12 May 2015

Sci-fi tropes: To singularity or not to singularity...

So I've read a load on the probable, possible and at the most egregious - inevitable AI singularity. However, I just don't buy it.

I have come to the conclusion that the AI singularity can never come to pass. Note that I state, specifically, an AI singularity... Whether an intelligence singularity is and will occur is another matter entirely.

As for the AI singularity, let's perform a small logic test:

Programming: at its basest form is the mathematical abstraction of human ideas. A calculation can result in the knowledge of a condition from a question: if this then that. If not this, then these etc. etc. ad nauseum. This is our current, commonplace binary silicon logic. Newer forms of computing are also similarly structured - even fuzzy logic through quantum computing and neural networks using memristors require that initial calculated input and output... they're great at optimising a process but beyond that aren't revolutionary in the ideas behind their existence.

The AI singularity: is often portrayed as being a computing unit that can self-improve to become self-aware and then propagate and then does so either to itself or its progenitors in an exponential manner.

This causes a problem.

The problem is this: How can we, humankind, create a programme or collection of programmes that are able to self analyse and to know themselves or everything else around them entirely.

This would require that a programme or collection of programmes would be able to understand other, unfamiliar concepts without any sort of logical input. An analogous situation would be a baby trying to understand the world. However, the big difference between a silicon chip (or infinite group of them) and a brain is that the brain will programme itself whereas any sort of computer requires that WE provide it with the programming, the context.

This is the conundrum of the AI singularity: in order to become a singularity event the AI must exhibit traits of a singularity-level AI. In order to self-improve, it must fully understand itself and that self in context with, well, whatever it is improving itself against or within.

AI is an oxymoron, a paradox and cannot exist in the real world.

In the same way that we cannot go into the past and kill any of our ancestors (let alone travel to the past!) and thus cause a paradox, this paradox is forever stretching into the future - we have to create a singularity level AI in order to create the singularity. Human beings aren't even able to understand our own thought processes fully or even our own world. How could we, in our current imperfect state and knowledge level even do that? It's impossible.

Can we mimic very intelligent AI? Sure! Watson is a very good example of an intelligent situational search engine. It's nothing more than that though. It's not truly intelligent. It could not intuit the reason why an apple falls if given the mathematical equations that determine the acceleration of the apple to the earth beneath it. Not even if it was given a camera and allowed to observe and review the footage an infinite number of times.

Programming rules.

I'm sure that was a joke at some point during my growing-up years. Anyway, it's true. Programming requires rules. Rules require mathematical underpinnings. We have not discovered a way to make a mathematical equation that covers everything. It does not exist in our knowledge. Even if we had solved the 'theory of everything' which united quantum physics and relativity we wouldn't have an equation that solved every known concept... and why would it? Maths is a human construct that is designed to make sense of given situations. Human minds might have given birth to this construct but human minds do not work on this construct. In fact, we don't really know how our minds work except in the most generalist terms and ideas.

Neurons, groups of neurons and reinforcing mechanisms! Oh, and hormones.

These things inspire us but ultimately we cannot create them in the logically locked paradise/hell that is computing and programming. The simple end result of an programme is that it is constrained by what we tell it and we cannot tell it "infinite" and thus it cannot comprehend the infinite. But we can.

This is the great tragedy of the sci-fi concept of the singularity. I'm sure the concept exists as I do not envision that I am so much more intelligent than anyone else on the planet and that the story doesn't exist in some minor league of sci-fi shorts from 50 or 60+ years ago... AI, artificial constructs are not the singularity - we are.

Humankind.

It's a pretty simple observation. We self-improve. We are capable of understanding ourselves and our environment... and each iteration, each improvement exponentially improves on the last. It's writ large in our history. I saw some sort of TED talk about progress and how a person from today sent back a hundred years would cause incredulity with our gadgets and whatnot. A person from a hundred years ago would need to be sent back 200 years. A person from 200 years ago would need to be sent back 500 years etc. etc.

Progress has been an exponential curve. We've taken our time getting to this point but man, are we taking off!

What's interesting about us though is that we aren't self-improving in the way the singularity has always been depicted. We have two intertwining mechanisms in play: the first is intelligence, the second is genetics/evolution (that's actually backwards in the ultimate mechanism that go us to this place but nevermind ;) ).

First, our intelligence allows us to improve our environment, our chances to succeed. Our society is based around our intelligence and society is the tool we used to self-improve. Many people have stated that we've 'stagnated' in an evolutionary sense since the mass migrations of however long ago - we no longer have such specific evolutionary pressures or isolational pressures that allow us to diverge (unless we create them), we're (not really, but kinda) pretty homogeneous as a species. But that's fine because we've created technology to improve ourselves beyond just our physicality.

Secondly, we have reached this point through evolution, our genetics. We do not control our genetics and it's this factor that is commonly missing in singularity-type stories. Our genes self-improve (or more accurately, go through selection pressures) but this is a separate improvement to our own intelligence-based knowledge improvement.

Let's take a break and read through these two articles at the risk of furthering the writer's probably already bloated sci-fi-sensaltionalism:

http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-1.html

http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolution-2.html

In part two, the author argues that a semi-intelligent AI named Turry is able to bring about the simultaneous extinction of the whole of humankind and all organic life on Earth. The problem with this example is that it is SO overly simplistic that it makes itself impossible at the same time. Any programme must know what it can do. Anything outside of the programming will return an error and will bring the programme, if we're lucky, to its normal state again... if we're not lucky, we talking a hard crash.

This is the paradoxic oxymoron I was speaking about before. There is no description of biological manufacturing facilities in Turry's programming. There is no ability for Turry to learn anything outside of its programming except that the author has some sort of sci-fi starting point of it being a self-improving AI.

Intelligence can be self creating but it cannot be artificially created.

What makes humans intelligent? We don't know.

Worse still, the author makes the common sci-fi trope mistake regarding nanobots... but let's leave that for another post. If you're game...

10 May 2015

Post Thoughts: Dragon's Dogma + Dark Arisen

It's difficult to know where to begin with this Post Thoughts; I've been playing Dragon's Dogma and Dark Arisen on and off since 2012. It's a fantastic game and there's so much there, much like when trying to talk about an Elder Scrolls game, that I'm bound to mix things up, miss details out and worst of all not do the game justice. As always, spoilers ahead...

Scale is not something that this game shies away from - not only in the architecture but also for the enemies as well...

Story:


Unfortunately, Dragon's Dogma's/Dark Arisen's (or DD/DA) story suffers from all the usual problems with East to West translations (both literally and culturally): i.e. it's confusing and apparently ham-fisted. DD/DA don't try to explain themselves and when they do they aren't overly articulate about it. Luckily, like most Japanese games, gameplay is razor-sharp and this does compensate somewhat for the difference in storytelling taste between Japanese and more Western audiences.

The story itself is actually pretty simple, if you've read the wiki, and works well as a backdrop to the action. It's presented mostly through cutscenes that initiate at the appropriate time and there are always quest markers pointing you toward your next objective, even if you weren't exactly sure why you were doing what you were doing... or what the hell just happened in a cutscene and/or why other characters (or your own) acted the way they did.

I think the story has allusions to the eternal questions of free will and what it is to be human but these points mostly fall flat because they don't provide much, if any, context surrounding the subject as they quite rightly leave the audience to figure out their own answers. I often find that stories that try and ram the author's thoughts on such complex issues end up alienating a good portion of their audience.


The day/night cycle really adds a lot of atmosphere to the game and locations in which you might feel familiar and safe in daylight become troublesome and confusing at night...

Characters:


Petrification can be a right pain in the... but look how detailed that statue is close-up!! Cool, huh? Almost lifelike...

The cast of characters in this game is quite spectacular but mostly filled by overtly saturated caricatures of the human race. e.g. If someone is sneaky, they're always sneaky and thus there's no depth to any NPC in the game. Since there are so many NPCs in the game I'm not really going to focus on any of them but I have to say I was impressed that they managed to do decently with the voice acting - especially considering they went for a sort of middle English twist to the language that could have easily become too convoluted, turning in on itself from sentence to sentence.

Your character, the Arisen, is mute and apparently gobsmacked by most of what's going on in the world during cutscenes... which is actually quite appropriate! I don't really miss the fact that the Arisen doesn't talk as I don't really think it would have added much, if anything, to the game experience and could have potentially detracted from a player identifying with their character had poor voice actor choices been made.

Whilst every NPC in the game has a unique name, the majority of people are unimportant. For the few that are important for quests and shop-keeping the majority are pretty forgettable with a few exceptions (for whom I shall now forget the names!) such as the female shopkeeper, the witch, the wizard and the spymaster. You'll know them when you meet them. There were a few characters that were truly annoying such as the guy who keeps fainting everywhere but other than that the designers have left the player to enjoy playing the game and world without forcing dialogue on players.

Speaking of dialogue... the pawns, in DD at least, never shut up. There are a few catchphrases that I actually started repeating to myself in the real world and sometimes I started to remix them a little. ("Treasure, perhaps... or the ruins of such?"). This was toned down somewhat in DA and I actually began to miss their utterances, much like the children who you might think would be well off out in the world on their own but whose absence in your life leaves an expectant hole.

The pawns are actually quite interesting characters, given that they learn from what you do in play and from what you command them to do... and you can also control their temperament and actions by speaking to them in the knowledge chairs but I'll get to that later on.

Mechanics:


Battles can be epic and late-game areas will be very challenging to even experienced players who aren't keeping track of the progress of the fight...

What is quite nice is that the player's actions and choices throughout the game have both large and small consequences in the game world with characters and whole quests disappearing from the game if you chose one course over another. This isn't one of those wishy-washy "you can do everything, almost" games like Fallout 3/The Elder Scrolls where you can end up leader of every guild in the world (not that I'm saying they're bad games!).

The downside to this is that - and I'm presuming this was a "lost in translation" moment - the game does not always do a good job of making clear just exactly what choices will result in. There are decisions whose consequences should be kept secret or obscured until after you choose but sometimes there are quite clear choices where the consequences are known but you're not quite sure what to do to achieve the desired result. This is sort of a theme throughout the game and its interfaces, for example: the new game + selection. It's not clearly apparent from the warning text whether you're wiping your characters and starting a new game (which you can also choose to do) or just keeping the characters and restarting the story.

Similarly, managing your pawn's inclinations and tendencies is also obfuscated somewhat and the "knowledge chair" doesn't repeat all the questions every time you sit in it - meaning that if you mess your pawn up the first time, you can't just sit back down and undo the damage.

For some types of players this sort of thing is a net positive as it allows good replayability and mastery of the game as the reward for thorough experimentation. Other, less patient or time-sensitive players will not enjoy this aspect. The developers have seemingly been aware of these potential shortcomings and limitations on the audience for the game as they have improved several aspects in the retooled Dark Arisen.

It's best not to travel alone in the world of Gransys...

There are some perks for having owned the original and then purchasing DA, some armours and outfits - which can be purchased at the Black Cat anyway for new players - and an "eternal ferrystone" (the item that allows unlimted fast travel) that does not destroy itself as the normal ferrystones do when used. Unfortunately, players who do not have a DD vanilla save will not receive this eternal ferrystone - which I think is a bit of a shame as it's incredibly useful. Even if it was a late-game quest reward for players of DA rather than given at the beginning for players of both versions of the game. The cost of purchasing ferrystones in DA is also significantly reduced which means that even at late game, most fresh DA players will be able to move about the macro world at will. 

Regardless of this, early in the game you're going to want to travel and explore the land in order to understand where things are, what enemies you'll face and also to level up your skills and attributes. The class system in this game is deceptively simple whilst being quite complex underneath and, in my opinion, it's one of the most well-rounded gameplay experiences I can think of in my gaming life to date. There are six main classes for the player and the pawns and three additional cross-class options for the player. Each class is fun to play in its own way and each fits into the puzzle of what makes up a good adventuring group.

Speaking of which, the "player plus three AI companions" was an exciting decision for the developers to put into this game for me. I love adventuring with a party but don't have the friends, nor always the inclination, to pull it off. This is a nice middle ground that allows you to use the pawns of your friends (and strangers) without having to worry about synching game times with other actual humans. It works very well and I enjoy customising my pawn to send out to help other people. It also cuts out potential rifts and arguments with your cohorts as the AI will always want to accomplish the goals and tasks that you prefer to do at that point in time.

Directing the pawns is fairly simple – you have four (in reality three) commands at your disposal on the D-pad: ‘Come’, ‘Go’ and ‘Help’. ‘Come’ is relatively straight forward: it calls your pawns to your side from whatever they are currently engaged in and is useful to bring them around obstacles and tricky path-finding areas when moving around the world though pawns will warp to your location if they are too far away from your character – which is a nice touch. This command is also useful to bring pawns out of danger of the dangerous attacks that large adversaries can launch at your party.

‘Go’ is to send your pawns forward to stand before you in an attack or seek out foes that are further from your position. ‘Help’ is assigned to both left and right directions on the D-pad and, unfortunately, it feels like an unfinished feature in both games largely due to the fact that there’s no difference in the outcome if you use either left or right directions; your pawns will either heal you, cure your ailment/condition/debilitation or buff you with enchantments. The pawns themselves decide what the action will be and, aside from having pawns with only certain types of spells in their repertoire, you are at the mercy of the pawn’s character and knowledge – which is notoriously tricky to get just how you want it (potions notwithstanding!). There are many players that say that the left and right d-pad commands will result in different effects on the learning and behaviour of your pawn but I cannot state with any certainty that this is fact.


Actions and attacks can be performed freely, even outside of battle... though you should be careful when doing this around NPCs as doing so removes any positive feelings for your arisen and might cause the guards to become hostile - not to mention kill the NPC!

Heading back to the class system, every player will have their own favourite play style but for me the speed and agility of the Strider, Warrior and Assassin are most fun to play, though playing as a wizard or magic archer is probably the most powerful choice in the base game. Switching class is free once they are bought with a small amount of experience points (and once you meet a minimum level requirement) which means that you can tailor your character's abilities based on what you think you will or want to face, though this process is only possible at an inn and a limited number of other places in the world. The classes are well thought-out and the character levelling system is designed in such a way that you can play however you want and end up with a serviceable character and main pawn. However, there is also a lot of scope for min/maxing and this makes it important to not only choose the right order to experience the classes but also to maximise the lethality of your character.

Character level is independent from class level and this reflects in the overall stats and ability of a character. These stats, e.g. strength, increase upon gaining a level but to different extents depending on the level being gained (a look at the DD wikiwill help understand this) and the class that is currently being utilised when gaining the level.

DD utilises class level rewards named “augments” that are unlocked as you gain levels within each specific class (which also unlock new skills or spells specific to that class). These augments are not class specific and are passive – meaning that it benefits the player to play and experiment in all classes in order to maximise the effectiveness of their character. Not all of these augments are useful for every class (e.g. a reduction in casting time is not helpful for a warrior) but there are some augments gained from playing each class that will have universal potential for increasing the effectiveness of a character. DA also introduced secret augments that can be found during play.

Characters’ stats are also affected by their very physical make-up: height, weight, muscle etc. that are defined at character creation all affect the type of things that your character will be good (or at least better) at. Longer legs and lighter weight/muscle mean faster running and climbing speed but also the ability to carry less weight in the form of items in the inventory.

All of these systems combined form a deep, interweaving subsystem within the game that is, unfortunately, poorly described and communicated but which, when understood, provides a very creative and complex gameplay experience.

Adding to this, Dark Arisen has even more systems that it brings to the table. One such system is the cursed items. These are unknown "things" (they look like bubbly grapes in the inventory) that you can pick up from chests and defeated enemies. They actual item is "underneath" the grape curse and its properties (such as weight) are obscured and do not have an effect on the character carrying them. To remove the curse and discover what the item is, you need to take it to the NPC at the start of Bitterblack Isle.


Grand Soren - 'tis a peaceful, idyllic place or so it seems...

A very important mechanic to note is that death is impermanent (with one exception) in DD and DA. When NPCs are killed or knocked unconscious on an escort quest they will respawn at some point in the future. The exact time varies between characters but on average an in-game week will see you be able to find the person again. Some players suggest consecutive "resting" at an inn to speed this wait up but I quite like the opportunity to go off and explore for a while. This mechanic is welcome in a game where losing access to an NPC can cause you to be unable to sleep in an inn, sell items and, more importantly, finish and access quests! I actually prefer this solution to Bethesda's work-around whereby all plot-important NPCs are unable to be killed; only be knocked unconscious. Sometimes this is referred to as "plot armour".

Speaking of the NPC deaths, I should take the time to mention the quest system. There are literally a metric ton of quests in this game - though most of them are not the "go here and do that" sort. Some are very poorly explained and others do not even properly update your log when you complete a portion of their multi-stage segments.

The primary quests are given by interacting with important NPCs, such as the chamberlain, queen, spymaster, etc. Secondary quests are given by interacting with normal NPCs such as shopkeepers and/or overheard from people ranting or conversing in the streets (especially in Gran Soren). These quests are the typical type of "find X for Y" or "investigate location X and report to Y". The last type of quest is the notice board quests. These are split into escort quests and "kill X of Y".

The "kill X of Y" quests should always be taken immediately when you see them as they can sit in your quest log and gradually get completed through normal game play. There's no time limit to them and you can't really "fail them" even when the game throws up such worrying notices as "if you pass beyond this point, all current questlines will be abandoned", which it does a few times during the game story progression. This is referring to the primary and secondary quests types.

The escort quests are actually quite hard and it is advised to not do these until you have explored a lot of the world map, put down port crystals in good intermediate locations and also levelled up a fair way. This might mean that you'll miss a few of these quests (as I believe they can expire) but this is more preferable than having that NPC disappearing for a week of in-game time as noted above.

There are a few different notice boards in the game which provide access to different quests. This means that you have to travel to each one to see which quests are available at a given time. While I can't remember, off-hand, the whereabouts of them all these are the main ones: The inn in Cassardis, the alehouse in Gran Soren, the watchkeep where you fight a hydra and the island cove entrance in DA.

The enemy design in the game is generally of a high quality and ranges from simple stand and fight tactics to having to deal with multiple enemy 'states' or aspects before their core health can be whittled away...

The good thing about being able to restart the game after "finishing" it is that you can retry all the quests and this is exactly what happened to me the first time I played through as I "hurried" along near the beginning of the game in order to not let the trophy go "off" and inadvertently missed out on a good portion of primary and secondary quests.

Weapons and armour are very important to many RPGs and DD/DA are no exception. There is a plethora of items to collect, find and farm to get that all-important loot drop. Once an item is obtained then that is also not the end of the story - not only can they be improved by combining materials from felled enemies (along with a good chunk of money) but they can also become "dragonforged" through defeating dragons. In DD, dragonforged is the best you can do for each piece of armour or weapon. However, in DA, already dragonforged items can be further improved up to three times by Barroch using materials that drop from the new, harder and more punishing enemies that exist on Bitterblack Isle.

While the gameplay in the expansion area is identical to that in the main game, the level design and aesthetic is very different. Not only are the areas more beautiful and draw the player's eye to interesting or important features with lighting and view lines but each area has much more of a vertical component to it allowing secrets or paths to be placed in plain sight but that require exploration to discover. There is also quite a lot of reuse of area art and rooms in Bitterblack Isle but that is explained via the in-game story and it also contributes to the mystery surrounding the area.

The party system itself has a lot of synergies that work well between different classes. Most importantly the way that players or pawns can imbue their allies with magicked elements - providing a way to damage resistant foes (e.g. with fire or ice damage), remove ailments (such as blindness) and heal the party.

The magic system is actually quite nuanced with multiple levels of spell potency, casting time and the ability to lock-on or free aim. The most powerful spells require more time to incant, thus requiring your team to divert enemies' attention from the casters as they do so, but also can do massive damage and disrupt or turn a battle in your favour. Allowing two fighting professions to also perform certain types of magic was also a great touch - allowing players who do like to get into the thick of things but who also want the ability to mess with magic a way to play the game as they would wish.

Finally, the screenshot mechanic is by far one of the most welcome additions to gaming that I've ever encountered. The ability to rotate and elevate around the point of focus and zoom in and out mean that many cinematic, interesting, funny and memorable experiences can be retained for all to share.

Technical issues/bugs:


The chimera is a great example of unique enemy design: chop the snake off to stop its poison spitting and gorging on your team; kill the goat to silence the magic casting; fell the lion to stop its pouncing. You can do this in any order however, I always feel sorry when I hear the pained bleating and useless flailing when I leave the goat for last...

I’m playing on the PS3 version of the games and I never really had any issues at all outside of the screenshot feature. It would sometimes not like being in certain orientations and would roll around (or freak out) and not take pictures at all.

I also had one crash in all my hours gaming across both versions of the game that probably resulted from a memory leak or something as things were not being recorded. The situation was that I was fighting a golem and taking a load of screenshots of the event – especially because I was using bolide a lot. Performance started to decrease and then the AI for the golem just stopped, mid stride, and I wasn’t able to damage it any further. Eventually the game crashed and I was really worried for my save file. However, the game started up again perfectly fine, though the screenshots and my progress had not been recorded for a while before the fight in question.

I do worry a bit with the use of a single game save file since it might be possible for this to become corrupted if the game is saving and there’s interruption to the power supply for whatever reason. I think that, for a game that encourages so many hours (I’m over 150 hrs played) to be put into it, it doesn’t make sense to not have a backup. In fact, I have backed up my save data to PC (via USB storage) especially when I updated to Dark Arisen! This also limits the possibility of having multiple arisens and pawns which has resulted in many players resorting to multiple accounts and save-swapping.

Conclusion:


I'm not really dead... I'm just resting - I'm feeling much better, really!

In many ways it’s incredible that DD and DA were possible at all. The fact that the game world is bespoke, not randomly generated and very large, how late in the lifecycle of the current generation it was released*, a unique online system that doesn’t penalise players who don’t want it and how deep an experience that actually works well and isn’t riddled with exploits and bugs all seem incredible when compared with other releases on every platform.

In light of this I can excuse the poor dialogue and story and the incredulous “acting” of your main character and the developers for not implementing an expandable backend which resulted in the release of Dark Arisen as a full title instead of an expansion/DLC. Dragon’s Dogma (and even more so, Dark Arisen) is an excellent game of rich exploration – not just of the game world but of its systems as well.

Backseat Designing:


Different classes and abilities can best deal with different enemies...

This is an almost perfect game, in my opinion, but there are still some tweaks I’d make outside the usability and transparency of the game interface and mechanics. The first is that I would allow multiple characters per account but keep the same pawn across the whole of them. This would, I imagine, deal with the issue that I think the developers were trying to address because of the game’s sharing of pawns between the community where this system might become overloaded or convoluted through people having multiple pawns they were sharing.

I would also make it so that the pawn’s level and equipment is constant between the various main characters of an account so that new playthroughs as a different character would be rewarded as you could bring along your high level pawn – as you can currently from your friends list. In the same way you could also share equipment between characters by equipping it on your pawn or “gifting” it to your other characters through your pawn.

The developers did include ways to actually change your character’s appearance but this doesn’t really sit well with me because you have to discard your character if you truly want to start from scratch and not just change the way they look and sound.

Deciding to only give the eternal ferrystone to players of the original game was also a mistake (as I mentioned above) and I would have this as a reward at the start of the game for transitioning players but one at late game (with a quest) for new players.

I would also improve the pawn command system – changing one ‘help’ button to cause buffs and enchantments and the other to cause healing of conditions/debilitations and health. I think that it would greatly enable the player to take control of certain unfortunate instances in battles that would otherwise result in death or complete rout because the pawns were not aiding you in the required manner – e.g. you’re fighting foes that are weak to fire and ice and yet your pawns refuse to re-buff your weapons with those enchantments, instead suddenly deciding to switch to dark or light enchantments. Perhaps quickly pressing twice on the direction would result in them changing behaviour i.e. switching which spell or ability they had been using and telling the AI that they were doing something that you did not want.

The inclusion of the ability to take screenshots cannot be understated and, although it was improved ever so slightly in Dark Arisen, I would like to further improve it by allowing 360 degree movement along with lateral and vertical positioning so that you could really frame your shots like you would with a camera. Personally, I hope this feature is really taken note of by other development houses and implemented on newly released games for PC and the next gen Xbox and Playstation as it really adds a lot of value to myself and many other gamers in being able to share our gaming experiences with our friends and peers. While the XBO and PS4 can take screenshots and videos, there is no ability to "frame" shots as you can in DA or as I would like above.

The Ur-Dragon is one of the late-game grinding bosses and is tough enough to fight when in offline mode. In online mode, it becomes a multi-generation, simultaneous experience shared by players all over the world...



*Publishers are (apparently) very reluctant to release new IP except at or near new hardware releases. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me but, hey!

22 March 2015

The two map problem...

I blame Far Cry 2 for this, though it may just occupy my earliest memory of this 'problem'... some other game may be the culprit instead! Suffice it to say, The Two Map Problem (TTMP) is a pretty rare but annoying (at least to me) issue mostly regarding open-world games. Let me explain:

Far Cry 2 had an expansive map. I conquered the known universe, like Columbus.. or was it Ghengis Khan? Anyway, I'd unlocked all the safe places, the weapons, knew the routes and settlements - I had explored every nook and cranny available to my time; I had mastered the world and its systems. This was enjoyable. It is enjoyable to complete things even if they are on your own terms (I'm looking at you achievements!).

Then I hit the plot point. In a cutscene I was rendered impotent (yes, by now I'm used to it - damn you, developers!) and then forced into a new world. One I hadn't conquered.

I wasn't reduced in skill. I didn't have my weapons taken away from me but it was, nevertheless, a setback. I didn't know these paths, settlements or landscapes. It was confusing and debilitating. I'd spent countless hours mastering the world and now I had a whole new world to master. 

In a strange way, it was my fault.

I had constantly desired more. I wanted to explore and understand this world even further. To enjoy new vistas and secrets. To clamber, unbound to the limits of the world provided. I didn't like what I was given.

So what went wrong?

I've long thought about this issue since Far Cry 2 and there have been a number of games that have performed this 'insult' to the player: most recently, Dying Light (though both Dead Island and Riptide did the same thing) and it is this game that has prompted me into this dialogue.

The problem with open-world games that use a two map layout is that the instant you move to the second map you have undone everything the player has mastered in the original map - whether that's an understanding of all the places in the world or the optimum travel paths, secret locations, known characters or resources.... Other games that perform what would otherwise appear to be similar mechanisms, such as RPGs with multiple local maps fitting into an overworld do not suffer the same possible negative emotional reaction from changing map due to their relative impermanence. i.e. You don't need to master a map because the world itself is larger than any one map and characters and resources you might need or use are not necessarily in a single place and thus the player's mastery of the game systems is more important than their knowledge of the world layout.

Games that do deviate from this caveat include such titles that remove previously accessible game hubs, removing player's ability to engage in upgrades or character interaction. Usually, these are unlocked again in some different form later on in the game but not until some plot points are driven through by the player. e.g. Borderlands 2.

Let's put it this way - the two map problem is only a problem because the developers have put such importance on the map layout in the first place. To give an example: Dying Light, a great game that I've thoroughly enjoyed, relies on you to be able to successfully navigate the world in order to avoid the predators that hunt you at night or to better reach objectives and deal with hordes of undead during the day... 

You want to learn and explore new areas but at the same time, to be taken from the world you know into a new world without all the comforts of the previous one and with a different landscape is both exciting and annoying - much as, for many humans, the prospect of being thrown into a completely unfamiliar space or society is intimidating until you understand and learn to accept its idiosyncrasies. 

Developers may need to throw players into these secondary worlds due to memory limitations of the hardware or game engines but effectively birthing the player anew into the same universe twice is not an efficient or, in my opinion, effective way of managing the player/world interaction.

At the end of the day, that says more, perhaps, about my mentality and psychological profile than it does about the game... but I'd rather have the ability to move out from the world I've learnt to understand and master than be a baby again in a new world, completely cut off from the old for a second time in the same game. There's a sense of continuity and relationship when moving across a space - even if the architecture changes significantly... but that is lost when you're thrown into what is a space devoid of all relationship to the first landscape you are familiar with,

Standing at the top of the tallest spaces in Dying Light (the Old Town and the Dam) I strain to see the areas I am familiar with in the skybox the developers have given me. A frame of reference for me to get my bearings. There are none and I feel untethered from the world...

12 February 2015

On spoilers...

I'm a no spoiler sort of person. Always have been, always will be. I won't get into the reasons for why I don't like spoilers, nor the mentality of those who are for or against them. Neither will I delve into the seeming lack of empathy one side has for the other. What I will address is one particular phrase that does tend to crop up from the spoiler side of the equation.

"The ending isn't any more important than any of the moments leading to it."


It speaks to a belief that the journey is more important than the destination. How you get somewhere is more important than the end point. There's just a couple of things I want to say to people who think this way:

You don't believe in crescendos? You don't think that the whole can be more than just the sum of the parts? 

One of the major storytelling conceits - and even experiences in life itself - is that an event can be lifted past its inherent momentary significance by events that preceded it or that will proceed it. The man standing in Tiananmen Square was a significant event in itself... but without the context of the events that preceded that moment it has much less power and meaning.

It's just a guy on the way to the shops, right?
The way most stories are constructed is to build to a crescendo moment, a scene where the themes of the story are explored or exploited. Even more complicated stories have mini-crescendos within this crescendo where past scenes are hints of future events... This is generally called foreshadowing and is a way of building a rapport with the subconscious of the consumers of the story (and sometimes the conscious of very astute consumers of the story - depending on how subtle the foreshadowing is).

The reason these techniques work is because our human brains work like this. It's as simple as that. We think, therefore foreshadowing allows our brains to accept future events more easily and by doing so allows us to link together multiple events in a way that makes us appreciate the whole story and theme(s) more completely.

Thus, spoilers (or what some people consider spoilers) detract from those crescendo moments. They take that energy and effort expended in building up to a moment to make it more than it is on its own and actually turn every preceding event into a negative build-up emotionally.

I would argue that people who aren't bothered by spoilers have the wrong conception of what a spoiler is and what it does. If someone has already experienced something that was not spoilt for them then spoil the event for someone else it is possible that these people did not realise that the build-up to the event contributed to their enjoyment of it. They are in crescendo-denial. The other type of person is someone who allows themselves to be spoilt of a sequence of events and then go and watch them anyway. I'm not saying they're wrong but I question if they would have enjoyed the sequence of events more if they had experienced them without being spoilt.

It's not a question of each event in the sequence not being enjoyable on its own merits. The question is whether we believe, as a species, that enjoyment of a sequence of events is affected by the way consumption of the sequence occurs. i.e. Can something be more than the sum of its parts? Of course that also implies the corollary: Can an event be detracted from by previous events leading up to it?

I posit that if you think that spoilers do not matter then you cannot hold this belief. The two concepts are logically at odds to one another.

31 January 2014

Post Thoughts: Metro 2033

I finished my playthrough of Metro 2033 today and had to write up my thoughts ASAP lest it be forgotten along with a few other 'Post Thoughts' posts I've got lined up in draft form back here in the editing room. As usual - spoilers from here on out!

Story:


Don't you just love industrial decay?

Being based on a book series the story and backstory in Metro is pretty fleshed out. In fact I think that the overall story in the game, though told in a very straightforward and simplistic manner, is perfectly suitable for consumption and I would class it on the level of a Hollywood summer blockbuster in terms of quality and intricacy. 

There's not really much to discuss about the story in and of itself as it is so simplistic and an almost classic "Hero's journey" - you set out on a journey through a call to arms by a mentor figure, overcome several obstacles, receive secret information and then achieve the final goal depending on how you, the player, ultimately decide things should play out.

The morality system (which I'll discuss below in the mechanics section) gives the possibility of two endings. However, only one of the endings is considered canonical as the sequel follows on from this: the 'bad' ending. Strangely though, it's easier to get more positive moral points than negative and, as such, just being a bit curious throughout the game will net you the 'good' ending, which I quite liked as that last scene gives you some agency in the decision. I think it's a bit strange that the canonical ending is opposed to the one that I would imagine most players experienced.

As for agency, well, despite having that morality system in place, the player doesn't get much agency at all. In fact there are many plot progression points that require NPC intervention and also many fire fights that will result in the same way whether the player participates or not. This is disappointing and confusing for the player because the design is very inconsistent on these two points and I don't remember a single instance of the current requirement being communicated to you.


"This time, I'll open it for you. Next time? Maybe I expect YOU to open it for me!"

An example of this is when you're with a group of NPCs that you're working with to travel through some tunnels. You proceed through several encounters whereby it doesn't make sense for the player to even shoot any bullets as all the enemies will be taken care of in a scripted manner (either that or the NPCs are invulnerable), but then the next encounter all of your comrades can be overwhelmed and killed... then, directly following that encounter, despite you being out in front, spotting the next single enemy first and shooting it enough to kill it, the script says that it has to dramatically pounce on one of your companions and kill him. It's a real mish-mash of player agency and I feel it really damages the game because of this inconsistency.

Other times you're waiting for NPCs to help you out of situations but then very rarely (and it is the exception) the player is expected to do something with no prompting (like shoot out a beam blocking a door that had magically closed itself as you approached)...

Characters:


The character acting is the weakest part of the game - I think mainly because I would consider Metro a double A (AA) game rather than a triple A (AAA) title. Artyom doesn't speak except in the interludes between levels - which I actually think is a nice touch and allows the player to get into the head of the character they're playing - and the dialogues, motivations and lives of the other characters are largely opaque. That's not necessarily a bad thing as, travelling to a new place for a few hours won't get you that in real life either and it may be entirely on purpose to give the player a sense of being on a rollercoaster towards whatever end will occur and having no way to change the events that will occur... which actually makes the 'bad' ending make much more sense.


This guy is still trying to contact people out in the wastes! How many years has it been?

The game world is also pretty heavily fleshed-out, with the stations having a good amount of logic and character laid onto them. You see actual families, (children, women) authority and clerk-type figures as well as food production, bartering and political systems that would be needed to sustain some semblance of a society in this situation. A lot of love went into filling the spaces of the stations out and it shows.

Mechanics:


Metro 2033 has a lot of interesting design decisions in this area. The first is having the 'old world' bullets as currency is very interesting - they're also more powerful than the reconditioned ammo that the denizens of the metro stations make in their stead. Though, I have to say that I never really noticed much difference in practise... However, that might be due to the second interesting design decision: difficulty settings.

The difficulty settings are rather strange in this game - there are three normal style difficulties, with a twist, and two 'Ranger' difficulty settings.

The normal difficulties decrease the amounts of consumables in the game (i.e. bullets and filters) but also increase the amount of damage that everyone does. So, interestingly, easy might provide you with lots of ammo and let you take a lot of damage but then, so too, do the enemies. Normal and Hardcore then switch the settings around making you more vulnerable to damage whilst increasing the enemies'. The Ranger settings are completely different in game style - these make damage output very high but make everyone very fragile whilst also increasing enemy alertness and reducing the amount of consumables in the game compared to the equivalent normal setting.

I played on the Ranger Easy setting for this playthrough and found it mostly at about the right level of difficulty and gameplay preference.

Back to that 'bullets as currency' thing. It's an interesting concept but one that probably on the face of things doesn't hold up to thoughtful scrutiny. First off, there's a lot of fighting going on down in those metro tunnels. I highly doubt that using good ammo as currency would last for very long before being replaced by something else. Secondly, there really isn't a lot of reconditioned ammunition in the game. Yes, you can buy a lot from vendors but otherwise you don't pick up that much and I would think that the ratio would be much higher than it was for me. Overall, it doesn't really affect the game that much on the difficulty I chose to play on - it might on the normal difficulties due to enemies being bullet sponges

Next up is the gas mask and filters. There are areas of the game where the air is toxic (such as on the surface) and, putting aside the fact that this doesn't really make much sense as air mixes and the metro stations and tunnels are not and could not be sealed, the player must put on their gas mask lest they suffocate and die (well, it may not be suffocation but the player hears noises that are exactly like someone suffocating in a lack of oxygen so...). The gas mask muffles sounds, increases the loudness of the players laboured breathing and requires an active filter to work. Now, filters run out and need to be replaced. You can replace them manually but there's no reason to do so since Artyom will replace them when they are really necessary himself. 

The time limit on a filter is fairly short and it seems like (though I wouldn't bet on it because of the situations this would occur under) the filters are used up faster if your activity is higher - like when you are sprinting. The annoying thing is that the game has lots of Half Life 2-esque cutscenes whereby the player is trapped but wherein the countdown timer for the current filter is still going. Even more annoying were the bugs associated with filter use that I encountered on the current Steam version of the game (outlined in the Bugs section) and the fact that these short time limits never seemed to bother the other characters in the world!! So it was one of those do as I say and not as I do things that developers seem to love so much that scream of inconsistency in the game logic.

The gas masks themselves could be damaged and needed to be replaced - no longer protecting you from the harmful effects of the atmosphere. This was a good mechanic and, as long as you didn't hit an enemy wearing a gas mask in the fact and damage it you could retrieve it for yourself (as well as finding spares around the environment from time to time). The problem with this was, if you had hit the person in the head and damaged the gas mask, the filter was automatically damaged as well and, not only that, even if you didn't hit them in the face, the attached filter did not count as usable anyway. This led to several frustrating situations where I was having to restart the section of a chapter due to being unable to get a new gas mask filter.

The final mechanic was the overall removal of the traditional HUD. I liked this a lot but ultimately it was mostly useless. The first thing was that the players watch provided them with a time-frame for how long their filter would last, however, what this did was harm the player during the times when they had to switch out filters during an encounter and then had to wait out this un-interruptible sequence whereby you re-set your watch timer. I consistently thought during those moments, "I'm in a god-damned firefight - SO WHY THE HELL DO I CARE HOW MUCH TIME MY FILTER HAS REMAINING IF I CAN BE SHOT DEAD RIGHT THIS SECOND?!!". 


"What the-?" Sometimes a HUD is a useful thing!! Also, turn around once in a while!

Ahem.

Secondly, I found it a bit indecipherable and noticed no difference to the timer setting when putting in a partially used filter and a brand new one. Combined with the automatic changing of filters, this mechanic really didn't add anything to the game at all.

The other elements of this mechanic were the electric charge and the ammo amount in your clip. You had a personal charging device that you needed to flick out every now and again to see how much you had left and recharge it by furiously clicking on the mouse button. I liked that a lot as it was 'realistic' in the sense that you had this consumable that you had to manage and it encompassed things from your flashlight to your night vision goggles.

The ammo amount was less consistently handled and, for modes where the HUD is removed completely (Ranger Hardcore) I think it's quite difficult since there were no animations or ability for the player to manually check the clips on any of the weapons. For the metro-constructed weapons, they very often had open clips that had easy visibility but for the old-world weapons, most of their ammo was out of sight of the player, leaving you at the mercy of the bullet indicator in the HUD. I think that, ultimately, leaving the ammunition count HUD active was the right choice in the absence of a real system for monitoring your remaining reserves. Though, in a future game I would like to see this design principle taken to its end-point.

Technical issues/bugs:


The game was pretty bug-free though I don't know whether the following is truly a bug or just bad design:
Whenever I was using the gas mask the number of spare filters was constantly reduced (not through use - haha) but from dying and restarting from the last checkpoint again. I would find my filter amount not reset with the rest of my ammo and consumables. This made those sections that required the gas mask incredibly tricky in some instances because constant retrying would leave me with only one filter and the only other option was to quit the game and restart the whole section to get those filters back.

This 'bug' was only made worse by the way the game was designed in many areas whereby the correct way to proceed was not particularly clear and the player had to rely on trial and error.

Conclusion:


It'll all be alright in the end... A feeling of hope despite all the grim-dark reality we've experienced through the game.


I feel a bit conflicted over this game. Did I like it or not? I'm honestly not sure and it's not often I find myself in this sort of absence of overall opinion. I think the game has merits, that it's flawed and that the developers put a lot of effort of bringing the world of Metro 2033 to life in the game. I also found it to be very frustrating in parts, due to poor design and/or bugs. It was definitely worth playing through to its conclusion and I'll be certain to pick up the sequel at some point and have a bash at that. So I guess this is a tentative recommendation.

Backseat Designing:


The first thing I would do is alter the gas mask mechanic completely. I fully understand what the developers were going for: to instil a sense of danger and urgency into the outside world and to force 'interesting' choices on the player for how they interacted with those enemies they met in the overworld. However, combined with the bug I mentioned above and the propensity of the developers to have long-winded in-game cutscenes that did not stop the timer on the gas mask usage (I died in a few of them!) the mechanics just aren't fun and, IMO don't really work all that well.

My change would be to make the gas mask filters last much longer and also their timer would be suspended during cutscenes wherein the player is unable to progress naturally (since they are being artificially held in place anyway). We're talking about something of the order of a whole outside mission can be sustained on one filter... However, I would make the gas mask much more claustrophobic. It's one of the defining things that people who have had to wear those types of gas masks say about them - your perception is severely limited. So this would require having a large in game FOV, providing the player with a much better sense of their surroundings when not wearing the gas mask. Having worked in industries that use masks with filters (though not specifically a gas mask like the one they use in the game) I can also attest to this feeling of losing a portion of your senses - at least where it pertains to vision, as I never had my ears covered the sound was fine. What I would also add is that they are very heavy - those filters on the front really weigh down your head/neck and unbalance it to an unnatural degree. So, adding to the increase in length of time, I would also make it so that turning of the camera/player's head takes longer and has more of a momentum to it, making you less accurate in aiming. 
The developers already have an instance similar to this in the game when you choose to help a young boy get back to his station/family.


That kid's heavy but not as bad as the stupid filter system!

The second thing I would change is the ending. Take out that choice at the end, take out the morality system but leave in the decisions anyway since they make the game world a more interesting place. Instead I would have the positive ending in place, with the dark one saying it wants peace, but with Artyom unable to act in time to stop the act of war from occurring due to the mental struggle he's had with the dark one. Coming to the realisation that the wrong thing is about to happen because of your actions and being unable to stop it through the actions and struggles of the person/entity trying to stop you is a more powerful ending than either current finale offers.