Friday, October 14, 2005

Fahrenheit - Turning up the Heat

Fahrenheit – Turning up the Heat

Well, last night I finished a run through of Fahrenheit (released in the US as Project Indigo) and I have to say – I’m impressed.

I don’t mean that in a small way either, I’ve seen too many games (even worked on a few) to be impressed easily. It’s not sparkly graphics that impress me – the graphics are nice but no Half-Life 2 or Far Cry – and its not multiplayer fragfests that impress me – Fahrenheit has no multiplayer.
No, what impresses me is that the company have done exactly what they set out to do, and what they set out to do was redefine the almost-dead adventure game genre, whilst creating what may be the first real “Interactive Movie” experience.

The entire game revolves around this idea of an interactive movie. The tutorial is even presented to you by the Director who talks about the game as if it were taking place in a movie studio. Once the game starts, we’re treated to cinematic camera shots, multiple controllable characters and, most importantly, a truly cinematic plot.

The main ‘hero’ of our story is Lucas Kane, and ordinary man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The story begins as he comes out of a trance, having just stabbed a man to death in a restaurant rest-room. We’re plunged straight into the action as we have to figure out how to get away without being caught by the police – one of which, unfortunately for Lucas, is sitting at the counter inside the restaurant enjoying a coffee.

The story and game itself is fairly linear but at each point there are many choices that can affect the way the story unravels. The whole game can be finished somewhere around 7-8 hrs however even knowing the plot, I’m still tempted to go back and play again making different choices. What, for instance would have happened had the character just tried to run at that point, instead of trying to clean up some of the evidence? What if the police that come to investigate after Lucas gets way (who you get to control as well) were apathetic about investigating and did a slip-shod job?

I could go on, but I don’t want to ruin the story.

The game takes its cinematic roots very seriously, borrowing liberally from popular movies and stories of the last few decades. There are scenes that could have been taken straight from the matrix later in the game and one scene that is very reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs. Rather then detract with their sameness however these scenes are quite well done, and show an attention to action and detail that most current games – particularly the reasonably poor adventure games released in recent years – lack.

The control system also deserves a mention as it provides a lot of the feel that draws you into the game. Your character is controlled with the cursor keys, in a resident evil style control pattern that has you pressing up to walk forward and left or right to turn, whilst down makes you do a quick one-eighty turn to face behind you.

To interact with objects in the world however, you use the mouse and a mouse gesture system similar to the one used by Black & White, though simpler and more forgiving which is a bonus. To walk through a door for instance, you hold down the left mouse button and push the mouse away from you (if the door opens outward) or towards you (if it opens inwards). The required gestures for actions you can perform are always displayed at the top of the screen next to icons that display the action. Obviously these are context sensitive – if you’re near a door, it will show you what gesture to perform to open it, and perhaps what gesture to perform to look through the peephole and see who is behind it. If you’re near a fridge it will show you what gesture opens it. Once its open, there is a gesture to close it, and perhaps a gesture to grab a carton of milk and take a swig.

It takes a little getting used to, but after about ten minutes it feels so natural you’ll wonder why anyone ever used point and click.

Then there are the action sequences, which are liberally sprinkled throughout the game. Normally I’m reluctant to play “Action Adventures” as they tend to be twitch fests with a few adventure trappings however the scenes in Fahrenheit add to the tension and plot rather than detract from it.

There are three types of controls used in the action sequence, the first is pressing left and right alternatively as fast as you can – a control method that harkens back to the days of the Commodore 64 and other early computers. This method is used when you need to do something that requires strength, such as lifting something heavy or resisting something strong.
The second is again pressing left and right, but this time more carefully, trying to keep a bar from getting to close to either edge. This is used in times of stress, for keeping calm or balancing.
The third control method is used in all the most impressive action sequences, often in conjunction with the first method. It’s a Parappa the rapper style sequence hitting game, where you’ve got to use both the cursor keys and the numberpad and press the right direction at the right moment. The directions often seem to mirror what’s going on on-screen and are quite a clever way for giving the user control of the success of failure of very complicatated action sequences. You’ll make the main character jump, dive, kick, struggle and… well no, that would be spoiling the story.

One final point, this game is trying, and succeeding to be an interactive movie. It has everything you would expect from a modern, adult-oriented action film (including clichés – angry police chief anyone?). There are killings, gun-play, mysteries, chases, escapes, evil villans, good-hearted love-interests, plenty of time with each main character exploring their inner (and outer) motivations, and sex.

Oh yes, did I mention the sex? Fahrenheit has really turned up the heat with full love scenes (and no, they aren’t just writhing on each others laps with their underpants still on a-la Playboy Mansion) and one of the scenes even includes a mini-game. This bears talking about with all the controversy surrounding GTA:SA and the Hot Coffee mod, because from what I’ve seen, Hot Coffee has nothing on the scenes in Fahrenheit.

That’s not to say they’re excessive, and they certainly don’t contain anything you would see on an M15+ movie here in Australia. A shock for some gamers perhaps, we’re not used to getting to see CG nipples on screen – normally even when the breasts are bared and bouncing (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for instance), theres still something covering the nipple. In that way, games seem to be about four decades behind movie, for some reason it is seen as worse to show something in a game, that’s made of digital characters (IE, Computer Generated. Not Real) that can be seen at 9:30pm on free-to-air TV any night of the week.

It also remains to be pointed out that unlike Hot Coffee, the love scenes in Fahrenheit are there for a purpose. They explore the characters, create links and help form an emotional bond in the mind of the player so that when events occur later in the game we actually care. This is one of the main artistic reasons movies also include such scenes (also, it sells. But I’m talking about –good- movies).

Overall, I can’t recommend this game enough. Theres enough replayability that the shortness of the playing time isn’t that much of a problem – as it will be interesting to see how different scenes can play out with different choices and the game gives you the option to replay any scene you’ve already played in a particular account to see how it could have been different, and there are extras to unlock as well – movies, an art gallery, and many of the action sequences are available to be played on their own, or watched without being played so you can enjoy the scene without paying attention to the twitch-action.

If you like action movies, if you like adventure games, if you like good stories – if you just want to try something a bit more involved than the average “modern” game, then you must buy this game.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Gamers' Manifesto

A Gamers' Manifesto

Interesting look at the top twenty "Gamers wants". Personally, I think this is more a what gamers -should- be wanting, rather than what gamers actually want. Year after year the top 10 movies, games and pop songs show that really, the average people are happy buying and eating up the commercial pap that has replaced innovation.

Although, i'm happy to say that there are still some decent games out there. I recently bought an XBox over ebay so I might say a bit more when it arrives, however I did borrow a friends over the weekend just gone and i've got to say there are some particularly interesting ideas floating around. Sure they've all got large quantities of violence - that is what sells afterall - but theres still obviously some thought (if only a little) going into them.

Jade Empire and Fable both look great, Jade empire for the feel of the game and the depth of conversation possible that can really flesh out the world, and Fable for the 'extras' that make it really special, rather than just another beat-em-up rpg. Being able to change your hair style at a hairdressers, get tattoos and choose clothes specifically to make you "attractive" or "scary" rather than just their armour potential may be mainly cosmetic, but they really draw the player in and get them to identify with their character. Also, taking into account the amount a character eats (fat or thin), the heaviness of their weapons (building muscle) and how much sunlight they get (tan or pale) goes a long way to making you feel part of a larger world.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Cory Doctorow, Creative Commons and Commodization.

It's funny how things come full circle. I saw a review of Ex Machina on Boing Boing, skimmed the preview (i'm currently getting hold of a copy to have a proper read, so review soon!), read about the history of Cyberpunk and was lead straight back to boing boing to look up Cory, one of the owners of the blog.

Cory has licensed his books under the creative commons licence, which could possibly be called "Open Source" for publishing. It gives anyone the right to download, read, print, eat, make paper planes out of and distribute to friends the books covered under that licence.

Needless to say, i've grabbed both of Cory's books and plan to read them shortly.

But this has gotten me thinking again about the viability of open source as a business model. Publishers have found, for the most part, that books released under the creative commons licence still manage to sell as well as their un-free counterparts - maybe better, but who's to say how they would have sold otherwise. This is a -good thing-. However, I doubt its going to be enough to convince other publishers and/or authors to go the same route - and why should they? They deserve to get paid for what the write, don't they?

At the moment, the system works. Portable computers suitable for ebook readers are still rare and reasonably expensive (though I picked up a hp pocket-pc off ebay for $200 off ebay and havn't looked back), and a lot of people simply wont want to make the change from paper-based books. This is fine, it means the publisher will continue to make money and hence, so will the author.

When we get to the realm of software however, things are a little different. Whether you download software from the net, or buy it in a store, you use it the same way - on the computer. Therefore when software pirates release cracked games or applications, or when they are opensourced, there is no motivating factor for the user to buy the software as well. Some still do, there are still collectors who like the boxes and printed manuals, and the pretty look of the official cds. There are even those who feel they should buy it on principle because they enjoyed it. Thats great, but not everyone does.

Copyprotection issues aside (thats a rant for another day), the question then becomes - how do we make money when we're giving away our product for free. That is what open-source is doing. At first, the concept of open source confused me. I liked it, I love the fact that I get source with my software and can tweak it and the fact that tweaks get released means that software can be improved, developed and bugfixed with a speed unheard of by traditional development models.

The point still remains, its mostly given away for free so the authors get no payment for the hundreds of hours spent working on the product. Except maybe "tipjar" payments, as Cory calls them.

Even this, I was fine with. I enjoy programming in my spare time and wouldn't mind contributing to an open source product. I figured it was a hobby type thing. The serious players, like the linux distributions (Mandrake, Red-hat etc) charge money for services. Installation and running support, the likes of which you get with MS corporate licences. So thats that I thought.

Then I heard that IBM and others (Sun?) were employing groups of people to work on open source software and this I just couldn't understand. I never went to business school, I've done some study and earned my cert IV in Small business management, but that never mention Commodization.

Thats the way they make money, Commidization. You see, the idea is that you reduce the cost of a product (to nil if possible) in order to push sales of related products. In this case, as an example, if software is free then it encourages sales of software related products, such as hardware and software support. It's not accident then that the major corporate propronents of open source software are hardware companies, and its primary opponents are the big software firms (Such as microsoft).

What does this mean then for the publishing industry? Well, there are two ways I can see for the publishing industry to move forward. The first, is to join the creative commons experiment and give it a go. Its not going away and doesn't seem to hurt sales. Forget about DRM, it's never going to work - technology opens new doors and makes things possible that weren't possible before, people will not accept hobbling of their capabilities to protect copyright. If its digital, it's spreading, and if its not digital - it will be soon.

The second idea takes Commodization into account and moves with it instead of trying to hold on to old, outdated business models. Buy/Merge/Start up an electronics division and design an ebook solution package. There is still no affordable, good solution for those who really want to make the jump from paper to electrons but still want to be able to read where they used to (bed, beach, living room etc).

Build a paperback size reader for fiction books, and an a4 size one for graphical intensive books such as RPG's and Comics. Market them at a decent price and start releasing ebooks, without drm or some method to lock them into your product, for next to nothing. Fictionwise does a good trade selling ebooks, and occasionally giving them away - that same principle would commoditize your books and boost your hardware sales.
And of course, you still keep your paper based publishing - not everyone wants to move to the digital formats.

This is the way digital publishing could go, I feel. Its the way I hope it goes - DRM is a dead end that is sucking up too much time and resources, and surely even those developing the solutions know by now that they simply do not work.

The Tao of Gaming - Blood Bowl re-review

The Tao of Gaming - Blood Bowl re-review

Now this is a -nice- blog. I can't help it, as much as I might try sometimes to grow up and be a responsible adult, I just love games. Board games, card games, computer games, roleplaying games, we have a games closet bigger than both my parents and my fiancee's parents combined and that doesn't count the rpg ebooks and hardcover books that are on the shelves.

In anycase, I thought I had to link to review. Blood bowl is a great game with a vibrant player-base even now that seems to get forgotten sometimes because it's neither 'new' nor as big and mainstream as the two gargantuans of the Games Workshop line, Warhammer and Warhammer Fantasy.

In anycase, i've been anxious to paint some models now for a while - I havn't done that in something like eight years. The question is - do I start working on a warhammer army, cool but a large commitment, or do I get a blood bowl team - a much smaller commitment, but requires me to order from america/europe.

I guess it depends on whether I can find a cheap version of the blood bowl box set somewhere ;)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Ex Machina

Boing Boing: Ex Machina: cyberpunk tabletop RPG

A short review of Ex Machina at the Boing Boing directory has me well and truly drooling on the keyboard. I've always been a big fan of the Cyberpunk genre and it's moves into cyberpunk. My personal favorite has always been Cyberpunk 2020 (true gibson style corporate cyberpunk role playing), followed closely by Shadowrun (An interesting blend of fantasy, magic and cyberpunk. It's difficult to imagine how exactly this works, but it does, and is one of the most popular cp rpg's out there.) but i'll definately have to give this one a look!

Poetry Month

Apparently this month is national poetry month, probably in America as most of the bloggers i've seen mention it are American. Still, i'm always happy to jump on the bandwagon of a good idea, so i'll be presenting some poetry each weekend to you for the month of April. Saturdays I will post snippets of poetry from some of my favorite poets, and Sundays will be original poetry of my own that hasn't seen the light of day in quite some time.

I've already missed the first weekend so look for the first posts later this week.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

The New DLL Hell

The case of the InvalidCastException struck again with a particularly difficult to locate error yesterday when I spent some time working on my current personal project. Apparently this is an error a lot of people run into in one form or another when implementing plugins though unfortunately it would seem that the version I encountered was not the standard (as always).

If you've never heard about this problem before, theres more info on the most commonly found versions of the error at http://www.yoda.arachsys.com/csharp/plugin.html

Apparently the dot net framework is able to differentiate between two loaded assemblies, even if they are identical. IE, if the same assembly is in two different places and happens to be loaded twice, the runtime will treat them as completely different entities. This doesn't seem like a problem until you get to a problem like the one I encountered.

The plugin framework I designed was scanning a directory (in this case /plugins off the main folder where all the binaries were being compiled to) so to keep things easy, I set the plugin target of the compile to be this /plugins directory. After all, if you're compiling to the right directory to begin with, you don't have to copy things around right?

Unfortunately, one of the dll's referenced by the plugin was an interface dll (as explained in the other article, I was already doing it the way he suggests). As the compile targeted the plugin directory instead of the common bin directory, the compiler saw fit to copy the dependancy with the plugin. So now I have two copies of the interface dll, one in the main directory and one in the plugin directory.

Now when running the program, I get the invalidcastexception. From what I can deduce, both copies of the interface dll must be loaded by the program along with the plugin dll. So even though the plugin implements the plugin interface, the runtime assumes it implements the interface defined in the assembly in the plugin directory, whilst it assumes the interface I was to cast it to is the interface defined in the main directory interface assembly. Both of these interfaces are identical, as the assemblies are identical, however the fact that they are located in two different places is enough for .Net to decide that the plugin cannot be cast to the interface I needed it in, and instead must crash.

I don't think this is so much a bug in the .Net framework as it is a 'feature' or sideeffect of the .Net security and managed code abilities. Still, it was a painful unexplained error that took hours to solve.

The solution? Compile the plugin to the main binary directories with all the other assemblies and the executeable. When its time to test the plugin, copy it to the plugins directory on its lonesome.

Works now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Slashdot | The Fate of The Free Newspaper

Slashdot | The Fate of The Free Newspaper

This is an interesting article although I found the conversation following to be even more interesting. I think the problem with the internet as a new medium is a problem for the media organisations (such as RIAA, MPAA and the News Companies). People seem to forget that the free press started as exactly that, someone with a printing press starts making a newspaper to report to the people of his community and bring them together as a community.

We're in an era now where anyone in the world can be a reporter, with blogs and webpages easily obtained. Perhaps the media is dying and just doesn't know it yet.

The media has to charge money in order to pay its large quantities of reporters, publishers, editors and business officers - as well as make a profit for its shareholders. Perhaps they need to be looking at a new way to make their money if they wish to survive, or at least learn to trim the fat?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Implementing a Script Engine into .Net

Hey everyone,

I've just finished writing a .net scripting engine, very basic one, that compiles .net language files (my current implementation takes only c# files but could easily be extended to vb and other languages) and runs them on the fly.

It's an interesting process, if anyone's interested let me know and i'll post a tut.

-Nick