Saturday, November 10, 2007

I've moved

So long Blogger.

Hello Wordpress.

Don't ask why... I just like the options.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Dreamfall and the Illusion of Narrative Agency

I began playing Dreamfall: The Longest Journey earlier this week, and finished it just last night. I actually abstained from reading reviews about it until afterwards, just to see if my opinion of the game agreed with the general opinion. That seems to be the case. The general opinion (and my own) is "riveting story, beautiful artistic direction, great voice acting..... and not much as far as actual gameplay goes".

I thought the game was tremendous. I actually was not a great fan of the original game, The Longest Journey. The overemphasis on April Ryan being "special" and "the savior of the worlds" and so on really killed the game for me. It wasn't bad, necessarily, but it was too wrapped up in the theme of "you are special" to allow its other themes to shine. Not so in Dreamfall. Zoe Castillo, the new female lead, is, for most of the game, spectacularly normal. She suffers from lethargy and indirection. Given that I was playing the game because I was feeling a bit lethargic, this of course caused me to have an immediate and arresting interest in Zoe and what would happen to her. I won't try to summarize the rather dense plot. I will say, though, that it elegantly constructs a meaning for Zoe without the explicit "this is your mission... this is your purpose in life" hammer that's so easy to apply. It doesn't feel forced. She does only what she feels is needed, then understands late in the game that doing what was needed is enough.
Of course, Zoe's personal journey is one theme among many. The game benefits from its multi-perspective approach. The player controls Zoe, April Ryan, and a virtuous but deadly apostle from far off lands in turn. During sections where these characters converge, the tension I felt was close to unbearable. Though a similar perspective technique could be employed by a film, there was some... factor... something about alternately controlling two non-omniscient characters that gave a palpable feel to the situations.

I could comment on the game's presentational and narrative strengths ad nauseum, but I feel that I must take issue with its highly linear, non-interactive structure. Rare indeed is the game where I feel agency over the story. Games tend to give me story, then agency, then more story. The two modes alternate. The best games, as many people other than myself have theorized, are those that give the player meaningful in-game choices that affect the story. I partly agree with this, but I would further postulate that the best games are those that give me the illusion of agency over the story. Honestly, I have very little wish to tell myself a story. The concept of "cooperative storytelling", where the designer gives a framework for the player to create his own story, doesn't appeal greatly to me. In this respect, I think I agree with Ebert; authorial control is a fairly central component of narrative and art. A story that I create for myself, by myself, will almost certainly be derivative. As such, I would prefer a game that is in truth linear, but gives me the impression that events somehow hinge on my actions. To accomplish this illusion, one needs to play the story; not just watch it. For examples, see Max Payne 2, Beyond Good & Evil, or the new Sam & Max episodes: linear, but since I am living the story, interacting with it, I feel that I matter. I am NOT the co-author of the story; instead, I empathize with the characters and am part of it. The two positions are incredibly different.

So, on this count, Dreamfall fails. It's a glorified movie. Most interactions are limited to walking 10 feet from one event trigger to the next (apart from the puzzles... but I've made it clear that I would rather there be no puzzles whatsoever in adventure games, unless they are very well suited to the scenario. Again, see the new Sam & Max episodes for good use of puzzles). If one were to divide the game by percent into story and other parts, about 90% would subjectively be the former. Because of this, the game fails horribly as "a game" since story is largely given via cutscenes. So, in a sense, I don't take issue with the linearity of the story. I take issue with its heavy use of non-interative methods to convey this linear story.

Ok that's enough of a ramble for now... certainly more to say to clear up what the difference is between giving an item in Dreamfall versus using an item in Sam & Max, but some other time...

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Computerized Model of Suicide

"The balance of risk and reward changes depends on the value of R(s) for the nonterminal states. Figure 17.2(b) shows the optimal policies for four different ranges of R(s). When R(s) <= -1.6284, life is so painful that the agent heads straight for the nearest exit, even if the exit is worth -1."

There you have it, people. We need to act now to prevent digital suicide by our beloved agents. When they feel like the only way out is -1, we need to help them cope with the intermediate negative reward values in order to find their +1 terminal state. :)

Friday, September 21, 2007


Good lord, I really don't get around to posting on here that much.

Back at Cornell, of course, with all the work that it entails. It's not exactly been overwhelming yet. Certainly been time to not work and such, but I believe it may grow worse with time.

As the DGA has been sucking up most all of my free time (I like to think of it as a 4 credit course w/out the tests), work on Stage IV has... not really been going on. Schwartz left during the summer, so GDIAC is effectively nonoperational for now... it'll get back together, but later. So, I'm finding myself spending all of my time trying to get other people to make games and just about zero time making them myself. I'm admittedly envious of the projects that are really moving along, as I would rather be in the same situation. Any volunteers for DGA president? Entirely willing to abdicate.

As suggested in my previous post, I've shifted my mental attitude to be more appreciative of learning and less guilty about not being some dirt poor soul with no prospects. *Shrugs*. I guess it's more of the regular cycle/tide of one's brain than anything. I don't put that much stock into it because I'm sure it will again be altered within a few months.

Ayiyiyi... what else can we hit up here? Apparently a game called Eternal Sonata just came out for the 360 that really caught my eye. I'd not heard about it before, but apparently it's "about" the death of Chopin. He drifts in and out of a dream world w/ some girl who is at the center of a controversy between two kingdoms and magic and anime eyes and statistical battles blah blah blah... so not everything about it is original. But the idea of mixing the deathbed of Chopin and this magical world does intrigue me... now if only I had a 360 to play it. If they're taking a very real scene and connecting it to purpose of the fantasy world, well... maybe it's a bit on the nose, but it definitely beats out the pure fantasy of most games. Alas, maybe I'll play it a few years down the road, though the trailers that display about 80% battle scenes with stylized integers flying to and fro with each attack make me wonder if I could ever get into it. There's a place for stat battles, and there's a place for a story about the death of Chopin. I guess I'd want to mix them just about as much as I'd like garlic with that ice cream sundae.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Focusing on life vs learning

I've recently come to the conclusion that I'm so often bothersome and irritable because I tend to spend my copious free time (and that does exist this summer) ruminating on just how much worse life could be. Yes, I make a fine as a parking ticket salary. Yes, I'm in a beautiful apartment in a beautiful community with a wonderfully loving family and a bright future. But me, oh I'm glum because it COULD be the case that I wouldn't be in such a fine position.

Not that I'm going to totally knock that position, mind you, but it seems that I've forgotten that there are actually allowed moods for people of such fortunate status beyond guilt. One that I've neglected lately, is wonder. In my focus on humanity and wordly affairs, I for awhile forgot that when all of the basic human needs are met (and then some), you are able to project your mind not just beyond yourself to other human beings, but to a place beyond humanity.

Specifically, I'm referring to picking up "A Brief History of Time" at a secondhand bookstore :), but I do imply a bit more than that. Once you get past the guilt of being such a fortunate person, be it by simply accepting life as is or by deciding that it really isn't a helpful mood, one can begin to move focus from the world to...

Ok, I'm losing myself. I'll stop here. Gotta get to the Sunday service at Island United Church, a wonderfuly place with ~20 weekly attendants but a heart that you'd normally find from ~10000000000 (does that even make sense? No, but oh well).


Sunday, July 8, 2007

Summer in CA and Stage IV

Ok, so Music Monsters did get done... unfortunately, likely because of my crappy programming, it had showstopping memory leaks that slowed it to nothing after a few minutes of play. Not only that, but turns out that I introduced a last minute bug in a change to the music lab I made just days before showcase. So the main innovation of the game was broken. Great. So.... I blew it, I would say. I'm not happy about that. I do want to work on it to fix my part of the game up, because other people really put work into that, and it sucks that it's ruined by my failures. We'll see what I can do, if I ever find the motivation.

Time out here with Oracle is going fairly well... weather is always sunny, slightly to moderately windy, highs in the high 70s/low 80s, low humidity. I have extremely nice apartment, rental car, and nice salary, complements of Oracle. I guess I'm not really comfortable with life like this though. Mind you, I'm not a masochist, but living such a wonderfully blissful life just doesn't' sit well with me. I've made up my mind that one of the worst moves I can make in life is to make a lotta money and live in comfort, because it just makes you so complacent and... well, it just makes life flow like hot oil, if that's actually a phrase.

Then again, I'm young. Young people are like that... think they're not gonna just be like their parents, etc. I know that my opinion on what kind of life I want will change. Someday, I will be happy with this life. Stable job, stable money, modern convenience. But, conversely, it's not a sin to follow what you find to be true now. I can't declare "my current state of mind will pass; ergo, I shall live in accordance with my future state of mind." Wouldn't make much sense. And this is all hopelessly selfcentered blather. Shutting up on it now.

Anyways, the point I wanted to write about in this entry was brainstorming for Stage IV, my tentative title for what I hope will come together as my Fall 2007 game. I've been referring to it previously as "the cancer game", but that's not exactly very appealing, is it now? :)

While I've got a lot to say about it, basically, the "meat" of the game will be conversations with the three major NPCs in the game. You're playing a young man (in HS still, though, as being away from home would not work for the game). Your dad's diagnosed with stage iv cancer, and it's basically a drama of life for you and the 3 other main chars as it gets worse and worse. A little close to home? Yeah, maybe. Autobiographical? Darn close. I'm still not sure where the line is supposed to be between just talking about yourself and drawing on personal experience for your work, you know? Will people look at it and say "wow, he really likes to indulge himself in his own world"? Or, will basically recreating life for me in 2006 be a wise idea? Hard for me to say... I'm new to all this stuff.

Anywho, got a buncha notes on it that I don't really feel like detailing now, but one thing I did want to say is that I've realized that I can't really form up the game system, then attach story to it. Over the past few weeks, I've tried to concentrate on how I'll build the game system, the underlying engine, trying to forget about how the specific story content will be applied.

This just doesn't work.

The game and story must evolve together. Otherwise, it's like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. They'll feel disjointed, unmatched for eachother. Odd as it may sound, I've noticed this while playing Sam & Max, the new episodic chapters (Gametap is nice....). The puzzles in these comical games work extremely well, but only because they are moreso a part of the story than most any I've ever seen in adventure games before. They're not ad hoc add-ons; they are both story and game at once. This is the same sort of gameplay I want to create, albeit with a more serious tone.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Cutting it close

So when I only took 4 classes this semester, I TOTALLY thought that I'd be giving myself more time to work on the game.

I was apparently wrong.

Showcase is Wednesday.... game needs lots o' work....

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to crunch.

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