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Posts Tagged ‘final fantasy’

I’m just ruminating a bit, spurred by a pair of excellent game design posts I read last week.

First, there’s Syl’s post about Why Storytelling in MMOs is Overrated.  I love her article, and I’ve wished for a long time now that MMO devs would ease off the reins and let players tell the story.  (Tangentially, Brian “Psychochild” Green’s work on Storybricks looks like a good step in that direction.)  The developer-driven narrative in these MMO things is a mismatch for the game design from the conception, and the devs seem to cling to their sense of authorship too much.  I can understand that, as a creative sort.  I’ve done a bit of Game Master work in tabletop RPGs in my day, though, and ultimately, the game always seems to run better when the players feel like they are in control.  The GM has to keep everything together, but player agency is the heart of games.  Even if it means they do things the GM doesn’t anticipate or even desire.

Second, there’s this gem from The Rampant Coyote, From Whom Much is Given, Much Is Demanded.  The discussion there about graphics and how cutting edge technology tends to create absurd demands rings true to my experience both in games and when I got my college degree in computer animation.

Today, I stumbled across this interesting tech demo from Activision.  It’s, well… creepy.  It’s very impressive, but it’s still not quite right.  Here it is on YouTube:

That Uncanny Valley looms large.  This is one of the huge dangers of chasing the tech edge.  Yes, in theory, with enough money, processing power and artistry, it’s possible to make artificial life that can pass for the real thing.  The cost is huge, though, and that Uncanny Valley is big.

Also, most importantly, it’s relatively easy these days to make artificial life look good in a still frame, but the real test is when it moves.  Motion is ridiculously hard to make, and exceptionally easy to break.  We have an instinctive understanding of how living things are supposed to move and behave, from physics to biology to exceedingly subtle emotional cues.  (See: Lie To Me, Sherlock Holmes, psychopaths, etc.)

This, perhaps more than anything, is what I really dug into when I was in college.  It’s at the heart of the Disney films I always wanted to make, The Illusion of Life that really makes animation work.  (By the way, I highly recommend that book if you have any interest in animation, along with a more recent tome, The Animator’s Survival Kit.  If you can only digest those two books, you’ll be a long way to understanding the core of animation.)  Ultimately, it’s possible for a skilled animator to make a broom or sack of flour (or even a paper airplane) seem more alive than the latest Final Fantasy CGI characters.  Or, as I noted over at Syl’s place, animators try to be conscious of the silhouette, making sure it’s readable at all times.  You can get a lot of mileage out of just the silhouette, as the XBox LIVE Game LIMBO shows:

And really, a lot of what gets communicated has to do with what isn’t seen.  (For a funny riff on this, there’s this take on what LIMBO might play like when you can see more information… but again, selective reveals are what sell the humor; it’s the juxtaposition of what you expect vs. what is “really” there that makes it humorous/scary.)

If you haven’t seen Paperman, go watch it.  Seriously, go watch it and then come back.  (Or watch the embedded one, sure.)

And then watch this, a video about some of the tech behind it.

So, for a relatively simple-looking bit of animation, there’s a lot of tech under the hood.  Some of it is obviously CG, at least to me, having spent as much time as I have watching and producing art and animation, both traditional and computer-assisted.  Still, there’s a lot of work going into this… and it’s all to make a stylized bit of art.  As with the style of The Incredibles, stylization goes a long way to making something play well.  It short-circuits our instinctive evaluation systems, and the errors in animation that pop up are kind of fudged away, filed in mental gaps that we don’t wind up caring about, largely because we have already internalized that these characters are not real, and we don’t expect them to be.

This is how we perceive motion in film and animation in the first place, per the Persistence of Vision theory.  The 24 or 30 frames per second that flicker by don’t cover the infinitely reducible time frames that reality can be split into, but they happen fast enough that our brain accepts them as continuous enough to be believable.  In fact, sometimes less information works better, as evidenced by some of the kerfluffle around the new-fangled 48FPS The Hobbit movie.  All we really need to know is enough to fool our brain into accepting something as real or believable, and then let our imagination and subconscious do the rest of the work.  Perhaps we could call it a “Persistence of Cognition” theory when it comes to storytelling and lore; the reader/viewer invests headspace in imagining the fictional world and how it works, or how they could work within it.  It’s all about leveraging the strengths of the end viewer/reader/player, making them a partner in the experience.

This is why a lot of the high end stuff fails.  It tries to do too much.  Our brain takes it at its word, holds it to a higher standard, and finds it lacking.

Most of the time, especially with art, story and anything that really hinges on the viewer getting emotionally involved and engaging the imagination, less, to a certain degree, actually is more, simply because you’re letting the viewer breathe and take a bit of ownership, which tends to be a multiplying factor in the efficacy of a presentation.  It’s part of that “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s so important to get people to buy into what you’re doing.  There really are reasons not to go into obsessive hyperdetail, not only because it’s a time and money sink, but because it’s also less effective.

Artists tend to understand this instinctively after some practice, since it’s entirely possible to put too much into a piece of art and thereby ruin it.  Hinting at detail is often far more effective than rendering it.  Even Daniel Dociu’s incredible art, which tends to look really complex, is largely suggestive, relying on the viewer to infer a ton of detail that really isn’t there.  Just look at the actual brushstrokes in one of his pieces and compare it to what you thought was there at a glance.  Dociu is a master at implying complexity.  He’s making your brain do the heavy lifting.

Similarly, as any avid reader can tell you, “head canon” and “mental visualization” of words on the page can never compare to a moviemaker’s craft.  They simply function differently.  That’s a good thing, and creative types really need to leverage the supercomputers in viewers’ brains to do a lot of the creative work for them.  It takes trust, and knowing just what to imply and what to make explicit… but there’s a lot of strength in letting the viewer in on the process, even if it’s only on a subconscious level.

They will fill the gaps, if you can learn what to leave up to them.

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Grazing

Spring cleaning is traditionally done in the spring, for reasons unknown, but my family always tends to have a post-Christmas bout of cleaning as well.  We try to declutter a bit, maybe just to compensate for all the new clutter from the holidays.  I find myself doing this with gaming as well, going through my game library and either finishing games or uninstalling them and calling them “done”, mostly so I can get on with playing other games in the bits of time I get here and there to play.

…and there’s the crux of the matter; I almost never have blocks of time to play.  I get an hour here, fifteen minutes there… and that’s about it.  That’s part of why MMO subscriptions are a pathetic value for me; I simply don’t get 20+ hours a week to sink into any gaming, much less devote myself to a single game.  There are way too many good games out there to tie myself down like that.  (As my Steam library, GoG collection and Humble Bundle folders will attest.)  So, I have a large library of games, and way to little time to play them.

As a result, my gaming is more like grazing than gorging.  I nibble a little on something like Uncharted, then I go munch on Tactics Ogre, then savor a little bit of Guild Wars 2.  (By which I mean, I create my characters before the game inevitably crashes, then maybe move around the starting areas a little bit.)  The next week, I ruminate a little on Journey, then chew a little on LEGO Batman with the kids.  Once upon a time, I’d ride an exercise bike and play FFXII for a nice 45 minutes or so, but circumstances have made that indulgence obsolete.  (And I find that FFXII just doesn’t work well as a game I only play for 15 minutes in a sitting.)

So it’s no surprise that I play more Plants vs. Zombies, Symphony, Triple Town and Puzzle Pirates these days.  It’s all I can sneak into the schedule.  I still haven’t finished FFXII, and I have FFXIII, FFXIII-2, FFVII: Crisis Core, Blue Dragon, Infinite Undiscovery, Lost Odyssey, Batman Arkham City, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, LEGO Batman 2, LEGO Harry Potter and a host of other, smaller games that I really want to dig into… but just can’t right now.  They aren’t really grazing-friendly.  Heaven help me if I get the itch to play an MMO.  I still have WoW, STORIFT and GW2 installed, and I grudgingly uninstalled LOTRO.  I want to play all of them.  I probably never will.

…there’s something sad about that.

Still, I’m not complaining.  I have a lot of gaming options, and that’s a good spot to be in.  Since I work in the industry, it behooves me to play a variety of games, and be aware of what’s out there, rather than simply be a game fan and devote my gaming time to a single or few fandoms.  And then there’s the fact that my kids and I still love Minecraft (if I only had one game for the rest of my life, that one would do), and my oldest wants to learn the Pokemon card game… yeah, my plate is full to overflowing, but it’s all I can do to nibble at the edges.

Is it any wonder why I like the Tauren, perhaps?  Moooooo

Tishtoshtesh, Tauren Druid

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…because they don’t know the words!  (OK, that’s a shameless ripoff of Gnomeageddon’s post over here, which got me thinking about a few different things.)

The Radical Dreamers song from Chrono Cross is one of my favorite pieces of music.  (To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X is also a wonderful piece, but it doesn’t have lyrics.)  The whole soundtrack is excellent, all 3 CDs of it, but that one stands out for me because of the acoustic guitar and vocals.  But, y’see… I don’t know the words.

As I noted in the comment thread over in this discussion about Simon and Garfunkel, lyrics can be funny things.  When I was just a wee little Tesh, my mother loved to listen to Simon and Garfunkel, so I grew up on that sort of folk music sound (along with James Taylor).  Thing is, I listened to it pretty much as music with inscrutable vocals.  It was only later that I listened to the lyrics as something other than music.  That can change the meaning of songs, and dilute or enhance my appreciation of them.  John Lennon’s Imagine is a simple, dreary bit of moderately pleasant hippie music, but I find some of the lyrics rather… unappetizing.  (And, well, I can’t stand Yoko Ono.  She’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.)  I liked it a lot more when I didn’t listen to the lyrics, and just heard it as music with vocals.

In another instance, I like Suteki Da Ne from Final Fantasy X (aside from Otherworld, that game’s soundtrack is excellent).  Melodies of Life from FFIX is also really good… but I prefer both as rendered in Japanese.  The English versions are still pretty good, but suddenly, since I can understand the lyrics, they are no longer something I appreciate on a purely musical level, they are processed differently.  Not only do the meter and pacing change with the translation, subtly mangling the flow of the music, but the words are, well… subpar poetry (like a lot of music, to be fair).  Nothing really offensive, just… kinda cheesy and goofy.  Because I now know the words, I find the songs less appealing (more so for Suteki Da Ne).  I still love the Japanese versions, but I find the English versions less appealing.  Sometimes, a little knowledge has a big effect.  (And, as Jason points out, they don’t work as background music any more; since I subconsciously process the English lyrics, it divides my attention.)

Or, take the difference between this purely piano version of Skimming Stones from Sleepthief (recorded in the sadly now-destroyed Provo Tabernacle)… and this one with Kirsty Hawkshaw’s lovely vocals.  Same piano line, but the lyrics (and other audio tidbits layered in, to be fair) change the song significantly.  I actually like them both quite a bit, but they are definitely different.

Operatic music has a similar effect for me.  I can listen to bits and pieces of something like La Traviata and appreciate the musicality of the singing, but that’s because I don’t understand it.  (That I can’t stand heavy vibrato doesn’t help with a lot of opera, but that’s incidental.)  The few pieces of English opera I’ve listened to just don’t work as well for me.  (Though oddly, a musical like Fiddler on the Roof works pretty well.  Maybe it has to start in English?  And now I wonder how well Broadway musicals like The Lion King work in Japanese…)

Anyway, going back to games and Gnomeageddon, he notes that writing about World of Warcraft tends to meander in pretty similar, well-repeated circles, with authors (myself included) rehashing the same old arguments, just phrased in new ways.  Perhaps the same could be said of writing or game design in general, what with that theory that there are only a handful of “original” stories, and everything is really just a remix.

Perhaps that’s the case, and what we need to make something truly entertaining or enlightening is for it to be a bit, well, foreign to us.  That way we process it differently, and dodge the habits of familiarity and preconceived notions that can all too often taint our perception.  (Think of it as a sort of rephrased idea of “fun is learning” or Raph Koster’s “Theory of Fun“.)

I think it’s a good thing to play games (and read books, listen to music, look at art, etc.) that are foreign to us.  Not incomprehensible, incompetent games, just games that do things differently than what we’ve internalized and become accustomed to.  We can learn things that way, from game design to personal preference.  And as this interesting article notes, great artists draw from a wide variety of sources.  I think this is true for music, games and pretty much any other artistic endeavor, whether as an artist or as a consumer.

Even if it means just humming along for a while.

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Angry Bird

Since this month’s art challenge at work was built on pop culture references, I couldn’t resist coming up with something out of left field.  I’ve not seen the Sucker Punch movie, and I probably won’t (bordello-based grrrl power doesn’t interest me, though some of the movie looks pretty awesome), so naturally, I had to build around a different kind of chick.

It may not be anything new from a game artist, but this was a lot of fun to draw and paint.  It even made my wife laugh, so that alone makes it worth doing.

Happy Friday, all!

Cloudy Sword Chick; Rambo + Cloud + Angry Bird

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Game balance is a tricky thing.  Psychochild has a good article up about it over here:

Balanced but not Equal

I’ve also been pondering the nature of Final Fantasy games and game balance.  In nearly every FF game, players have the option of outleveling the game’s difficulty, effectively toning down the challenge by investing time in lesser challenges.  (That’s also what WoW winds up doing as well, at least until the “endgame” where the core play changes anyway.)  Thankfully, the games are usually fun enough to make that sort of “grind” enjoyable, and it’s often incentivized with side quests.  Of course, this blows the designer’s carefully crafted pacing and balance out of the airlock, but one of the cardinal lessons that good designers learn is that the player’s experience (including the ability to do crazy things the designer didn’t intend) is paramount, not the designer’s ego.  Games should be about letting players play, not trying to force them into the designer’s vision.

In FFTA2, like its predecessor, there are some midgame/lategame abilities that can be learned that make for “broken” gameplay.  The prototypical example is the “Red Mage/Summoner with Doublecast and Blood Price and Juggler with Critical:Quicken and elemental absorption gear”.  It’s a rather “degenerate” combo that allows the player to use two units to take infinite turns and bounce around the map, blasting foes with elemental summons (powerful large area magic).  There are those who use that as an example that FFTA2 is “broken”.  A quick YouTube search will produce more than a few results to that effect.

I think it’s brilliant.

As Mark Rosewater of MTG fame might say, I’m a Johnny.  I love finding those sort of absurdly overpowered combos in a game, using game mechanics in synergistic and explosive ways.  It’s a bit of a metagame puzzle for me, plotting out the most interesting and effective way to completely dominate the game, or maybe just do something interesting that the good little hamsters on the designer’s wheel might not have thought of.

And who doesn’t like that at some level, anyway?  Games are many things, but close to the gamer’s heart is the desire for a power fantasy; the ability to completely bend the game to our whim and demonstrate power unheard of in our petty little “real” lives.  If we’re just actors in the designer’s little “movie”, especially if we don’t know our part, we’re not going to really enjoy playing the game.  We might enjoy the satisfaction of finally figuring things out and reading the designer’s mind, but that’s an entirely different psychological fix.

FF games allow for that sort of customized playing experience, especially in the Tactics games with their expansive stable of Jobs and abilities.  I love that they offer that sort of choice.  If I want to play the game “the purist way”, I can just suck it up like a man and beat my head against the wall until I develop a sufficiently thick cranium and neck muscles to plow my way through the challenge.  If I don’t want to deal with repeated failure and stupid “do it again, stupid” gameplay (thanks for the phrase, Shamus!), I can just go out and level up a few times and come back with more beefy avatars.

Of course, the trick is to balance things sufficiently that such game breakers don’t show up too early, and to give challenges to even the elite (hello, Ruby/Emerald Weapon, meet my Knights of the Round via WSummon).

To be fair, the FF lineage does have a penchant for “one shot” gear or items that can only be found if you don’t open a treasure chest when you can in the first three hours of the game and come back to it just before the final boss, or some other obscure set of procedures.  I’m not a fan of that sort of option, since it’s only available to those with a FAQ or replay OCD.  I’m most interested in the “toolbox” sort of design that makes all of the pieces available to players, and their skill or devotion at putting together the puzzle unlocks interesting gameplay, above and beyond what the “main story” requires for completion.

Bottom line, though, I do think that FF games strike a decent balance between allowing nearly anyone to see their lovingly-crafted stories (the quality of which can be debated, of course, but here I’m talking about gameplay access) and still offer challenge to players of all levels.  It does make for some “broken” combos, and some nonsense “optional bosses” that could have eaten the Big Bad for a snack, but when it boils down to gameplay, it’s about letting the player make choices in how they approach the game.  Those who want a challenge can try a FFX “no sphere grid” game (no upgrading the characters as they level up), and those who just want to see if Yuna and Tidus finally get over their angst  can just mosey on through the game, creating superheroes that can destroy the final boss with a glare.  That flexibility is a good thing.

(And, as should be noted, this does change between single player games and MMOs, where combos need to be kept reined in a lot more, given PvP and the inevitable whining pity parties.  Still, giving players different ways to do things and have fun playing is a good thing.)

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I stumbled onto this article over on Gamasutra:

Redefining the Gameplay Narrative Divide:  Crisis Core

I’ve admitted it before, but to reiterate, I like the Final Fantasy game line.  FFVII isn’t my favorite in the series (that would be X, then VI, then VII), but it’s still a great game.  I own and still enjoy Advent Children.  I would love to play Crisis Core, but I don’t want to pony up for a PSP.  Heck, I still might pick up Dirge of Cerberus, if I had the time.

Crisis Core is apparently a giant fractured flashback.  (Which should be obvious, since the lead character is dead by the time FFVII starts.)  Some of the CC mechanics and storytelling fudge the chronology a bit, as flashbacks are wont to do.  By so doing, they make both the gameplay and the story more interesting.

I wanted to play the game before, but now I want to play it even more.  I appreciate good game design and good storytelling, and innovations like this are right up my alley.

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There is a discussion bouncing around between several blogs lately regarding levels and progression in games, specifically MMORPGs. I’ve commented on most of them, but I wanted to write a bit over here as well.

I’m interested in alternate progression tracks in RPGs. The “level” paradigm works, but it seems so… arbitrary. Gain a level, ding, you have 10% more HP and 5% more MP, a bit more strength, dexterity, whatever.  We eat it up as gamers, because we like being stronger.  We like seeing progress.  We like to see bigger numbers as we keep sinking our time into the game.  We like that whooshy special effect and shouting “DING!” in Barrens Chat.  Still, can there be something better?

(more…)

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