Michael Clarkson evaluates some of FC3’s design

Michael Clarkson has a great post up analysing in some detail the design features of Far Cry 3 and their relative success or failure.

Most interesting to me is his discussion of why FC3 designs away the landscape, by encouraging the player to treat the map itself as the terrain, and this is borne out in how much more “vividly” he says he recalls FC2’s landscape vs FC3’s. Here’s what he has to say about one of the main design features that does it, and I’m glad he pointed it out because I don’t think I had made this point explicit myself (and I totally agree):

The oversimplified routing that results from the fast-travel system also contributes [to the player disregarding the landscape]. Far Cry 3 allows the player to teleport in close to a desired point and then take a relatively short and direct route to wherever the mission will start. So, at any time that the player has a goal in mind, his first action will always be to look at the map and find the nearest fast-travel point. The map itself, rather than actual travel through the world, becomes the journey. The world effectively becomes discontinuous and only coheres when mediated by the map. Additionally, the density of fast-travel points means that the player doesn’t have to really think deeply about the relationship between the map and the landscape, since the ease of travel mostly obviates the need for route-planning.

There’s a great level of depth to the rest of his analysis too, go check it out.

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James Baldwin’s writerly interests

“About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love to eat and drink – it’s my melancholy conviction that I’ve scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it’s impossible to eat enough if you’re worried about the next meal) – and I love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I do not like people who like me because I am a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this will guide one alright. I consider that I have many responsibilities but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, p.9


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Music as Labour Technology – Gandy Dancers 1973

1973 16mm film by Jack Schrader and Tom Burton that features field recordings of work chants of Gandy Dancers including aligning songs and chants to knock out slack in the rail.  Shot with a 16mm Bolex camera without sync sound, the visuals shows men working with cross ties, aligning the track, and spiking.  The film focuses on the changes brought about by mechanization of railroad building. The film is part of the Burton Schrader collection in East Tennessee State University, ?Archives of Appalachia. A digital beta copy is in the Folkstreams archive in the Southern Folklife Collection in Chapel Hill.

The timing when the two men strike the spike into the rail with such rhythmic precision is immensely impressive. I like the closeups of their faces too, showing so much dirt and sweat, and how that contrasts with their highly technical hammering in time with music. Un-skilled labour this would be categorised as, but watching them hammer with such timing and precision (a commenter calls it “windmilling style” which is a great name for it) is just incredible.

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Kamuran Akkor – Ikimiz Bir Fidaniz

The hook is phenomenal and just sits in my brain and makes it feel all wiggly and dancy.

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Phil Tippett’s ‘Prehistoric Beast’

Amazing short film, embedding disabled so go watch it on YouTube. Worth it for the 80s era sound design alone.

I found it via this blog by someone doing a remake of the Jurassic Park: Tresspasser game. Looks super great. I’m always disappointed there aren’t more games that involve dinosaurs.

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Far Cry 3 and designer inducements

Thinking some more about the ideas in Andrew Vanden Bosche’s great post that I responded to the other day, I realised that I hadn’t really thought about it from the perspective of the game designer, i.e. from the position that someone like Jeff Yohalem is in. So what is it like to be Yohalem, and to be in his position? What is compelling him, from his perspective?

As a disclaimer, this is going to be largely speculative and may or may not prove accurate. However the structure of the game designer’s explanations for why they made the game design choices that they did are often remarkably similar from person to person, so much so they form something of a trope. The culprit that is inducing the game designer to produce certain types of things is quite usually (though by no means always) gamers themselves, or perhaps more accurately (thought more abstractly) gamer expectations. In other words some kind of cultural push that Yohalem et al. feels from outside their own workplace is limiting, directing or shaping the kinds of choices that the designers themselves can make. Marketing departments at Ubisoft probably form a part of this ecosystem, but game designers aren’t aloof from their own culture, either. They tend to know what “gamers” like and enjoy because they are gamers themselves, they buy the same games, they read the same publications, they have Twitter and Facebook, etc, etc.

I’m going to pick out a quote from the Yohalem interview at RPS that I linked in my original post that I think is pretty telling, and highlight some of the important phrases:

“I feel like we’re in this place in the videogame industry where we’re in an abusive relationship. Players feel like game developers don’t respect them, and don’t create meaningful works for them, so they call a lot of games stupid. And a lot of developers get upset because things are being called stupid, and they say that players don’t get it anyway, so they just handhold them all the [way] through. I think that’s an abusive relationship. You need to break that cycle. You need to cause both sides to step back and say, “Maybe there’s something else that we can both have between each other.” We can create situation where players go, “Huh, maybe games have something interesting to say after all, and I’m going to listen.” And then that puts the pressure on game developers to not create lazy crap.

So here’s a clue: Yohalem feels that players can and do put actual, real, felt pressure on developers somehow. For gamers themselves, this probably comes as something of a revelation, since the closest any of us come to feeling like we have any influence over the games that get made comes either through voting on which banal version of the boxart we like better (which is more like participating in a focus group without getting paid), or by organising boycotts or petitions (still rather abstract; though it occasionally gets things done by demonstrating a significant market, a la Dark Souls on PC), or slightly more directly by backing Kickstarter projects. As far as I know, Far Cry 3 involved none of these.

Putting aside for the moment Yohalem’s troubling views on arbitration and breaking the cycle (tl;dr – when two ‘sides’ aren’t equal there’s no such thing as breaking the cycle by making tem both ‘step back’. Imagine doing that in something like apartheid South Africa and see how unfair that attitude actually becomes) how might Yohalem be directly feeling the pressure from game players? I think the clue is in that all the vectors for ‘player pressure’ on developers come in the form of aggregates or otherwise abstracted forms. There are no direct conduits for ‘player agency’ to express itself on game development, so no wonder players become hyperbolic and feel like Shinji Ikari who gets no say in the matter of what kinds of games are available for him to play, or over the future direction, development and philosophy of these games.

There’s an easy target of all-caps CAPITALISM! here but I want to ignore that for a second and think more about the difference between individuals and aggregates. The problem with aggregating and encapsulating player agency into these ‘markets’ or collectives of petitions, or cumulative buying power, etc, etc (we might add – collective outrage/influence power to this list, but that’s a far more complex issue) is that it is a reductive process. My concerns, wishes and desires are not going to be identical to your concerns. They may overlap, but there is no way to non-reductively combine our issues and ball them up into one collective ‘pressure’ unit to direct at game developers to get them to stop or start doing something, or influence them in other more nuanced ways.

For example, I’m thinking of a post by Claire Hosking that really highlights the troubling intersection of valid and important concerns about the representation of women in games with the just as valid and just as important concern about allowing women of all body shapes and sizes (including women with large breasts! Hello Lara Croft!) be represented in media and to also possess their own rich inner life. The concern here is that in the push for more ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or (heck) even realistic body shapes we can accidentally trip into the situation where we deny busty women the kind of nuance and interiority that we grant to, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars. Claire’s example in the forthcoming post is Christina Hendrick’s character on Mad Men, who is voluptuous and objectified by those around her but which the show itself treats with the same respect as any other character.

So it is incredibly difficult to aggregate such nuance effectively – I’m “for” more body-diversity in games, and I’m all for the reduced “objectification” of women in games, but I’m also not happy with sacrificing representations of busty women just to stop teen boys objectifying them? Suffice to say, shit is complicated.

For another great example, look at the intellectual work that Robert Yang has to do to unify even in a blog post the “Queer Feminist Agenda” for games. Imagine how much harder it’s going to be to unify actual people, with actual opinions and hesitations and peccadillos and all the other things that come along with being human. But there’s a good reason to try, particularly since it’s partly how we get game designers like Jeff Yohalem take notice of us. There are good reasons to encapsulate or aggregate.

I’ve half-joked before about the need for a Gamer Union or something like that. I don’t have the time or ability to organise it myself, but I actually quite seriously believe in the potential in something like a gamers lobby group or union or something (at least, one that was done well. We’re already sort of doing this in a loose and anarchic way through twitter and the like). Imagine the impact we could have had when the Girlfriend mode thing happened if we could go to Randy Pitchford and say “Here are 10,000 people not happy with that glimpse of your studio’s development culture. What are you going to do to change that?” How’s that for some pressure?

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Passive agression, Spec Ops: The Line, and the individual onus

Andrew Vanden Bossche has a great little post up on his tumblr about the way Shinji Ikari in Evangelion reacts to being told what to do, wanting to resist doing it, while also being unable to say ‘no’ to his father. It finds its realisation in passive agression, frustration and following orders with a bare minimum of effort:

He’s a kid and this is the only possible way of saying fuck you to his dad and that is very important to him. His contempt for the life and death game the adults are making him play is obvious.

This is super familiar to me, especially at this time of year, as Christmas is often the time of year when I feel I have the least amount of personal agency, a stifling lack of freedom regarding what to do or where to go, am often unable to retreat to a private space (when staying with relatives), locked into the schedules of adults. Christmastime frequently became a period of painful obligation and a test of endurance. But I digress.

Andrew says that this rejection of his lack of agency, expressed as resistance through resentment and acts of minimal enthusiasm, was how he played Spec Ops: The Line,

The game insists over and over that it’s my fault all the bad things that the game is forcing me to do to continue are happening. Spec Ops is barely self aware that this is the case—people are dying because you just keep going forward, a voiceover informs you. But they’re only dying because the game orders them to die. Video games are pretty eager to blame players for killing when designers are the ones that turn on slow motion every time I score a head shot.

This is absolutely spot on, and something that we also see in Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem’s interivews, for instance:

So in this case it’s torturing your little brother, and there’s no real reason to be doing it. You’re not saving the Earth, you’re not doing anything that makes that act okay. That was meant to really shock people.

This said with no awareness, of course, that the player knows this and has the additional piece of information – that the writer intended this to happen to the player. And yet Yohalem wipes his hands of any personal responsibility in making the player “torture” his own in-game brother. This trend (and I really do think it’s a trend) is super interesting to me, not least of all because of the way that Andrew in his post frames this as a clash of systemic responsibility with individual responsibility:

I think it would be pretty cool to have a game about how cruel oppressive systems survive by pushing on their problems onto individuals.

I agree, it would be an extremely cool game that dealt with that issue. In my PhD thesis, I’m attempting to build a case for certain types of fairly novel arguments about, for one example, the way certain ontologies give us permission to outsource responsibility, and to shift and move it around depending on which way the wind is blowing. Certainly at present, what gets called ‘neoliberalism’ (but which I’m mostly calling ‘Capitalist Realism’, following Mark Fisher) gives permission to outsource responsibility onto individuals the end results of systemic issues which result in individual cases of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and stress.

Consider this: if your work conditions are so precarious, your conditions so utterly decided by the whims of the ‘market’ or ‘consumer demand’ or even a the will of a capricious boss who can’t keep his dick in his pants, how is it your fault that you are depressed?! Surely in those circumstances depression and severe anxiety is normal! And yet responsibility under neoliberalism always trickles downwards… was Reagan secretly right?

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Thesis tribulations

I’ve found that sometimes the biggest impediment when it comes to actually sitting down and writing a certain thesis section is un-thinking the things that I had thought about that section prior and which now… are incomplete, wrong, or just don’t fit the argument. It’s like my provisional thoughts – having had some before – actually blocks the process of forming coherent complete thoughts in the present. Weird. WEIRD.

This has been a tweet.

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Far Cry 3 – On tessellation, FOV and enjoyment

So I changed two minor video settings at some point this week and it’s like I’m playing an entirely different game.

I changed the geometry to ‘Ultra’, and the Field of Vision (FOV) to 90 degrees, up from the default 75. These two changes have literally flipped my experience of Far Cry 3 on its head. Before it felt like I was fighting against the game at every step, now I feel more ‘relaxed’ and at-east within the game, being able to inhabit the world much more fully.

Which seems bizarre, right? Two tiny settings and now I can enjoy the game, whereas before it was a pain? But it’s absolutely true. Lets talk about what these two settings actually do in detail and speculate around why they might be so important to my enjoyment.

So some important PC spec details:

  • Intel Core i5 2500K overclocked to ~4ghz
  • 8gb of (I think?) pretty fast timed RAM
  • 256gb SSD
  • Nvidia GTX560

Pretty powerful stuff that I shelled out for last year, should be able to handle pretty much whatever I throw at it reasonably well. But there’s a catch with the 560 and a particular DirectX 11 feature involving ‘tessellation’, which in a nutshell adds more triangles to more complex geometric objects as the viewer approaches them. Here’s the Nvidia ‘endless city’ demo that shows off this pretty neat piece of tech. Watch the following zoom-in/zoom-out section to see how it dynamically adds and subtracts geometric detail.

“If I zoom out you’ll see how all that simplifies, and if I zoom in more and more triangles come back.”

This is neat! It makes complex in-world objects look… well… complex! But there’s a catch. How do you render the addition of these triangles without it looking like the object is morphing before your eyes? The nVidia demo manages it because there’s a lot of shadowy darkness around it, and in the textureless and wireframe views we don’t notice the unrealism of the morphing because of the abstract nature of those views.

But in Far Cry 3 this technology is where the rubber hits the road, for me at least, as the method of smoothing between geometric levels of detail becomes painfully distracting. Essentially, a shimmer effect is applied over the object as detail levels are added or removed, and in complex scenes with a lot of dynamic addition and subtraction this gets overwhelming really fast.

Here’s as good an examples as I could find, watch the two crates/boxes besides the hut at the third place the camera swings around to after the player turns off the radio tower. I’ve set the time on the video as close as possible to the point. It may take some re-watching to see what I mean, and admittedly it doesn’t look that ‘bad’ here, but there are scenes where it has been incredibly distracting for me. (You’ll have to watch in 720p to even notice, but it’s plainly visible at 1080p)

It also happens on a basket sitting on the bench in the first scene, and on a flower in the bottom right corner of the second location the camera pans around to. Once you start noticing it, it can get distracting very quickly, and what has been seen cannot be unseen.

So what was the purpose of setting it to Ultra? Well the change that effects is to decrease the amount of culling of triangles, so once the high detail is there it generally stays till you are very far away, and (I think) you also begin to see the shimmer happen further away form you, reducing its impact. When the shimmer effect looks like an item is being beamed in by teleporter from the Starship Enterprise, it’s worth trying to minimise it as much as possible. So that change was something of a revelation.

The second change, to widen the FOV to 90 degrees rather than the default (even for widescreen!) of ~74/75 degrees felt reminiscent of the cessation of an irritating noise just below conscious attention. It was that kind of release of an ambient tension that is pent up just below the surface, the kind you are entirely unaware of until it actually lets up at which point you suddenly go “Wow, I was clenching my jaw without realising”.

Such a simple fix, and one I didn’t realise I was missing until it happened. What does this tell me about myself and what I am used to? I think it’s a sign that I have so habituated the ‘angle’ or ‘perspective’ that goes with a certain field of vision that I resist attempts to be squished into anything less. But this is strange, why would I feel so claustrophobic when constrained by something as simple as FOV?

The 90 degree FOV puts ‘your head’ further back from your arms, as a consequence of the bending it does to include more of the field of vision into the rectangle of your monitor. You end up ‘further away’ from your arms, as a result. This is a weird paradox because, as I said about Far Cry 2, it was my identification with my arms that caused me to feel like I was so much more a part of the world. In fact what I said about Far Cry 2 was that it wasn’t so much a first person shooter, as a first person hander. You ‘do’ most of your verbs with your hands in that game, heal with your hands, climb with your hands, swim with your hands, shoot with your hands (hands that very competently translate your instructions into weapon handling) but which are also interrupted by sick hands when you have to cough and splutter and take anti-malarials.

So in Far Cry 3 getting further away from my hands (and further ‘back’ from the screen perspectivally) ends up ‘feeling’ better, and along with a couple of the skills which allow me to (I think?) run faster generally, I feel more competent and confident at inhabiting the world.

How silly that such things depended on two little menu settings, and that it took me so long to realise.

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Livin the gun life

Check out the weird dissonance of this:

At the same time, though, I was a little jealous of those getting permits. Taking my guns from the safe was a rare treat; the sensual pleasure of handling guns is a big part of the habit. Elegantly designed and exquisitely manufactured, they are deeply satisfying to manipulate, even without shooting. I normally got to play with mine only a few times a year, during hunting season and on one or two trips to the range. The people with carry permits, though, were handling their guns all the time. They were developing an enviable competence and familiarity with them. They were living the gun life. Finally, last year, under the guise of “wanting to learn what this is all about,” but really wanting to live the gun life myself, I began the process of getting a carry permit. All that was required was a background check, fingerprints, and certification that I’d passed an approved handgun class.

Gun life… living a life of competence and familiarity with a piece of “elegantly designed and exquisitely manufactured” death dealing machines. Guns are designed to kill, you can argue all you want that there are other concerns that come before the priority of killing displacing the primary purpose of a gun (“to look elegant, to deter attackers, etc, etc”) but the spectre of a gun being about meting out death or maiming never goes away. Remove that dimension of a gun and it stops being a gun. Even the “less lethal” (not non-lethal; the haunting never leaves) guns cannot excise the spirit, the possibility that accidentally or unintentionally someone is killed by a less-lethal bullet.

There is nothing life affirming about a gun, and anyone living around them regularly who forgets that is like the person who gets behind the wheel without any of the quiet fear that comes from never being able to forget that a car just as easily crosses into the territory of ‘weapon’.

Bonus: Check out Amanda Marcotte’s pinterest post pointing at the “psychosexual weirdness“of gun fetishists, and the advertisement for the Bushmaster type semi-automatic used in the recent Sandy Hook massacre. It’s a banal point that Americans have weird sexual hang-ups (for reals) and I wonder how often “living the gun life” becomes a Freudian ‘return of the repressed’ for many. “Consider your man card re-issued” addressed to the viewer, looking slightly askew down the barrel of a machine that promises no impotence ever, aka full potency is such an easy target for this kind of analysis. (Quentin Meillassoux’s partner has apparently done a lot of interesting scholarship on the importance of Aristotelean ‘potency’ on middle ages Christian theologians thinking the concept of ‘omnipotence’ (full potency) seems very promising here, I want to read her stuff)

I have a copy of C.J. Chivers’ “The Gun: The History of the AK” (extract and neat videografik here at Esquire) but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (I should hurry up, it’s my brother’s book lol).

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