quarta-feira, 31 de Agosto de 2011

Auld Lang Syne

The first games were notoriously hard, or at least unforgiving. Caesar, my girlfriend tells me, is horridly awful. Rayman 1 is a wonderful game, but very hard. The Sierra adventures were easy to render unwinnable. The first two Sonic games, with no SAVE feature, required time and patience and skill and a lot more time to get through. And if I go further back, well, all I see are the corpses of long lost adventurers and various graffiti on the walls, saying things like "I can't take this anymore!", while in the distance a single silhouette stands near the fabled treasure (because there's always one that does see it through).

Exception: the Lucasfilm/Lucasarts games, except maybe for Maniac Mansion. And games like Gabriel Knight.

Fast-forward to now. The bulk of today's market are games where dying means nothing - you restart to the beginning of the mission, or to a nearby checkpoint. Sam and Max, Back to the Future and Tales of Monkey Island are full of hints. Games have become casual - even the non-casual games.

It is a good thing in many respects - there's no fun in playing Sonic when you know that every time you boot it up you have to start right at the beginning, and will have to keep on playing, tired, if you ever want to see the end, with only so many lives and continues, and incidently if you don't get all the emeralds you STILL won't have won - but I hope we're not stuck here. This is merely the other end of the spectrum. At first, we had games where every action mattered and could potentially end the game - way too much stress, way too much commitment. Now we have games where it doesn't matter *what* you do, or how hard you try, or how hard you fail.

I mean, how am I supposed to feel nervous about dying in Tomb Raider Underworld when there's checkpoints all over the place? Often it's better to just die and be reborn in a checkpoint, fully healed. In the very first Tomb Raider, which I played on Sega Saturn, ammunition and medipacks were to be conserved because I had no idea what was lurking around the corner.

Incidently, if you're wondering, this also relates to IF. Gone are the days of Change in the Weather and Curses, thankfully (and also, sadly, because hard and unfair as they were, they were also rather brilliant in their cruelty) - the closest we get these days, I believe, are gems like Make it Good, though I haven't played that one yet (from reviews, it seems a more relaxed version of Varicella). Now we have Blue Lacunas. We have Lost Pigs. Aotearoas. Occasionally we have Broken Legses, but even that one cared enough to supply an amount of help that older games simply wouldn't bother to.

Curiously, I think IF is closer to striking the perfect balance between difficulty and fairness, between making a game too easy or too hard, between punishing the player or guiding him by the hand all the way. Possibly because it's done by people with not commercial constraints, and people who look at the past and present state of gaming and are in the leasurely position to think about it, draw conclusions and experiment in one-man games.

Come to think of it, the IF author is the most privileged designer in the world.

Aren't all games alike nowadays? (or: why getting off the shelves was GOOD for adventures and IF)

Owners of PS3 will know of the attack on PSN a few months back (ok, more than a few. The only time I'm strict with dates is birthdays, anniversaries and deadlines). As a result of that attack, PSN was offline for a while. When it came back, it had a "Welcome Back!" offer to make up for the downtime (which I thought was rather nice), where you could, among other things, download for free a game out of a set they had selected.

The only one they had which sparked even the remotest interest was InFamous. So I thought, why not? I'm not paying for it.

I haven't completed it yet - I've got about halfway through the second area, and things are just getting so similar I'm getting really bored. But that's not my point right now, though it's part of it.

My girlfriend loves the Assassin's Creed series (well, she loved the one set in the Renaissance, she thought the third was fun and the first was crappy, and she played them in that order. Two out of three means she likes the series). And long before I played InFamous I had heard all about the game mechanics. I had heard about the open world, about "freeing" parts of the map, about different missions including following couriers, about finding little flags and stuff, about climbing everything...

...so naturally, InFamous seemed rather too familiar at times. With the health system I'd seen in Uncharted.

Now she's played Saboteur, and from what she tells me, and from what I've seen, though it differs in small points that do affect the gameplaying experience (after all, there's nothing *quite* like riding a tank through Paris)... it's pretty much along the same lines.

I suppose the PS3 has found a standard, and right now PS3 rules the gaming scene. The PC certainly stopped ruling it for quite a while now - I remember playing Dreamfall and feeling as though it were a console game (incidently, that was a game with hefty highs and dreadful lows, but I loved the ending so much I am sad to think there will probably never be the intended sequel). Psychonauts was certainly meant for a console system. And I could go on and on, but there's no point.

It's not *bad* that there's a standard, a mold. I suppose it's inevitable. Remember those little LCD handhelds games, like the Game & Watch games? Even they relied on the same mold, often going left and right to catch something falling, and then changing the setting.

So it was for adventures. I wasn't around at that time, but by God I've played enough oldies to know that at their peak, adventures were a sorry lot. They were everywhere, much as the open-world games are now, and much as the FPSs were a while back. And they were of very variable quality. Same with graphical adventures - if you ever played the vile "Dark Half" you'll know what I mean. Just the other day I booted up a game where I had to find a ring that Lucrezia Borgia had lost while fooling around. Yawn. Being the dominant genre isn't as good as all that.

Anyway, it's not as though "genre" means all that much anyway. Save for some notable and remarkable exceptions (like Gabriel Knight 1 and 2), some of the best adventure games are not really adventure, or are not entirely adventure. System Shock. Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain. Psychonauts. Loom. Bad Mojo. It depends on how you define adventure, and I have always defined it as a game that focuses on the story, and while that definition is horribly broad in these days where everything has a story that does develop throughout the game, I think it still applies. InFamous has a story, but the *focus* is the missions and enhancing your own powers. Uncharted is all about story, but it *focuses* on the gunfight, really, and anyway, you're rarely controlling/experiencing the story: rather, you're playing set challenges inbetween mouthfuls of story.

I wasn't always of this opinion, but the best thing that could have happened to IF was to have gone off the shelves. It's now in the hands of people who know about it, who care about it and its design. People, moreover, entirely in touch with the rest of the gaming world, and who learn from their mistakes. Clever people, smart people, intelligent people, caring people. People who aren't, and this is very important, constrained by commercial viability.

sexta-feira, 19 de Agosto de 2011

Could it be?

In the last post I spoke of a dream machine that would run all existing IF and would be pocket-compatible.

Today I see this:


Could it be? Could this phone run WinGit/Glulxe, Frotz, ADRIFT? Maybe Spectaculator and CC64? Dare I mention AppleWin or WinUAE? At the very limit of possibilities, maybe even - gasp! - Dosbox?

I mean, we *ARE* talking about IF. I know this is still a phone, with limited capabilities... but given the native capabilities of a Windows 7 OS, even if a mobile one, and given the low resources of IF...

quarta-feira, 17 de Agosto de 2011

Portable IF

So, back in the day (a sentence often used by people to indicate a time before they were born, or back in their toddler days, as though it were 10 thousand light-years away - like when you try to tell your kids you had no TV when YOU were a kid, and they stare at you blankly), a funny little thing happened to the mainframe. It was called "Adventure", and it was history in the making.

And in order to play that game, from what I hear, people had to log onto the mainframe. For that they needed a computer - which they'd usually find it set places, and which they could use for a set amount of time and no longer. I appreciate corrections, but from the things I hear I gather some people could only access 30 minutes or so of a computer with Adventure, in libraries and such.

So, that's 30 minutes of a day playing a game. And the rest of the day thinking about the game, trying to solve it in your head, eager to try your solutions out.

Think about it. It's actually a 24 hour game session, non-stop.

Nowadays,we multi-task so much we can be like kids with ADD. There's so much to offer, it's all so easy to access. Adventure was cool, was unique, and I can only imagine that having to trek all the way to a computer and having a time limit only enhanced the flavour of the thing.

Whereas now we all have at least one computer at home and easy access to thousands of games of various lengths. I realise that what I'm about to say isn't everyone's experience, but it doesn't seem plausible anymore that anyone is going to bother trying to solve a puzzle the whole day long, when away from the environment in which to test their theories, when they could just as easily check hints, walkthroughs, or different games.

My point: because we got used to having everything we want (easy net, a computer in every house, thousands of games and hints and walkthroughs), we have less patience for IF than we used to. The novelty wore off, and Adventure sold mostly on novelty (but also, to be fair, on good prose). Who has the patience these days to maintain a virtual gaming session, knowing that they'll only be able to test it out when they get home from a day's work? And after a day's work, how patient are you, really, to visit those puzzles?

No one ever mentioned this in connection with puzzleless IF, possibly because it detracts from the artistic value to think it might be so popular because it's easy to play when you get home from work, or when you're about to *go* to work. And I don't see anyone mention the popularity of short games in connection with the short game sessions we're forced to have because of our schedules. Maybe these things aren't true, but they're certainly seductive ideas.

But my point is still the whole idea of going around your life solving a game puzzle in your head and having to wait to get home to try it out.

The beauty of portable IF (yay! I got to the point!), and the reason I think IF is by nature a nomad beast, is trying out different puzzle solutions on the tube. You get to your station, you pocket your kindle/mobile/game boy; then maybe you get onto a bus, and you quickly whip it out again (and in those 5, 10, 15 minutes you never really left the game - it was all still going on inside your head). You can whip it out anytime you have a spare moment just like you could read another page of a book you really like when you suddenly have the chance.

In portable IF we have longer game sessions that don't force the player to be at a certain place at certain times.

If you've experienced portable IF, you know how liberating that is. When you're trying to solve a puzzle in a desktop, you're in a closed space; very close to hints and walkthroughs; and more often than not, you're in a place where things need to be done (if you're at home, there's the dishes, the cleaning, the pets, the work you brought home, the dinner). Bring them all together and if you're playing an IF that doesn't really, really hook you, frustration will soon follow.

But in a mobile environment you're constantly changing your surroundings. This is a breath of fresh air in itself - phisically being in new situations does stimulate you to think of different solutions (I speak from experience). And being away from easy hints, and thinking "well, I have 5 minutes and nothing to do, might as well whip up Leather Goddesses of Phobos and try to figure out how to get out of that gorilla cage"...

The other day I booted up Shrapnel because I had to wait for 10 minutes before a class and I wanted to asnwer "no" to the question I get asked. And right now I've an itch to play Curses on my mobile phone, and knowing - as I do know - how cruel it can be, I don't think I'll ever want to play it on my desktop again.

My dream device would be a kindle-style mini-computer in which I could run Frotz, Glulx, AppleWin, Adrift, AGT, Alan, WinUE (or whatever the Amiga emulator is called), CC64, Dosbox, Hugo, Level9, Magnetic Scrolls Interpreter, Quest, Spectaculator, SUDS and TADS.

With an option to split the screen and load up Trizbort.

I dream too much.

segunda-feira, 15 de Agosto de 2011

I have a dream

I dream that one day I have enough money to embark on a crazy scheme - contact Activision and pay them to re-issue all Infocom titles! All the feelies! Oh, to hold a brand-new wishbringer, to write with an actual Bureaucracy pencil, to fill a Ballyhoo balloon, to detach the Suspended playing pieces, to read a Sherlock Holmes newspaper! All brand new!

Yeah, yeah, I know. But hey, I can dream. In the meantime, though, I do have all the feelies' images in  PDF format, along with all the necessary documentation. Until I get stinking rich, they'll do just fine. ;)

Speaking of collections, my Interactive Fiction folder - contaning pretty much all the IF I could find on the net, excluding only platforms such as Acorn and BBC - is about 7,30 GBs bit. Still small enough to fit on a DL-DVD. I toy with the idea of uploading it, somewhere, once it's all properly sorted into nice folders according to system and alphabetically, so that everyone can enjoy. It also has all the intepreters (for Windows) needed to play them.

It also happens to include some licensed stuff, like Spectaculator (not free) and the Textfyre games. So I'd have to pick and choose some. But I'd very much like to share my collection, once it's properly organised...

sábado, 13 de Agosto de 2011

A final thought just before I go to sleep

Today I sang "E lucevan le stelle" and "Recitar!... Vesti la giuba".

In the first, Mario Cavaradossi remembers, the night before his execution, the first time he met and fell in love with Floria Tosca, his lover.

I am told it was my best Lucevan ever (keep in mind I've only been studying for about six years). Which is odd, because I usually do more stuff. Today I felt I was a bit too focused on the technique. As it turned out, within the simplicity of the aria (I have a previous post brushing this subject), what the audience perceived was more satisfying and dramatic - and better sung - than any of the times I've tried to put some drama into it (it's opera, after all, to be seen from afar).

The second one is sung by a clown, who realised his wife is sleeping with another man, though he doesn't know who yet. He sings that he must wear the wig, and paint his face, for the people want to laugh - and if Arlequin steals your Columbine, laugh, clown, and everyone shall applaud.

In this one I felt the need to compensate for the lack of passion I felt I had put into Lucevan - though I never sacrificed my technique to do so. I believe the result was good, but I don't know, I don't know, I never know...

Having got home, full of adrenaline and caffeine and unable to sleep, I felt the time was right to watch "Black Swan", which had been lying around waiting for me to get in the mood.

I have just finished watching that masterpiece. If you've seen it, and understood how I feel about singing those two pieces, and understand that I'm willing to go to any lengths - any lengths, so long as they're honest and ethical and drug-free - to pursue a long and fruitful career... then you might understand how I'm feeling right now.

Which is more than I do. But I'm glad I watched that film.

PS - By the way, here's one of my favourite tenors doing renditions of these wonderful arias.

There's puzzlefests and then there's puzzlefests

Sometimes IF really makes me feel either a) dumb, or b) unwilling. Too "a)" to solve puzzles or too "b)" to put in the time and effort required. It makes me feel like I'm missing out on something just because I don't happen to "get" the puzzles. It's even worse when I'm actually enjoying the game.

Case in point: the wonderful game "Final Selection", a one-room puzzler by the creator of "Lord Bellwater's Secret". In this tightly-coded, extremely logical puzzler, you are applying for a job as "Director of the Museum and Institute for Puzzles and Problem Solving". Your task: to prove your worthiness by solving a puzzle. A long, many-staged word puzzle.

The game is fantastic in all but a very important point: it doesn't hold my interest.

Oh, I tried, how I tried. It deserved my full attention, this game. It didn't pretend to be what it wasn't: it was a puzzlefest and a coded message, no more and no less. It was very well implemented. As I later saw in the walkthrough, it is very logic, and rewards every player's honest attempts. It is a gem.

Why didn't I like it? Don't I like puzzlefests? Don't I like *puzzles*? *Why* am I playing IF if I can't appreciate this important aspect of IF?

There's puzzlefests, I guess, and then there's puzzlefests. It might be worth trying to tell them apart.

First, we have "Final Selection" (because it prompted this rant). It's a pure puzzlefest. The setting is as banal as possible, though rich in interaction, in an attempt to help clear the player's mind of any distractions. That's possible what I didn't like about it - it was so *banal*. In fact, this is a one-room, one-puzzle puzzlefest, though the puzzle is a multi-layered one. And the puzzles are the main focus of the game because they *are* the game, and they will involve weighing puzzles, they will involve decoding messages, they will involve combinations.

We also have "Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina". Also a puzzlefest, of a different kind. We have a more traditional world of IF, where more "IF-fy" actions are available, but in the end this game lives solely on the strength of its setting (because it's so well described and atmospheric) and on its puzzles, which are just this close to being completely unrelated to anything within the game. The story is nothing but a simple premise, an excuse to throw you into this setting. Which is quite allright if you're willing to play disconnected puzzles in an environment which exists solely to house them.

And then we have the puzzlefest that I *like*.

Well, before we get into that, I should clarify I also like the two kinds of puzzlefests mentioned above, but only if they've got story, atmosphere, and stuff. "Final Selection", great as it is, bored me because it was just an office, where I was just applying for a job. BANJO... er, NJAOB made me just go "why doesn't he get his daughter something else?! I would have, at this point!". Yes, I know that if he did there would be no game - my point is that I felt so frustrated by the challenges (challenges completely out of proportion to the original task) that I turned away entirely. Even though it succeeded in drawing me in in areas where "Final Selection" did not.

The puzzlefest that I *like* is not purely cerebral. It doesn't make me have to abstract myself from the game - if I'm playing IF, then I *want* to be involved in the game, and having to solve a "soup can" puzzle will just detract me emotionally and intellectually, and maybe at times this is what the author intended (would work well in a Brechtian work, surely), and more often it isn't.

The puzzlefest that I like has puzzles integrated in the story, and more often than not those puzzles are situational. They involve object manipulation in unexpected ways.

The puzzlefest that I like is Hollywood Hijinx, which is structurally very basic but very rich in fun. The puzzlefest that I like, believe it or not, is Ad Verbum, because within that context the word puzzles are *made* to be sort of object manipulation. The puzzlefest that I like is Infidel, where the puzzles are thinly disguised by the setting - but man, what a setting! And each puzzle solved brings its own reward, relevant to the plot. Yeah, I'm closer to getting uncle Buddy's inheritance! All right, that's one more object in the crate! Oh man, I'm just about to get the treasure from the pyramid!

Whereas in NJAOB, if I had solved the lights puzzle (the math puzzle which sent me screaming into the night), I would have felt "Oh boy. The lights are on. Another series of puzzles is available to me. Huzzah."

I suppose I need to make a point. Hmmmm... I guess my point would be that I favour puzzlefests that reward me with something more than another puzzle, and are interesting enough to keep me playing. Because otherwise I'll play some other puzzle. It's allright with me if the crossword wins against the narrative, but having the narrative dumped alltogether...

I've noticed a lot of IFers are quite allright with the occasional pure crossword, as long as it's a good one (case in point: "Final Selection"). And I believe it has something to do with a lot of them being heavily into programming (as writing IF was, for a long time, programming - nowadays it can be point-n-click [ADRIFT, Quest, SUDS] or creative writing [Inform 7]), and thus enjoy it the same way they enjoy programming. They have analitical, logic minds, and they enjoy taking them out for a spin.

Whereas newer IFers are a different crowd, with different IF-creating tools. They are more likely to be more story-oriented in their thinking. It's unlikely that we'll see another "Curses" or "Jigsaw" (for which I'm both grateful, because they violate so many Rights of the Player's Bills, and very sad, because they are wonderful games), because all of a suddent we've got IFers like me, who aren't interested in IF for the same reason the previous generation was.

Wow, I got pretty off-track. Well, that was the point of this blog - say what was on my mind, as long as it was relevant to something or other.

To round it off...I hope the puzzlefest doesn't disappear entirely. I also hope I come across puzzlefests I can *enjoy*, unlike "Final Selection". It's pretty unlikely, though - games like "A Flustered Duck", a puzzlefest with very little case for story and atmosphere, seem to reinforce the idea that there's some sort of rift between story-based and puzzle-based IF nowadays. I miss the days when IF was just IF, and it could include puzzles and it could include stories and it could include whatever the hell we like.

You know, that's why I love Plotkin. He manages the best of all worlds. He's not the only one, but suddently "Dual Transform" just popped into my mind...

segunda-feira, 8 de Agosto de 2011

The hardships of creation

I've given up entirely on creation. As regards games, I now play; as regards music and acting, I seek every indication in the score and in the text, and build from that. It's not an unusual method - in fact, in the British method of acting, the text is so important that you build from it in such a way that, in the end, there's very little to add except a bit of yourself. Whereas the American method is all about experimenting with different ways of saying the text, different sensations, trying to discover the subtleties by going in new and unexpected directions.

Back when I cared about acting, I wanted to learn the British method. It's more me.

But now I've pretty much given up on creating. It terrifies me. Even at acting school, I had so much trouble getting into the character. Who is he? How does he speak? What defining characterstics does he have? How does he walk? How does he breathe? More often than not, those things are NOT in the text. Where do they come from?

It was pure anguish. And I've found that this anguish extends to the whole process of creation. Some people thrive on it - I get petrified. I salute every author, every writer, every actor, every artist, who does not get intimidated by the white canvas, the blank paper.

I sometimes wish I was ignorant, a reckless fool. Maybe I could write if I didn't know, as I do know, the sheer importance of the first paragraph, the first line, the first word. The beginning must hook the reader. It must set the tone. Then there's the matter of how the story must progress. Should it be linear? Should the timeline move back and forth? The same story can be told millions of ways, and of those millions 80% are trash that do the story a disservice; of the remaining 20%, 1% is pure gold, and of that 1%, an infinitely small percentage is perfection.

Those who know me know I strive for perfection. "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." That's my motto, my way of life.

How, then, can I create, knowing as I do that the chance of finding perfection is infinitesimally small? How do I start, knowing the importance of each word? How do I progress, when in me weighs heavily the knowledge that I must juggle characters, plot, subtleties, maybe even more than a single plotline?

Or let's take music. How should I start? A melody first, alone? Or first the accompaniment? What sort of accompaniment? Arpeggio? Basso Alberti? Ostinati? Maybe a melody and a counter-melody? A fugue? What atmosphere do I want to achieve?

What atmopshere do I want to achieve...

...yes, that is probably the question. Without knowing that, I can never hope for a firm start (it doesn't have to be good, I suppose - there's always revision - it just has to be firm). It's much the same way in which I would prepare for a role, I imagine - the path starts with a rough image of what I want to achieve in a speech, in a mute scene, in the play.

And yet it's so easy to fall into one of two traps - overdo it and miss completely. If I overdo it, my poignant becomes maudlin, my suspense becomes overhanded. If I miss, my tragedy is misconstrued entirely as comedy, and my most tragic scene brings the house down roaring laughter.

Music is, in a sense, much easier. The written notes and melodies are the starting point I never have in theatre, or even when writing. "La vita è inferno all'infelice... in vano morte desio" (Life is hell for the unhappy... in vain do I wish for death". In a play, these words could be said with the utmost simplicity, or they could be a scream of despair; there could be quite resignation or heart-rending suffering; and either way it can still be played well. But in the opera (La Forza del Destino, Verdi), these words are set to a simple series of notes  - "La vita è inferno all´", for instance, is all the same note, a C, raising up to F and then falling back to E on "infellice", stressing it. This is all a perfectly comfortable range for a tenor, and the rest of the line is in a descending melody. And all of this without a single instrument playing alongside the tenor.

There is no question - simplicity, resignation, well- or barely-concealed inner struggle... those are all possible readings, but we've already elliminated the more aggitated renditions, there will be no copious crying, no hair-pulling.

Dear reader, can I possibly convey the relief I feel that so many possibilities are excluded? There is still a huge ammount of discovery, and yet there's a clear path that is impossible to deviate from.

I like paths. They're safe. It's not that I get lost when I step off the beaten track, I can manage pretty well, but I'll feel unsafe and nervous and jittery. I ain't no forest ranger. I could start a forest fire entirely by accident.

As regards IF, I've probably made more advances in writing IF that in writing static fiction, which is curious because if it's hard to write for a pair of eyes (possibly ears, if those eyes are unseeing), then how much harder to write for ten fingers as well, and a mind that will be alert to my every word, waiting for the moment to join in. Puzzles? Designing puzzles is laughably easy when compared to the momentous task - though I feel many, many budding authors have no idea of the magnitude of the thing - of deciding how to tell the story to an active player. How do we characterize the PC or an NPC? Should we do a flashback? How best to emphasize a key point?

I can imagine that most readers are thinking something along these lines: "You're overthinking it, overcomplicating. Just do it, one step at the time. You can come back and redo or rewrite or redraft at any moment."

Ah, the redrafting. Now this I know I'm not alone in thinking what a hundred-headed beast it is. How to know when to stop messing with it? How to tell when enough is enough? As you rewrite and reread and rewrite, you cross a certain line where you stop knowing exactly what you have in front of you. You've raised it, taught it, educated it, watched it grow, and suddenly you have no idea what it is, where it's going.

As regards writing, I have another fault as well, which must be on your mind right now. I write too much. My apologies.

As I finish this, I went through my e-mail and looked at my last project - a text-version of Phantasmagoria, source code now lost in a complete computer failure. The reason for making a text-version of a graphical adventure: the game structure and the story are already made (much like the sheet music for an aria). All I have to do is to strive to capture the essence of the game in another medium. It was a dear project of mine, but it went only so far before I was assailed by the doubts... Is this right? Is it too much? Where am I going with this? Is it worth it? What's the point, anyway, it's a classic FMV adventure, who will care about a text version?

But as I look back it seems... good. Not decent, not presentable - good, what little there is of it. There's care, there's polish, there's a direction in mind. There's an atmosphere, there's characterization. Though it's been lost forever in the crash, there was a lot of dialog and what I remember as good NPC interaction.

I yearn to create, and when I start - or at some point in the process - I become so petrified by all the possibilities, so riddled in doubt, that I'm unable to move forward.

So I have chosen not to create. I feel more serene. I know it's a part of me that I've pretty much stifled, but I feel... better. Happier. I still have a lot of room to maneuver in an aria. I don't need the anguish.

As a parting gift, here's the last version I could find of Phantasmagoria. I wish I could show you a later version, but it's lost. And I am sorry for that, truly I am.


domingo, 7 de Agosto de 2011

Atlantis 1, 2, 3, 4, oh just give it a rest already!

I've been playing the old Cryo "Atlantis" series lately. A long long LONG time ago I bought "Atlantis: The Lost Tales", and got stuck. Internet was scarce and costly back then, and I was too young to bother much about getting stuck.

Well, these days getting stuck is no problem, right? Specially when the problematic puzzle is a gratuitous external minigame puzzle. So I booted it up (with the right patch, it even worked in Windows 7) and played it through.

The one constant in the whole series (up to Atlantis IV: Atlantis Evolution, at least), is beautiful graphics and great music. "The Lost Tales" gives us a more-or-less typical first-person adventure game, with a narrative that makes it worth enduring some less-than-stellar design issues. The story begins with you playing Seth, a newly-chosen "companion" to the Queen of Atlantis (I know it sounds dirty, but it's not). It's not long before the Queen is attacked and disappears, however, plunging Seth into a conspiracy that will lead him to discover the very origins of the Atlantean people.

I keep telling everyone, it's not the story, it's how you tell it. These days every story has been told at least once. There is nothing new, therefore it's all clichèd. What matters is how you craft the story, how you present it, how you tell it; what sort of twists, hoops and loops it goes through. What matters is whether you spend the entire game looking for that missing Queen or whether you... ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that it satisfied me, even if it didn't blow my mind.

Designwise, though, things take a pretty different turn. I don't know whose bright idea it was to disallow saving the game except at predetermined points, where the game automatically does it for you, but it's horrid. A horrid checkpoint system that just doesn't work in a game where some action sequences (well, I say "action"... it's more that you have to quickly decide on a course of action or get killed) are so tightly timed you're bound to replay long segments of game just to get to where you died, and then die again and... bah. The game is also swarming with irrelevant puzzles, the sort that killed "Black Dahlia". It was only my mild interest and curiosity with the story that kept me playing.

On the whole, I wasn't dissatisfied. On to Atlantis II: Beyond Atlantis.

The trouble with this game is that the story is awfully static. Bearing no resemblance to "The Lost Tales", and being nauseatingly pseudo-mystical, in "Beyond Atlantis" you play a "lightbringer" who has to travel through a certain number of worlds and record his journey and... and well, I'd just come out of "Lost Tales", and I was expecting a narrative. Instead I found "The 7th Guest".

The best thing about it is that the music is great, the graphics great, and each world is carefully detailed and very atmospheric. From Chinese mysticism to a pagan isle in Ireland, there's a certain authenticity. It's like you just stepped into a book of lore. AND you can save whenever you like.

But gameplay is dull, dull, dull. The very first puzzle I encountered, in Ireland, was an unclued, unprompted scavenger hunt which was also very much a pixel-hunt. I was collecting remnants of a skull. Then I pieced them together to form a skull. It turned into a head and started talking to me, giving me a bunch of paganistic mumbo-jumbo. Then, prompted by UHS Hints, I entered a book where a king had lost his silver hand and his sword, without which he can't slay a demon.

Don't get me wrong, this is cool stuff. But it's all so horrible static. At various points, I just kept asking myself, "why am I bothering with this?" It's not as though I have a Queen to rescue, a plot to overthrow. I'm just prancing around. Doing things "just because". I'm sorry, that doesn't cut it for me. I need substance. I need narrative. At the very least, I need a bloody reason to hunt down bloody skull-pieces in a bloody-island.

Since Atlantis II bore no resemblance to Atlantis I and Atlantis III, from what I heard, bore no resemblance to Atlantis II, I skipped II and went straight to III.

"Atlantis III: The New World" is what "Beyond Atlantis" should have been.

Oh, it's not perfect. For starters, the main actress who plays your PC, Chiara Mastroiani, is atrocious. Atrocious. Well, not as bad as the actors in "The Lost Crown", but horribly, awfully deadpan. Then there's still a couple of pixel-hunts, and more than a handful of gratuitous puzzles...

...but it's like this time the game was designed AROUND those puzzles, instead of a) throwing them in just because (ala Atlantis I) or b) just throwing them in and making them the game (ala Atlantis II). By knowing what it wants to do, Atlantis III is a fun game. I was solving puzzles which usually made me cringe in adventure games - I'm not partial to having my story interrupted by Towers of Hanoi (just an example). But in this game, if there were a Towers of Hanoi, it would feel natural and would be a joy to solve, I'm sure.

Also, there's a story. Yay.

Look, I don't ask for much in the way of stories nowadays, especially not from these Myst-wannabes. But is a flowing narrative too much to ask? Because otherwise, I might as well get a Rubik cube. That was the mistake Cryo learned from Atlantis II, and corrected in Atlantis III.

I am happy to put "Atlantis III" alongside "Aura: Fate of the Ages", "Myst" and "Sentinel: Descendents in Time" as the few games of the genre that I had a lot of fun playing.

Atlantis IV was a bitter disappointment I shan't dwell upon. Cartoonish graphic, cartoonish voice acting, and a God-Awful MAZE you have to traverse multiple times while being followed by bad guys who can pop up out of anywhere at any moment to kill you. The point seems to be that you have to hide, but I'm stressed enough having to navigate a bloody MAZE, and never could find a hidey-hole.

Oh, and why do you have to traverse it multiple times? Because you might well pass by a takeable stick (btw, you're in a forest, and that stick is the only takeable one) and not pick it up. Later, when you've found refuge from the bad guys in the form of a secluded cave, you'll need something to get past some horrible little critters. Guess what you need? The stick. But you're not told or clued about it, oh no. You either spend the rest of your life in that cave trying to get on with what you have, or you step back into the forest having no idea what you've missed. So you're wandering in a maze looking for God-knows-what while being chased.

Uninstallation was never this sweet.

Feeling like a trip down the Volga

What can I say? I was feeling extremely Russian, and in Soviet Russia extremely Russia feels me, so I thought I might as well express that with a ton of YouTube links. Ready or not, here they come.

And incidently, I'm not going to bother with distinguishing Russia from Soviet Russia from the USSR. My head aches just thinking about it.

Let's start with Katyusha.

This simple song is, according to wikipedia, "a wartime song about a girl longing for her beloved, who is away on military service". I'll take their word for it, seeing as I don't speak a word of Russia. This is the first one in this list because it's the earliest Russian song I ever heard, though disguised as Casatchok in this rather different rendition which I loved when I was... what, seven? Eight? I have a fondness for it still. Nowadays it seems a bit too commercial, in a "Joe Dassin" way, but heck... nice memories, you know.

The middle part of "Casatchok" is from "The Volga Boatmen" - "Эй, ухнем!", "Ey, ukhnem!". Which allows up to take a very big jump from pop music into the lyrical world, with Boris Christoff and Paul Robeson, two of the world's greates basses, giving spectacular renditions of this poignat, earthly song, singing as the boatmen who row, row, row all day long. Rather reminiscent of the songs sung by the Negro cotton-pickers in America.

So: The Red Army Choir, Boris Christoff, and Paul Robeson. Prepare to be moved.

Chaliapin's version is also highly regarded, but it's not to my liking, not as much as these, so it's hardly my priority. Robeson's version is particularly interesting - to those who don't know it, Robeson was - and remains - one of the best American basses, but he became so fascinated with Russia that he was branded a communist (I'm speaking in broad terms here, I don't know the details). His response was to turn away from America and completely embrace Russian culture. America lost a great Bass, and Russia won a lifelong friend.

By the way, speaking of Boris Christoff, I simply can't pass the opportunity to share his "Le veau d'or", from Gounod's "Faust". So a brief detour into French opera...


There. Now returning to Russia.

When I finished EPTC (a Portuguese school of acting: Escola Profissional de Teatro de Cascais), our final test was a Mayakovsky play, "The Bedbug". I had no interest in doing that play, because I'd been enamored with Peter Parnell's "Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World" for a long time, having even translated it into Portuguese, and I wanted that to be my final examination. No such luck, but I'm glad we did the Mayakovsky. For the first time in my life I understood Russia.

Anyway, we sang a bit in that performance. And one point we sang Kalinka. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kalinka, by the unimitable Red Russian Army Choir. As a bonus, you get the Leningrad Cowboys prancing around. Good for a laugh.


Now, the first time I heard this next one, I felt shivers all over my skin, and my eyes immediately teard up. My girlfriend first showed it to me, and is it just me or does the first version have a slight Ennio Morricone feel to it? Maybe because it feels to grand, so epic, reminiscent of his Westerns music. I know it's a silly comparison, but it's the way it falls on my ears.

Ladies and gentlemen, no words are needed, no words can express. Polyushka Polye.


Let's finish on a very different note. The world best knows this last one as "Those were the days (My friend)", or "Quelli Erano Giorni", or "Le Temps des Fleurs". I give you the first ever recorded version of Dorogoi Dlinnoyu; a compilation of different versions; Mary Hopkins' popular version; and Robin William's hilarious and unexpectedly touching "The Grim Rapper".

My parting words: in the world world, Soviet Russia music touches YOU.


PS - I just remembered, and how could I have possibly forgotten. I could not possibly speak of Russian music without two pieces which are very dear to me. 

I still can't believe I have a blog

Well, well, well. I still can't believe it. I have a blog.

 I've always resisted blogs. It's not that their name is very silly (I mean, if I can put up with Frotz and Blorb I can put up with Blog). It's not that I feel that there are more blogs in the internet than are possibly worth the effort of perusing. It's not that I feel they're particularly useless because a blog is, in effect, just a darn website which just stores your written posts and allows you to easily add new ones. It's not that there aren't many other ways which I feel are way more appropriate for communication - e-mail, web forums, facebook (for those who, unlike me, don't just have an account for keeping tabs with the world - I sometimes feel like those old geezers who have resisted for so long to get a computer, now they're forced to have one because it's indispensable for work and they leave it gathering dust, turning it on maybe once in a fortnight, because it's simply not their world anymore. I mean, the phone was always good enough for me...).

It's just that I usually have thoughts I feel like writing down, or sharing, or just throwing them out into the void, and well, if someone sees them that's ok, and if no one does that's ok either. I never liked diaries because, well, who am I writing for? This way, I'm writing for the eyes of people who may or may not be interested in what I'm writing... either way, that's someone.

Well. I suppose a quick and dirty introduction is in order. I'm an AFGANCAAP, and those to whom this term means anything will know now my favourite hobby. By profession I study lirical singing. I am particularly chipper today, having just yesterday sung with my colleagues a series of difficult arias, one of which I had only started to study last wednesday.

And that concludes our little introduction. On with the ranting.