Note for the balconies

  • Reading time:2 mins read

I’m just going to say this here for posterity, so I can link back to it in a few years.

Both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are going to bomb, people. Not as badly as UMD, though that should give you an idea what we’re dealing with. One or both will hobble on for a while as a high-end videophile format; there’s a hole to fill, now that laserdisc’s gone away. As a mass format, though, DVD’s not budging. Not so long as most people don’t even know if they’re watching a TV show in the right aspect ratio, and not so long as there’s nothing wrong with DVD.

People change their ways when they’ve damn good reason to, and not a moment before. Plain old DVD is going to stick around until it’s too unwieldy to maintain any longer — if for no other reason than that there’s too much personal and architectural investment in the format to arbitrarily pick up and switch to something that’s exactly the same except that guy you know who will scream at you for not hooking up your stereo correctly insists it’s somehow better.

For there to be a successor to a format as established and perfect, for its part, as DVD it will have to offer something so significantly different and so obviously better in just about every aspect of convenience, simplicity, and quality, that there is no comparison between the two. You create something that’s meant to be compared, and you’ve lost before you’ve begun — however nice your product in its own right. Nobody cares! At least, nobody outside the geek ghetto — and that’s the whole issue, in a nutshell.

In conclusion, Sony is fucked.

Changing Faces

  • Reading time:4 mins read

After dwelling a bit, I am surprised by the consistency of the Doctor’s character under Russel T. Davies (and within his scripts in particular). Once again the Doctor is left ambivalent about getting close to anyone — alternately clinging and avoiding — yet now has been advised as to his objective need for someone to watch over him, setting up a rather different framework for his upcoming meeting with Martha Jones.

When we first saw the Ninth Doctor, he was shellshocked from the Time War; from losing everyone and everything he perhaps never appreciated — so of course he was both emotionally needy and reluctant to get involved, especially with anyone who wouldn’t stick around and try to understand his world, his life. He became unhealthily attached to Rose, then was reborn healed — at least outwardly — from most of the demons. As he became more dashing and confident, Rose became unhealthily attached to him, placing her desire for him above his objective needs, thereby putting his ego in a strange place. By the end he didn’t subjectively need her so much as he was used to having her, and didn’t objectively need her in that she did little to keep him in line (as she generally had the Ninth Doctor). When he lost her, he was sad and dispossessed — yet more than anything struck again with a sense of failure, of emptiness. It was a different emptiness from the Ninth Doctor’s; in place of desperation was an arrogance. Subjectively he’d shifted from need to want, and he couldn’t step outside himself. Nobody could give him what he wants, everyone leaves in the end, so to hell with everybody. What’s the point.

What Donna does is kick him in the head. “Look, Bozo”, she says, “who gives a damn what you want; it’s obvious from here that you need someone who isn’t going to fawn over you, who’s going to challenge you, and keep you from slipping into your weird place. To keep you human, as far as that goes.” That’s not going to be her, because she’s got better things to do than flit around the universe, playing nanny to a thousand-year-old god; still, she says, go find someone. And right there is an interesting point; there’s a tangible argument for the Doctor not to get too involved with his assistants. It’s an unequal relationship, where the Doctor is in effect in the inferior position. It’s been this way ever since Ian and Barbara, teaching humanity to the Doctor’s veritably antisocial first incarnation (at least, in the first several stories). When Rose lowered herself to his level, that caused problems. She was supposed to be watching over him, and she failed him. In losing her, the Doctor felt failure for his own sake — which is bad enough. For the state she left him in, however, he felt betrayal from the universe in general. And that’s not a good position for a Time Lord to be in.

It sort of makes me wonder if the only real difference between the Doctor and the Master is that the Doctor met Ian and Barbara, and has since generally had the benefit of an emotional compass in some form or another, honed and calibrated by an endless stream of confidants-slash-secretaries-slash-nursemaids, each one adding another nuance, giving the Doctor another bit of self. (Heck, occasionally even giving him their accents.)

Martha seems calculated to both gently kick the Doctor’s ass and to take an active interest in his affairs, without the danger of girly crush to get in the way of business — in a way, a more traditional companion for a more traditional Doctor. The Watson role, as played by a posh ninja lesbian.

Who indeed

  • Reading time:1 mins read

And the show *is* called Doctor Who, not Rose.

This is something people keep pointing out, often mingled with displeasure at Rose’s prominence.

Thing is, the title is a question. It’s not called “The Doctor” or “The Amazing Adventures of the Doctor” or “The Doctor Saves the Day”. It’s called “Who the Hell Is This Guy?”. And for that to be the title, the implication is that the focus will be on whoever’s doing the asking — on the impression the Doctor makes on said inquirer. Rose’s role was to act as the audience’s eyes and voice, to explore and maybe to some extent answer the question — though even at the end she never really got a full answer. And we probably never will! He’s the enigma at the center of the series; his companions are in effect the protagonists.

While we’re jumping the gun…

  • Reading time:1 mins read

I hope for Dragon Quest X, for the Wii, to filter players’ Mii data though a library of stock Akira Toriyama face and body features, such as to produce customized Dragon Quest styled approximations of the players.

That would seem like something Yuji Horii would have on his “to do” list.

Hey, Tim. Any way you can suggest it to him next time you’re in the same room?

Gestures and Measures

  • Reading time:6 mins read

Yes, I think that’s a decent way of looking at it. All these new, supposedly more “friendly” control schemes aren’t really acting as such. They are still forcing new players to remove their preconcieved attachment to, say, swinging a tennis racket, and replacing it with a more standard video game approach in order to get anywhere. They’re essentially just pushing buttons, in the end.

That’s not an issue with the Wii as such, I don’t think, as much as it is with the dumb, overly abstract way things are being designed. What I’ve noticed is that few Wii games either detect the Wiimote in realspace and realtime (as Boxing and Baseball do) or simply use the Wiimote for what it’s worth in added nuance (like an analog stick or trigger, only way more so). Instead, they’re just replacing buttons with gestures and canned animations. It’s frustrating to see — and not even so much as an end product as in what that product shows about how unable game designers currently are, en masse, to wrap their heads around the bleedin’ obvious.

Red Steel is a pretty good example. Instead of giving the player a sword and a gun, and letting him gradually learn how to use them properly — teaching new techniques and whatnot as the game progresses, staggering out “assignments” of sorts (not literal ones) over the game’s story, to allow players to get accustomed to some key concepts of swordfighting or shooting or mixing the two — you tell him to move the controller like this to make this animation happen, and maybe earn new gestures as the game progresses. What the hell? How could you possibly screw this up?

Though this is one of the more obvious examples, you’ll see this problem in pretty much all Wii games currently available — and indeed, in Gamer and press discussion about the system. You can see people straining their imaginations to figure out something to do with the system, and it doesn’t work. Either you get gimmicks or you get phantom buttons. Digital do-or-don’t.

It’s… really not that hard! The Wii really suggests two things: added nuance to traditional games (instead of just doing X, you can do X in any number of ways; the way the game plays changes dynamicly to match your body language) and giving the player true first-person control, for all the subtlety that implies, with a minimum of abstraction, over a certain range of motions. The advantage here is the ability to explore concepts with an organicity impossible with just a digital player involvement — again, making people really learn how to use a sword (more or less) rather than simply pressing buttons or making gestures to cause an on-screen character to do something.

Instead of the player’s avatar developing and learning new things as an abstraction of progress, and instead of learning complex arbitrary and abstract gestures (like moves in a fighting game), the player himself or herself physically learns how to produce difficult, subtle actions that have a tangible result in the gameworld to whatever degree of skill the player posesses.

Imagine a fighting trainer. The wiimote is exchanged for four sensor bands, strapped to each of the player’s wrists and shins, as well as perhaps a belt to provide a center reference point (and perhaps force feedback for when the player receives a blow). The game gradually metes out concepts to the player — not just to improve mechanical technique and to teach new maneuvers; also to improve the way the player mentally contextualizes all of this. It could to some extent teach the art of fighting as well as the science — or at least a reasonable enough facimile for verisimilitude. Likewise, completely new skill sets with no real-world parallel could be devised for the player — so long as they were produced and could be reproduced in a believable and nuanced way.

Games that involve physical concepts would use the Wiimote physically, as above; games that involve more abstract or intellectual ones would use it more abstractly — closer to how we normally think about playing videogames, except with an added layer of capability. Press forward to walk; tilt the controller subtly forward to jog or run forward; tilt it subtly back to creep; tilt it left or right (while still holding forward) to sway or dodge in those directions. The way this should be balanced, the player shouldn’t be expected to physically, consciously tilt the controller so much as the game should respond to slight changes in the player’s posture — those little subvoluntary movements that we make when we want the avatar to behave in a certain way — go faster, hold back, watch out! Excite Truck sort of tries to do this, though it doesn’t seem to be executed as well as it could be.

Likewise, a whole range of related motions could easily be mapped to a single button — much like the state-shifting afforded by shoulder buttons, except intrinsicly analog. Press the button to execute a punch; when pressing the button, move or position the Wiimote this or the other way way to punch in different ways for a subtly different effect. Flick the tip up for an uppercut, say. Imagine the way a Silent Hill 2 or a Metal Gear Solid could take advantage of this subtlety and flexibility — the way it could read into the player’s body language and movement patterns and extrapolate a certain level of psychology from them, to make unseen behind-the-scenes decisions.

This is a pretty damned important breach we’re crossing, here — and we’ve been given a decent, if somewhat rickety, bridge. Yet so far people are just laying the bridge on the ground and using it as a replacement for a sidewalk or a new kind of a bed, or trying to figure out really clever pieces of playground equipment they could turn it into. I kind of hope people get more smart, before the novelty wears off.

Tea leaves

  • Reading time:1 mins read

Tea leaves. Someone had to discover them, boil them, propogate the fad. Gradually it came to be accepted as a cultural necessity, whereas it’s just someone’s strange idea being thoughtlessly mimed by billions of people. Everything we do has its similar roots.

Culture bores me. Society bores me. In a broad sense, I’m not interested in what other people are doing; that’s their own business. Likewise with the endless layers of individual contrivance and repetition that make up the foundation for my own experiences. I don’t care about the infrastructure for its own sake; I care about the contrast of individual autonomy against that framework.

The appeal of art is in its affirmation of autonomy, of the premise of individual thought and experience, in the face of the infrastructure that seeks to define our world and our understanding of life.

Horii Himself, Out.

  • Reading time:6 mins read

Yeah. This doesn’t completely surprise me, except in the sense that it actually happened.

Handhelds are a better place for introverted, focused experiences. (See Metroid II.) In terms of the mindset involved, playing a handheld is like reading a book, whereas playing a console is like watching TV. Again, look how perfect Dragon Warrior is on the Game Boy — how much better it is than on the NES. Also: having a lengthy “novel” game makes more sense if you can pick it up and put it down at leisure, rather than being forced to sit in one place and stare at a screen for hundreds of hours. Leave the consoles for flash and fun; visceral stuff. Like the Wii, say.

Also to consider: as great as DQ8 is, there are two major abstractions left that seem kind of contrary to what Horii wants to do with the series. For one, the player controls more than one character. That’s a little weird. For another, it’s got random turn-based battles. Honestly, that doesn’t seem like part of Horii’s great plan for the series. It never has; it’s just been something he’s settled with until now.

So yeah. The DS seems like an ideal place to put the game. What’s really interesting is the multiplayer aspect — which I didn’t expect at all, yet which again sort of makes sense, depending on how it’s implemented. If players can come and go at will — join each other or set off on their own tasks, each with his or her own agenda — it’ll work. If there are too many constraints to the framework, keeping people from just playing the damned game whether their friends are around or not, it’ll be a bit of a downer.

I’m kind of undecided what this game means in the end. On the one hand it seems likely it’s meant as an intermediary step while Horii works on Dragon Quest X for the Wii. Considering how far along this game seems to be (implying it’s been in the works for at least months, maybe a year), it seems like it’s part of a long-term plan. Also considering that the sword game seems basically like a testing bed for a new battle system… well, do the math. And yet, there’s this issue about the DS actually being the most suitable system out there right now (in terms of market saturation, the nature of the format, and the qualities it has to offer).

Maybe it’s just the most suitable platform for Dragon Quest IX in particular, for everything he wants to do with the game. If X is going to work the way I think it might, it’s going to pretty visceral and showy — demanding a home system. One in particular (that being the most visceral available).

Basically, every game Horii makes appears to be just another approach to the same game he’s been trying to make for twenty years. He never quite winds up with what he wants — though lately he’s getting a little closer. From what I can see, this is just one more angle, allowing him to capture a certain aspect of his vision that he hadn’t been able to before (perhaps at the expense of some other elements, that he’s already explored). So, you know, right on. These details seem worth exploring.

The next game… maybe it’s time to assemble? See how all the pieces fit?

The thing that I dig about Dragon Quest is that, whatever the surface problems, the games are visionary. It’s a strong, uncluttered vision that all the games reflect even if they don’t always embody it. As “retro” as they seem, they’re not just crapped out according to a formula; they’re each trying to achieve something that’s way beyond them — meaning an endless pile of compromises.

I find that pretty encouraging. Not the placeholders; the way Horii isn’t afraid to use them, while he roughs out everything else. And that he doesn’t let them distract him; he just devises them, then discards them when they’re no longer of use. He keeps chugging along, going through draft after draft until he gets it exactly right. It’s a very classical disposition. Very honest, at least to my eye.

He’s a lot like Miyamoto, except Miyamoto sort of gave up a long time ago. And Miyamoto’s vision isn’t quite as focused (though in turn, it is broader than Horii’s).

The one problem I can see with going from turn-based to real-time battles is that the battles in Dragon Quest — I don’t think they’re really always meant to stand in for actual fighting, as much as they’re a stand-in for any number of hardships and growth experiences that a person like the player might encounter in a situation like the quest at hand. Some of that might be actual battle; some of it might be much subtler and harder to depict in a game like this.

Keeping the battles turn-based and separated from the wandering-around makes the metaphor a lot clearer as a compromise, rather than as something special or important in its own right. Changing to a system that makes the game actually about fighting loads of monsters… I’m not sure if this is precisely the point he’s looking for. Still, it’s a trade off. Get more specific somewhere, you have to lose a nuance somewhere else.

I wonder what other sorts of difficulties or experiences could be devised, besides semipermeable monster walls holding you back. Ones that would add to (or rather further clarify), rather than detract from (or muddy), the experience. And preferably that wouldn’t be too scripted.

I’m thinking a little of Lost in Blue, though I don’t know how appropriate its ideas would be, chopped out and inserted whole. Still, general survival issues seem relevant: having certain bodily needs (and maybe psychological ones — though who the hell knows how to address that) that, though not difficult to attend to, cause problems if you don’t. So in the occasions you do run into real immediate difficulty (battles, whatever), you’ll be in far greater danger if you’ve been pressing yourself too far; if you haven’t sufficiently prepared. Likewise, injury might be a real problem — so the player would have to think carefully, weigh cost and benefit, before charging into dangerous situations.

Not pressing out would mean you’d never learn more, get better, stretch your boundaries. Being foolhardy would get you killed. Same deal we’ve got now; just more nuanced.

I’m sure there are other ways to do it. Maybe more interesting ones.

It could be I’m reading in some things that aren’t overtly intended. Still, I’ve never felt the battles were as important as what they stood for. They’re too straightforward. They’re used too cannily, as a barrier. The trick, again, is whether there’s an interesting and functional way of more literally representing what they might stand for. I dunno. Maybe not! At least, not right now. So all right, violence. Fair enough.