The Pixel Crush

-------------------------------------------|Digital Animation & Game Criticism|-------------------------------------------

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Press Pause For Thought

The Iconic Shattered Overpass As Seen From Below

I kept wondering where the sprint button was when I first started playing Fallout: New Vegas. Firstly I checked whether there even was one, there wasn't, and secondly I relaxed into the pacing that New Vegas sets, a pace that demands you focus on your surroundings, more than your destination. Because until you've discovered a number of the New Vegas' many locations you aren't going to be fast-travelling anywhere. It's almost ritualistic. The preparation between missions, building up to the climax of the quest itself, constantly juggling the weight and inventory systems (especially on the hardcore mode that places emphasis on nutritional needs as well as giving ammo physical mass.) Its a smaller narrative arc in itself where New Vegas lets the player tell their own episodic subplot to the main narrative arc.

Off The Beaten Track

My need to adjust to the pacing New Vegas sets tells me that contemporary media has changed my expectations. I can barely read a book. I am not illiterate, or mentally challenged. There's just something missing. My first thought is that it is that my imagination has been eroded by the sensory overload of films and games, but this feels false because I still, when I do read (or more frequently listen to audiobooks) find myself hooked into daydreams that have been directly sparked by my mind- fleshing out the ideas of a given fictional world. And I don't think my problem is inherent in literature as a medium, I read a hell of a lot of non-fiction online. I've just become maladjusted to that method of fictional delivery.

The "LMB" Means I Probably Trod On Something Incendiary

Fallout: New Vegas would probably fall under the genre of the 'Western Role Playing Game'- if you asked someone. And I would agree with that someone. The RPG is a genre whose key tenets espouse the value of exploration: geographical, systemic, and ideological. The western part of 'Western RPG' tends to refer to the fact that the game will be realtime, not turn based (though New Vegas muddies these waters with its V.A.Ts system) and that there will probably be a reliance on combat. When a genre's core values propose exploring not just places but ideas, then you get a sense of the kind of pacing that is necessary for the game to work effectively. It must be slow, exploration can be methodical or spontaneous but it will always take time, and the factions and people the player meets while exploring will have issues and problems that require social navigation of a kind that- when done well, requires time to ponder. I know a quest has been designed well when the narrative context of what could have been just another bounty to collect makes me 'pause for thought'.


So perhaps the RPG can be my genre stepping stone back into the pace of other media, a digital foothold on the climb to fiction consumption rehabilitation. There are many other interesting, great, and broken parts of Fallout: New Vegas that I'd like to talk about but I think I'll keep this focused and concise. I'm on the brink of finishing the main quest, so I'll do that instead.

Light At The End of the Tunnel

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Spy Party & Smooth Jazz

Videogames do a lot of leg work for the player in terms of sensory representation.
As a kind of composite uber-medium that encompasses audio, visual, textual, and systemic content; all in digital form, it leaves very little space for the player to fill. Role play is often a major part of the immersive quality of games, and while each medium has found its niche for the audience games often excel when they put players in the procedural space. What I mean by this is that the interactivity, the procedures the player enacts, is the missing part of the game that player fills. This means that role play is decision (or choice) based, rather than imagination based. The player does not need to imagine visual locations or characters, or gaps in time due to editing, only potential outcomes of decisions.

Being involved in the Spy Party beta has been interesting in that, as a game in the process of being built, there are atmospheric elements still missing, even though the systemic content is already quite advanced. Music, for example, is missing. Only background party chatter and the clinking of drinks is heard. It has made me realise just how much of a difference can be made to a player's experience of entirely the same systems when manipulated whilst listening to music. As a result, my Spy Party sessions have been accompanied by a soundtrack of my devising, namely Chris Potter’s live sessions on shuffle. This addition has done wonders to enhance my role playing as both the spy character and the sniper.

Many elements of Spy Party's gameplay are timing based, while the rest are behavioural based. All of them are skill based, as designer Chris Hecker has emphasised. This jazz accompaniment has altered my approach to this timing by tweaking the tempo at which I play the game, as the rhythm of the music evolves I found myself developing a narrative that matched. Sometimes the sniper's laser would hover over me during a particularly syncopated section causing added tension as I strove to remain undetected. Or I would smoothly take control of my character as the brush strikes on the snare laid out a sophisticated beat, creating that ultra-cool presence of the super spy.
You may have noticed all of this applies to the spy role. I have yet to find a genre of music that matches the equally engaging sniper gameplay in quite the same way, something classical perhaps? Or some tech metal to match his/her constant and ever roaming alertness? Suggestions welcome.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Derby Crush

By, perhaps stupidly, saying yes to almost every opportunity that came my way after wrapping up the course I produced this short piece of animation for Kernow Rollers, the local roller derby league. It was to act as part of a larger instructional video, which I've also embedded below.

It was all slightly more rushed than I would have liked, I thought it was even going to render in time for the skate event at one point, but then I realised I'd turned unified sampling and motion blur on when I didn't need either. I went all out with the shaders in this one, spending a good deal of time texturing the floor and using specular and bump maps to get that glossy gym floor look as good as I could.

Kernow Rollers introduce Roller Derby from Kernow Rollers on Vimeo.

I also used a great tutorial that Jake showed me on creating satin, or velvet cloth effects using the mia_material in Maya. Using a colour ramp in the reflection colour you can get a great iridescent effect which I used on the balls and stars that feature in the animation. I wish I'd had more time to add some props to the set, and add more than the 2 lights I used. Perhaps next time.
This was a great project to try some things I'd been meaning to use for a while but still hadn't got round to learning. This one Joe showed me, and its a way in photoshop to paint along a curve you've made using the pen tool using the selected brush. So effectively you can tweak a vector, and then apply a nice looking stroke to it. I used this to get the track shape, and then paint evenly around it.
The layered shader in Maya is a great tool, but isn't compatible with the mia_material. So I found a cunning tutorial that basically embeds the final result of the shader inside a surface shader, which IS compatible with the layered shader. I was planning on using it to put the Pivot player's stripe onto specific balls, but in the end it was easier just to make a bespoke texture, than wrestle with a headache of nodes.
I kind of cheaped out on the animation by using motion paths, curves drawn in 3D space which objects can then follow, with some tweaks to timing it worked reasonable well, and then are even some fancy settings for banking into each curve's turn. Only the jammers are hand animated.
For the motion blur I broke out my friend the mental ray production shader "mip_motionblur" who creates vector based motion blur on each image after rendering, this way I can have fast motion blur without using compositing software I don't own. Though it does unfortunately mean that its baked into the image and therefore non-editable.


I've also been slowly making moves on the Kernel fixes. I think I'm going to add an opening title. Tasteless and unpopular as the idea seems, I'm effectively admitting defeat and creating some expectations for the audience so they're not completely in the dark about the story at the outset. Im also planning on adding two shots which will clarify a couple of the plot heavy props. But these need discussing with the relevant team members before I can start working on them.

Pixel Propaganda

An excellent article was written by the consistently interesting Kirk Hamilton, on writing videogame dialogue, in particular the enemy barks the player hears.