Archive for July, 2009

Rope

July 24th, 2009

rope

You can smell films that are based on plays a mile off. It must be difficult to take a story made for the stage and perform it in front of a camera without theatre’s static nature and wordiness making itself obvious. It’s certainly a clear part of Rope, Hitchcock’s 1948 flick about Nietzschean Ivy League gays attempting to commit the perfect murder. The film is great fun, mixing high tension with a sharp sense of humour, and as such comes highly recommended.

Rope was heavily adapted from its original, a play by Patrick Hamilton based on the Leopold and Loeb murder, in order to transplant the story from its roots in the British upper classes to the flatter class system of the US. But despite all the work, Hitchcock decided to film it in single takes of around 10 minutes, with the cast navigating a set that had to be at least as cleverly designed as any for the stage and the camera sporting an unflinching gaze like that of a theatre audience.

It’s ironic that the film that’s been called Hitchcock’s most experimental has the air of something as ancient as theatre. But Hitchcock brings in one or two little tricks that only film can achieve. In a couple of places, he has conversation go on as the camera remains fixed on a certain element for dramatic effect – for instance, the box in which the victim’s body lies, which is being fussed around by the housekeeper even as the dinner party guests discuss where the victim could be.

As with many Hitchcock films, Rope wears its cinematic technique heavily, with takes spliced awkwardly into each other by zooming into a character’s back, fading to black and then brightening out again into the next, but, heck, we’re talking about 1948. And its staginess feels quite exotic now, a relief from today’s unrelenting action and movement.

Theatre’s need to concentrate on character, dialogue and plot can remind film of some of basic tenets that many recent releases seem to have forgotten. Yes, films should always be built using technique and artistry specific to film, but Rope reminds that other narrative arts, such as theatre, still have a lot to teach them, too.

On boredom

July 22nd, 2009

This is a post from my old blog, circa early 2006. It was probably its most successful in terms of readers (a modest claim, to be honest) and how pleased I was with it, and it also generated some angry responses, accusing me of petty, bourgeois narrow mindedness. That wasn’t my intention at all, of course – I just kinda thought that there was a a new generation of people that had forgotten, or had never experienced, true boredom in a world  increasingly tuned to providing continuous partial attention. Self-indulgent it may be, but here it is again – now with footnotes!

We took our son to our book club yesterday evening. We all met at a bar restaurant place under the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, and we spent a glorious three hours talking about Rodinsky’s Room and uproariously deciding what book to read next1.

And all the time, little eight month old Jack2 was there, playing with bits of paper, being bounced about, smiling at people and (eventually) sleeping in his pushchair, but, naturally, marginalised from the main activity. And I got to thinking about how bored I used to get as a child, how I remember the hours of being dragged to places by my parents, made to wait as they had mystifyingly entertaining conversations with friends, or watched stuff on telly or went round National Trust properties3. In fact, an abiding memory of being a kid with my parents is of boredom4.

And I realised that I can’t really remember the last time I was truly bored. Whenever people tell me that they’re bored, I often find myself telling them that I love being bored. I’m wrong, of course. I mean that I love being aimless – fiddling about with whatever’s at hand. I don’t really know what it is to be bored any more. There’s so much to do – play a videogame, watch one of our backed up Lovefilm DVDs, read a one of my many backed up books, flick through one of my many backed up Edges5, read my backed up Bloglines feeds, write a review for Pixelsurgeon6, write a post, like now, for Rotational…

And these are just the things I like doing. Then there’s cleaning the flat7, sorting through all that paperwork that I keep putting into great, horrifying untidy piles, wash some clothes, get some bloody milk we can’t keep spooning baby milk powder into coffee8.

And before all that there’s looking after the boy.

Even on long journeys I don’t get bored – there’s DS and reading and watching Sin City on PSP and listening to music…9 Bored just doesn’t come into it any more.

I guess that’s good, but I’m not sure. Could I cope without being endlessly stimulated by something or other? What if the electricity runs out?

  1. It was Flowers For Algernon – lovely stuff, too. The book club days remain treasured memories.
  2. Now four and about to start at school. Jeepers.
  3. Here’s the rub: making our final descent into middle age, last year we became members.
  4. Though the kids often get frustrated that things don’t always revolve around them, they haven’t yet experienced the drawn-out horror of a long afternoon with nothing to do. Aside from the evergreen delights of Lego and felt-tip pens, now there’s the modern impositions of all-day Cbeebies and YouTube.
  5. Oh the irony.
  6. Now up on blocks, it was a good illustrator/web design community.
  7. Now a house and with one extra kid, so even more cleaning.
  8. Yup. Still do that.
  9. I love going on trains because they impose on you time you can’t do anything other than the things you have with you. With the advent of iPhone (or iPod Touch, in my case), though, continual distraction invades even the sanctity of First Great Western.

Architecture and videogames panel

July 21st, 2009

For those interested, we made an mp3 of the panel discussion I chaired last week at Develop about the relationship between videogames and architecture available on Edge’s website. You can pick it up here – sound quality and the fact I only remembered to switch on my dictaphone a minute or so into my intro aside, I’m pretty pleased with the way it went.

By the way, you can find a couple of write-ups of the session at Gamasutra and Pixel-Lab.

Games = extreme architecture

July 13th, 2009

I’m doing a panel session at Develop on Wednesday about the relationship between architecture and videogames with Viktor Antonov, the art director behind Half-Life 2 and (the unfortunately on-hold) The Crossing, Rob Watkins, an architect-trained artist on Fable 2, and Rory Olcayto, features editor from The Architect’s Journal and an artist at developer Inner Workings in the late 90s.

Following are my introductory thoughts on the theme to get my head properly working on it all.

A lot is said about videogames’ closeness to film. But I’d like to suggest that another art form is much closer to videogames than that: architecture.

Just as games do, architecture influences behaviour and emotion, provides for certain needs and can be used to tell stories. It’s non-linear, too – unlike film. An architect I know once told me that he saw videogames as an extreme form of architecture, and I think he was right.

Look at the Natural History Museum, for instance. It’s a superbly practical place to show off huge skeletons and glass cases filled with stuffed animals to thousands of people a day. But it also subtly steers its visitors through its spaces, is suitably grand for a national museum and is a physical representation of Darwinian principles – with terracotta tiling that’s banded to look like stratified rock and featuring carved animals crawling up its columns.

Now think about a multiplayer map in Team Fortress 2 or Halo 3. Their forms are engineered to be fun killing grounds, designed for specific game types and to facilitate players to flow through their spaces in general patterns. Their decoration, meanwhile, is designed to extend their host games’ fictions or, in TF2’s case, tell their own.

And think about Super Mario 64, whose world is the game. Or Grand Theft Auto, in which a game is placed on top of an entire, credible city. Or Red Faction: Guerrilla, whose buildings have to have structural integrity because of the game’s physics system.

Think also about the way both videogames and architecture are germinated with a grand idea and a sprinkle of available technology before the practicalities take over – of working window seals and regulatory balustrade heights, graphics optimisation techniques and platform certification.

It’s time to stop thinking so much about the cosmetic similarities between games and film and look to architecture instead. [Insert panellists going into more depth with incredible insight and sparkling examples here.]

More themes:

  • The effect of the grim futures depicted in games on the imaginations.
  • Players becoming architects through The Sims and Far Cry 2’s map editor.
  • How to create dread though spatial design.
  • Architects’ jealousy of Halo 3’s heatmaps.
  • How architects can teach game designers how to design a fun game in an open world.

Synthetic drama #1: Battlefield 1943

July 12th, 2009

battlefield1943

I spawn on board my team’s aircraft carrier on the Iwo Jima map and board a landing craft which a team member steers for Mount Suribachi. With a commanding position on the top of the hill that overlooks the whole island and strong defences, Mount Suribachi’s a key point to hold, and the enemy has it.

We speed to the beach the runs around the bottom of the cliff beneath the position. It’s so sheer that you can barely see the sandbag fortifications at the top when you look up, but some steep paths zigzag up. Our hope is that the enemy hasn’t bothered to cover their base’s back so we can pop up and take the flag for our own.

We inch up, aware of machine gun placements and snipers, but we remain unsullied – though quite what lies in wait at the summit is another matter. And then, as we near the top, bits of tree begin to fall down from above. From an explosion? Gunfire? What’s seen us? The branches roll past us and I stop still, training my sights on the crest of the hill with my heart in my mouth.

Suddenly, an enemy plane bursts over the remaining vegetation at the top with an incredible roar. I nearly trip backward as I crane around to see where it’s going, only to see it explode behind us. My breath catches and I zip my view back to the crest of the hill and see a second plane, one of ours, howl over it in victory.

It’s enough to bolster us for taking the flag, and we do – if only because there’s barely anyone there to defend it.

Aging Watchmen

July 6th, 2009

watchmen

All sorts doesn’t quite feel right about the Watchmen film. It’s certainly respectful – deferential, even – to its source, and probably to a fault. But the niggling feeling I had while watching it was that at least some of the film’s problems are probably directly due to issues with the original comic.

Whatever the case is in a broader sense, the comic is a compelling document of the time in which it was written. With its inking style and thin, cheap paper, the comic remains an artefact whether you bought it yesterday or in 1987, lending it context and significance that distracts from its problems as a piece of storytelling.

One of the troubles with the film could be, then, that it’s exposing them. It does a good job of setting the action in the comic’s version of that mid-80s period, with window-sized glasses and long haircuts, dingy streets and round-cornered TVs. But the style-conscious film-making itself, with its fixation with slowing time at dramatic moments, long camera fly-throughs of huge CGI sets and the glossy suits of its costumed heroes, feels distinctly modern.

Taking a story that was built so specifically to be told through the medium of the comic was always going to be hard to translate to film. But the effect of time on Watchmen has had its own insidious effect on the project’s success.

Going public

July 5th, 2009

About a day after releasing the game, I got a mail saying basically “well, you got my money, but I can’t play your app because it crashes.”

To me, this feels like getting punched in the stomach: Somebody gave you his or her money, and the app doesn’t work because you screwed up or didn’t test enough or didn’t think of some special case. They have every right to be pissed off, because you basically stole their money.

So says a Swiss programmer called Lukas Mathis about his first app for iPhone, a game called Goo Gun. His fascinating blog post reveals some of the pressures that result when a single coder, like him, releases a program for sale on a global marketplace.

Though his app is essentially sound, it’s subject to the vast range of conditions in which the 20-odd million iPhones (and lord knows how many iPod Touches) presently at large operate. Whether users have reset their machines to clear memory of unnecessary data and application processes, which can lead to the few cases of crashes and low memory warnings his game was throwing up. Whether users have installed the latest version of the phone’s operating system. Or whether they’ve been jailbroken – that is, whether the user has cracked the security on their iPhone in order to have freedom to install any program they like on it.

The latter condition can mean that the iPhone’s memory and resources can be eaten up by software that Apple has not certified, constricting other programs’ operations, but not that many users would know about that. And their natural reaction is to question the quality of the software they’ve paid for.

It’s a circumstance that throws up two interesting questions. The first is the legitimacy of cracking closed platforms like iPhone. It’s easy to feel that any product you’ve bought is yours and thereby believe you should have complete freedom over what you do with it. With that in mind, Apple’s control over what you can and can’t install on your iPhone is highly questionable. But Mathis’ predicament illustrates a convincing argument for such restraint – control the conditions and you have a chance to present a unified platform for programmers like him to create products for.

The other is the effect that the App Store has had in giving ‘bedroom’ programmers unparalleled closeness to the public. Without the resources of a large publisher behind them, they don’t have anything like the opportunity to test and hone their products against the vast array of conditions to which their apps will be exposed. And that leaves them exposed to the slings and arrows of public reaction – whether written for all to see on the App Store or sent in personal messages.

For all his fundamental confidence in his game, Mathis blames himself, but he sees the bigger picture. I wonder how well other programmers take it.

Role model

July 4th, 2009

linkblowshisnose

Our boy, who’s four, has trouble blowing his nose. Which is to say, he has no idea how to do it. “Blow out through your nose!” you tell him, and all he’ll do is sniff in. “Sniff out, like a dog!” you cry, but it’s to no avail. So far, we’ve had no luck in teaching him this apparently simple act.

Enter a new tactic. On most days, the boy’s favourite hero is Link. So how about getting Link to show him how to blow his nose? Enter dear Marsh, who has drawn a picture we hope can introduce the boy to the concept. Here’s hoping.

Final fantasies

July 1st, 2009

Fallout 3

Videogames give players choices. That’s because they’re interactive. Some people say a good game is a series of interesting choices. And games are beginning to give players a lot of choices to choose from.

Over the last few months, in my winding, amateur sort of way, I’ve been playing through Fallout 3. A role-playing videogame set in an alternative, post-apocalyptic future US, imagined as if the 1950s never quite went away, one of its big features is a great number of scenarios designed to allow players to decide how they tackle them. An often discussed, and probably the most interesting, is the Tenpenny Tower quest. For those wishing to avoid spoilers, you’d probably best not read on.

Tenpenny Tower is a luxury hotel left standing alone in the wasteland just outside what remains of Washington DC. Its rich occupants have gated it and posted guards to ensure no one undesirable can get in. And when you arrive, there’s a ghoul, called Roy, outside, demanding to be let in. Irradiated and mutated humans, ghouls are Fallout 3’s underclass, and the inhabitants of Tenpenny Tower definitely don’t want to let him in. In fact, the chief of the guards asks you to kill him.

On travelling to the dingy, underground home that Roy shares with his partner and friend, you realise how militant he is against those in society that have turned him and his kind aside, and he asks you to help him invade Tenpenny Tower with a pack of feral ghouls, mutated humans that have gone homicidally mad. But in your conversation with Roy, you realise that you also have a chance of convincing him that there might be a way of negotiating with Tenpenny Tower’s inhabitants so that he and his gang can move in peacefully.

So there are three possible and far-reaching outcomes: you can choose to kill Roy, you can choose to help him kill the occupants of Tenpenny Tower, or you can try to negotiate a non-violent solution. And, by God, you’ll find yourself wanting to try it all. You can save and reload at any time in Fallout 3, and I often find myself saving at a point where I can make a choice in order to experience each outcome and choose the most beneficial. And, in the case of Tenpenny Towers, the outcomes, particularly the peaceful one, are fascinating. If Roy moves in, you can go away and revisit to find that both sides are getting along well. But if you come back once again, you’ll find all the humans dead and stripped of their clothes and possessions in the basement because of a ‘disagreement’. Though much of Fallout 3 is pretty simple and morally predictable, sometimes it likes to give you a big surprise.

So I’m playing all this with multiple saves, Fallout 3’s carefully engineered storylines and choices fractured and displaced as I zip between them, sampling and testing to find the one I like, and profit from, best. I’m essentially thumbing my nose at an artificial world that’s designed to be naturalistic, with its sunsets and sunrises, its flora and fauna, its crumbing tarmac and crackling swing music, its attempts to provide believable reactions to my pluralistic actions. And I feel slightly cheap for it.

That’s why I respect and love Shiren The Wanderer. Gleefully anachronistic, this game is a Japanese take on the Rogue-like RPG. Don’t worry about what that means – all you need to know is that it’s extremely complex, with a great number of different items and monsters that have a vast array of different effects. To understand how they all work, and how you can survive, takes a long time, and in Shiren The Wanderer, death means your adventure is over. With the game’s world randomly generated each time you play, every attempt you make is different, and filled with serendipity and chance – and you can’t save. You’ll slowly learn tactics and techniques – choices – that will help you survive longer and longer, but you’ll die crushing deaths over and over again.

But as frustrating as each death fleetingly is, it’d be meaningless without its finality. In Shiren The Wanderer you can’t erase your choices. But just the chance to have had a really stupid death (for funnies), a really tense and exciting death (for kicks), or, most importantly, a really instructive death (for experience), can make a death a means in itself.

That’s not really true for Fallout 3. Though its creators have attempted to make sure there’s something of value – and something negative – in every outcome, there’s always a niggling sense that you’re missing something, that you’ve failed in some way, that there’s something better if you do things another way, and you can always rewind through your saves to try and fix things. And as you do so, you’re splintering its story and diluting the clarity of the choices it offers.

My question, then, goes back to that moment I’m standing before Roy as I try to decide whether to kill him, help him kill others or try to make everyone get along. Would it be more interesting and meaningful if whatever I choose is final? Or does Fallout 3 gain something from allowing me freedom to hop around it, spatially and temporally, as if it’s some sort of 4D hypertext?

I’m going to have a good think about that, and write about it in another post very soon.