No comment moderation on Massive

In order to celebrate a new article in the ‘Massive’ section (it was going to be in this column but I thought it deserved more), I’ve turned off the registration mechanism there. Previously, you had to sign up for Typekey in order to post a comment. I did this to prevent spam from clogging things up, but now that I have a blacklist system set up, that’s no longer necessary.

The Longest Journey

Just before I started studying at Oxford, I bought an adventure game called The Longest Journey. I was quite into adventure games at the time, having played and enjoyed Syberia, and I’d heard an awful lot of good things about The Longest Journey; things like ‘the best graphical adventure game ever’ and ‘great story’. The fact that it only cost £5.50 meant that it seemed like a pretty sensible purchase (especially if it really was a ‘longest journey’).

The game languished on my bookshelf for the next three years. I would occasionally look at it and think about archiving it away somewhere or possibly even playing it, but I didn’t have a working PC to play it on any more, having moved to Apple, and I just didn’t feel in the mood.

With the arrival of my Intel iMac last month, I finally had a computer capable of playing Windows games (and yes, I did buy Windows XP legally). First up was Civilization 4, which I managed to play for about 12 hours in an 18 hour period. Luckily my empire-building urges were quickly satiated after a couple of games and I’ve been able to put it behind me for now. Next was another Sid Meier game, Pirates! Again, I played Pirates rather obsessively for a couple of days until I got sick of it and put it away.

Still, I felt in the mood for more PC gaming, so I popped in The Longest Journey. Amazingly enough, despite being seven years old, The Longest Journey managed to work perfectly fine in Windows XP with a minimum of tweaking. I had high expectations of this game – not in the graphics department, which I knew would be dated, but in the story. It started off a little uneven, with a promising storyline hindered by unforgivable bug that I meant I had to replay about twenty minutes of the game, but it quickly recovered.

[The bug involved me leaving a room before getting a gold ring off someone. When I returned, she’d disappeared, along with the item. I can’t see anything on the internet about this problem, which leads me to conclude that no-one else was foolish enough to make the same mistake – or to own up to it!]

The storyline of TLJ is perfectly fine, and when compared against other computer games, practically an equal of Homer or Virgil. It’s essentially a standard science fiction/fantasy story involving parallel worlds resting on the fate of one person, but it’s executed pretty well. The entire story has a very epic feel about it, caused by the growth of the main character, April Ryan, and the huge variety of people she and places she encounters. The designers imbued the game with a solid and consistent history to the extent that you spend a reasonable amount of time reading or listening to stories within the game itself.

One of the real strengths of TLJ was the quality of the dialogue and voice acting; I’m not aware of any game that has placed such an emphasis on getting good actors and writers. It’s not perfect and there are some duds, but on the whole I felt very immersed in the game. What’s more, it’s funny! It’s been a long time since I laughed out loud at a computer game, but TLJ managed to make me do that on many occasions. It’s not zany or gross-out humour either – just good old fashioned witty stuff (and I say this as someone who’s played all the Lucasarts classics).

The other notable thing about TLJ is the amount of profanity in it. It’s not an especially adult game (indeed, it’s rated 15+ in the UK) but the designers didn’t shy away from throwing in a suitably large number of swear words when the story or characters required it. I remember being shocked the first time I heard it, but then grew to appreciate the lengths they went to make the dialogue convincing and realistic.

A word about the puzzles. I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I don’t actually like puzzles. I know that this is a strange thing for the designer of Perplex City to be saying, but it’s true. As a result, one of my goals in creating Perplex City was making puzzles for people ‘who don’t like puzzles’, which I hope I’ve achieved at least in some way.

As anyone who’s played adventure games will know, there are a few variety of puzzles. Some are fairly obvious and satisfying, such as finding out a good way to distract a receptionist. Others involve combining random objects in an attempt to create something that will help you fish a key out of an inaccessible place. The worst kind – for me – involves moving levers and pressing buttons. I really have no patience for that sort of thing. That probably says more about me than it does about the puzzle – I’m more interested in progressing the story, exploring new places and talking to new people.

The Longest Journey is no different to other good adventure games with regards to puzzles. There are some great puzzles. There are some average puzzles. And there are some frustratingly obtuse puzzles that saw me resort to a hints service. As far as I’m concerned, this is just the way of things with graphical adventure games – it’s something I have to put up with in order to play. Personally, I think minigames might make more sense (like in Shenmue) but I suppose that would put off people who don’t like twitch gaming. Can’t keep everyone happy…

I probably spent 20-30 hours playing the The Longest Journey, spread over three weeks. That works out to 22p per hour of entertainment, probably a record for an adventure game like this. Some of that time was taking up with the more obtuse puzzles and minor bugs in the game, but most of it was listening to the dialogue. If you don’t like dialogue in adventure games, I advise you to stay well away. There must be literally hours of it in TLJ, and characters will sometimes go on for several minutes at a time without you getting a word or click in edgeways. Even I got sick of it on occasion, but the highlights more than made up for it.

The lead designer and writer of the game, Ragnar Tornquist, has said that “being engaged in dialogue is a form of gameplay.” I’m not entirely sure what he means by this, but it’s not a million miles off my belief that navigating through an alternate reality game – following links, reading blogs, calling numbers – also constitutes a form of gameplay. If that is what he means, then I’d agree – although I know that many others wouldn’t. I’ve had a lot of thoughts bubbling away about the nature of storytelling in ARGs and adventures games which I’d like to write down soon at length.

As is typical with many adventure games, the first act is spent setting the scene; the third and final act is wrapping things up. That leaves the second act to bear the brunt of the storytelling and interaction, and that’s where The Longest Journey excels. I wouldn’t say that I disliked the rest of the game, but it was clear that most of the resources and good ideas had been expended on the second act. So, if you end up playing TLJ, enjoy it while it lasts.

Since I only played TLJ over the last few weeks, I managed to escape the seven years of waiting that true fans had to endure for the sequel. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was released a couple of months ago and has apparently done quite reasonably in terms of sales. Reasonably enough to ensure that the last part of the trilogy (Dreamfall 2) will be produced one day, although I’m not holding my breath. For now, I’m waiting for Dreamfall to arrive, and thinking of how wonderful it would be to design my own graphical adventure game…

Let’s switch

I was watching X-Men with a friend this weekend when I suddenly realised that Doctor Who was on as well. I immediately took control of the remote and switched to BBC 1. This weekend’s episode was about the Cybermen, of course, and I was looking forward to this. After five minutes, my friend said “Why are we watching this? It’s terrible! I’ve tried watching it over and over again but it just looks awful.”

“Well, uh, that’s the way it’s supposed to look,” I said lamely.

“And what about the stories and dialogue?”

“Some of them are really good!”

But I have to be honest. I still have no good reason for why Doctor Who is as clunky as it is. Maybe it’s just the drama that Britain deserves, I don’t know, but it’s clear that it’s not faring particularly well in the US, averaging only a million or so viewers every week.

Internet World

I was at the Internet World conference in Earl’s Court this afternoon, speaking about Alternate Reality Games. It’s a bit of a grandiose name for a conference that is essentially aimed at SMEs, but they’d managed to round up a pretty interesting bunch of speakers, including people from the likes of Yahoo, MSN, Blockbuster, Virgin, etc. The guy who spoke directly before me, in fact, was Brent Hoberman, the co-founder of Lastminute.com (talk about a warmup act!). I had to smile when I saw that the cover of the conference booklet featured the Mind Candy logo up there among far more famous names…

I think my talk went fairly well, although I was speaking pretty quickly in order to cover all the bases – with a conference like Internet World, where entry is free, it’s pretty difficult to work out the background of your audience and what they’d be interested in, so I took a page from Feynman’s book and talked about a lot of things to do with ARGs. Thankfully, the audience seemed interested enough – there were a bunch of good questions at the end. Anyway, you can judge for yourself when the webcast goes online next week.

Along with the Lastminute.com talk, I listened to James Cridland from Virgin Radio Digital Media speak about the relevance of radio today, amidst iTunes, podcasts, Last.fm and all that stuff. James had a pretty slick presentation, which immediately put me on my guard. You can always tell when someone’s spent a lot of time preparing and practicing a talk when there are a million slides in it, filled with audio clips. In any case, he started out well and confronted the problem that a good iPod on shuffle – or a properly configured Last.fm or Pandora setup – will always beat the pants off any normal radio DJ in terms of playing music that you actually want to hear. Sure, there’s the issue of serendipity, but let’s face it, that sort of thing can be programmed in as well.

No sooner had he admitted Last.fm’s superiority to a DJ then he immediately said ‘but who would want to listen to a lifeless jukebox’? Say what? Ah, because a lifeless jukebox ‘doesn’t have the sparkling conversation and witty commentary of a good DJ’. That’s true, to the extent that people actually want such things, and to the extent that you couldn’t just, say, recording said conversation and commentary into a podcast and download that for free. I think even he realised that this was a bit of a lame argument, and then moved onto the idea that Virgin Radio will still be listened to because it’s a strong brand.

That makes more sense to me, although I hardly think that means that ‘organised’ radio will grow, let alone maintain, its share of listening time. To be honest I think that radio is a confusing word to use these days anyway – it refers to a type of broadcasting technology, not a content type. Specifically, I think that live audio will always be attractive for coverage of things like news and sports events – things that are timely. You can imagine a next-next-gen iPod that might be able to insert near-live audio streams into your playlists; the best of both worlds, really.

There was some guff about promoting user generated content on the Virgin Radio website, which is just a tiresome mantra that I hope people will stop repeating soon, and then he finished up with saying that radio has a better future than TV. Whether or not you agree on that depends on your definition of the words ‘radio, ‘better’, ‘future’ and ‘TV’ (but not ‘is’).

(This blog post was a bit incoherent – I’m kind of tired…)

London happenings

Two interesting developments have occurred in London in the past few days. The first is the Sultan’s Elephant. I haven’t been able to see the three-storey mechanical moving Elephant myself, since I’m in Oxford, but I intend to come back early on Sunday to see it off. The Sultan’s Elephant is performance art of the highest quality – a story told over three days by an expert theatrical company, where a time-travelling elephant is looking for a girl who crashlanded in a spaceship. It roves all across London, and makes absolutely no attempt to explain itself. It has no adverts and no visible sponsorship (although its website does list some). It’s just a part of London.

I’m not going to bother making the obvious ARG comparisons here. I will say that one of the reasons I love it is because it’s a piece of art and story that exists purely to inspire wonder and surprise, and change people’s lives a little bit. It invades our normal shared spaces and us out of our daily rhythm. It’s not for sale, it’s not promoting anything, it just is.

The other development is that the movie of 24 is going to be shot in London. 24 is one of my favourite shows at the moment and I get a lot of dramatic inspiration from it. I’m already concocting a plan to become an extra on the set…

(24 is a constant reminder to me of the inferior nature of British action dramas. There’s nothing in the UK that can even approach the quality of 24’s story and action, and it’s not just because we don’t have as much money as US dramas. It’s because commissioners don’t appreciate good writing and think that a bunch of guys sitting in an office looking moody constitutes good drama.)

Found

A conversation at work:

“I wonder what’ll be in the adverts for Lost tonight?” I pondered, thinking about the imminent ‘Lost Experience’ (aka ‘we didn’t want to call it an ARG because it might put people off and look as if we didn’t think of it first’).

“It’s going to be a phone number.”

“I think it’ll be either a phone number or a blipvert,” I said.

“It’s a phone number, they said so on the web.”

“Huh,” I said. “What I want to know is who’s doing this game. I’m pretty sure it’s not anyone I know. It just doesn’t feel right. Plus it’s kind of confusing who’s behind it, with ABC, Channel 4 and some Australian company all acting as if they’re making it.”

“Probably in-house.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“At least they’ve finally managed to make me watch Lost on Channel 4 now.”

“Yeah… I don’t think I can be bothered. I’ll just read about it on the web.”

There isn’t much that will make me commit to watching TV at a particular time. I suppose that if I was in the US I would probably manage to watch Lost and 24 on TV, mainly because they’re first-run over there, but even then I might be tempted to just use a Tivo. The way it is now, it’s Bittorrent all the way, I’m afraid; there’s no way I’m going to put up with being months behind the US when it comes to quality TV, and then be forced to watch TV without the option to pause or rewatch a particularly good bit.

Now, that’s not to say that appointment to view is dead; it can certainly work in many cases for first-run eps for big shows. The problem appears when TV and radio networks expect people to make an appointment to view a particular show that has already been shown once elsewhere in the world. What’s the point of that? It’s not like the viewer is getting any more out of the experience by being forced to watch it at 8pm on Tuesday; might as well make it available on the web with some commercials, streamable at any time (which, indeed, ABC is beginning to do). However, when you can offer the viewer or player a real reason to make an appointment to view or take part in a game at a specific time – perhaps because they’ll be interacting with live persons, whether they be game characters or other players – they’ll be more willing to play along.

While I was at GDC in San Jose this year, I had the odd experience of idly turning on the TV and seeing a first-run episode of 24. My first reaction was, ‘Huh, I haven’t seen this episode before.’ I then realised that in the real world, TV doesn’t just magically appear on Bittorrent sites – it actually gets broadcast first! As it was, I just set my laptop to download shortly after the episode finished…

The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

(As I mentioned in my last post, I have this big backlog of posts I want to make. One of my notes says ‘zelda’. I’m not sure what this means any more. Could it be about the Phantom Hourglass trailer I saw at GDC? Or maybe it’s about the Zelda music they played at Video Games Live – or something else entirely different. Clearly the process of externalising my short term memory to a text-based stack on my laptop is not without flaws)

With the exception of playing Civilization on the PC, my Nintendo DS has taken the throne as the all-time games ‘device’ I’ve ever had. I’m a little surprised at this – back when the DS and PSP were announced, I would have thought that I’d spend more time on the PSP, with its shiny graphics. After testing both for quite some time, I simply stopped using the PSP. I couldn’t stand the fact that I had to wait for it to boot up, and then wait through loading screens. I also disliked the poor battery life and the boring interface.

The DS, on the other hand, booted up instantly and had no real loading times. The graphics weren’t amazing, but that wasn’t importantly – they were perfectly suitable for the sorts of games I was playing. Mario Kart and things like puzzle games aren’t any better if you can display a million polygons. Plus the touch interface and voice was very charming. It offered all sorts of possibilities, including one that is apparent now – the DS can be a machine that shows you how to live. Let me explain the background first.

At the moment I have two new games: Animal Crossing and Tetris. Between those and Civ 4, it’s enough to destroy all my free time. However, I haven’t played Tetris at all; they’ve changed the control system from what I’m used to, so that the up arrow doesn’t rotate any more, which has proved irritating. I’m sure I’ll eventually adapt but it put me off after I accidently dropped a few vital pieces instead of rotating them.

Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is like a single player MMOG. Or like a real-time game of The Sims. Or maybe it’s something completely new. Animal Crossing sounds intensely boring – you’re a person in a village, and you can walk around and chat to the other people. You can go fishing, or catch butterflies, or look for fossil, or plant flowers, buy things. You can’t kill anything, or explore outside the town. There’s no story. And when I first played it, it was intensely boring – there just wasn’t anything to do.

The next time I turned it on, it was the morning. The game mimics real world time, since it has an internal clock. It also mimics holidays and seasons, because it knows the date. It turned out that there was a flower competition on. “Hmm,” I thought. I went over to the Mayor and had a chat. After some interminable chat, he gave me a free bag of flowers. Not bad.

I went to plant it, and then bumped into the guy who sold me my house in the game. Turns out that I still had to pay off the mortgage, so I worked in his shop for a while, doing deliveries, planting trees and the like. When I’d paid off my mortgage, I didn’t have to work for him any more (but he did offer to add an extension onto the house – for a tidy sum, of course). By this time I’d earned enough money to buy a fishing rod and insect net.

All the fish and insects – and fossils – in the game are actually realistic. In other words, they also mimic real life; there are dozens of species of fish in Animal Crossing, and you can only catch them in their natural locations, such as in the ocean, or in a river. They’re also only available during certain times of the day, or when it’s raining, or in certain seasons. Ditto for insects. When you take insects or fish to the museum and show them to the curator there (who, unsurprisingly, is an owl), he’ll tell you all about them. A loach, I’m informed, is a bottom-feeder. I ended up inadvertently learning quite a bit about fish in this way.

Of course, digging up fossils is a little easier in the game than in real life – you just look for an odd spot on the ground and use your shovel. The owl can identify fossils for you as well, and he’ll put them on display (alternatively, you could just sell them, but that wouldn’t be right). I recall the owl telling me about the fossil of the Peking Man that I found; “Did you know that he’s one of the ‘missing links’ between humans and primates? He lived around 500,000 years ago and could use fire.” I did not know that.

Flowers will die if you don’t water them enough. If you plant trees too close to the ocean, they’ll eventually die. If you run on flowers too much, they’ll die. If you take a fruit from one of the trees and bury it, it’ll turn into a new fruit tree in a few days. The other villagers will occasionally ask you to deliver items, but you can steal them if you want. There are other opportunities to lie as well, although if you get found out, they’ll be very upset. There’s a stock market which you can invest in (in white or red turnips), there’s a shady guy who’ll sell you insurance and a person who sells artworks which are sometimes fakes.

All of this is light and fun and entertaining for adults. However, for kids, I imagine it’s quite instructive. It teaches you all sorts of concepts, but not in a one-way, didactic fashion – it lets you learn simply by doing. Animal Crossing will slip in all sorts of lessons just in the course of playing, and it will chide you if you do something wrong. I’m pretty sure that many kids would learn more from playing Animal Crossing than any so-called edutainment title. And that’s when it struck me – Animal Crossing is truly a forerunner of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.

TYLIP is a book from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age; it’s a book that is powered by a computer so advanced it’s almost magical, and it teaches children everything. It does this through a fully interactive story. It teaches you how to read, how to do maths, it teaches you morals, ethics, even self-defence. ‘Diamond Age’ is a very entertaining read, mainly because of the TYLIP.

Of course, Animal Crossing is nowhere near TYLIP in sophistication, but it has the same sort of principles. You could argue that A Tale in the Desert has similar leanings, although that’s more targeted towards adults. Anyway, I find the notion that we are slowly progressing towards new ways of teaching children by doing very interesting and worthy of further investigation.

(I came up with the idea that Animal Crossing was analogous to TYLIP while I was talking with Margaret. I announced that I had to blog it, and then promptly forget the whole thing five minutes later. On the coach back from Oxford, I was racking my brains – I knew that I’d thought of something I wanted to blog, and it was an analogy. I spent a few minutes on this, and then got distracted by a fly buzzing at the window. The fly reminded me of catching flies in Animal Crossing, and then bang – I remembered the analogy)

Deconstruction

(Quick post while I write the huge queue of posts I’ve got backlogged)

I recently got hold of a new Intel iMac. I’d been wanting a new computer for a while now, and it seemed like getting a top of the line computer (as opposed to more middle-range ones) which would presumably stay fast for longer, would be a novel experience. As soon as Apple released Boot Camp, there was no longer any doubt in my mind – a computer that would allow me to run OS X and play Civilization 4 fast? Get me my credit card.

Among the numerous nice touches on the iMac is Front Row, which is basically a way to play music, videos and photos on your computer from across the room using a remote control. None of this is particularly novel, but of course Apple gives it an impeccable appearance, which makes all the difference.

The other day, Alex and Kristina were over, so I gave them a look at the iMac. Alex immediately pounced on the remote and spent about 15 minutes marvelling over the lovely interface and playing all of my music.

“Did you know that Take me Out [by Franz Ferdinand] is used by Sony for all their Playstation videos at conferences and conventions? I’ve been to three now and they keep on using the same music?”

“Huh,” said Alex.

“I think it has that sort of non-offensive rock style that is trendy but not too trendy – cool enough to appeal to today’s youth, but not so cool that it doesn’t have a tune and puts off all the middle-aged people,” I offered.

“It’s also got that sort of sound so you can just play it quietly in the background – it’s not overwhelming,” added Kristina.

“Thanks guys, now I don’t like this music any more,” said Alex.

Another job well done!