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Psychonauts redux

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Looks like Psychonauts turned out about as the demo indicated: solid but not particularly innovative gameplay coupled with spot on, top-notch art direction, voice acting, and writing. Now I can eagerly anticipate the inevitable price drop later this year…

Written by Daniel Grady

April 20, 2005 at 22:39

Posted in Games

Psychonauts

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Psychonauts is a new game from Tim Schafer, the guy who designed Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. If you’ve not heard of either of those, they’re widely considered adventure game classics. I’ve only played Grim Fandango myself, but I can say that it’s definitely worth hunting for a copy. The game had absolutely amazing art direction, voice acting, music, and writing. It’s one of those rare video games that will stick in your memory for years to come, not so much for its gameplay, which is really just the vehicle for transporting the actual content, but for its unique character.

Both of those games were developed when Schafer worked at LucasArts (back in the days when it didn’t routinely butcher its flagship license), but he has since moved on to found his own company, Double Fine Productions. Psychonauts is their first game, and the first game that Schafer has worked on (to my knowledge) since leaving LucasArts. Its development has been somewhat protracted and rocky, but after being dropped by their initial publisher only to be picked up by Majesco, they are set to finally release the game on the 19th (for PC and Xbox, with PS2 theoretically coming ‘soon’). Double Fine recently released a demo of Psychonauts to the public, which includes what looks to be the introductory training area of the game. I took the time out of my busy schedule of homework, homework, and more homework to play through it, and now you get to hear what I thought. Exciting, no?

The first thing you notice is that the fantastic art direction of Grim Fandango is still present in spades, along with the voice acting. What little of the writing I saw was promising. While the humor was forced at times, it was certainly entertaining, and the script quickly establishes the relationships between the major characters, not falling into the trap of a too lengthy exposition, which can quickly kill a video game. I was also very appreciative of the fact that what is essentially the tutorial section of the game is pretty well integrated into the narrative- many games have tutorials that are very jarring, forced, “Now click the left mouse button on the flashing box” affairs that are never any fun. Pyschonauts throws you right into a very simple level that presents you with a series of obstacles that are easy enough to figure out one by one, all while a psychotic drill sergeant is screaming imprecations and occasional instructions at you. It worked well. Technically, the game looks nice enough, with many of the new whiz-bang effects that we’ve come to expect, but when compared to Half-Life 2 or the like it doesn’t stand out in this respect. This game will succeed graphically purely through art direction, as far as I’m concerned.

Overall, the game that this demo indicates could go either way. The section represented here is certainly a good start, but it’s of course very difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions from the brief opening sections of any game. As compared to other current games, Psychonauts most notable features were unquestionably its art direction, character design, and so on. The gameplay itself was solid but not outstanding, and certainly runs the risk of falling into the common action/adventure/platformer mold, but again, it’s very hard to tell from such an early segment. In any case, it’s likely that the story and art will be what carry the game.

While I sat here writing this, it occurred to me that Psychonauts was one of maybe four game in the past year that I’ve been actively interested in playing. (Along with Paper Mario 2, Half-Life 2, and World of Warcraft.) Though I have next to no time to actually play games anymore, I do try to keep up with the industry, and despite all the impressive steps that have been taken as far as graphical capability goes, there have just not been that many interesting games released in a while. Maybe I’m just not paying enough attention and missed a slew of amazing titles, but you can be sure that I’m really holding my breath for Psychonauts, particularly since I may actually have time to enjoy it this summer. It has the potential to be one of the first genuinely fun games to come my way in quite a while.

P.S.

The American Society of Magazine Editors has posted their picks for the year’s best magazines.

Written by Daniel Grady

April 14, 2005 at 21:33

Posted in Games

Yay for innovation

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So that comment below about the semester going pretty well was a load of crap. This semester has been ridiculous, nonstop work. In fact, I should be working now, but instead I’m slacking off to bring you these wholly unelucidating comments.

Here, here, and this big old list all talk about Will Wright’s latest game, called Spore. It’s pretty crazy, and I’m gonna talk at you about it for a bit.

May I first just say how relieved I am to see that Wright has actually been working on something other than the damn Sims for the past little while.

May I next say that Wright has hit upon a problem that has been looming on the horizon for video games for some time. The next few generations of video cards and console systems are going to bring us to a point where we can render in realtime what are essentially photorealistic scenes. It takes only a cursory glance at the technology available today, however, to see that, while these environments might have ludicrously high resolutions and brilliant lighting effects, they will not look convincingly real because they will not behave in the manner in which we know the world works. They will not look convincingly realistic because no matter how many polygons or light sources or bump maps we add, we have not spent enough time developing the rules for how these worlds should move, and they will consequently always appear artificial.

By way of example, take the first two movies in the Alien series. In the first movie, suspense was created largely through atmosphere, and the fact that you only rarely saw the alien itself only added to the effect. By contrast, in the sequel, Aliens, we see the creatures much more frequently, and they are, at least to my mind, noticeably more frightening. Cameron pulled this off not by making the alien suit more detailed, but rather by spending months with the actors developing a convincingly scary way for the aliens to move. The costumes in Aliens are actually much simpler and toned down from the costume from the first movie; what makes them scary in the sequel is that they do not move like humans.

Game developers have yet to take Cameron’s lesson to heart. It does not matter if you have a perfectly rendered character; if they move like a blind drunk then the player will not be drawn into the world. At this point in time, it is the development of realistic physics and realistic character animation that should be paramount. The clarity of the picture makes no difference without these fundamental building blocks.

This actually is not the specific problem that Wright was addressing, although it is related. Wright pointed out that, as video technology develops, the cost of creating suitable content goes up exponentially. Creating a modern first person shooter requires a veritable army of artists and animators to paint the world, despite the fact that the gameplay is not fundamentally different that Doom’s. Wright points out that the relative value to gamers does not increase as the amount of work that goes into the game increases; in the words of someone else, “A game whose characters have 20,000 frames of animation isn’t twice as good as a game whose characters have only 10,000 frames.” As time goes on and graphics processors continue to become more and more powerful, the cost of producing even simple games will skyrocket, with no certain commensurate increase in quality. Wright’s solution to this problem is ingenious, and you should check out the above articles.

I think I’m about finished with my semi-drunken ramblings. Hope you have an excellent evening.

Written by Daniel Grady

March 18, 2005 at 00:19

Posted in Games, Movies, Rants

And so it begins…

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These things have been around for a while, I realize, but I didn’t really take a whole lot of notice until recently. There was that fiasco with the Kryptonite bicycle locks, where some clever person noticed they could be picked open with a regular Bic pen. They posted some comment to that effect on a personal blog, someone else noticed it and put it up on a blog with a slightly larger audience, and so on and so forth, and then Kryptonite was offering to replace any of the locks in question for free. Ten days, ten million dollars of revenue lost for Kryptonite. That’s power.

Well, after that, I figured I needed to start a blog of my very own. “Participate in a revolution that promises to make life suck for corporate America? Where do I sign?!?!” (pay no attention to the Google sponsored ads) So here we are. ‘We’ being purely hypothetical, of course.

Like most people who post, I have very little to say that’s interesting or original. Occassionally, you can perhaps expect entertaining, but not today. Today, we start with some links.

Thanks to the observant people at Mac Hall, I was directed to the site of an interesting project called Second Life. Let me explain the premise. The developers of Second Life have created a persistent online world in which many people can interact not only by talking, but also by engaging in any number of activities. It is not a MMORPG in the traditional sense of the term; rather, it is the next generation of IM (the developers hope). The idea is to allow people to log in to a world that is similar to the real one, but in which they have the freedom to do many things that wouldn’t be possible in real life, like fly, or own an island, or even just interact with friends who are widely separated in physical space.

Second Life is actually not unique; I’m aware of another similar service called There. Second Life does look much more interesting, however, in that it allows for a much greater degree of user interaction. The world of Second Life uses Havok physics (which power Half-Life 2, as well as many other notable computer games) to create an environment in which objects are not just static blocks, but actually behave as you would expect them to most of the time. What I mean is, with a physics model like Havok, you could have your digital self throw a table, and it would fall and spin and clatter around like a real table. There are several other interesting touches in Second Life, including a weather system modelled with cellular automata, which means that they can get some very detailed and complex behavior that would ape the way real weather works fairly convincingly. (Pseudo-randomness at its best.)

Where the whole user interaction bit really comes into play, however, is with user-created content. Second Life apparently allows anyone to custom design their own avatar, clothes, vehicle, house, even island. Additionally, you can create behaviors and physics for these objects with their scripting language. This is all available to any user who cares to put in the time. And money, of course; their business model is clever in that you pay to rent virtual land, so if you want to build that island cabana retreat, you’ll have to pay a real fee to use their virtual space. Still.

I’ve been very interested to see where projects like There and Second Life go. They really are a very clever idea, and in my mind they are also the first step on the road towards creating a truly immersive alternate world, particularly now that users have the ability to create their own completely original content. It’s not a perfect system; no matter how easy the tools are supposed to be, building a statue in Second Life is nowhere near as intuitive as sculpting something out of clay, but it is possible. Twenty years of cyberpunk literature that much closer to being reality. Don’t know whether to be happy about that, or what.

Either way, these things don’t look like they’re close to taking off the way IM has, and I doubt that they will anytime soon. Having to pay a subscription fee (or land rental fee) is a major turn off to many people for this sort of thing. Then again, having to pay a monthly fee for internet was a major turn off for a long time, too, and now it’s considered a necessity. If they ever do take off, you wonder how projects like Second Life will affect society. Even something as mundane as IM is starting to have a big impact; many people spend more time interacting socially over IM and similar channels than they do in real life, and it’s hard to say if that’s a bad thing or not.

Even using a term like ‘real life’ is unfairly weighted. It’s not as though you’re tossing words out into the void when you talk on IM. You’re certainly having a conversation with someone, with a real someone, so it’s unfair in my mind to deliniate so sharply between interacting in person and interacting online. Carrying on conversation over IM or email or what have you certainly requires a different set of social skills than talking with someone in person, and it may very well be that in the coming years those skills will be more important. As we become a more globalized and electralized world, being able to interact with people online will continue to become a more and more important skill, so who’s to say that these kids who spend all their time on IM are wasting their lives away? Deep questions, for me anyhow, and my attention has wandered.

In personal news:

Florida in the winter is absolutely, completely amazing. I went swimming outside in the middle of January. I ate ice cream on the beach in a T-shirt. I also saw the Dali museum, the Ringling museum, the aquarium, Busch Gardens (9 roller coasters in 2 hours. Beat that, sucka.) and The Motorcycle Diaries. Everything was awesome, one of the most fun vacations I’ve ever had. You should visit Florida.

But now I get to look ahead. Packing tomorrow, driving back to college Saturday, getting cracking Monday.

And on a totally unrelated note, I’m not sure if I’m just that guy who never notices crap, maybe everyone but me’s already heard of them, but there’s this band called the Scissor Sisters. They rock pretty hard.

Okay, well, wow. That was long and unfocused. That’s undoubtedly going to be the lengthiest post I ever make to this blog. I should keep this up if only to develop a clearer writing style. Damn.

…but how long will it last?

Written by Daniel Grady

January 13, 2005 at 21:50

Posted in Games