Saturday, April 21, 2001

Another website to get lost in, Rich Geib's Thoughts worth thinking, a loosely organized outline of a philosophy I can relate to. I found it while looking up a quote for my last blog entry, (it didn't make it - christ, some times I do get too metaphysical for my own good.) Anyway, some pages to start with: The kids who changed the world, Nietzsche and Hitler, Ray Bradbury on censorship, Men in blue, Diary of an Iraqi lieutenant, and a long discussion [1 2 3 4] on the fascism of Starship Troopers.

To play Diablo II is to receive a nearly constant stream of pleasant, little rewards. Neat magic items. Levels at regular intervals. Nifty new enemies and surroundings. Gold and spells. The game constantly compensates the player for his or her toil. It is almost impossible not to continuously generate these warm fuzzies. Every minute you play builds your character a little more, and the feeling of satisfaction this gives is, while odd, understandable and compelling.

Jeff Vogel (retro-style RPG designer) praising Diablo 2 in his CGO column, also calling it the most brilliantly designed single-minded game ever, "the computer game equivalent of knitting". He wrote something similar about Everquest:

And when playing a role-playing game, you get a constant, pleasing form of feedback in the form of gold and experience points. Or upgrading from a +1 to a +2 sword. Or getting a new spell, or completing a quest. EverQuest is particularly cunning in the way it rewards the player. It has the character's skills constantly creep upward, a tiny bit at a time, providing a constant stream of tiny rewards.

Actually I think this applies to all computer games, (the successful ones, anyway.) Good games steal a lot of concepts from other art forms: powerful visuals, great stories, moving music - but the one thing that keeps you sitting there clicking away for hours and hours is a constant stream of challenges and rewards. Rewards that get their value from nothing else than the difficulty you had in reaching them, and the amount of time you spent on getting there. Reaching another FPS level, advancing to another puzzle, finding a slightly improved magical sword - on their own these rewards are just empty concepts, but after hours of mindless clicking or mind-wrestling they're just as valuable as anything you can buy for money.

Life may resemble a computer game, (well, at least the starting out with no stash or experience part of it), but it's not a very well-balanced computer game. On one side living is too easy. In the same way that evolution didn't prepare our bodies for a world where food is abundant, it didn't prepare our minds for a life where everyday survival isn't a challenge - the challenges are gone, but the ability and need to solve them is still there. On the other side, the challenges everyday life does have to offer, are often too difficult. Climbing the career ladder or reaching other material goals may be fun for those who succeed, but for those who don't it's about as pointless and annoying as spending your life stuck with the final puzzle in Monkey Island 2. The balance is important, a good challenge is neither too easy nor too difficult, and few people are lucky enough to find that in everyday life, or only in moderate amounts. And this is where computer games enter the picture.

The purpose of computer games is to simulate overcomable resistance we don't face elsewhere. For some people this might involve clicking a million times on anything that moves, for others solving unnecessarily obscure puzzles, but the important thing is that your mind keeps facing challenges, and manages to overcome them after a fair amount of work. That is the heart of computer gaming, and the games we find fun are the ones that strike exactly the right balance between challenge and reward.

Some successful equivalents of computer games, challenge for its own sake, can be found in real life - lifting weights or knitting is possibly very similar to hacking and slashing your way through Diablo 2 or Angband, like solving crosswords is similar to solving adventure game puzzles. These things are propably fun for the same reasons. But computer games specializes in this task, providing a wide variety of well-balanced, rewarding challenges for all tastes and abilities, with a subtlety and flexibility reality can never match.

Friday, April 20, 2001

Ooh, a page with mp3 versions of the Ultima game soundtracks, recorded from a Roland MT-32 and an SB Live with various soundfonts. Now this is different from those lame midi versions I've been listening to all these years.

The bootup, character creation and introduction tunes from Ultima VI in particular, (played in that order), brings back some fond memories from two months spent perhaps dangerously separated from reality. I've been toying with the idea of recreating the U6 intro animation in some web-friendly format - it explains CRPG's better with a few images and a short tune than I could with a thousand blog entries.

Thursday, April 19, 2001

If you want evidence of the great things a small group of dedicated fans can accomplish when they set their mind to it, look no further than the Ultima community. I remember lurking in r.g.c.u.d throughout 1999, picking up rumours and speculation about the upcoming Ultima IX. The newsgroup barely even existed when Ultima VIII was published, and the "imminent release" of Ultima IX had been hanging over their heads since day 1. If you've never played the classic Ultima games, you'll never understand why people hang out in a newsgroup dedicated to a game series that has been dead for five years, (and nobody even liked Ultima VIII), but that's what they did. At some point in 1999 everyone realized that Ultima IX was actually coming out, and you saw the kind of hype that isn't based on corporate propaganda but nostalgia and years of well-founded expectations.

In December 1999 Ultima IX came, saw, and tumbled to the ground like a blue norwegian turkey. I think something snapped in thousands of Ultima fans at that moment. They realized that they were the guardians of the Ultima legacy. Whatever made the classic Ultima games special in the 80's and early 90's, Origin was unable to reproduce it, and the suits at EA couldn't care less about it. The fans and the games were all that was left, and some of these fans just happened to be skilled programmers and artists. (After all, the Ultima series peaked at a time when computer gaming was a well-kept secret among nerds and other weirdoes.) Suddenly there were about a dozen Ultima-related projects in progress, from minor improvements of old games to rewrites and completely new games. Some of these were actually started before Ultima IX, but even these were propably fueled by the Ascension anti-climax.

Here are some of the Ultima related projects listed at the Fans for Ultima website:

Not bad, huh? Of course, according to statistics, several of the larger projects here will propably suck, but it's the ones that won't suck that matters. Yesterday I started on Ultima IX again, (giving up last time a year ago after a few hours of painfully slow framerates and sucky dialogue), and this time I'm using all the official and unofficial patches I can find. I'm not sure exactly what has changed, but for some reason the rewritten introduction actually makes me want to play the rest of the game. I'll be sure to check out the other rewrites as soon as they become playable.

The Wayward Avatar looks like a good news site for the Ultima renaissance right now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

VG is doing something interesting and I think until now unique in Norway: broadcasting transcripts from the Orderud murder case live on the web.

Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Typical. Here you (I mean I) buy a fast computer for video capture, and the previously excellent DC10+ starts acting all weird and the system falls down in flames. Was this card also ruined when I emigrated, or is it just very very picky about IRQ sharing? Now, I don't give up easily, but after three hours of moving cards and changing BIOS settings and reinstalling everything between the ninth circle of hell and the seventh heaven, (well, that's an exaggeration), I'm beginning to lean towards the first theory.

What with the two Marx Brothers movies that arrived today and an AMD 1GHz just aching for some Mpeg4 compression, this is absolutely the wrong moment to be without a TV/Capture card. (Buy a TV? I disapprove of all information devices that won't let me intercept the data.)

(Update: Turns out it was very picky about those IRQ settings, and the sigh of relief you hear is my already thin bank account living to see another day. Now where did I put those movies.)

Phew, back on the web again. My only news source for the last couple of days has been TV, so I feel pretty much out of touch with the major events of the world now, (though I'm sure the major events of the world did just fine without me - just give me the death tolls and I'll be up to date). Got a new computer yesterday, which means I'll be able to play some recent games again, but the real reason I bought it was video capture and compression.

In less happy news, while emigrating to the new computer, I dropped an old hard disk on the floor, with about a year of personal data on it. There wasn't anything really important there, no huge works-in-progress or anything, (the only works in progress i care about is my code and this blog, and they're both safe), but it still feels like I've lost a part of myself. I have to do a lot of annoying reinstalling and reconfiguration now to get everything back the way I want it.

Isolated from the web like this, I got a chance to watch quite a few movies and crime shows this easter. (I don't know if this is a tradition anywhere else, but in Norway TV channels send crime during easter.) Perhaps I watched the wrong crime shows, I don't know, but the ones I saw were pretty bad - especially Nini on NRK1. Crime isn't just any random story involving murder. You need the traditional detective, deducing the impossible and yet obvious from irrelevant clues, and you need that soap-operaish belief in basic evil. Bleak social realism, or any other form of realism for that matter, belongs as much in crime as realistic head-kick wounds in a martial arts movie. Metropol is sending Cracker these days, (this evening in fact), a great example of how crime can be inventive without violating the rules - oh, and don't miss Twin Peaks on Viasat Plus saturdays and sundays.

Other movies: I think I've seen Duck Soup and 2001: A Space Odyssey so many times now that my brain has absorbed and adapted to them. Underman has a great analysis of Hal's actions in 2001. I heard a rumour a restored version is being rereleased on cinema some time this year - if it comes to Norway, I'll be the guy on the front row twitching his head like Dave in the Jupiter sequence.