Book Club

The first rule of Book Club is that we talk about Book Club as often as we can because books are cool. Recently, I read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It was forced on me by my friend whose family the Cobras stayed with over christmas. Thick enough to beat someone to death with, I regarded it with suspicion. The Lord of the Rings books are also that thick and they are unbelievably verbose. Let’s face it, no matter what you think of ‘em, you have to admit: Tolkien uses 1000 words where 100 would have done and that makes it hard work. You have to put in effort to read those books. I want the pages in my book to turn themselves. Not because there is some freaky octopus-spider mutant thing doing it, but because I’m so tied up in the book that I’m reading that I simply don’t notice the pages go by. I want to see the book. In short, I want suspension of disbelief. I want to be there. In the book.

Blast, it seemed so real until then... Snowdrops!

... and I thought I was really there for a moment before reality was piddled away achievement by achievement

Begrudgingly, I looked at the back of the book’s cover. Meh. Medieval this, cathedral that, castle here, church there, blah blah blah. Well, frankly, on a scale of 1 to unexpected orgasm, my parts didn’t even twitch. Let’s face it, it didn’t exactly look like my field of interest. However, everyone around said “oh, that book is amazing, you won’t regret it”. So, with a Caipirinha passing by every minute or two I read the introduction and begun.

There is then a “scene missing” of about ten days. I remember the story, I remember the characters, I remember the tears, the smiles, the laughter, the sadness and I can picture all the major scenes. I saw that book as though it was a movie or as though I was there. I don’t, however, remember turning the pages. This book simply read itself. I sat in front of it and absorbed it. Isn’t that amazing? To me, that’s a sign of a brilliant author penning a fantastic story using incredible structure and economy of words. Nothing was wasted: each and every page contributed to the experience… and I must say, what an experience. If you have not read this book, I recommend it: it gets five out of five snakes on the Cobra rattle-scale.

If a book, which is just a pile of paper bound together with glue, can take me to another world with such effectiveness, why is suspension of disbelief so hard to achieve in computer games? With the book, the author must construct the renderings in my mind. He must put faces, expressions and emotions into the characters that are so effective that I don’t notice that black ink on white paper is what’s doing it. That’s hard and it is a skill that I simply do not have. I’ve tried to write fiction before with no success (at one point, I wrote 30,000 words of a novel that was so fucking bad that it is eclipsed by Vogon Poetry by fifty furlongs and a country mile). I guess I could practice, but even looking at my previous efforts makes my eyes burn.

Books aside, I just don’t understand why computer games represent such a challenge; modern graphics can draw scenes of incredible fidelity, render characters with extraordinary emotional depth and modern computers are powerful enough to model the physics and dynamics of a world to such accuracy that not only can it look real, but it can feel real.

One of the rare occasions that I felt true suspension of disbelief in a computer game was Elite on the BBC micro. Written in ten or so thousand bytes of memory and relying on emergence like you wouldn’t believe it created an environment that you could fall into with such ease that it should probably have carried an addiction warning. Even though the graphics were shudderingly bad by today’s standards, they were utterly remarkable by what was believed to be possible at the time. It was 3D! THREE-DEE! That’s one more dee than two-dee. And I had a spaceship! At last! In the quarter of a century that has slipped by since, Moore’s Law has held true and by jingo have we moved on. Yet, in so many cases, the characters in computer games are wooden, their personalities stale, their interactions totally implausible and the environments they inhabit feel wrong… for some reason. Then, in the few cases where I do fall into an environment, there are a stack of things to remind me that I’m playing a computer game. Things like achievements popping up on the screen, menus, odd statistics and unrealistic measurements like some arbitrary “health value”. In fact, in most cases, the whole UI represents a constant reminder that I am playing a computer game and not part of a world. Of course, this doesn’t even touch on being jerked from absorption by poorly disguised technical restrictions. Why is there an invisible barrier here? Why can I pick up that rock, but not that one? Why do I need a key to open that clearly rotten wooden door when I could knock it down with a sneeze if the artwork is supposed to be even remotely accurate?

Development and design philosophies appropriate for the creation of meaningful, plausible virtual worlds are a subject of their own entirely which, mercifully, I’ll ignore today. What it boils down to is that I want a Holodeck. I want the Matrix in my living room. I want to visit a virtual world and be there.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a plan. It has been cooking for nearly half my life. Let’s hope that I don’t die with it, eh? I am, after all, getting old.

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12 Responses to Book Club

  1. Montaigne says:

    I have to take exception to your opinion here, sir :)

    As with any form of media, including books, you have a tremendous amount of mediocrity with the occasional gem of brilliance. The reason it happens this way and not the other way around is because mediocrity is much easier to generate!

    So, getting onto actual computer games that have sucked me into their story:

    Homeworld for the PC. A game about being on your home planet, finding a buried alien ship in the desert and reverse engineering the tech’ in order to build a mothership. The graphics were awesome, the ability to zoom in and out of view and to manoeuvre around a unit to look at it in all it’s detail and glory (in Picaroon you could do the exact same thing) was fantastic and the individual touches jsut absorbed you in the game. The main one that leaps to mind is that you could actually watch individual turrets track enemy units which was fascinating.

    So, the game was cutting edge; an RTS in space with a continuous narrative as opposed to a series of instances generally unrelated to one another i.e. when a “level” finished you took whatever units you had remaining with you. Every credit and ship mattered.

    So, you’re invested in the game from the start, the first level see’s you trialling your units, flying in formation, building units etc. It was a tutorial but because the game was groundbreaking it actually felt like you were in the game learning new skills rather than going through the motions until you could start the game proper.

    There’a beautiful backdrop of your home planet behind your playing area. It just looks and feels epic. You then test the hyperdrive of the main ship, hyperspace out to a set location and find some wreckage. You tentatively send a salvage ship out to investigate and then fighters come out of nowhere to attack you. You fight them off then hyperspace back into home territory.

    When you arrive the choral version of Barber’s Adagio for strings kicks in, there’s a debris field where 30 minutes ago you had a giant gantry, the backdrop of the planet is on fire and a message comes over comms that an enemy frigate is firing on your stasis pods, with each one containing 100,000 citizens. The mission is to capture the frigate and rescue as many pods as possible.

    There’s no warning of the issue when you hyperspace back in, you’re not expecting it, the music really sets the emotional level (especially on headphones) and the immediacy of the threat makes you forget you’re playing a game.

    When I captured the frigate and the cut scene explained that under interrogation the captain of the frigate didn’t survive my blood was up and I was glad he’d died lol. The game really sucked me in and I felt it was very cleverly done.

    Another title that did this well was Medal of Honour (or possibly call of duty, I get mixed up with fps’s these days). Anyway, the level starts with you in a landing craft heading for Omaha beach. I had headphones on for this, with the sound turned up so unexpected explosions were scary.

    The cut scene approach was genius. Freedom to look around you whilst the cut scene was occurring. Artillery rounds coming in and landing between landing craft with huge plumes of water shooting up. At one point you heard a landing craft get hit and in the plume you saw the bodies of marines thrown into the sky.

    We’ve all seen the movies and know what is coming next so as a gamer I am slightly anxious and excited as I get ready to battle my way up the beach. The adrenaline is pumping. There were a couple of NPC players in front of me.

    The ramp went down, I heard the zip of bullets around me and immediately the guys in front of me were cut down and then I was dead before I got out of the landing craft.

    I restarted the level and was dead before I got out of the landing craft again.

    It took me 44 attempts before I made it to the beach without dying. A lot of restarts and saves and what was a really sobering thought is that kids of 17 and 18, just a bit younger than I was at the time, had done this for real but they didn’t have the option of a restart.

    As an individual that level brought home to me the terror and the simple lottery that this landing was for those marines in a way that I could never have gotten from a film or a book, no matter how graphic and realistic the movie. As a gaming experience it was exciting but also upsetting and I felt was brilliantly handled both as a piece of entertainment and as a life lesson.

    In terms of the suspension of disbelief in books my friend had been trying to get me to read the Game of Thrones series of books for years but it wasn’t until I saw the first series that I bought the books. I enjoyed them so much that I read the six books published so far (all Lord of the Rings type tomes) back to back within 6 weeks.

    • Chief Cobra says:

      By jingo. That reply is worth putting into a blog post all of its own!

      You are right, of course, there are many parts of many games that are absorbing and it is almost certainly the case that I choose to remember Elite with spectacles tinted with enough rose to fill a rose garden. Likewise I have a bookshelf that is haunted with the presence of books so monumentally shite that I have not got through more than a few pages. Still, I do feel that games choose to provide more cues than necessary to haul you out of the virtual world into the real one.

      I have had moments in SSX where I got totally lost in the music, the sound, the view and the experience of snowboarding. The same goes in various calls of duties and other such games where I got lost in the moment and felt emotions weave into the experience of playing the game.

      Then, I go somewhere I was not meant to and I find NPCs stacked up ready to move and other things that are wrong. None of this takes away the fact that I have spent many happy hours playing these games (particularly in co-op which I find to be by far the most fun way of playing these FPSs: you, a friend, two headsets and an afternoon of snacks and swearing — brilliant!)

      I never played Homeworld. This is odd as it sounds exactly like my kind of thing.

      • Montaigne says:

        Homeworld was a truly beautiful game but it could be broken too.

        When you hyperspace into a new area all your capital ships form up in parade ground i.e. in a long line, side by side

        There is a level where you jump into a region thick with this big sphere of enemy frigates; about 50-100. As you jump with only the ships left from the previous level, resources are vitally important. You collect every last available bit of resource from each section but you also have salvage ships. 2 will attach either side of an enemy frigate, the soldiers cut their way through the hull then storm the ship. In a nutsell after 15 seconds of being attached the frigate becomes yours.

        So, you could line up a corridor of salvage craft, send a fighter to the outskirts of the sphere to attack one frigate and as it gave chase the fighter retreated back through the corridor of salvage craft.

        The frigate would have eyes only for the fighter which allowed you to capture the frigate very easily. Once captured the salvage craft detach and you put them back in position.

        And then rinse and repeat.

        Because resources were so vital I once spent 4 hours doing this, capturing a huge force but when I hyperspaced my game crashed. Through trial and error I finally worked out that I had captured so many capital ships that when I hit the next level and everything arrived in parade formation the length of my main battle line exceeded the width of the game universe and crashed the whole game!

        When I got to the final battle my main battle line was so wide that the ships sat the edges of my fleet did not have enough time to travel from their positions to the battle before I had completed the game.

        Yes, there’s nothing more enjoyable than a co-op game of Left 4 Dead 2 or playing Team Fortress 2 with some friends who really know how to communicate.

        • Chief Cobra says:

          Well, any piece of software larger than about ten lines can probably be broken in some way! My general solution to that kind of thing, development philosophy wise, is to work with large populations of simple things that can combine to produce more complex behaviour. Usually, you build in overall plausibility of the final result and you shift the focus from writing large amounts of code to putting together large numbers of Lego bricks. Assuming one’s bricks make sense, whatever one makes from them should also make sense; i.e.: model a low level building block.

          It also separates your creative assets from the engine it operates on: a complete decoupling of the world’s content from the world model itself. This is fantastic for future reinterpretations of the same assets (particularly if they’re smartly specified in a way that can be updated towards increased reality). This would make a good subject for a blog post, I reckon!

          And I get you totally on people who know how to communicate. There’s nothing like someone shouting “let’s go over there” on a headset. “Er, you do know that I can’t see where you’re pointing because we’re in different houses, right?”

  2. Montaigne says:

    So, with a Caipirinha passing by every minute or two

    Not quite sure what “cite” does lol

    I just looked that drink up. That sounds nice. I’d also like to try a Mojito at some point, possibly when I cease to be tee-total, possibly on my death bed (which would possibly be a mattress on a cocktail bar!)

    • Chief Cobra says:

      Oh, it is lovely. The cite tag is used to indicate an author, title and whatnot. Generally, it seems to turn things italic. I think it’s important because it can be styled separately and it can be parsed separately.

      Caipirinha is best had in a large wooden cup and made in huge quantity as all good alcoholic drinks should be. Let me know should you decide to stop being tee-total, this one should definitely be high on the list :-)

  3. Montaigne says:

    Well, my tee-totalness is into its 4th year so may not chnage any time soon!

    Ah, so Caipirinha is as much about how it is served as about what it actually tastes like?

    Much like bitter. Bitter tastes so much better in a glass as opposed to a plastic pint glass.

    I gave up on C++ as being too ridiculous to learn and instead have been plodding through HTML and CSS. It’s surprising how easy it is and how the learning of it is teaching me to understand the relationship between elementary particles.

    Due to me learning this, everything I look at, at the moment, I am interpreting through the HTML lens lol. So, in relation to your explantion of keeping things simple:

    “It also separates your creative assets from the engine it operates on: a complete decoupling of the world’s content from the world model itself. This is fantastic for future reinterpretations of the same assets (particularly if they’re smartly specified in a way that can be updated towards increased reality). This would make a good subject for a blog post, I reckon!”

    That so seems like how CSS managing the laws of the universe, it’s structure and HTML being the content of the universe i.e. the mass and the energy and its different forms :)

    • Chief Cobra says:

      Well, Caipirinha is enhanced by the way it is served. It’s a lovely drink, but I’ve only ever had it served in a glass just-for-me once and, well, I felt like an important part of it had been taken away: like a chocolate cake without chocolate. Or cake.

      Sorry to hear you gave up on C++. It really is a stunning language if you keep it simple… and regrettably, few tutorials do. You’re lost in boost, templates and a class nightmare before you’ve even stuck your name on the screen.

      HTML is pretty easy but in itself it isn’t a language in the true sense of the word. It has sequence, but is missing decision and iteration. Without other bits (scripts and whatnots) you can’t actually program in it. But it is the fundamental framework that encapsulates all the other technologies. Learning it is definitely a good call. Good luck with CSS: it’s a big topic and it’s possible to do some astonishing things. I only ever made it to “absolute beginner” levels of skill!

      I did actually mostly finish part 1 of that adventure game C++ blog post. It was short of some formatting and some picture involving snakes. I really ought to get that up: I like to believe that it takes some of the sheer horror out of low-level languages such as C++ and C, but beauty, eye, beholder, etc.

  4. Montaigne says:

    I think I should be a little bit more honest with regards C++. I actually had no idea where to start and so I didn’t :)

    I’m not ruling out starting in the future but just learning HTML & CSS is a slow process and that is pretty simple. It’c causing a bottleneck in advancement with regards my business as I am only able to learn it on the weekend when I’m not working. Trying to learn C++ strikes me as a much longer term project that doesn’t have any immediate effect on the success of my business whereas web design does.

    I still want to learn how to write my own programmes as I have plenty of ideas that can have a practical use in the industry I operate within but it would take me FOREVER to get to the stage where I could be putting together a sellable product.

    • Chief Cobra says:

      Fair enough. With a long journey where the end point is non-obvious, sometimes setting off is the biggest challenge. I always had something to do in a language, some reason why I wanted to learn it, which always made a difference.

      I will attempt to get adventure game part 1 onto the blog in the next week or two.

      • Montaigne says:

        Well, I know what the end result is but it’s too far distant to be worthwhile compared to what I am doing at the moment.

        I said the same thing with html because I couldn’t comprehend it just by looking at it but once I bought a book to teach me how to do it, it became self apparent. I imagine it will be the same thing with C (but more complex).

        I liked your rant about TV’s (among other things). I can see that entry was easy to write!

  5. Montaigne says:

    And that really should have said “commercial product” :)

    Yes, get up the blog post about the adventure game; this intrigues me.

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