme and music change as you progress from level to level. The different levels all present distinct moods and textures. The speed and rhythm of the music provide subliminal clues about how you should be playing the level.

My best games of Lumines seem to happen when I am completely oblivious to what I am actually doing, and the game just keeps going by itself. This has happened twice so far, and each time my maximum score in the game more than tripled. In addition, for a period of weeks after each of these games, I never came close to managing a similar score again. In fact, I believe that I may never match my current high score. I've managed to do a bit more than half as well, but not much better than that.

While trying to regain former glory, I have discovered a lot more about various strategies in the game. There are cool ways to chain bonuses together, there are ways the timeline can completely ruin your life, and there are various strategies for using the "special" blocks in the best way possible. But, none of this really helps, because it causes me to think about the game too much while I'm playing. So when I really need to act quickly and correctly, I'm doomed.

What I don't really understand is how to obtain that perfect insight into the game, where the rhythm of the music and the blinking of the lights automatically just automatically lead you to the right actions at just the right time. It seems like the only way to do it is to keep playing the game over and over and over and over and...

Which, I suppose, is a sign of brilliance in the game design.

Posted by psu at 07:25 PM | Comments (5)

October 28, 2005

A Fistful of Static

by peterb


Somewhere in a distant time and place, a letter is delivered by runner:

From: Light of the World, Voice of Nur, High Priest Akh-na-Gog

To: Honored Slave Tinker and Inventor Euripaelus

Subject: Re: Industrial accidents.

Hear now the words of Holiest of Holies Great Nur, Light of the World, Peace be Upon Him, through his High Priest Akh-na-Gog, who says unto you: can we build the next colossus without any hair? The aboriginal barbarian hordelings are having a field day climbing these things by their hair and painting graffiti on them. Worse, half the time they are drunk on that disgusting fermented yak milk, and the janitorial slaves have to spend hours scrubbing to clean up their "accidents." And if they've sicked on the hair, the smell lingers just about forever.

So no hair next time, Honored Slave Tinker and Inventor.

So speaks Holiest of Holies Great Nur, Light of the World, Peace be Upon Him, through his High Priest Akh-na-Gog.


I wanted to say a few more words about Shadow of the Colossus. I'm exactly halfway through the game, and I'm enjoying it very much. If you asked me whether I liked it, so far, I'd say "yes." Like psu, I want to finish the game before I review it in detail. But there is one thing I think I'm ready to talk about at this point, and that's the visuals in the game.

Shadow of the Colossus looks beautiful. It has moments of stunning beauty, awesome grandeur, and perhaps most importantly makes incredible use of light.

It also looks like absolute garbage.

Despite the beauty of its design, scenery, and lighting, the game still looks like garbage. Every movement causes every texture to blur and moire. When moving, you don't just lose fine detail, but coarse detail. Since half the game is spent on horseback, this means that half the game is spent watching moire patterns splay across your TV. I hope you don't have epilepsy.

Why does Shadow look so bad? Because it's on a Playstation 2, and making games on the Playstation 2 that don't look like crap is apparently nearly impossible.

Ico looked like this too. The effects weren't as bad, because in Ico the textured castle wasn't generally in fast motion. In Ico, you often viewed a room with the camera in a static position. In Shadow, the camera is a chase camera. The texture problems, in other words, are exacerbated by camera motion, and there is much more camera motion in Shadow than in Ico

Now, it is not a big surprise to discover that games on the PS2 have lousy low-res textures and generally look more jagged than a Houston hooker recovering from a three-day methamphetamine bender. We've all known it for years. Generally it's not that big a deal, because — as Shadow demonstrates — graphics are not the most important part of most games. Atari's venerable Combat is still one of the best player-vs-player tank battle games, 25 years later, even though it has the most primitive graphics possible. I believed that Ico looked like garbage (and, yes, looked beautiful as well) when I bought it. I purchased a Playstation 2 just to play Ico, even though I thought the quality of rendering was terrible. So please don't think that I'm saying "texture quality is the most important thing." I'm not bringing it up because of that.

I'm bringing it up because of history.


When the Playstation 2 was released, Sony conducted press conferences and demos where they would show a pre-rendered movie playing on the PS2, leaving all comers with the impression that this is what the gameplay experience on the PS2 would be like: fine detail, lifelike bezier curves, all rendered in real-time. The Playstation 2 crushed the Sega Dreamcast. In part because of the already-huge Playstation back catalog, but also because of the belief, inspired by Sony, that there would be no comparison between the games on the two systems.

Five years later, we can look back and say: ancient Dreamcast games, generally, are better looking than the best PS2 games being released today, when judged by certain standards. The textures in Dreamcast games are less detailed. But they don't shimmer. They don't shake. And the system was capable of drawing a diagonal line without rendering it as a chunkily as a stairway in a football stadium.

Meanwhile, I ride across the desert plains in Shadow of the Colossus. Because one of the things I have been doing in the game is hunting geckos, I keep an eye open for them. About every 30 seconds, I'll see a rendering artifact that, from a quick glance, might be a gecko. So I have to stop and look, and then realize that, once again, I'm being boned by the terrible, horrible, awful, complete inability of the Playstation 2 to render a scene in motion that doesn't look like ass.

And now, it's 2005, and soon we will see the Xbox 360, and we will see the Playstation 3. Prerendered movies are already being shown. The same claims about system obsolescence are being made, by both Microsoft and Sony. And so the reason I bring up the graphics in Shadow of the Colossus is simply this: it's important that consumers stand up and say, out loud, that they notice when they are lied to. Some of us noticed that Sony lied to us about the PS2. And when we read the press releases and see the pretty prerendered videos for the PS3, I hope we remember that during the last cycle, they looked consumers straight in the eye, and lied.

Maybe both the 360 and the PS3 will be another Great Leap Forward. But if you think I'm pre-ordering based on your prerendered marketing presentations, you've got another thing coming.

I remember when I'm lied to. And I hold grudges.


In the words of our great President, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

How true that is.

Posted by peterb at 05:12 PM | Comments (5)

October 27, 2005

Choices I Don't Need

by psu

Buying socks used to be easy. You'd go to the store, buy 6 pair of lightweight Smartwool hiking socks, and go home. Smartwool used to only make about three kinds of socks: thin, a bit thicker, and really thick. But, as with all successful companies, they have been cursed with the diversification disease, and we are all worse off for it.

For example, I bought socks at the new REI store in Pittsburgh the other weekend. My delicious thin Smartwool socks had worn out, and I was after a couple of new pair for the winter. So I picked up one pair of tan socks and one pair of black socks. To the naked eye, they appeared to be exactly the same socks, just different colors. But, after some use and closer examination, it was apparent that the tan socks worked better. After washing they did not stretch as much, and as such they stay on my feet better. The black socks are also already starting to pill and unravel after only one time through the wash.

So here is the thing. I went to try and figure out two things:

1. What kind of socks did I buy?

2. What was the difference between the tan socks and the black socks, so I know to avoid socks of the black type again.

It turned out that these two questions are nearly impossible to answer. Smartwool now makes so many different kinds of socks, and changes their names and types so frequently that there is no source of information anywhere on the planet that can tell me what I want to know. In addition, among the literally dozens of sock types that you find at the Smartwool web site, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between products of a similar type. They differ only in the most miniscule and irrelevant aspects of their design, or in the exact breakdowns of the material used to build them. Sock A has horizontal zig-zag stripes, and is 10% spandex, while sock type B is exactly the same, but sort of off-white and uses 5% spandex and 10% nylon. This brings up the obvious question: Who cares!?

Who is sitting around on their couch scanning the Smartwool catalog and thanking heaven and earth and whatever gods they worship that hallelujah Jesus above there is a pair of socks that is taupe with vertical red stripes that also happens to use just the right mix of wool, nylon, and spandex (as everyone knows, the right amount is 75% wool, 10% spandex and 15% nylon) and is also 2/3rds calf height? Meanwhile, someone else is relieved that they can get the same sock, only 10mm shorter.

Other examples of this insanity abound. Consider the Chuck Taylor basketball shoe. Back in the day, it came in white and black. Some crack-head dorks might have found blue ones in the gutter somewhere, but those people were just wrong. Today, if you go to the Converse web site you can find something like 500 different types of sneakers. There are low tops, high tops, boot length high tops, red, green, and blue ones, tiger prints, black leather ones, pink ones, Hello Kitty ones, and God Knows what else. Who decides that we need this? These are useless choices that serve nothing but the ego of the people in the marketing departments who smoke various hallucinogenic drugs and then turn over the product line on the basis of the resulting fever dreams.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here with one pair of comfortable socks on my feet and no way to find out how to get a few more so that I have backups for when these are inevitably discontinued to make room for the leopard print sequin-inlaid 25% silk urban lounge hiking socks that will come out next month. This is what the world has come to. When you find something that fits or otherwise works well, you are forced to buy five copies of it now because as a matter of routine, the ludicrously short product turnarounds of the modern corporation will dictate that the item will no longer exist by the time you need a new one. This is what I call my Fundamental Theorem of the Modern Consumer Society.

Life was better, and Smartwool was a better company, when all you had to choose from was thin, thick, and thicker.

Posted by psu at 09:10 PM | Comments (5)

October 26, 2005

Shadow of the Shadow of the Colossus

by peterb

Some of you may be wondering why there haven't been many gaming articles lately. I believe the reason is that both psu and I are playing Shadow of the Colossus, and are desperately looking for some angle from which we can claim that it does not contradict our long-held position that "Boss" battles are stupid.

We can't dodge the topic forever, though. Look for our comments on Shadow of the Colossus soon.

Posted by peterb at 09:28 AM | Comments (6)

October 25, 2005

Available Light

by psu

In an earlier article, I advised that if you needed to use a flash, there were no good pictures to be taken anyway. I realize now that anyone who has spent time reading the wankier photo forums, especially those related to Leica cameras could have taken this the wrong way. To clarify, my statement was not meant as a dig against flash or an attempt to uphold the ideals of "available light photography". If people want to gain a sense of nobility by shooting in crappy low light, that's not my problem.

The point that I wanted to make was that using the flash well is hard, and you should know some things before you try. Used well, flash can provide you with that "natural light" look anywhere you can plug a light into a wall. Used poorly, artificial light will turn that $10,000 full frame 16 megapixel digital body you just bought into something that may as well be a point and shoot.

The light you want in most photographs, especially photographs of people, usually has two basic characteristics:

1. It is relatively diffuse and low contrast.

2. It usually comes from the one side of the subject.

The first characteristic is desirable because it ensures that there will not be splotches of dark shadow or blown out highlights to distract you from the details of the picture. Everything will fit into the dynamic range of your film or digital capture. The second characteristic is desirable because light at an angle provides modeling and gives the subject a 3-d look, rather than the paper flat look you get with front lighting.

If you want to get an idea of what this kind of light looks like, sit your best friend down in front of a window on a bright cloudy day and take some pictures and take note of what the light is like. That is what you are after.

Alternatively, the next time you go to a movie or watch a well produced television show, pay attention to the lighting, especially in indoor scenes. Movies and television are almost always shot completely with artificial lights. But, motion picture photographers really know their lighting, so the characters always look as if they are lit by virtual windows strewn all over the set, even if there are no windows to be found.

At this point, we should be clear about one thing. Your fancy digital camera with its single dedicated flash is generally not going to get you this look. Without a handy window, the only way to get this look is to use multiple lights (to get the directional lighting) and a large array of devices like reflectors and bed sheets (to get the diffusion). This is too much for even the most dedicated amateur to carry around.

However, there are situations where your single flash can be useful, if you are careful.

If you are only carrying one flash, your dream situation is to be taking pictures in a small room with white walls and a short white ceiling. When you see this, you should jump for joy because it means you can bounce the flash into the walls and ceiling. What this means is that you pivot the flash to point either at the ceiling or a wall, rather than straight ahead at the subject. The result is that you get a nice diffuse light source (light coming off of the ceiling) rather than a tiny little point source flash. With most modern SLR cameras, bouncing the flash is easy because the exposure system of the camera will control the light for you. You just have to pivot the flash head to point up and shoot away. The difference between bounced and direct flash is immediately evident. Instead of flat white faces and lots of hard shadows, you get a nice flat overall light with diffuse shadows that go in the right direction.

You can also buy gadgets that attach to your flash that will try and bounce and redirect light in various ways. These can be helpful for those situations where the ceiling is a bit too high, but since they are in general not much larger than the flash, things like the Omnibounce or the various Lumiquest widgets can't really add enough diffusion to get nice lighting. So, if you walk into that stadium, or ballroom with high ceilings and all you have is your one pathetic light, don't even bother.

With some newer cameras, you can easily bounce the flash and bring it off the camera using the new-fangled wireless flash modes. Nikon and Canon both support this mode of use. What's nice about this is that you are gaining diffusion by using the bounce, and also getting the light at a better angle by taking it off the camera. My personal camera, the Nikon D70, has a delicious mode where the built-in flash on the camera can wirelessly control one or more compatible flashguns. So if you were ambitious, you could even do some multi-light setups. I generally use the wireless mode just to bounce my one flash all over the place at weird angles.

Finally, no discussion of working with a single flash would be complete without talking about fill flash. FIll flash refers to blending flash with ambient light to lower the contrast on the subject when you are taking pictures in harsh and contrasty lighting conditions. Basically what this means is that rather than using the flash as the main light in your picture, you can program it to throw just a bit of extra light into the scene to open up shadows that would otherwise go to black. It turns out that with modern flashes, you can tell the flash to calculate how much light it would put out to light the subject, and then put out one or two stops less than that amount. You do this by setting the flash exposure compensation on the flash to (say) -2 stops.

Flash exposure compensation works just like the normal exposure compensation dial on the camera itself. If you dial it up, the flash puts out more light and tones in the picture get lighter. If you dial it down the camera puts out less light, and the tones get darker. The difference is that modern cameras and modern flashes can meter light from the flash separately from the ambient light from the scene. It is this magical technology that allows you to effortlessly mix flash and natural light. Dialing the flash compensation to -2 tells the flash to put out 2 stops less light than whatever the ambient light exposure is. The result will be just enough light to fill in the shadows of the picture without making the use of flash obvious.

For example, suppose you are taking pictures of your girlfriend at the beach. The sun is right overhead and she has a huge hat on, so her face is in shadow. If you just take the shot, you will take a great picture of the beach and the hat and a dark splotch where her face is supposed to be. Ideally you'd like to get a bit of light into that area under the hat so you can actually see her luminous face. If you were resourceful and had a big bag, you'd be carrying a reflector that you could use for this purpose. You'd just have to grab some beer guzzling beach guy to hold it for you. Of course, all you have is your puny flash. So, you get out your flash, set the flash exposure compensation to -2 and shoot a picture. Here is what happens:

1. The camera picks an exposure for the main subject based on the ambient light. This will expose the beach and the hat in a way that is pleasing.

2. The camera fires the flash. The flash bounces off your girlfriend and back to the camera. The camera computes how long the flash must be on in order for the light bouncing off your girlfriend and her hat to be two stops less than the exposure that it picked for the rest of the scene. Again, this is what the exposure compensation setting does for you. The -2 setting is telling the flash to make all the tones in the picture darker than it would normally. This is perfect, because all you want is for the flash to light up the shadows a bit, which are dark.

3. The combined light from the scene and the flash hits the film/ccd in the camera. The effect will be that the beach and the hat are well exposed, and your girlfriend's face has just enough light on it to bring it into the dynamic range that the film can hold. But, since we told the flash to underexpose, it won't look look like you have put a light on her face at all. In the picture, the shadow on your girlfriend will look like a normal shadow in real life: darker than the sunlit areas, but with detail. What you've done is use the flash to balance the contrast in the scene. This is something your eyes do automatically for you, but which the film or CCD in your camera does not know how to do.

To sum up, the trick to using a single flash wisely is to try and manipulate the situation so that the flash will look natural. Direct flash on a large group of people in a small room is not a great situation. Bounced flash in a small room with a small subject is a good situation. You will get pleasing light and no one looking at the picture will suspect a thing. Using the flash for fill is another perfect situation. Modern cameras and flashes are particularly good at automatic fill flash. In fact, that's all the built-in flash in most cameras is really good for.

So, next time you find yourself with no available light except your puny flash, you'll know what to try before giving up altogether.

Posted by psu at 05:25 PM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2005

It'd Probably Work Better If It Were Run By Drunkards

by peterb

Certain topics come up again and again in this space. In videogames, we constantly talk about why save points are stupid. In photo we talk about equipment obsessions and how technique is more important than the camera.

And in the "food and drink" category, I always find some occasion to complain about the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board ("PLCB"). This is because, like a dog who returns to his vomit, I keep trying to go into their liquor stores to do crazy, wild, unexpected things, like purchase liquor.

This week's disappointment comes fresh on the heels of the horrific trolls at the PLCB banning direct wine shipments from Pennsylvania (and thus, out of state) wineries. This was their idiotic response to the recent Supreme Court decision. To his credit, State Senator Jim Ferlo is trying to undo their brain damage — write to the Senator and tell him "thanks".

The last time I stepped into a State Store, it was in a nearly-vain attempt to procure some Tokaji. Today, I wanted something a lot less ambitious: a bottle of armagnac to use to inebriate some prunes (and, hopefully, myself as well). As in our previous episode, this incident occurred in one of the LCB's "Premium Collection Stores," which I am assured "carry an outstanding selection of premium wines and spirits."

I didn't see any armagnac on the brandy shelf, so I approached an associate. Hilarity ensued:

"Hi. Do you have any armagnac?"

[With something of a sneer] "Armagnac? What's that?"

[long pause] "It's a type of brandy. Like cognac."

"Is that one of them flavored brandies?"

"No. It's just brandy."

"Sorry, I've never heard of it." [turns away].

Now, let me make myself perfectly clear. I'm not upset that they didn't have any in stock (well, I'm not that upset). Inventory management is tricky. Not every store can have every product all the time. I understand that. But that the supposedly best stores in the LCB system are staffed by people who don't know what a not-terribly-exotic spirit is, and worse, obviously don't care just kills me.

What drives me nuts about this is that this conversation is par for the course in one of the allegedly good stores.

A bunch of hateful bureaucrats have entrenched themselves between us and the twenty-first century. The LCB must be destroyed.

Update: In an "amusing" coda to this story, the State's online inventory system claims there are 3 bottles of Montesquio armagnac at the store I was in.

So, PLCB, once again: screw you.

Posted by peterb at 05:09 PM | Comments (13)

October 21, 2005

Sort of Poached Salmon

by psu

My friend Erik used to be a chef, and he also spent a lot of time in Alaska. Therefore, he has strong opinions about salmon. Chief among them is never to buy salmon in Pittsburgh. But, if you break this rule, for god's sake don't poach the fish. Poached salmon, to Erik, is like a boiled beef roast. You end up with a piece of fish that is certainly cooked, but is no longer really good for anything but carrying large spoonfuls of garlic mayonnaise from your plate to your mouth.

With Erik in mind, my normal way of cooking salmon is to sauté it and then roast it by throwing the sauté pan in the oven. This works very well for the fattier varieties of fish, but I always had trouble with the fancy and somewhat leaner Copper River and Coho salmon that shows up at Whole Foods every year. When roasting the leaner fish, I would always end up with a piece of fish that tasted OK, but was disappointingly dry and bland.

So, having first gone against Erik's admonitions and bought a too-expensive piece of Coho, I decided to risk his further wrath and semi-poach the fish in the oven, to try and keep the fish moist and tasty. It worked pretty well, so for your edification, here's what you do.

Start with:

1 filet of salmon. We had a whole side of the Coho, around two pounds. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the top. Rub olive oil all over it.

1/2 of a yellow onion cut up. You could use more.

1 handful of chopped celery.

If you are not lazy like me, you should probably also chop up a carrot really small. But I was lazy and did not do this.

Take half a lemon, slice it up.

Now heat up a sauté pan. Add olive oil and a bit of butter, toss in the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until the vegetables are soft. This will take 10 to 15 minutes.

Now get a baking dish as long as the piece of salmon you have. Pour white wine and stock into the pan. You want it to be maybe 1/4 inch high, but you don't want it to cover the top of the fish, just a bit on the bottom. Toss the fish in, put the veggies and lemon on top, and then top the whole thing with a tablespoon chunk of cold butter.

Put the dish into a 350 degree oven. After about 5 to 10 minutes, the butter should melt. Open the oven and scrape the veggies off the fish and mix the butter into the liquid. Baste the fish once with the results. Bake until the fish is cooked to where you like it. I like it at just past medium rare, which took maybe another 10 minutes. Be careful about this, you don't want to kill the salmon.

I'm going to claim to Erik that this is really a baked salmon, not poached. It did succeed in keeping the salmon tasting like salmon, while also keeping it moist and yummy.

Obligatory gripe

A big raspberry to Whole Foods, by the way, for the following sin. You'd think at the prices they charge for a filet of salmon, they could take out the god damned pin bones. I don't pay for a filet to bite down on huge pin bones. Get with it.

Posted by psu at 10:36 AM | Comments (2)

October 20, 2005

Wool Socks

by goob

I wanted to take a moment to put down some words about wool socks.

It is often been my experience that wool socks are maligned things. "They're itchy," I am told. "They look goofy," they say. The intimation is that wearing wool socks brings with it immediate and irrevocable membership in some nebulous club that cares about recycling, saves kitchen scraps for the compost pile and is likely vegan. Plus wears socks with sandals.

Ignore all that. Here's the thing:

Wool socks keep your feet warm.

There is more. Here in Pittsburgh, walking in the winter will, at least once, involve plunging a foot into an icy puddle. There will be traffic worth watching, and it will be dark, and that solid-looking pile of hardened snow will be but a delicate crust, through which a foot will go into several inches of remarkably cold water. I have a talent for this sort of stunt. It's a pretty poor experience. So here's the other thing:

Wool socks keep your feet warm even when they're wet with icy water.

I'm not too clear on how that works, exactly, but I frankly don't much care. Also, so help me, wool socks make sandals comfy.

Good winter!

Additional Resources

  • For a sock that is both comfortable and sturdy, call upon the good folks at SmartWool. This is expensive clothing, but the things last.
  • I've heard tell from those I trust that it's easy to get good at knitting socks. I'm not very good at knitting socks. Yet.
Posted by goob at 04:07 PM | Comments (8)

October 19, 2005

Tools of the Trade

by psu

If there is one inescapable fact of life in our dynamic technological society, it is that if enough people are interested in a given activity, the tools that enable that activity will change. I was thinking about this recently as I was presented with two press items about the film industry. One was a loving lament for and tribute to the last of the hand-drawn animation studios at Disney. The other was a review of the new Wallace and Gromit movie. Each piece drew the inevitable comparisons between hand-animated films and films animated by computer. The authors expressed their perfectly valid preference for the hand-animated style. Strangely though, each also came to the completely unjustified conclusion that computer animation is why they don't like computer animated films. This is a stupid thing to say.

If they don't like computer animated films, it is because the people who produced those films did work that they do not appreciate, or worked in a way that resulted in a bad film. It's not the computer that made a bad movie.

Admittedly, I have something of an axe to grind here. I work with computers every day and am overly sensitive to claims that creative work on a computer is somehow of less value than that done "by hand". But, I do think that the effect of the machines on art forms that until now had used more manual methods is somewhat misunderstood.

In the context of animated films, the argument went that the hand-animated films had a depth of character and individual style that was missing from the more modern work because in more modern works, there was not one artist dedicated to doing most or all of the animation associated with a given character. Because of this, the argument goes, computer animated films "can never" have the distinct stamp of that individual style. The logic, I guess, is that since the computer allows for mass production and automation of the animation to some degree, it must follow that the only animation that you can make with a computer will look mass produced and automated.

Of course, it is easy to find examples to counter this logic. In the abstract, one just has to note that it is perfectly possible to produce all the art for an animated film in a computer, but do it by hand, drawing the film frame by frame. Of course, people don't do this for various practical and economic reasons. But these reasons exist just as much for films drawn without using a computer. I don't really know that much about animated film production, but I will claim without proof that it is a rare and expensive film where every frame of animation for a given character is actually produced by the same artist. Even in the Wallace and Gromit short films, there were teams of people who worked on the shots in parallel. I know because I watched a documentary about it. I think.

Other examples abound, of course, in the Pixar films. I don't even mean the new shiny Pixar films that made millions of dollars. I mean the shorts that John Lasseter used to make as demos back when Pixar was a struggling software company. One famous one in particular animates a desk lamp with more character and appeal than 99% of the hand-drawn animation ever produced at any time in our history. Sure, every frame may have ultimately been rendered by a computer, but the animation was all Lasseter.

My main point is that it is ultimately the care and vision of the individual artist that dominates the quality equation in a work of art. The best artists achieve wondrous things in spite of the tools they use. Thus, Lasseter utilizes a tool which we associate with mass production and automation to produce singularly individual visions. It's as if he drew every frame by hand.

Another area that I know a bit more about than animated film production is the production of photographs. Here again, we are undergoing a drastic evolution off the tools and here again, these same new tools have become the whipping boy of anyone who has decided that all the new stuff is crap. The main argument that you hear is that the digital print cheapens the artistic value of the photograph since "anyone" can just "pick up Photoshop" and crank out perfect prints "automatically." This, of course, is nonsense.

To create great work in Photoshop takes just as much work, and knowledge and sweat as creating create darkroom prints. The only thing it does not take is a tolerance for breathing fixer. Most importantly, after you know how to make the print look how you want in Photoshop (or in the darkroom) the real challenge is always knowing exactly how you should apply this knowledge to each picture. This takes a combination of visual sense and good taste that takes a long time to develop, if it ever develops at all. Not surprisingly, this knack for knowing how to pick a good look for a picture is also completely independent of the tools you then use to produce that look.

Now, I have some sympathy for the position of the old time darkroom worker since I've made my share of black and white prints in any number of darkrooms. In fact, I can say with confidence that there are various ways in which black and white prints made lovingly by hand in a darkroom on fiber base paper (see note below about what fiber paper is) are superior to digital prints. For example:

1. The paper feels better.

2. The print smells better.

3. It might last longer, if you know what you are doing.

4. Certain girls will be impressed that you printed it yourself while sniffing weird toxic chemicals.

One thing that will not be clearly better in a non-digital print is the quality of the print itself. As much as I'd like to be able to believe that this is not the case, I have seen no evidence that a hand printed black and white fiber print has any real visual advantage over a well produced digital black and white print. In fact, there are even outfits that will print your digital files directly to fiber black and white paper.

So, if, like me, you love the way the old stuff looks, then by all means try and keep the craft alive. I hope I'll be able to start making prints again at some point when I have time. But don't fool yourself into thinking that the old stuff was in some way inherently better because of the tools that the old timers used to produce it. The tools of the trade do not make someone into a master. That's why my photos are still better than Pete's even after he picked up that fancy new camera.

A Short Appendix About Black and White Paper

By "fiber" paper, I mean traditional black and white paper where the emulsion is coated directly on to the surface of a paper made out of cotton or other fibers. This is in contrast to more modern papers which have a coating of plastic over the paper base which keeps the base from soaking up chemicals and whatnot. Fiber paper has certain tactile and archival characteristics which RC paper does not. In fact, there has been no lack of wanking over the relative image qualities of fiber and RC paper. For most of its history, RC paper was generally spit upon as an inferior tool for students and lazy dilettantes. Happily, this doesn't happen much anymore. People just complain about inkjet prints instead.

Posted by psu at 08:46 PM | Comments (1)

October 18, 2005

How To Eat Prunes

by peterb

Tonight at the grocery store, I needed to pick up some prunes to make one of my favorite treats. It turns out you can't buy prunes anymore — instead, the major cooperatives want to sell you "pitted dried plums." Pitted dried plum, of course, is a longwinded way of saying "prune."

Why this not-so-subtle shift in marketing? For a long time now prunes have had a connotation, in the US, of being something that senior citizens eat to cure their constipation. This doesn't make a lot of sense. The same connotation hasn't attached itself to raisins, or figs, or granola, or any other number of high-fiber foods.

My conclusion is that the reason people think this way about prunes is because they don't understand the right way to eat them. Fortunately for you, I am here to help.

The right way to eat prunes is to eat them as pruneaux d'Agen. A literal translation of this is "prunes of Agen," Agen being a region in France. This translation is wrong. Don't be upset if you mistranslated it: French is a subtle, many-layered language, and it can take a lifetime to learn its complexities. The correct translation of pruneaux d'Agen is "prunes soaked in booze."

The booze, by tradition, is armagnac, a brandy from the region of the same name. You could use cognac, or calvados, or even a nameless brandy if you don't have any armagnac. But if you're going to do something, you should do it right, so I recommend a decent but not stupidly expensive armagnac, such as Armagnac de Montal.

The recipe, such as it is, is fairly simple.

(1) Take a smallish jar, such as a jelly or mason jar.
(2) Fill it full of prunes. Pack them snugly, but not so tightly that there is no air.
(3) Pour your liquor over the prunes until the jar is full. Seal it.
(4) Stick the jar in a cool dark place for several months.

The fruit will absorb some of the alcohol over time, so peek in periodically and top off the jar. Eat them whenever you feel like it. Periodically ask your friends if they like prunes, and when they say "no," go get the jar, open it up, put some on a plate, spoon some of the liqueur over them, and eat the prunes in front of them. Don't offer them any, either. Occasionally let out a cackle, for effect.

If you continually reuse the same liquid for multiple batches of prunes, it will eventually turn into an alcohol-tinged syrup, rather than a fruit-tinged alcohol. While this has its own attraction, I prefer to start with a fresh infusion of armagnac every time.

You can eat these straight, or you can serve them with tea, or brandy, or dessert. There are very few desserts that are not improved by putting a booze-infused prune on them.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 07:07 PM | Comments (4)

October 17, 2005

Adjustment Layers

by psu

Most of the background I have in producing my own pictures came in the black and white darkroom. As most people know, when you do black and white printing, there are a wide variety of manipulations that you can do in the darkroom. Among other things, you can manipulate overall and local print contrast (when using adjustable contrast printing papers) and you can also manipulate overall and local "lightness" and "darkness" using dodging and burning.

For many years, when I tried to use Photoshop to do these things, I never really found a scheme that I could understand using the normal editing tools. In particular, the dodge and burn tools are nothing like dodging and burning in a darkroom. After I got more serious about taking digital pictures, I finally realized what I had been missing: Adjustment layers.

The Big Picture

Adjustment layers let you do almost everything you used to do in the black and white darkroom. In addition, they work equally well in both black and white and color. Finally, they are non-destructive to the original image data, infinitely adjustable after the fact, and persistent, so you can always remember what you did.

The Basics

Photoshop has a set of built in global adjustments that correspond pretty directly to global adjustments that you can make in the darkroom. For example, in the darkroom, you can adjust how light or dark a print is by increasing and decreasing the exposure of the paper under the enlarger. In Photoshop, you can do this by adjusting the levels of the image. Similarly, in the darkroom you can adjust the overall contrast of a print by using a harder or softer contrast grade of paper (or by using multicontrast paper and changing filters). In Photoshop, you can do this using the curves adjustment. Curves is actually a richer tool than just changing paper, but it's a reasonably good analogy. On the color side of the equation, there are adjustments for color balance, saturation, and so on.

Now, you can perform all of these adjustments on the image itself, or you can do it on a copy of the image that you make in a new image layer. But, Photoshop provides one further scheme. You can do the adjustment in an adjustment layer. Adjustment layers are special layers which do nothing but specify a transformation of the data layers that lie beneath them in a Photoshop document. The final bits you see on the screen are the result of taking the original bitmap data, pushing it through all the adjustment layers, and calculating the resulting bitmap dynamically.

The fact that the adjustment layer contains no actual data is a subtle but important point. While you can simulate the effect of a single adjustment layer on top of a single image by just making a copy of the original layer and adjusting it directly, you cannot use the same trick to simulate multiple adjustment layers that have been composed together.

Adjustment layers also provide one further important advantage over direct editing. While the adjustment layer stores no data, what it does store is the actual parameters of the adjustment that you made. So, if you make a curves layer, and you decide later that you got carried away, you can go back and edit the curve that you specified originally and back it off. Therefore, in their simplest form, adjustment layers are like a digital version of the little notes you make to yourself when making a black and white print about what exposure and filter to use. Except that they also provide a real time preview of the exact result of their actions. In other words, its a complete darkroom notebook that operates directly on your images for you. This is the first piece of major magic behind adjustment layers. An adjustment layer is a persistent, yet non-destructive specification of what you did to edit your image.


Let's start with this pedestrian snapshot of Notre Dame. I'll go through the layers I used to make the picture look cooler. You can judge for yourself whether the end result is worth it. The original image, with no adjustments looks like this:

The first thing to do is to add a single adjustment layer that provides an overall adjustment of tone and contrast. This screen shot shows the adjustment layer I used (click to see a larger version):

The layer that is highlighted in blue is the overall curve. Whenever I decide I want the picture to look different, I just open up this layer and fuss with the curve. In general, you would probably use multiple global adjustment layers to deal with levels, contrast, color balance and so on.

Masking and Local Adjustments

At this point you are thinking, all of this is well and good, but what if you want to just burn the corners of a print, or just dodge that one shadow in the lower left hand corner there?

The answer to this problem is layer masks.

Each adjustment layer can store not only the adjustment to be made to the underlying image, but also a mask which specifies which pixels in the image the adjustment should affect. The simplest mask is a black and white image. White pixels are touched by the adjustment and black pixels are not. You can see the effect of this by selecting some subset of the image and creating a simple adjustment layer. When you look at the layer icon in the layers window, you will see that next to the adjustment icon is another box containing a tiny bitmap. This black and white bitmap corresponds to the selection that you made. White pixels are selected and black pixels are not. The adjustment in the adjustment layer will then only be applied to the white pixels in the mask.

But wait, there is more! The bitmap that makes up the layer mask actually stores 8-bit grayscale values. This means you can manipulate not only where the adjustment in the layer happens, but also the intensity of the adjustment at any given pixel. If a pixel in the mask is not all the way black or all the way white, then the percentage of the gray value determines how much of an effect the adjustment layer has on that pixel. The more clear the pixel in the mask is, the stronger the effect. Essentially, the layer mask is like a transparency value. The more transparent the mask, the more evident the adjustment in the layer is. Since transparency is also called alpha in the lingo, you will sometimes see these masks referred to as alpha masks or alpha channels.

This transparency behavior is the second piece of major magic behind adjustment layers because they allow you to effectively blend effects together the way you would by feathering your dodging and burning in the darkroom. Rather than waving a piece of cardboard around in the dark, you take your selection mask and blur it around the edges. In each case, you get a smooth transition from areas that are affected by the adjustment to areas which are not.


In this more complicated example, we'll see how to use layer masks to adjust the contrast in the body of the church and to do some general adjustments.

This screen shot shows the curves layer I used to make the church not look so gray and washed out:

The curve itself is a slight adjustment to make the contrast slightly higher than normal. The icon for the curves layer shows a small mask next to the curves adjustment itself. To make the mask, I used the magnetic lasso to select the body of the church and then edited the mask by hand using the quick mask mode. To use quick mask, select the adjustment layer then open the Channels tab. Click the eyeball next to the layer mask and a red overly will appear on top of your image. The red areas of this overlay correspond to the black parts of the mask, while the clear parts of this overlay represent the clear parts of the mask. You can use the paint tools to add or remove red "ink" to change the shape and transparency of the mask.

After you get the mask pretty much right, you can blur the edges. In the Channels tab, click off all the eyeballs except the one for the mask itself. You'll be left with a black and white image. Now just do select-all and a Gaussian blur filter to blur the edges of the mask as much as you want. Play around until you get the adjustment to blend the way you like. Here is what the final mask for the adjustment layer on the church looks:

In the Photoshop file for the Notre Dame picture, I have a total of 3 masked adjustment layers that do various amounts of selective dodging and burning. The following screen shots show the other two.

One for burning the sky:

And one for making the foreground slightly darker:

Each of these two layers uses a blurred mask for blending.

After all that, here is the final picture:

My overall workflow for dealing with images that need finer adjustments is to load the initial image into Photoshop and then create multiple adjustment layers. The first batch deal with global adjustments and the second batch deal with local adjustments. Local adjustments take longer to do because they inevitably involve masks, and it takes practice to make masks quickly. The adjustment layers provide a handy reference to exactly what I did for most of the major manipulations in the picture and also provide a handy repository for all the masks. There is nothing worse than needing to rebuild a complicated selection.

Of course, there are things that you cannot do with adjustment layers. You can't do any direct editing, so things like the healing brush and simple sharpening are out. But, almost everything you ever need to do to a picture that has some direct analog in the darkroom world can be simulated using adjustment layers. So if your background is in darkroom printing, you should learn all you can about this technique. I can't stress this enough: it's like having a darkroom notebook that also remembers exactly how to edit your pictures for you. It really is magic.

Posted by psu at 07:56 PM | Comments (2)

October 14, 2005

They're Heeeeeeeeerrrrreee

by peterb

Northern spy!

So get yourself over to Schramm's this weekend and buy some.

In addition to my favorite crunchy, tart, perfect apple, they have also unleashed the Stayman-Winesaps, which are a perfect apple for in-hand eating, and the Spygold, a hybrid that's fairly good for apple pies.

This weekend, I will be making apple pie. Oh yes.

Posted by peterb at 12:23 PM | Comments (2)

October 13, 2005

Unfair Criticism

by psu

It is fashionable these days to gripe about the state of gaming journalism. The main complaint that is often lodged is that gaming "criticism" is limited to being a glorified buyer's guide to recent releases. I think this is a valid role for the gaming press to fill. After all, there are major publications in the areas of music, movies, theater, books and recordings of musical performances that are at their core a vehicle for telling you whether or not you should buy the items that they write about.

My complaint is that most game reviews don't really even fill this role well. They have almost nothing interesting to say about the game other than their final score. Looking at the Metacritic average score will generally tell you everything interesting that all the reviews of the game had to say.

Consider the normal template for a review of a fictional new game. Let's call this game Final Resident Condemned Devil Cry 7: Escape from the Mutant Swamp Navy Seals. The review will start out with material that establishes the genre in which the game works, perhaps with reference to earlier versions of the game franchise. This sets up the reader's expectations about whether or not the game will live up to, or improve upon, the earlier games in the series. Next there will be discussion of the high level gameplay. For example:

You take on the role of commanding a small squad of elite soldiers thrust into the role of defending humanity from the onslaught of the horrible swamp devil seals with the help of a small boy with a large sword and an unknown destiny.

The review will then launch into a long obligatory description of the technical performance of the game. The review will describe how well the game engine draws trees and such. Or it will provide you with an exhaustive list of all the weapons, vehicles and combat mechanics available in the game. You will read about the sound effects, the font used in the menus, whether or not the framerate is stable when you make the planet Mercury explode into tiny pieces, and what the teenage n00bs will talk about on the headset when you play the game online. If the game is by a 'famous' game designer, the review will be sure to mention how innovative and unique the game design is.

After all of this, you get a number between 1 and 5, or a slightly different number between 1 and 10 which is supposed to let you know if you should buy the game or ignore it.

Here is the problem: you never get any real idea of what it is like to play the game. Part of this is to do with the fact that it's hard to show gameplay video in a print or web page review. Here TV shows like X-Play have a bit of an advantage. On the other hand, well written reviews for other media, particularly music, can often draw a compelling portrait of the performance or piece being reviewed. When the writer is good, she is able to describe in fairly objective terms what she saw or heard in the performance and then give you her general impressions of its overall quality. This combination of objective observation combined with a personal and subjective value judgement is what makes good critical writing valuable.

Back in the realm of video games, I think X-Play does a good job of combining these things. The show makes up for its relative lack of sophisticated writing by making good use of its ability to utilize video. Is the gameplay boring and repetitive? Even if they don't come out and say it, the clip of gameplay that is repeated 15 times under the voice over will give you a clue that this is the case. More importantly, you get an idea of what the main game environments and mechanics are like just by watching the video.

It is admittedly a challenge to convey the atmosphere or personality of a game in text. But it seems to me that this is why you hire, you know, professional writers, for this kind of thing. If I had to ask the game journalism industry for just one thing this Christmas it would be to spend a little more time telling me how the game plays rather than how it looks or sounds, or how saturated the colors are in the foliage models. I'm not asking for any revolutionary change in the how we write game reviews. I'm not after a long and intimate treatise on how playing the game reminded the writer of cold, wet, winters growing up in Japan where he used to spend his lunch time running over to the arcade to blow his allowance on Pachinko. I don't care if interacting with the non-player characters in the Forest of the Night Elves reminds him of his long dead grandmother. I just want to know if the enemies in the game are worth shooting, if the side quests are plentiful and interesting to pursue, if the slam dunk shot mechanics are smooth or choppy, if the fog is really creepy or just a distraction that makes me motion sick. The ideal review should act as a proxy to my renting the game to try it out, and then tell me if the reviewer thinks that playing the game some more would be fun.

After all, it's only a game, and it ought to be fun.

Additional Notes

A couple of days after writing this, I realized that I had forgotten one important point. Lest you think that my expectations for good writing are too high, consider that the web comic Penny Arcade often captures the essence of a game more completely in 3 panels than most game reviews do in a thousand words. Consider these three classic examples:


God of War

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

The text they write about the games is also excellent.

Posted by psu at 10:04 PM | Comments (6)

October 12, 2005

Your Milk's Got a Little Machine

by peterb

I've always really enjoyed Alton Brown's Food Network TV show Good Eats. One of the things I enjoy the most about him is his raise-the-black-flag-and-start-slitting-throats attitude towards kitchen equipment. Specifically, if a device could only be used to make one thing, he hated it.

Recently, I've been eating a lot of this froufrou Greek yogurt, "Total." It's very nice, but fairly expensive. So I've taken to using my overpriced cups of Total to culture my own yogurt, using Alton's method for making yogurt without a yogurt maker. Here's how to do it.

You will need:

(1) A stockpot.
(2) A spoon.
(3) A saucepan.
(4) A pitcher.
(5) A little bit of plain active-culture yogurt of a brand you enjoy, to use as a starter. The fresher the better. Stonyfield Farms or Total both work fine.
(6) An ordinary heating pad, like you might use for an aching back.

A probe thermometer with an alarm is a recommended addition.

Pour however much milk you're using in to the saucepan; I'd recommend making no more than a quart the first time. Turn the saucepan on medium low and heat to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. When it reaches 180, take it off the heat and let it cool in the saucepan. You won't touch it again until the temperature is down to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

While you're waiting for the milk to heat, take your heating pad and remove the fuzzy safety cover. Stuff it in to the stockpot (see photo), and plug it in. Take the pitcher and snuggle it down into the pad in the stockpot. Don't worry if the pad doesn't come very far up the pitcher. You're just looking for low and steady radiant heat. Turn on the heating pad, and put a tablespoon or two of yogurt into the pitcher. (You may need to experiment to find the right setting on your heating pad. I just use the top setting and don't worry about it.)

When the temperature of the milk is down to about 110 degrees, pour it in to the pitcher. Stir vigorously with a clean spoon. Cover with tinfoil and ignore it for about 8 hours. Because I'm lazy, I tend to start the process in the evenings and then just leave it overnight. It's OK if this "cooks" for more than 8 hours. You may end up with more whey, but it firms up somewhat in the refrigerator afterwards, and the whey doesn't bother me. Don't stir up the yogurt in the middle of the process to check on it. As with homebrewed beer, worrying makes the yogurt taste bad. When you've decided it's done, put it in the refrigerator to cool (you can eat it hot, but the texture improves after it cools).

This will end up being much cheaper than buying yogurt in the store, even if you use organic milk. The yogurt will be fresher, taste better, and be healthier for you. Perhaps most importantly, you'll have the pride of having created something delicious by yourself instead of having just purchased it. Enjoy!

Next week on Tea Leaves: slaughtering your own veal.

Additional Resources

Paul, writing about yogurt, titled a chapter of his story "The Good Machine". And I wish I had thought of that title first. So instead I mixed his title with that of a Pixies song. Everything is better when mixed with the Pixies.

Posted by peterb at 08:23 PM | Comments (2)

October 11, 2005

Somebody Save Me

by peterb

Chris over at Only a Game published an interesting perspective on save games. He wrote a hypothetical dialogue between a game producer and his engineering, art, and QA teams on what type of save game system they should include on their game.

I think he raises some interesting points, but I think he misses the mark on some others. So I am responding with a dialogue of my own that I think more accurately captures what's at stake.

One of Chris's core assumptions is that only "hardcore" players care about being able to save anywhere. I disagree with this assumption. In fact, in my experience, it's the exact opposite. Hardcore players have been trained to put up with all sorts of stupid behavior from their games. The people who want to save anywhere are the casual gamers. Here's a counterexample:

WIFE: OK, sweetie, we're late for Thanksgiving dinner. We have to go now.

HUSBAND: Sure thing, hon, I'll be right there. I just have to get to the next save point. If I quit now, I'll lose the past 20 minutes I've played and have to do it again.

WIFE: How long will it be until you reach the next save point?

HUSBAND: Well, usually the save points are spaced about 15 minutes apart. Of course, sometimes they're 30 seconds apart. And then sometimes you'll have a deathmarch where you have to trudge through the lava level for an hour.

WIFE: An hour?

HUSBAND: But that's unusual. It should just be a few minutes. Well, assuming I don't accidentally walk past it and miss it.

WIFE: Why can't you just save the game?

HUSBAND: Well, the game designers worry that they might alienate part of their audience with complex concepts like saving the game.

WIFE: ...

HUSBAND: Why are you looking at me that way?

WIFE: My grandmother, who is 80 years old, knows that she has to hit "save" before quitting her word processor. There are people who seriously think that saving a game is a hard concept?

HUSBAND: Well, it's a very complex issue, sweetheart.

WIFE: And these are the people who are making me late for Thanksgiving dinner?


HUSBAND: Be right there, kids! I just have to get past the Plains of Pandemonium and defeat...

[WIFE shuts off console.]

HUSBAND: ...Hubris.

It's not that I think Chris is a bad guy. He's looking at this from a software developer's perspective and discussing the tradeoffs. I'm looking at this from a consumer perspective. The ability to walk away from a game at (nearly) any moment, to save at roughly any time and return later without substantial penalty, is of paramount importance. It is, if you will, part of the production values of a game. I believe that a commercial game that does not provide that ability is — as far as this aspect of production is concerned — unacceptably primitive, and unprofessional.

In other words, I'm not inclined to be generous about this. Traditional console game attitudes towards save points are antediluvian, wrong, and broken, and the entire idiom of the "save point" must be destroyed. If you want to save some money to create an unprofessional game, go ahead. But I think we should be creating the sort of consumer environment where people who try to sell games like that are mocked, just like people who produce commercial movies with poor production values are mocked.

Chris raises some objections to "save anywhere" that I think are somewhat tangential to the problem. First off, let's recognize that by "save anywhere" we don't really mean "store 100% of the game state at absolutely any time, including when I'm about to take a bullet to the head." Rather, it is a fuzzier definition that amounts to "allow me to save frequently enough that if I have to get up and do something more important, I can do so after no more than at most a minute." Or, more succintly, "allow me to save often enough that I don't feel compelled to hop on a flight to LA and hook the game's producer up to the face-slapping machine." I don't care (and won't complain) if the game had to reset some bits of state to ensure it wasn't in an unwinnable state, as long as it doesn't require me to replay the last 20 minutes of gameplay, which, let's be frank, probably weren't all that much fun the first time through anyway.

Second, there's cost of implementation. On the one hand, Chris talks about how save anywhere creates more work for QA, but on the other hand he agrees that a "let me stop playing now" checkpoint save is pretty much a requirement for reasonable games. Don't such saves present approximately the same QA load?

Lastly, Chris worries that the user interface aspects of managing many save games might be too confusing for users to handle. He's right. However, this is completely orthogonal to the issue of whether such UIs are on top of "save anywhere" or "save at save point" systems. Developers can (and have) created save point systems that are just as confusing as save anywhere systems. User interface is an important aspect of any game, but it shouldn't be used as an excuse to not do the right thing.

User interfaces are funny things. There are the patent aspects of user interfaces (this is a button, these are checkboxes, this is how I navigate menus), and there are latent aspects. Books, for example, have a fabulous save interface: put the book down, and then when you want to start reading it again, pick it up, find the page, and read. DVDs, likewise, use chapter markers and fast forward to allow the viewer to pick up where she left off. No matter how transparent a checkpoint save you provide, you still run the risk of providing a simple patent UI, but a horrible latent UI: every gamer, no matter what their level of sophistication, is capable of forming the thought "Why is the game making me play this? I already finished this part."

And when the players have that thought, it's the game designers, and their reputations, who are stuck in an unwinnable state.

Posted by peterb at 05:50 PM | Comments (12)

October 10, 2005

A Far Cry from Great

by psu

I had been wanting to play a shooter recently, and since they are never going to release Half-Life 2 for the Xbox (OK, maybe they will eventually) I had been putting up with Tom Clancy squad shooters in the interim. But those are not any fun. So when Far Cry: Intincts finally shipped, I figured maybe it was my ticket for at least the next couple of weeks. I heard the game was fun, and on the long side. Actually the game is pretty painful and on the short side. It's like the people who write reviews don't play the same game as the rest of us.

The Good

Here's what is good about the game: the visuals are great and the levels are huge. You play most of the game on the beaches and jungles of a tropical island and the outdoor areas are rendered with a sense of space and attention to detail that is second to none. In contrast to Halo 2 the levels here really feel huge in addition to being huge. Halo always had a way of making its huge spaces still feel like the same old alien hallways.

That said, the game pretty much puts you on rails and has you run in a straight line from waypoint to waypoint. Once in a while you fall off and wander aimlessly completely lost for half an hour until you find the right tree to crawl under to get to the next area. Oh wait. this part of the article is for the good parts of the game. Stay on target.

The shotgun is fun in this game.

The "feral" or animal abilities add a nice melee attack to your arsenal.

Load times are fast. There are no noticable load times except between levels, and the levels are huge.

No real Bosses. A few guys took more beating than others, but that's about it.

The game is short. I only played it for one week over two weekends. This is even shorter than Deus Ex: Invisible War which was uniformly denounced as being stupidly short.

I think that's it.

The Boring

Many of the reviews I read for this game complement the A.I. In my earlier obtuse attack on the game, even I claimed that the A.I. was not completely hopeless. Well, we were all wrong. I've had enemies walk right past me and stand there waiting for me to backstab them. I've had enemies walk one by one into a room only to be picked off with the shotgun. They run in a straight line towards your hail of gunfire, seemingly unaware that they will be cut to shreds.

But, the A.I. is not really the greatest sin in the game. After all, you can't expect that much from a computer anyway. The real sin is that the enemies are boring. There are only really two types of foes. They are always in the same places. They always say the same things. They only attack in two ways. And, there is really only one way to get through the game: run up to everyone and shoot them in the face with the machine gun. You can get through about the first 3/4ths of the game this way. After that point, the A.I. "improves" mostly by suddenly being able to headshot you every single time from across the map. This is also boring.

The missions in the game are strictly "move from point A to point B, maybe pick up thing C." The plot of the game, such as it is, is little more than a few connecting cut scenes between the fetch missions that make up the levels. Halo or Riddick look like pretty clichéd SF schlock until you watch a few of these cut scenes. At that point Halo comes out looking like the second coming of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

The reviews I mentioned earlier also drool over the "stealth" gameplay that is allegedly in this title. What they forget to mention is that unlike Riddick or Splinter Cell, the stealth gameplay in this game is boring. Set a trap, toss a rock, wait wait, listen to the soldiers speak their four lines of dialog. THWAP. That's all there is. You can't really sneak around the rest of the game because once you are seen, your only chance is to run up to everyone and shoot them in the face with a machine gun. The contrast with Riddick is instructive. In that game, your lack of any weapons forced you to sneak around, and the game was designed around this. There actually were places for you to hide. The melee attacks in the game worked well. The game even gave you a nice quiet weapon to use when you needed it. Far Cry does none of these things. It feels like the sneaky bits were tacked on after beta.

Finally, there are the "feral" abilities that you obtain as the game goes on. These give the rendering engine a cool new way to draw the world. Occasionally the melee attack comes in handy, although it's too slow to unleash in most cases. I might just be stupid, but I could never figure out what I was supposed to do with the other special powers. The game never gave me a reason to think of using any of them, and by the time I realized that they might have made a particular area easier to get through, I was either already done or I had already been shot in the head.

The Hateful

The game has stupid savepoints. Even more insultingly, you only get one, which is cleared if you accidentally decide to play a different level over again for some reason. Halo did this to me too, but at least in Halo 2 there are no load times.

The vehicles are both boring and useless. There really are not any combat situations that they are good for. They also drive worse than the Warthog in Halo. I never thought i would say that about anything. Running and swimming from place to place turned out to be a lot less painful than trying to ride the ATV bikes through the woods and flipping over all the time.

The stupid exploding mutant enemies are ripped off from Halo and emit possibly the most annoying audio ever attached to a video game character. It is annoying enough that not only did my wife ask me to play without sound, but I agreed with her. They are also much less interesting than the Halo version of the creature.

The cheap head shot AI at the end of the game provides for hours of replay time trying to get from one checkpoint to the next. Kill 15 soldiers one at a time, and the last one before the savepoint shoots you down from a bush two miles away from your position. This means you need to use "strategy" to memorize where the sniper is and pick him off ahead of time the next time through. This makes the gameplay "deep".

The last level is a lava level. This is where I put the game down, and then stupidly picked it up again for the last hour.

Ultimately, this is a game that encourages you to use any means necessary to get to the end as fast as possible. This was pretty easy in the early parts of the game, before the enemies get their cheap headshots. By the end of the game, the whole endeavor turns into a repetitive unforgiving deathmarch. Then you fall in the lava, and your will to live is completely gone.

But, even with all this going against it, it's still better than a Tom Clancy squad shooter (for single player) and it took a few hours before Karen decided it had to be off off off, as opposed to Brothers in Arms, which only took 30 seconds. By the time I couldn't take it anymore, I was already at the end. Which I guess is something.

I guess it's time to play RPGs until Half-Life 2 comes out, if ever.

Posted by psu at 09:49 AM | Comments (3)

October 07, 2005

The 2005 IFComp, Text Adventures, and You

by peterb

The 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition has begun. Let's talk about text adventure games.

Interactive fiction ("IF") games, to me, encapsulate all the potential of gaming. It is, almost, a hybrid medium, combining the best (and sometimes worst) features of games, short stories, poetry, and puzzles. What I find incomprehensible is that so few people play modern IF games.

You can go to just about any gaming magazine or weblog and read people complaining about the cookie-cutter, corporate nature of most releases. But when was the last time you played an IF game?

It's time to fix that. Here is my challenge to you. Go to the official IFComp site. Download the games. And play just one. Play more if you want to, but play at least one. If you're a game blogger, my challenge is a little more specific: play one IFComp game, and write about it.

The contest doesn't end until November 15th, and I don't want to bias the judging, so the challenge is to publish a review or article after the competition ends. So you've got plenty of time. Pick a game at random (if you register to officially judge, their web site will even present you with a randomized list), play it for two hours, write an article about it, and publish it on November 16th. Give me the URL, and I'll link to it.

I'll even extend this offer further: if you don't have a weblog of your own, write an article or review of one of the IFComp games and send it to me, and I'll publish articles that meet some minimum editorial standard on Tea Leaves. And I'll figure out some cool thing to donate to the IFComp organizers for use as a prize in the competition.

If you're interested in participating, please drop an email message to tleavesweblog -at- gmail (dot) com. Or, if you have a gaming-related weblog, tell your readers that the IFComp has begun, or link to this post.

But whether or not you decide to write about them, I urge everyone to get out there and try some of the IFComp games.

Why do I care about this? Think about the nature of modern amateur-written IF games. They represent the vision of one person. The very nature of how they are developed gives them a unique style and voice. None of this is any guarantee of quality, of course; every year there are plenty of games in the IFComp that are terrible. But when you find a gem — I've mentioned Hunter, in Darkness before, as an example — the memory will stay with you forever.

One of the weaknesses of modern commercial videogames, as a medium, is that too few of them represent individual vision. By and large, they are the product of teams. Teams are not bad; they allow you to create projects that are simply beyond the scope and ambition of one writer or software developer. But the nature of team development means that compromises are inevitably made. Team-designed games are not necessarily better or worse than a game designed by one person (dare I call them "auteur-created games?"), but they are necessarily different.

The IFComp is one of the best ways I know of to find games developed by a single person. Every year, the IFComp makes me smile. Every year, I'm glad it exists. If you play some of the games, I'm betting you'll feel the same way.

http://www.ifcomp.org/. Go there now, and download the games. It might be the best decision you make all week.

Posted by peterb at 06:01 PM | Comments (4)

October 06, 2005

Schramm Farms

by peterb

One of the odd things about Western Pennsylvania, as a region, is that there is an urban/rural divide that seems more stark than nearly anywhere else I've been. You can travel half an hour outside of town and find people that have lived in the area all their lives, but never been downtown. Likewise, you can find people who live in the city who never find occasion to leave.

This is a shame, because there are things in both places that are eminently worth experiencing. One of the highlights of getting out of town a little bit — especially in the autumn — is the fairly large number of small farms and orchards where you can find great locally-grown produce at reasonable prices. Today, I'd like to tell you about one of them.

Before I get into details, I want to talk a little more about the travel issue. It's not solely an urban/rural divide. The region seems to have this psychological trait where anything over 15 minutes away is "far." This is odd to me, because where I come from the threshold is one hour. If a destination is 65 minutes away, it's "far." If it is 55 minutes away, it's close. Here, if you suggest going somewhere more than about 15 minutes away, people look at you kind of funny. "Isn't that an awfully long way away?"

I can't say whether this is due to geography, or upbringing, or something in the water. But it interests me — is there a word for this psychological threshold? What is it set to in other places? — and I mention it because, if you live in the city, it's likely that it will take you more than 15 minutes to get to Schramm Farms, or any of the other local orchards. They're all worth the drive.

There are a number of farms like this dotting the area around Pittsburgh. North of the city you have Shenot farms and Kaelin's. In Bridgeville, serving the south and west, is Trax Farms. Further to the south, near Elizabeth, PA, you'll find Triple B Farms (which also has an enjoyable corn maze every fall). Schramm Farms covers the eastern region. These aren't your only options by any stretch of the imagination.

Schramm's is a 470 acre farm in Penn Township, but this wasn't always the case. It used to be located at Ross Park Mall. Or, rather, before there was a mall where Ross Park is today, there was Schramm's. In 1981, they sold the property and picked up the farm and moved to Penn Township.

I asked Hillary Schramm whether "moving a farm" was as hard as it sounded, and he looked very, very tired. "It took about 8 months."

Schramm's has a store that is open year round, but it really comes in to its own in the fall. This is when the apples are harvested. Schramm's grows a ton of varietals that simply don't make it in to your local Giant Eagle (or Whole Foods).

"Fall is the biggest time," agrees Hil's daughter, Carolyn, 24. "Our regular customers are all from perhaps 10 or 15 miles away. It's people that want fresh produce, people that do a lot of home cooking, or canning, or things like that. In the summer especially, people will stop by to pick up whatever they know is fresh. Fall is the only time that we get a lot of people from Pittsburgh or further out."

This time last year I wrote about my late-discovered love for the Northern Spy apple. All the local fruit mongers tell me that you can't find them in this area. They're wrong. Schramm's Northern Spys come in in mid-October, and I'll be first in line to buy a bushel. If you show up today, you'll be able to buy Jonathans, Jonagolds, Cortlands, Honeycrisp, various Delicious varieties, Empires, and several other varietals that have slipped my mind. It is a festival of apples. I bought a peck of superb Cortlands for about $8.50. Schramm's cider is, regrettably, pasteurized — it is not even legal to sell unpasteurized cider anymore, it's actually easier to find raw milk — but it's quite good nonetheless.

It's not just apples and cider, of course: you can find many fruits and vegetables. Since this is Pennsylvania, and not California, you're not likely to find anything terribly exotic, but what you do find will be very good. Not all of the produce is local, but it's all clearly marked ("our own", "local", or other) so you can decide accordingly. The squash and pumpkins are great right now.

I know enough about farming to know a few things. I know that I would never want to be a farmer, and I know that I'm very glad that there are people who do. Carolyn Schramm says, "The worst part is the 24/7 job that it is — you can never really escape it, because one, it's a business, and two, it's farming. The best part is it gets in your blood. You feel connected to the earth, you feel like you're doing something useful. You feel that your work is worthwhile, and part of the community."

So when you buy apples at a place like Schramm's, you're getting produce that is fresh, interesting, inexpensive, you're supporting the local economy, and you're helping real farmers, rather than Archer Daniels-Midland, earn their livelihood. There is absolutely no downside to the equation.

Schramm's is currently in the middle of their Fall Festival now, all through October, so it's an especially good time to visit: pick up a pumpkin, drink some hot apple cider, eat a caramel apple, and generally enjoy the crisp fall air. There are activities and a small playgorund for kids, and an enjoyable atmosphere for everyone. Take a drive out east and buy some apples.

Just don't get between me and my Northern Spys.

Schramm's Farm is on Harrison City-Export Road near Jeannette, PA, and they can be reached at (724) 744-7320. For more information, visit their website.

Posted by peterb at 05:41 PM | Comments (9)

October 05, 2005

Putting the "A" in A.I.

by psu

I got to thinking about the A.I. in games while playing the first few levels of the new Xbox shooter, Far Cry: Instincts. By coincidence, I had also recently replayed a few levels of Halo 2 and my first impressions of Far Cry were that the A.I. was much worse than the A.I. in Halo. So, while I spent some time in the rain forest with the little Far Cry mercenaries, I also thought about why they were less effective as artificial opponents as the grunts and elites in Halo.

The A.I. in a shooter, it seems to me, operates on two levels. First, the enemies should be able to act in ways that are tactically appropriate. They should hide from you when you shoot at them. They should gang up on you and beat you down when they get the chance. They should snipe you from afar before you know where they are, and so on. Of course, the developer has to balance these smarts so that the game is neither too hard nor too easy. It would be no fun if the sniper on some level killed you every single time you stepped out in the open. This aspect of A.I. emphasizes the intelligence more than the artificial. You want the enemies to be smart enough to be challengiing.

The second aspect of A.I. in a shooter has more to do with the artificial more than the intelligence. Since it's not likely that we'll ever really build a real person simulator for the Xbox (or the Xbox 360 for that matter), it's not really feasible for a game character to seem believably real in a Turing Test kind of way. It is important that they be interesting enough to make the short interaction that you will have with that character fun.

In shooters, this means that you hope that the enemies have enough variation in their behavior to make you believe that they are not completely robotic in the minute or so that you will be with them before you blow them into the sky. They shouldn't always run in the same patterns or use the same attacks. They shouldn't always "spawn" in the same place. And, most importantly, if they talk, they shouldn't always say the same things.

This second aspect is really where Halo differs most from Far Cry. I think the tactics that the aliens use aren't all that much better than the jungle soldiers. They both run away from you, and both perform effective gang attacks. The enemies in both games are kind of stupid about actually hiding behind cover. You can easily run around their flank and beat them down, for example. The Halo enemies are a bit better with ranged weapons and grenades, and they will also beat you down more often than the soldiers will. But what really makes the enemies in Halo more interesting are the non-tactical things that they do. They are never in exactly the same place when you enter an area. They don't always chase you in the same way. And, most of all, they had much better writers for their dialogue. The effect of this should not be underestimated.

The early levels in Far Cry feel much more repetitive than Halo if for no other reason than in Far Cry you get really tired of the same voice yelling the same dialogue over and over again. There are only about four different lines ("I could use a little help here!", "You're dead meat now!", "I see you!", and "Why don't you come out and fight?", and so on) and they all speak with the same voice. And that voice is generic and boring. It's almost as if a member of the developmen team recorded the voice-overs in his basement with his brother and put a comment in the code like:

// XXX - replace with something better later XXX

But then they never got around to it. The interesting thing about this is that other Ubisoft games developed by completely different developers have similar problems with their A.I. Splinter Cell is like this, Rainbow Six is like this and Ghost Recon 2 is like this. I stopped playing both Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon primarily because both the enemy and friendly A.I. were so boring. To be fair, those games are more about their multiplayer modes than the single player campaign, but the similarity to Far Cry is what tickled this idea in my brain, because my main objection in every case had more to do with their bad dialogue than anything else.

In contrast, one of the best things in Halo are the literally hundreds of pithy lines of dialogue that Bungie wrote for the non-player characters. The marines and grunts have the best lines. The elites have less variety, but they still make sure to never taunt you in the same way twice when they kill you. This attention to a seemingly minor detail serves to make the game seem much less repetitive than Far Cry even as you replay the same area over and over again because of the stupid savepoints. As a result, the characters in Halo are more enjoyable to interact with even if they aren't really that much more believeable as people simulation devices.

The lesson to take away from Halo is that when it comes to A.I., getting the "A" right by faking the small things well can actually be more important than implementing any "real" simulation of intelligence.

Posted by psu at 09:13 PM | Comments (3)

October 04, 2005

Playable Classics: A Selected Ultima

by peterb

I have written in detail before about my obsession with the Ultima games. After much deliberation, Tea Leaves is designating one of the Ultima games as a Playable Classic. It joins the other classic games Fool's Errand, Star Control II, and Escape Velocity as a shining exemplar of the best that videogaming has to offer.

The Contestants

First, a brief review of the idea of a Playable Classic. "Classic" is fairly obvious: a game that has stood the test of time, and that was innovative or genre-defining (or busting). "Playable" is where we really winnow the wheat from the chaff. A game is playable if it meets two conditions. First, that the game mechanics are still fun (and tolerable) given modern standards. To use an example, the original Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is surely a classic, but the fact that it more or less requires you to make a map with pencil and paper in order to win disqualifies it from being a Playable Classic. Secondly, the game can be played on Windows and/or Mac by double-clicking a single executable. If someone distributes a wrapper for an emulator to achieve this for a specific game, that's enough to pass this bar.

Arguments can be made for nearly any game in the Ultima series being "the best." Certainly, many of the games introduced innovations that are in use today. Ultima II, for example, introduced "moongates" as a means of travel, and cemented the game world as involving an odd mixture of medieval and futuristic technology. Ultima III introduced the idea of a separate combat screen and calculating line-of-sight dynamically to determine what was displayed, as well as the "name? job?" conversation tree that was used through the next three games.

Most of the Ultima games, therefore, have a strong claim to being classics. There are, however, only two that could reasonably be considered Playable Classics, and so we'll limit our discussion to those two games. They are Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar and Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

These two are eligible for consideration mostly because of the hard work of devoted amateur developers who created updated ports of these games for most modern operating systems. In the case of Ultima IV, that effort is called XU4. In the case of Ultima VII, the project is called Exult (links to both projects and other relevant downloads will appear at the end of this article, under "Additional Resources"). Both projects run on Windows and Mac (as well as other platforms). Both ports provide one-click launching.

I've been watching these projects grow for several years now, and I'm really excited by them. The very idea that there's more than one ancient Ultima game that I can run on modern hardware is cool. With luck, other teams will work on resurrecting other cool games from the past, and they'll make my job even harder.

But back to the issue at hand: from a usability standpoint, you can now play either of the two games on your modern box with ease. How can I decide which one to designate as a Playable Classic?

Ultima VII

The Exult team deserves extra credit for making their project work. Ultima VII was a DOS application that needed a ton of memory. Rather than use one of the already-available memory management schemes to accomplish this, Origin developed a memory manager called "Voodoo" that was extremely convenient from the point of view of the developer and absolutely, utterly, and didactically brain-dead from the point of view of the user. Many users had to reboot from a custom-made boot disk in order to play Ultima VII. The game was the paradigm of the hostile user experience. Or at least I found it to be.

Of the two, Ultima VII is surely more approachable for the player who doesn't know what he is getting himself in to. The graphics in Ultima IV are tile-based, and primitive — more iconic than anything — and the world the game takes place in feels much less alive, and more game-like. I complain about the memory management in Ultima VII, but its existence has a lot to do with the ambition of the game. It's easy to forget how primitive most other games were in 1992: this was before even Doom.

In 1992, most of us who bought Ultima VII experienced a buggy, crashy, and unless we had just bought a top-of-the-line computer, hideously slow (albeit attractive) game. Today, thanks to the Exult project, we can play the game as it was meant to be played. We see our avatar and the other characters in town wandering around, looking for all the world like small animated dolls. Non-player characters have routines and chores and habits. They work during the day, and they sleep at night. The occasional deer or squirrel will be found in the wilderness, minding its own business, and darting away if you get too close. The game world feels lush, verdant, and alive.

The plot of Ultima VII uses the framework of a detective story to drive the plot. You arrive in the world of Britannia after a horrific murder; the standard path through the plot is to chase two of the suspects from town to town. The plot is serious, and though preachy at times, is never intolerable. There are many optional activities and side-quests.

This is what Ultima VII brings to the table. A huge (and hugely detailed) world. The terrain does not seem at all tile-based. The environments are as richly varied as Diablo II, and the art is beautiful. The music is soft and textured, and the characterizations believable, at least within the confines of the medium. And Ultima VII is, quite simply, huge. It is the first of the series that I regularly got lost in. I think that's pretty cool.

The game has drawbacks, however. It is hobbled by an almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. You can pick up practically every rock and trinket in the game, which means that you will spend most of the game wondering if you should have picked something up that you didn't. There are also subtle rules about crime that don't make a lot of sense. Sometimes, you can pick up bars of gold without penalty, and then at other times you might idly eat a grape that you find in a tavern and suddenly all the members of your party will try to kill you for thievery.

The game tried to integrate combat into the main game engine; rather than decamping to a separate combat screen, and having "turn based" combat, it proceeds in real time. It works something like this: you see someone you want to attack. You click the "dove" button, indicating that you don't want to be peaceful anymore. The dove changes into a picture of a heart pierced by a flaming sword, which is of course the International Olympic Committee's symbol for deadly combat. Then all of the characters in your party rush headlong at the enemy and hack at them without any kind of organization and you all die. Then you go play a different game.

Ultima IV

A good choice for a different game, it turns out, is Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.

Originally published in 1985, Ultima IV stands out as the apotheosis of the series in terms of what may be the most underrated aspect of games: pacing. The game strikes just the right balance of aimless but interesting wandering, frantic combat, and determined searching. There are plenty of macguffins to search for, and a huge number of subquests. There's also quite a bit of dialogue, although the interface to engage in it is be a bit primitive (for years after Ultima IV it was a running joke within the series that the Avatar's main characteristic was that he walked around talking to every single person he met saying "Name? Job?")

From a narrative perspective, one of the most refreshing things about the game is its self-awareness of the clichés of the genre. All three of the previous games had been what are sometimes referred to by game geeks as "kill foozle" quests, meaning the only "point" to the game is "Bad guy over there. Go kill him." The overarching goal in Ultima IV is, not to put too fine a point on it, to become a messiah by exemplifying the eight virtues. All together now, people, let's recite them: Compassion, Honor, Justice, Valor, Honesty, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility. (It gets more complex when you consider that each of the virtues are meant to represent one combination of "the three principles" of truth, love, and courage. More or less, my presumption is that Richard Garriott was reading about Buddha's Eightfold Path one night while he was really really baked, and decided to build a game around it. Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, and...Right 6502 Assembler Coding?)

It would have been terribly easy for a game whose entire point was "one should be virtuous" to have crossed the line into preachiness. Ultima IV never ventures into the saccharine. The Bioware games Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic are great counterexamples. These games let you play as the bad guy but come across as preachier than Ultima IV. Part of this has to do with the eightfold path of morality in Ultima: the conflict, more often than not, is not "good versus bad" but "upholding one valued principle versus a different valued principle." The particular one that always messed me up was Humility. Characters in the game would constantly ask me "Are you humble?" And I'd sit there, for 2 minutes, not sure what I should say. "Yes! My ability to be humble kicks ass! I am the best at being humble in the world!"

So sometimes one can have multiple goals that are in total conflict. It turns out that even though I'm not saving the world, those are the sorts of decisions that I find difficult in real life.

There's another aspect of Ultima IV that I like, and that has to do with the nature of sequels. In each of the first four Ultima games, the locale changed. Ultima I took place on a nameless world with four continents. Ultima II took place on Earth. Ultima III took place on "Sosaria." Ultima IV takes place on "Britannia." By the time Ultima VII rolled around, the mythology of the world had been calcified and enshrined into canon. When Ultima IV was released, this hadn't happened yet. The game, therefore, goes out of its way to explain more about the world and what has come before. This makes it a bit more approachable to someone who hasn't played any other of the games in the series. Ultima IV is "just" a sequel. Whereas by the time of Ultima VII, the series had become an institution. As such, the latter game had to perform contortions to not contradict earlier tradition and upset rabid fans.

Ultima IV doesn't quite make combat optional, but you can advance very, very far without engaging in many battles, which is to my taste. If you prefer, you can try to kill anything that moves. Elements from the earlier Ultima games, such as moongates, are still present, and the game's tile-based nature will be familiar and understandable to anyone who has played Rogue.

The Decision

It's a close call. Both games, as I said above, have much to recommend them. If you have the time to play both, you should. But if you only have time to play one, then play Ultima IV.

The reasons are pretty simple.

Ultima VII is a fantastically ambitious game. As such, it does many things fairly well. It has multiple user interfaces for many different actions and behaviors. It represents a beautiful, richly detailed world, most of which you will never have the time or inclination to see. At times, it seems more like a primitive version of The Sims than a role-playing game. Ultima IV by contrast, focuses the same narrative ambition on far fewer game mechanics. There is less you can do, conceptually, in Ultima IV, but those things are easier (from a UI perspective) to actually accomplish. Ultima IV only does (comparatively) few things, but it does them very well.

In other words: Ultima IV is a smaller game, but it's more of a game.

The lack of realistic graphics doesn't hurt the game, any more than the iconic pieces in chess damage that game. I like the little icons waving swords. I like the little waiflike children that are depicted with what seems like only 10 pixels. I like the subtle way secret doors require you to actually notice a shift in the brick patterns of a wall. And, damn it to hell, I like walking up to random people and pestering them with "Name? Job?" over and over again.

And, lastly, for all of the seriousness of both of the games, Ultima IV has a worldview, a compassion, and an optimism that is I just didn't find in the later game. Both games exist in an intellectual grey area. Both strove to be morally and ethically complex, and they only succeeded to a very limited extent. Both throw tricky ethical situations at you, and, being imperfect, can be "gamed." Despite this, there is an ethos expressed in Ultima IV that striving to be a good person is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. And I think that's an attitude that should be respected, and honored. Ultima VII, from start to finish, batters you with murders, and poverty, and drug use, and questions of privilege. The moral ambiguity of pretenders to virtue is a worthwhile theme, but it's one that isn't played true in Ultima VII. The earlier, simpler theme — even if naive — strikes purer notes.

And sometimes, a simple tune is all one needs to have a good day.

Additional Resources

  • XU4, the update of Ultima IV, is available from xu4.sourceforge.net. The download includes everything you'll need to play. Origin generously released the source code to the original game into the public domain. Binaries are available for Windows and for Mac OS X.
  • Exult is available from exult.sourceforge.net. You'll also need the original Ultima VII. If you don't already own one, you could buy a used copy of The Ultima Collection from Amazon.
  • If you think I am exaggerating how advanced Ultima VII was for its time, read Wikipedia's article on 1992 in video gaming.
  • See The Avatar's Guide to Sin to see a bit of what I mean about crime being overly mechanical in Ultima VII.
  • If you want to look behind the curtain and see what effects different actions have on your virtue in Ultima IV, go ahead. But don't do it before you've played the game at least once.
  • The other games we here at Tea Leaves have designated as Playable Classics are Fool's Errand, Star Control II, and Escape Velocity. If you like our judgment on this game, you should try those others as well.

Posted by peterb at 06:58 PM | Comments (11)

October 03, 2005

Chinese Braised Ribs

by psu

This is another one of my mom's dishes. I grew up with this, but never really thought about how it was done. In college, I tried literally dozens of times to get this even close to right. Finally, with enough practice it just started happening. The keys are the ratio of soy to sugar and cooking the ribs for a long time.

Start with one rack of spare ribs or baby back ribs. Have the guy at the store saw the rack in half vertically so you end up with two racks each of which are only a few inches wide. When you get the racks home, cut them up into individual riblets.

You will also need one bunch of scallions, cut up into large pieces, and a couple of carrots peeled and cut up.

Heat up a medium sized soup pot (4-6 quarts will do). When it's hot, add oil and 3-4 tablespoons of sugar. Throw in the ribs and stir them around so they are coated with the sugar and starting to brown. Then toss in the vegetables and stir some more. Let the whole thing saute for a minute or two. Grind some pepper over everything. I have to resist the urge to reflexively add salt to the saute. But a little doesn't hurt.

Now combine about a cup of soy sauce and a cup of water. Pour this over the ribs. If there isn't enough liquid to cover, add some more water. At this point you might have to add a bit more soy to balance things. You can also add red wine if you like that kind of thing. The soy to water ratio should be about 1-to-1, but it's really more a matter of taste and discretion.

After adding the liquid, put 3-4 more tablespoons of sugar in the pot. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and get things to a simmer. Cover the pot and go play Halo for a and hour. After an hour, check the sauce to make sure it's salty and sweet enough. If too salty, add some water. or wine.

Now go back and play Halo for a few more hours, letting the ribs cook until the ribs are infused with the sauce and the meat falls off the bone easily. In addition, the sauce should be a nice combination of "soy saucy" and sweet. This takes a few tries to get right, so experiment until you get it to where you like it.

Posted by psu at 08:08 PM | Comments (2)

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