December 15, 2006

Excuse Our Dust

by peterb

Over the next week or so, updates may be sparse and you may notice problems reaching the site as we prepare to move to a new content management system. Things should be back to normal relatively quickly.

Posted by peterb at 08:03 PM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2006

Princess Zelda and the Childish Adult

by peterb

Several years ago, one of my favorite authors, A.S. Byatt, wrote a scathing review of the Harry Potter books called "Harry Potter and the Childish Adult." In this review she roundly criticized not Rowling, but the adults who chose to read her books. She said, essentially, that there was something fundamentally misshapen about adults who would choose to invest so many hours in a work created for children.

Byatt took a lot of heat for this review. I was disappointed because it was clear that Byatt couldn't correctly articulate her problem with Rowling. She wrapped her critique in some fairly sophomoric Freudian analysis before getting to the real point: Byatt observed — correctly — that Rowling's prose is somewhat drab and clumsy. Rowling does not write beautiful sentences. It's clear, at least to me, that if Rowling wrote with the precision and playfulness of someone like Terry Pratchett, Byatt would have overlooked the subject matter and approved of the works.

This is the sad truth behind literary criticism: there's a widespread belief that the craft of storytelling is not as important as the craft of writing. This is, of course, ludicrous. For the novelist, both skills are important, but I'll take a clumsy storyteller over a brilliant but boring linguist every time. When you have a great storyteller with a superb gift for words you end up with Martin Amis. When you have a great storyteller who doesn't construct brilliant sentences, you end up with Rowling. When you have a stunning linguist who can't tell a story to save her life, you end up with Donna Tartt.

Frankly, I'd rather be bludgeoned about the head with Rowling's entire body of work than have to sit through another page of one of Tartt's sickening apologias for the overprivileged. There is more depth in any one page of Rushdie's "children's book" Haroun and the Sea of Stories than in the entire body of the latest vapid favorite of the overeducated-but-shallow, Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

All of which is a preface to the point that one can have a great story and tell it in a bad way, or vice-versa, and that things written for children can be enjoyed by adults without guilt.

Which brings us to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I've been pondering this game for a while now, as I play it. I won't be reviewing the game in this space — you can read my review in the holiday issue of Played To Death— but I found some aspects of the way it is constructed to be interesting, and it reminded me of Byatt's essay. Not because it's poorly written, or a bad game — I'm enjoying it immensely — but because I find the maturity level of the game to be so confusing. This isn't a game written for children. This is a game written for adults who played an earlier Zelda game when they were children.

The games in the Zelda series have always treated unapologetically in adolescent and heroic archetypes. The story of every Zelda game is this: an evil power threatens the land of Hyrule. An orphan boy, Link, is drawn in to rescue a friend. In doing so, he acquires various weapons and tools of legend (a boomerang, a magic bow, a magic sword, a grappling hook, and so on). In overcoming obstacles, he inadvertently delivers the power of the godhead to the villain. Link must then confront the enemy and defeat him to save the land.

The details in each game change, but the pattern is the same, which is fine. The previous game, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, was beautiful to look at. The characters were cartoony and iconic. Backgrounds were rich, saturated, and looked like they came straight out of a 1940's-era Warner Brothers cartoon. From a purely graphical perspective, Wind Waker was designed with a bold, uncompromising vision.

I thought the Wind Waker art style was daring and wonderful. It fit the ideals underlying the world perfectly. But among many fans, this gutsy art style was a complete flop. My understanding of why is somewhat limited, but it seems to have something to do with the misapprehension that playing with things that look like children's toys will shrink one's penis. Regardless of the reasons, many people complained about this style, and one can't help but worry about the possibility that the stylistic decisions made in Twilight Princess were a direct result of this feedback.

Twilight Princess takes the basic pattern of Zelda and puts it in a "dark" world, drawing elements from a number of other games including Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, and Silent Hill.

The end result is a game that is too scary for children to play, but not scary at all to adults. The fear in Silent Hill, for example, came not from the eerie music and atmosphere, but from the fact that the rusted, fecal exteriors in the game were so patently signposts pointing to the sexual and violent elements of the player's psyche. Shadow of the Colossus was disturbing because it cast the player, implicitly, in the role of a villain, of someone who becomes his own Shadow. Such possibilities are never even remotely imaginable in Twilight Princess. Link is a good guy. His Shadow is not something he would even think about becoming.

As I said, my theory is that Zelda ends up in this stylistic bind because their platonic Zelda player is an adult who has played the other Zelda games. What they're trying to do, I think, is present the story as "dark" or "serious" to avoid the player shunning the game for fear of being infantilized. At the same time, they have to maintain the essential innocence of the characters, because that's what the archetype requires: evil, even evil that has tainted us, must always come from the outside. I think that the tension between these two goals resulted in a visual design that doesn't quite sit snugly on the shoulders.

Perhaps I'm simply wrong, and projecting, and really a whole new generation of 7-year olds are encountering and loving Twilight Princess. As a game, I think it is clearly the best of the series. But stylistically the game looks like a compromise to me, and it is weaker for it.

Posted by peterb at 09:40 PM | Comments (9)

December 11, 2006

When to go Wide

by psu

Wide angle lenses, roughly speaking, are lenses that for a given image size, provide a wider than "normal" field of view in the final picture. For 35mm cameras, we generally consider lenses with a focal length of 35mm or less to be wide. Back in the day, I asked my photo expert buddy whether I should buy a 24mm lens or a 20mm lens for my wider-than-35 wide angle needs. He said if I knew what I was doing, I should get the 20, otherwise, I should get the 24. This was very wise advice.

Generally, you should not buy a lens unless you have some idea what you are going to do with it. If you are considering buying a wide angle, you should ask yourself why you need to go wide.

If you ask a beginning photographer this question, they will sometimes answer "I need the wide angle for those huge vistas in the landscape." Sadly, this answer is almost always wrong.

If you really want to isolate a huge vista and get that grand Ansel Adams feeling, the best thing to do is to be a few miles away from the subject and use a telephoto lens to get the picture. For example, consider this shot:

I made this picture while standing in a parking lot that was right next to the great expanse of desert and rock. If I had shot it with a wide angle, the mesa would be a little dot in the distance and the foreground would be all parking lot. You never want that.

Here is a good example of shot where the wide lens has been used to "get the whole picture", with the end result being that there is nothing of interest in the frame:

Notice how everything that might be interesting in this picture (the building, presumably) is tiny and in the background. Meanwhile, your eyes immediately focus on the foreground which is nothing but an empty green blob. There is basically nothing to look at in this picture.

This sort of mistake is easy to make because wide lenses distort front to back perspective. You must remember this: wide angle lenses make stuff close to the lens really big and stuff far away from the lens really small. It's like those rear view mirrors on cars, only a lot worse.

You use wide lenses when you want to take advantage of this distortion. For example, you might want to show the viewer something small and intimate in the foreground and but lead her eye to the background where there is a familiar setting:

Or, you might have figured out how to arrange a shot where the foreground and the background are interesting:

Finding an interesting subject and an interesting background is twice as hard as just isolating your subject against a blown out background. This is why wide angle lenses are challenging to use. Whenever you are trying to control more than one main element in a picture, you will have a harder time.

The wide angle perspective also comes in handy when you are indoors. You might be trying to take a picture of a group of people at your house for dinner. They are all sitting around the table. You grab your trusty normal lens and start backing up to get the whole table into the shot. You have about half the people in the viewfinder when you find that you have walked into the stove and your pants are on fire.

This is when you need that super-wide angle zoom:

Of course, all the standard wide angle challenges apply. Watch out for empty foregrounds, and remember that since you will be placing so many different elements into the frame, you have to be careful to arrange them in a way that is pleasing rather than just confusing. I don't have any great insight on how to do this. I might say that in my pictures, I tend to try to maintain a strong front to back perspective with lines that lead the eye from one side of the frame to the other, but that would just be self-concious wanking. The truth is that I fool around with a lot of different things and then I attempt to remember what worked well and what didn't. Over time, you get better at doing the stuff that works and avoiding the stuff that doesn't.

Finally, here are a few other random tips:

1. Don't take close up portaits with a wide angle, unless you like making the person look like a distended freak.

2. Do take portraits with wide angle lenses if you want the background environment to be part of the portrait.

3. Remember that with wider lenses things that you place at the edges of the frame will look distorted. This can be a bit disturbing when you put your Aunt Betty in the wrong part of the picture and she gets all stretched out.

4. Be careful whenever you tilt a wide angle lens up or down. It makes the world look funny.

5. Practice, practice, practice. Edit, edit, edit.

Posted by psu at 07:20 AM | Comments (2)

December 10, 2006

The Internet Is Full. Go Away.

by peterb

My dad used to tell a groaner of a bad joke about a guy he knew opening a cheese shop in Israel. The name? Cheeses of Nazareth.

I thought of that joke today, and on a lark typed "" into my browser...and then name is owned by a domain name squatter, offering to sell it.

The Internet is full.

Posted by peterb at 01:42 PM | Comments (4)

December 06, 2006

Played to Death #12

by peterb

The Holiday issue of Played To Death magazine is out. Download the free PDF now and you can read my reviews of the Nintendo Wii, The Wii's online service, Wii Sports, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Xbox Live, as well as many other fine articles.

Posted by peterb at 11:58 PM | Comments (4)

December 05, 2006

Because I am Stupid I Make Myself Suffer

by psu

My rag-tag group of adventurers had just prevailed over the ghost-like sewer monster. The fight had not been too tough, although it did require some careful tactics. Having come all the way here, I figured I'd have a look around. Just around the corner from our fight was another network of sewer pipes and water ways, so we took a few tentative steps that way. From the shadows, a brown lumpy form appeared and took a swipe at me. The blow landed on my head and with one hit, the game was over. My last save was from 45 minutes back at the entrance to the sewers.

Welcome to Final Fantasy, I thought.

My esteemed gaming buddy tilt has often commented on the notion that games have large scale mechanics and organization that make up an "outer loop" along with small scale mechanics that make up their "inner loop."

Madden is a football simulation wrapped up in a large scale management simulation. In Zelda, you crawl through dungeons, solve clever puzzles, find interesting items, and fight tedious boss monsters while at the same time working towards your ultimate destiny as the periodic savior of Hyrule. The Elder Scrolls games are a collection of linear quests that are hard to find wrapped up in a min-max leveling game. Halo strings together a chain of thirty second pieces of combat as you journey from cut scene to cut scene. I could keep this up all night.

It's no coincidence that game franchises work hard to maintain their core mechanics from version to version. Fans of the franchises became fans because the gameplay was enjoyable. They eagerly await the new Bloodspank game because they want the same experience as the old Bloodspank game but a new setting, or new characters, or higher resolution textures. Therefore, to keep their fans, developers strive to remain faithful to the original experience.

Which brings me to Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy, it seems to me, has a very clear two level structure that has basically remained unchanged through all twelve instances of the game. On the one hand there is the standard RPG inner loop: you fight stuff, you collect loot, you gain levels and abilities. Each game tweaks these mechanics, streamlining some while making others more complicated.

The large scale organization of the games are also similar in that they are a linear jaunt from dungeon to dungeon. Each dungeon is designed to be encountered when your party has been appropriately developed and buffed. In between dungeons, there are cut scenes.

This combination of content: the fighting, the dungeons, the cut scenes, is what keeps people coming back to the game. For whatever reason, people like working through these little obstacle courses in a quest to watch the next cartoon.

The tricky thing in this game is that sometimes difficult areas are interleaved with the areas that are safe, and it's hard to tell when you've gotten yourself lost and are about to be punished for it. This happens repeatedly to me in FF12 whenever I venture even the tiniest bit off the shiny rails that the developers have built for me to follow.

What I discovered this week was that this problem seems to have inhabited every FF game ever built. Because being punished over and over again on my PS2 wasn't enough for me, I picked up the recent reissue of Final Fantasy III for the DS.

I played through the intro. No problem. I got into the first town and looked around. No problem. I walked out into the overworld and ventured north, not knowing that I had missed the cut scene that told me to venture south. Thirty seconds later, two wolves in the woods crushed my head like a grape. Even after almost twenty years of development, if you are playing Final Fantasy, you are never more than a few steps away from a one hit kill.

Besides this long standing structural problem and an annoying lack of savepoints before boss fights that I tend to lose, I have generally been enjoying FF12. The streamlined combat takes a lot of the tedium out of the RPG inner loop. For once the writing, and overall production of the outer loop isn't cringe inducing. Even the voice acting is pretty tolerable.

So, I'm looking forward to spending the next few weeks beating up creatures from the nightmares of Japanese children, picking new abilities out of a large checkerboard, trying to min-max my character development and watching cut scenes. I think I'll put off the side quests for now though. In Final Fantasy, you can't be too careful.

Posted by psu at 07:30 PM | Comments (5)

December 04, 2006

Musings on the Eternal Console Wars

by peterb

I showed up at Target a few Sundays ago and stood in the cold for about an hour to try to get a Nintendo Wii. I had number 42. Unfortunately, they only had 41 of them.


Through some machinations and good luck, however, I managed to pick up a Wii the other weekend. My "real" review of the box (and some of the games) will be in Played To Death's holiday issue, but I have a few philosophical ponderings to share here.

First, and most importantly, the name doesn't really sound any less stupid the more you say it. But in a way, that's comforting. For any given thing you can buy, there's always something stupid or brain-dead about it. In the case of the Nintendo Wii, we know the answer up front: it has a painfully stupid name.

The console itself is nice looking (if a bit bland) and petite. The control is odd. It manages to be both more precise and less accurate at the same time: I'm constantly astonished that the cursor managed to hit what I intended, but even with the remote braced against a hard surface, the cursor always seems ready to slip away from me like the fish in Fool's Errand. The ergonomics of the controllers themselves, though, are great. Nintendo deserves praise if for no reason other than liberating us from the Playstation-style dual-handed rosary. Friends and family who would never touch an Xbox seem to have no problem with the Wii: the remote is approachable, and everyone who has ever used a mouse is familiar with "Move your whole hand this way to move the pointer."

If they can manage to make enough of them, I think we can state confidently that Nintendo has defeated Sony in hand-to-hand combat for this round of the console wars. They've basically taken a Gamecube, revved it just a little, and given it a nifty control scheme. They combined this with an interesting smattering of launch titles taken from their console legacy (Zelda) and their handheld library (Trauma Center) Then, they are selling this device for just about one-third of what Sony is charging for a larger, heavier, uglier device that has features no one wants and games no one cares about. Basically, Sony has managed to use all of their engineering and marketing prowess to launch a new version of the Atari 5200, only with fewer games. Nintendo, meanwhile, has done something practically unheard of in the console space: they've innovated.

What's particularly saucy about Nintendo's innovation is that it is in your face. Game publishers, as I have mentioned before, hate and fear innovation. Microsoft's decision to include a hard drive in the original Xbox cost them millions of dollars, and the only reason they did it was the game publishers, lying like pregnant Catholic schoolgirls, swore up, down, left, and right that they would make games for the Xbox that could only work with a hard drive. Then they treated the hard drive like a glorified memory card for the life of the console, and ported all their games to the PS2. With the Wii, Nintendo has placed the innovation right in the user's hand. There is absolutely no avoiding it.

There will be game developers who make games for the Wii that don't actually use the controllers in any interesting way. These developers will be sad, because no one in the entire world is going to buy their games. If you release a game for the Wii that doesn't use the controller in some interesting way, legions of twentysomethings around the world are going to stop referring to your company by its trademarked name, and will instead just use the shorthand "those retards."

Of course, many of these games will fail, because often users hate innovation too. But at least when you fail you will have failed in an interesting way, rather than boring us with yet another clone of BladeHunt: DeathSpank 2: The Revenge (motto: "Now with Bump Mapping!")

So, in summary: Microsoft's innovation in this cycle centers around online play. Sony's innovation centers around making their game machine stupidly expensive so that it can play movies. Nintendo's innovation centers around their wireless motion-sensing controller. No one can promise us that future Wii games will be any good.

But for now, I have an Xbox 360, and I have a Wii, and I have no intention of buying a PS3 any time in the next year.

And I bet I'm not the only one.

Posted by peterb at 08:20 PM | Comments (5)

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