The A-Team Formula

I can’t remember why I looked up The A-Team on Wikipedia a few months ago. Perhaps it was research for some long-forgotten game idea, or perhaps I was just really bored. Chances are it was a combination of the two. What I found, however, wasn’t just a typical Wikipedia ‘article-by-consensus’ – thorough, but long-winded and lacking critical faculties…

Well, it was mostly that, but it had one real gem in it: someone wrote a long section entitled Formulaic nature of episodes. Rather than being some high school essay, it’s both hilarious and completely spot-on in its almost scientific specificity. After all, all the episodes were essentially identical:

An episode … will start with the A-Team being hired by down-trodden, terrorized clients (often more than one member of the same family). Frequently, one of the clients will be a young woman who Face is immediately attracted to and who will serve as the object of his advances. The clients will have already passed “Mr. Lee”, one of Hannibal’s aliases, used to make sure the clients aren’t set by the military and encounter Hannibal in a second disguise, in which he’ll tell the clients they’ve “just hired the A-Team.” Just as frequently, the A-Team are on the road and stumble across someone who needed their help. The A-Team often return their fee to the most needy clients or find another way to pay their expenses.

By this time, Murdock will escape from the psychiatric hospital where he is interned with the help of Face. The mission is assessed by the team, and Face, sometimes assisted by Murdock, is sent to scam items for the team, often angering the episode’s opponent at the same time. This scene usually precedes or runs alongside to (part of) the team confronting the episode’s main opponent and his henchmen, with Hannibal delivering a warning – typically accompanied by a pithy, insulting remark – to them to give up peacefully. During this fight there is usually be a slow motion camera shot of B.A. throwing one of the bad guys over his head and onto a car hood, pile of cardboard boxes, or other such surface. The henchmen report to their boss, who quickly swears revenge.

The A-Team continue about their mission, often helping the clients in their daily routine, during which they prepare for the counter-attack from the episode’s antagonist. During this time, the clients question either Murdock’s sanity or that of Hannibal. In the latter case, one of the team members will make a reference to Hannibal “being on the jazz”, a term to denote the adrenaline rush that accompanies their adventures. During this segment the aforementioned female character (often sister, daughter or assistant to the client(s)) will give into Face’s advances, but the two are usually interrupted by a member of the team after a short kiss. A short scene showing the interaction between B.A. and Murdock would follow, often with Murdock angering B.A., as a set-up to B.A. taking revenge on Murdock at the end of the episode…

And so on. I ask, who could criticise Wikipedia when it harbours moments of brilliance like this?

Municipal Darwinism

Unsentimental. That’s what the Mortal Engines Quartet is.

Children’s fiction – in particular, children’s fantasy – is so strong nowadays that it’s hardly necessary to say that a book is adventurous, imaginative or exhilarating. They’re all adventurous, they’re all imaginative, they’re all exhilarating. And they’re all plenty good enough for adults to read as well.

Amid this wealth of excellence, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet stands out for a reason that others may not want to emulate: it’s uniquely unsentimental. His four books, set a world in which mobile cities rumble across the land on, chasing and consuming each other in a cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, are the most willfully unsentimental novels I have ever read. Villains do not get their just desserts; heroes are regularly punished for their virtues; and pretty much everyone is flawed in some nasty way.

Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy seems like Disneyland in comparison. This isn’t because the Mortal Engines Quartet is more depressing or more vicious – it isn’t. Instead, whereas Pullman’s novels are dark and serious affair all around, Reeve switches between carefree humour to awful tragedy so fast (and so often) that you just have no time to prepare yourself from general unfairness of the universe.

Enough about the unsentimentality for now – what about the story?

Mortal Engines, the first book in the series, begins with what is widely acknowledged as one of the best first lines in fantasy, ever:

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

Immediately, you know that this is no normal children’s fantasy, and what comes next is a dazzling explosion of imagination; after the Sixty Minute War devastated most of world, cities began to re-engineer themselves so that they could move across the barren land in order to prey on smaller, ‘static’ settlements. Soon enough, every town, village, suburb and city was on the move, gobbling each other up in a great cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. London is now composed of several tiers, with St. Paul’s Cathedral relocated to the very top, and other streets arranged under it. Continue reading “Municipal Darwinism”

Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game

Over the course of history, scientists and philosophers (who, until recently, were essentially the same thing) tended to interpret the universe – and, interestingly, the human brain – through the lens of their era’s technology. During the Renaissance, the universe was thought to operate like a clock, mechanistically and predictably. Later, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, more complex machinery was brought to mind. In recent decades, we see the universe and the brain as a kind of computer.*

Should it be surprising, then, that a game designer would interpret a theatrical production as a game?

On Wednesday, I went to see Punchdrunk‘s latest production, Masque of the Red Death, at the Battersea Arts Centre. Punchdrunk has made a name for itself by creating plays which take place across many rooms, involving many different, concurrent performers. In these plays, the audience don masks and walk between the rooms at will, occasionally being seen and addressed by performers, but usually ignored. This is not a completely original style of production, but it’s one that Punchdrunk is particularly good at.

I had deliberately not read any reviews of Masque before going to see it, in order to remain unspoiled. And while I should point out that I got a free ticket from the director, Felix Barrett, I’d intended to buy one myself anyway. The point is, I had no idea what to expect other than what I’ve said above.

What I found, after putting on a mask and entering the production, was an immense, sprawling and breathtakingly atmospheric set of corridors, tunnels, cupboards, rooms, halls and courtyards. I am not talking about a few rooms, or even several rooms – I’m talking about three floors and dozens of rooms. Every single surface had been carefully disguised from its true, mundane origins, and made up as part of an decaying, unsettling, elegant Victorian manor. Eerie sounds and music echoed from odd places, and I often found myself disoriented and lost.

Among these rooms were perhaps two dozen actors who engaged in brief conversations and encounters with one and other, occasionally deigning to notice the audience members and pull them into rooms for various private confidences. At certain times, groups of actors would come together and perform a highly scripted set piece, such as a dining room conversation and dance, or a heated argument in a bedroom. This was all very impressive and intriguing, but I was most struck by the feel of the place.

As I paced the corridors, trying every door and looking in every cupboard with a real sense of exploration and fear, I thought to myself: this is just like being inside a graphical adventure game. Here I was, in a beautiful fictional environment, opening all the doors and sifting for clues in every conceivable place – I might as well have been playing The Longest Journey and clicking on every hotspot in sight. This was wonderful! Continue reading “Masque of the Red Death – almost an Adventure Game”

Ted Hughes on West Kirby

From an article in the London Review of Books on Letters of Ted Hughes by Christopher Reid:

Edna, I’ve seen rain and I tell you this isn’t rain, – a steady river, well laced with ice, tempest and thunder, covers all this land, and what isn’t concrete has reverted to original chaos of mud water fire and air. Morning and evening its one soak and the sun’s more or less a sponge, and lately comes up frozen quite stiff.

Nice to see my home town written about in such a vivid way.

Let’s Change the Game – First Round

The first round of Let’s Change the Game closed last Friday, and we received nine entries that I thought were worth sending to the judges. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re all very happy with the number. The competition deliberately set a high bar for entrants, requiring not merely a game description, but a concise game description. Given the emails I received from teams asking whether they could write more than 500 words, I’m certain that a lot of effort was spent on figuring out what their core idea was, and how to express it best.

I haven’t looked through the entries yet in detail, but from what I’ve seen so far, they’re all well thought out and some have some genuinely original and interesting ideas. The wide variety of team members, from all professions and all over the world, is also heartening, and I think that quite a few of the nine will be shortlisted.

The worst thing that could’ve happened with the competition is if we received no entries, or at least no good entries. It’s clear that we’re going to have a very different problem: deciding which of several good entries should be the winner.

STT

The acronym TTS is well known among those who develop call centre software, GPS car navigation devices and software for the blind. It means ‘Text To Speech’, and is more commonly known as voice synthesis, such as the conversion of written text (e.g. ‘Take the first turn on the left into Coronation Street’) into a computer-generated voice.

STT would therefore mean ‘Speech To Text’, and is usually called voice recognition. Voice recognition has been around for many years now, and is used in a simple form in call centres (‘Which size of pizza you would like – small, medium or large?’) and in a more sophisticated form in dictation software. Converting speech into text is unsurprisingly very difficult and quite computationally intensive.

The reason it shouldn’t be surprising is because we … don’t … speak … with … spaces … in … between … words, weactuallyspeakinacontinuousflow. Working out how where one word begins and another one ends is tricky enough, but there are even more difficult problems. Take accents, for example: I’m a native English speaker and I still find it difficult to follow what some die-hard Scousers say. Or take the inconvenient fact that many words have the same pronunciation; way, whey, weigh (these are known as homonyms).

There are various clever strategies tricks that programmers have used to make voice recognition actually possible, such as getting users to train dictation software to their accent and by using context to decide which words might have been said. But it’s still tricky, and it’s not quite there yet.

Of course, I’m an unabashed optimist about technology, and I’m as interested in its societal effects as the way in which it actually works. So, let’s just imagine it’s 2017 and voice recognition is not only extremely good, but extremely widespread. Your mobile phone can transcribe your all phone calls, and some techies even have jewelery that will transcribe everything within earshot.

What does this do? It dramatically reduces the portion of our life that is not digitised and searchable. Already, we can refer to emails, text messages, photos (pretty much all of which are now digital) and instant messages whenever we want to check what someone said or did. As with all technology, this has its upsides and downsides. I frequently search through old correspondence to find out someone’s favourite music or where an old friend works now. But it does mean that even private conversations online could eventually become public, and so I have to watch what I say. This is most apparent when it comes to legal proceedings – it’s perfectly possible for someone to demand to see your emails or IMs if you’re involved in a suit, and deleting them all can look very suspicious.

With some effort, though, you can remain fairly discreet online. I’m not convinced you can do the same when it comes to talking out loud. If people begin transcribing all their conversations, all the time, it’ll be impossible to not slip up. I suppose you could go ‘off-the-record’ and turn it off, but who would know if you really did? After all, why not transcribe everything? Imagine how useful it would be during meetings – notetaking would be vastly simplified (although not eliminated). Imagine how tempting it would be to try and look at the conversations your friends had about you. Imagine how people might post conversations directly to Facebook. Live.

And for more mundane purposes, imagine having every spoken word on radio and TV transcribed. While I enjoy listening to some podcasts, there are only a few occasions (gym, coach, planes) where I can do that; I’d rather just read transcripts most of the time. This would suddenly free up vast amounts of high quality material, and Radio 4 would suddenly become one of the web’s most popular destinations.

This is not science fiction. It could be done quite easily now – I could wear a small lapel microphone, connect it to my iPod and set it recording all day. When I get home, I could upload the recording to my computer and run it through a voice recognition program on a PC. It’d pick up what I said pretty reliably, and it’d probably get a reasonable percentage of what other people said. There are probably some people who already do this.

In a couple of years, I can imagine this process happening even more smoothly, where the recording is automatically synchronised with my computer and uploaded to Google’s servers, which crunch through it with the power of a million PCs and return it to me, a few minutes later, with 99.9% reliability, with each speaker identified and each conversation handily logged and cross-referenced in Google Mail.

It’s coming. It’s not that difficult. The question is, how will we deal with it?

Thoughts on the Amazon Kindle

I feel ambivalent about the Kindle.

The Kindle is a new eBook reader from Amazon that can download books anywhere (without a computer) and surf the web. It costs $400 and the cost of books for it from Amazon are significantly cheaper than the new physical versions – which doesn’t mean that they’re cheap, though. Oh, and it looks as ugly as sin.

In my previous post about the Kindle, I complained about its ugliness, its size (you couldn’t fit it in a handbag) and its price; at the time I thought it was going to be $500 or $600. The first two things haven’t changed, but it is cheaper.

Even $400 is still just too expensive though, and while the ability to buy and download books anywhere is quite attractive, the fact that they cost (say) $7 instead of $10 is not sufficient recompense for taking away the ability to lend books to friend – not to mention the lack of a physical version. Being able to subscribe to newspapers and blogs is also nice, but not at the prices they’re offering. $14 a month for the New York Times seems good in comparison to the news-stand price, but bad when compared to the $0 of reading it on the web (or the iPhone).

And yet you can read Wikipedia for free. And yet you can still import your own books (probably stolen) to it, albeit in a clunky manner. And yet, and yet…

The Kindle is a much more respectable attempt at a mainstream eBook reader than I originally gave it credit for. There are some genuinely innovative and useful new features in it, including the wireless and the reduced book prices. But it’s clearly held back both by the technology, which can’t be helped, and by the design, which certainly could. The Kindle seems like a product rushed out to market before Christmas. In a few years, when the smaller, thinner Kindle 3 is released (I doubt the Kindle 2, whatever it is, will make the leap to mainstream) with a colour screen – perhaps even a touchscreen so there’s no need for a keyboard – and it costs only $200, then we’ll have something that provides a real alternative to carrying around a book and a magazine in your bag all day.

For now, I don’t think it’s even for early adopters – they already have eBook readers and iPhones. It’s actually for die-hard book lovers, and I don’t know whether they’ll want it.

From one point of view, Amazon had no choice but to create something like the Kindle; by allowing anyone else to do it first, such as Microsoft or Apple, then they’d risk losing customers and mindshare. Still, the Kindle was a bold move made with conviction, if not skill, and I’m impressed by how well it’s been picked up by the media. Clearly, despite suggestions that ‘no-one wants eBooks’, there is a real fascination with what technology might do to reading. It’s already transformed music, videos and the telephone for the better… why not books?

Motherf…

If you’re making a movie that’s ‘family-friendly’ with a PG rating, then you can forget about having any real swearing in the dialogue. This is generally not hard to do, but certain dramatic or funny moments (e.g. imminent death, huge tidal wave, just finished beating up bad guys) can call for dialogue that, if it doesn’t contain any swearing, at least has a little edge to it. The solution is to create a word that sounds like a curse, but actually isn’t.

Take Evan Almighty, which I caught on a recent flight. Steve Carrell’s building an ark, and he drops a heavy piece of wood on his foot. What does he exclaim?

Motherf… ather, sister and brother!

This is a perfect example of the ‘stealth swearing’ that I’m talking about. To be honest, I thought it was the funniest part of the entire movie (which tells you how good it was). Of course, Evan Almighty wasn’t by any means the first to make a joke out of the censors.

Take Spy Kids 1 and 2. They were surprisingly good kid-parent crossover movies, and the eponymous kids had a real fondness for talking about ‘shiitake mushrooms‘. Screen It’s Parental Reviews weren’t impressed by this, singling out the following lines as potentially causing ‘imitative behaviour’:

“Oh… shiitake mushrooms,” (with a pause in the word “shiitake” to make it sound like one is preparing to say just the “s” word)

“You’re so full of shiitake mushrooms,” (said with a slight pause in the middle of shiitake)

You might very well wonder what’s the point of avoiding swearing when you’re just going to say ‘shit’ anyway, and then turn it into another word by appending a few syllables – but what’s really happening (obviously) is that films are making fun of the notion that kids aren’t supposed to swear, and aren’t supposed to even know swear words. I suspect adults get a kick out of seeing kids pretending to swear, as well.

Do you know of any other ‘stealth swearing’ examples? Please post comments with them here!

Berlin Calling

Three people – a doctor, the CTO of an up-and-coming web company, and the CEO of an up-and-coming 3D game engine company – have independently told me the same thing in the last month. It’s time to move to Berlin.

In any discussion of where I work and what I do, the subject of London’s frustratingly high house prices and cost of living comes up. Relocating to elsewhere in the UK, such as Guildford or Bath, is usually dismissed since they are ‘completely boring’ and the prices aren’t really that much lower there anyway. There’s some ambivalent comparison of various European cities, and then it’s pointed out to me that in Berlin, not only could I afford a mansion, a swimming pool and a shooting range for the amount I currently spend on rent, but I could also have access to all sorts of ‘culture’. Plus, unlike Paris and most of Europe, Berlin quite likes Americans, which is always helpful.

I have to admit that I’m not about to move to Berlin, or anywhere else, any time soon; I like London, even with its high prices, just as it is right now. But I occasionally daydream about leading a band of young creatives and entrepreneurs to somewhere cheaper, proclaiming, “Screw you,
London – we’ve had enough, and now we’re going.”

More seriously, having travelled all over Europe in the last few months, I’ve been struck by how easy and cheap it is to fly and Eurostar everywhere, and also by the surprising abundance of interesting people I meet in each city. I know that sounds terrible, but I think that ‘web’ and ‘digital’ people like myself in the UK are fixated on the US as the only place where interesting people are and where interesting things happen; and more precisely, New York and San Francisco. I always intended to move to the US as soon as I could after university. Now, I’m not really that attracted. The magic has gone.

So, it has to be said, there are interesting people in Europe. Services and connectivity are at least as good, if not better, than the UK, and of course, the cost of living is far lower. Why not move to Berlin? Because it’s hard to be the first person to do it. You come up against all sorts of  unexpected hurdles and you don’t have anyone to give you advice. When you finally get there, you’re on your own, with few other British or American startups.

Now, the CTO I mentioned earlier did come up with the interesting idea of spending short stints in Berlin, anywhere from one month to six months. This would require some very understanding employees, of course, but while young people aren’t quite that mobile yet, I do think they’re getting there. I suggested another tack – a group of startups and small companies could join forces and agree to rent out a set of offices and apartments, and simply take turns staying there. Like an incubator (or a timeshare).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Berlin or elsewhere. The impulse behind this daydream, which is evidently shared among many, many people, is that cities like London are getting just too expensive to work in. Much of the work we do can be done anywhere; however, we like living in cities, not in the middle of nowhere. A possible solution presents itself in European cities such as Berlin, that have thriving cultural and tech scenes, that are modern and easily accessible and friendly to foreigners. By moving, you’re not just outsourcing yourself to another country, you’re getting to see the world.

London, watch out…

Sidestep Right Two Paces!

One of the most memorable children’s TV shows of my generation was Knightmare. Ah, Knightmare – a show that was about role-playing games, but oddly cool to be a fan of. In Knightmare, a team of four kids would try to get through a dungeon populated by all sorts of traps, baddies and dangers.

Of course, it wasn’t a real dungeon, or even a real set – instead, one kid would put on a big helmet that covered their eyes (I’m sure there was some silly reason for this) and stand in front of a blue-screen stage. The other three kids and the audience would then see this helmeted kid transported into the fantasy land, which was mostly computer graphics, but with real actors dropped in as well.

Part of the game involved outwitting enemies, solving riddles and casting spells, but what everyone remembers most are the physical challenges. The helmeted kid would frequently be placed into situations where they had to walk very carefully in certain directions, e.g. a winding path next to a cliff, a maze where the tiles are disappearing, giant scythes swinging across the room, etc.

What with the helmet, the kid would receive directions from their three friends, who would shout out things such as ‘Turn left 90 degree and then take two paces forward! No, left!’ All of this confusion provided endless amusement to the audience at home, who typically thought (erroneously) that they could do much better.

I was recently told that halfway into the show, which lasted for a whopping eight series, some kids came up with an entirely new direction: sidestep. Apparently up until this point, no-one had thought of using this specific direction, using more ambiguous terms such as ‘step to your right’ or similar, so ‘sidestep’ was a genuinely innovative improvement. What made this even more interesting was that following this development, all the teams that followed also used the ‘sidestep’ manoeuvre. It reminds me of nothing else than the development of tool use among social animals.

I suppose there are two morals to this story, if you needed any. The first is that if you give players a broad and flexible set of tools in a game (in this case, full voice control) you can get all sorts of surprising innovations popping up that change the game for everyone.

The second is that someone should really make a knock-off of Knightmare and put it on YouTube. I would sign up for that dev team in a shot.