Voice Acting – Bringing a Story Alive

As far as voice acting, I’m looking at this from a personal view, and delving into a little history and background as I progress from the time before voice acting existed in the gaming worlds (as long as we’ve had sound, voice acting has existed in TV, animated shorts and movies) to now where it is critical. (If one wants to be honest, even with the power of the modern computer RPGs still use dialogue trees that must be read. In a sense this is understandable considering the size of these worlds, the number of characters, the subplots, side quests, and random chaos that populates these worlds.) In fact one could purchase the “voice add-on” to those early games, something that would add a little more depth, but again even here it was short and sweet with no synchronization between words and mouth movements:

For any who follow this blog you are aware that I’m a gamer as well as a writer, obviously a blogger, and am retired. I’ve been dealing with computers since the early 90’s (and maybe even the late 80’s), from those good old days of DOS. It was here that I was sucked into the world of computer gaming (Anybody remember the Wing Commander series from Origin? If not this one then their big one which I never played, Ultima with “Lord British”.). Most games in those days simply had the script written as the systems were not powerful enough to drive all aspects of what we take for granted today. Probably it would surprise many that a large game “back in the day” could be counted in megabytes, not the gigabytes of the modern game worlds of today. In fact if you pushed over 25 megabytes you’d be using half your existing hard drive that came with the system at the time. With RAM existing at 2 to 4 megabytes, again instead of gigabytes, and the cost for those megabytes of RAM was exceedingly expensive, pushing the price of those early systems to over two grand. No soundcards, requiring any sounds to go through the single tinny speaker that was part of your system (all this you added later if you could afford it). And we cannot forget that there were no CD’s, DVD’s didn’t exist yet, so everything came on floppy disks either in the 1.2 megabyte, 5 1/4 inch or 1.44 megabyte 3 1/2 inch variety. Hard drives, yeah anything over 300 megs doubled in cost, and the average system came with less than 100, with the common size being around 40 megs, (And to be honest can any of us forget about the boot disks we created so we could take advantage of every megabyte of RAM). So in those early days because of the limitations voice acting wasn’t considered or thought as necessary.

Of course before any of this can take place there has to be a writer, or many writers. Without the writer there is no story, no characters, no direction, no world, nothing. Just a void where there is potential but unformed. Until that story is put to paper – whether that paper is electronic, using the modern word processor, an old typewriter, or pen to paper – nothing can go forward. Many times we find the stories that become our entertainment were originally novels. Other times the stories are specifically written for the media. If it is a book then others take over and write the script that allow the story to translate to the big screen, your TV, or into the game world. Until then it is only words on a page.

Words that as a reader we bring alive within our minds as we see the story unfolding in images within ourselves. And since this is the process it is probably why we are disappointed when one of our favorite stories becomes a movie, or a series, or something visual. In our mind’s eye the story will always be richer than someone else’s translation. And, to be honest, the creators must cut and change the story somewhat so that it will work within the media of their choice. My novels range in size from around two hundred pages to as high as five hundred. Even on the short end of this the story is too long for the big screen since each page equals approximately a minute of time. So even the shortest would be over three hours long.

Once all this work is accomplished the script is turned over to the ones who will bring it alive. If it will be using live actors then the director will be able to work with the real actors who then act out the scenes in the director’s vision of the story. Of course if we are talking animated shorts, or animated full length movies then things change. Of course this applies to the game worlds also. Here the difference lies in the volume of what must be translated into the game world. In other words the script for a game is much larger than an animated movie. Again, as in a story where the actors are there acting out the script with a director making sure it goes as planned, there is a director working with the voice actors.

Here it is up to the collaboration to make the script come alive. To make the ones who are using the product to be immersed in the world they are creating and not to do something that immediately destroys that immersion. Once that moment happens it is over. Bad voice acting will kill a good story or game world as quickly as poor writing, interface, or poor game design and world creation. Maybe because I’m older, or because I’m a writer I have a tendency to notice these things. And many times I do pause as I marvel at the success of a scene in front of me because of the way the voice actor brought what I’m witnessing alive.

One that comes immediately to mind is from an old game series, F.E.A.R.. For those unfamiliar with the game it is a standard FPS (First Person Shooter) wrapped up in horror, well done, and dark. The first two including expansions (as they were known then, we know them as DLC’s today) are great games, with superb voice acting. And to this day I have one of those lines from that game that remains with me. It’s not because the words are profound. No, it’s because the voice actor nailed it. Where the fictional character was, the situation she was in, and the realization that her chance of survival was minimal were all in those five words. And in print they will never have the same impact, the feeling of despair, of hopelessness that the actor portrayed in those five words. She simply said, “You’re not coming are you . . .”

Presently I’m playing Fallout 4, a gift from my sons for Christmas this year. Simply stated Fallout 4, and all the Fallout games are post apocalyptic worlds. I have to admit I enjoyed Fallout 3 and all the DLC’s that came with that game, ( I have to include the many mods I tried that helped to extend the life of the game). Yet this one (Fallout 4) is far deeper and, of course, with the passing time, the ability to present a fictional world has improved, meaning what is seen is closer to reality. (I marvel at the AI as I watch teams of antagonists work together in a firefight advancing and retreating, using available cover and shifting their location if their position is bad, all according to the battle they are in.) And the script overall had to be huge. What adds to this realism is the small vignettes within the game world. These short stories of tragedies from the past being transmitted over the emergency air waves asking, begging, or pleading for help. Making you as the main character want to track down these signals to see if you can help. Are they in the present, or has it happened a long time ago? Until you investigate you won’t know. If the voice acting hadn’t been spot on, if the voice actors had simply been reading the words the impact wouldn’t be there, and it would mean nothing, simply being a side note taking one away from immersion in the story, from this fictional world.

So in any of these fictional worlds where avatars are filling in for the real world and real actors it is that voice actor that brings these worlds and characters to life. If the actors hadn’t nailed Shrek, or Po, or any of the other avatars in those animated movies would they be as popular today, or would they be in some bargain bin collecting dust? And it is the same within the game worlds. Without those voice actors doing the great job of translating the written word much of what we enjoy wouldn’t exist. (On a side note we now have audio books that require a higher degree of voice acting to bring those books alive.) Of course what precedes this is that written word, still . . . In conclusion I must say, “Here’s to the voice actors and the worlds they bring alive. Without them we’d be living in a less imaginative and less colorful world.” God Bless! (www.fdbrant.com)

 

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Thoughts About Gaming Mods

Okay, this again is my personal views on the subject, and for those who do not game, this refers to people putting together maps, changes, to the equipment, storylines, or alternate views, directions,  and so many other additions and/or corrections to an actual retail game. It means one, with a kit from the game company, can go in and change things around a bit, maybe making the game more to one’s personal liking. This also has a tendency to extend the life of such games, since there is so much more available from the gaming and modding communities to allow one to continue to play a favorite game.

Part of what this does is allow one to see how much work goes into the original game, the storyline, the script, and the alternate paths one can travel. Of course most modern games are linear, meaning they start at point “A”, and somewhere towards the end, end at point “B”. While the goal is to give the illusion of choice and direction, it usually isn’t there. And when it’s done right such restrictions aren’t noticed, but when wrong, can destroy a game right out of the gate, or box. Then you have sandbox games that really have no storyline per say, but give you an open unexplored world in which to explore, discover, and build into whatever you like or imagine (within the constraints of the game world, of course). And in a sense in-between these are the RPG’s which have some sandbox elements because the world is open, but at the same time has a major storyline, with many, many, many, side quests existing out in the gameworld. Generally these 2, sandbox, and RPG, don’t include kits, but this is more of a game company decision, as some do and some don’t.

With the modding kits, these game companies provide, it allows the everyday gamer, who is enthusiastic and wanting to try their hand at creating something, a method to do just that. Lately I’ve been playing some mods created for the old Fallout 3 game which is a hybrid of a RPG, and FPS, and has a huge modding community. (To see what I’m speaking about, here’s a link to a website that specializes in these mods. http://www.nexusmods.com/fallout3/?)

For those who haven’t played this game (Fallout 3) or know anything about it, this is a Post-apocalyptic story dealing with the area in and around Washington DC approximately 200 years after the fictional event. It’s an alternate futuristic view and a different direction than true history. For example atomic power is used, or was used (before the war), including the automobiles that everybody owned. These autos appear to be closer in appearance and design to the cars that came out in the late 50’s and early 60’s. There were underground vaults built to house part of the population in case of an attack, which eventually came from China, destroying much of the world, leaving DC in ruins, and the world bathed in radioactivity. Your character emerges from the vault into this devastation, and find a surviving human element that has set up a primitive society. Your initial quest is to find your father who had left the vault years before. And from there you learn about this broken world, how to survive, and solve the large puzzle that is before you.

There’s the good and bad in all of this. First, even with the provided kits, modding isn’t easy or simple. It takes time to learn, and time to apply what you learned before anything can come of it. Again some of these fan created mods are simply environmental changes, bug fixes, and maybe a better balancing (Referring to the use of force within a gameworld and the balance of weapons and such so one is not so overpowering that there isn’t anything that can counter. Balancing a gameworld is one of the critical steps in making a game right.), maybe fixes that removes stuttering, crashes to the desktop, or any number of other problems that makes an unplayable game playable. And it can change the rating of a game from “anybody can play”, to “adult only”, if this is a direction one is looking or wanting to go.

Still once the game has been played to the conclusion, the DLC’s (downloadable content) have been added and played, it is time to see what those modders have done, creating their own worlds, their own quests, and their own endings. It gives one a chance to see the variety of ideas and directions that go well beyond the original story. And many of these modders put their heart and soul into their work, plus a lot of their spare time to create their masterpieces. Most of the time it is an individual who does this, but other times friends or other modders come together, and put their time and effort into the mod. This gives you both the good and the bad. Most can come off a bit amateurish. And what I’m referring to here is not necessarily the world or map they’ve created, but the script, and in some cases, where they’ve tried, the voice acting, which can be a bit weak.

Yet, when it is done right it can be difficult to tell the difference between the actual retail game, and a community created mod. Again, as I stated above what is added isn’t necessarily a new quest, or a new area to explore, but could be something as simple as adding a companion to assist you. Even here you can run into the good and bad, and only by trying a number of these companion mods can you find the ones who seem to be fully fleshed out. An example of one of these companions would be Willow for the expansion game Fallout New Vegas. A game in the fallout universe but obviously in the area in and around Las Vegas. Willow is one of the most popular companion mods and when you use this mod you understand immediately. This companion mod has a depth rarely seen in such characters.

Still in all of this, one must start somewhere, and when I’m within this mod I’m presently playing, I keep hoping to see where it could go, to see it fulfill its potential. Maybe because I’m older, or maybe because I am a writer, I see things, directions promised, making me expect or anticipate more, only to be disappointed. Even with the rather large mod that I’m presently playing, it makes me wonder how the storyline could be so weak. It’s not that these modders didn’t try, because it’s obvious they did, and they put a lot of hard work, effort and love into it. Still, for me, the storyline ends up wanting on so many levels. From the actions the NPC’s (Non Playable Characters) are presenting, to the environment created, to the dialogue presented, which comes out simply as; us against them – a black and white view, that in the end left me with more questions as to why, than showing any closure or methods of working through the presented issues or problems. Plus the actions conflicted with the dialogue, not portraying an accurate picture of the game world, or the situation you, as the player, find yourself in.

No, I’m not going to reveal which mod this is because this would single them out and be totally unfair. I’m sure they are proud of their product, and in truth they have a right to be. But I suspect this shows why certain game companies remain successful. Because they have the resources, the understanding, and experience to know what makes a game work, and also the understanding that there could be a large following out there, and because of this provide the tools necessary to allow the community to make mods for their games. And I suspect they watch these modding sites and communities to find new talent which they might tap in the future.

Still, for me, this particular mod, again not for the map, because I love exploring these maps, these fictional worlds, became a disappointment. The storyline in the end was too simplistic, too black and white, there truly were no twists and turns, and a very linear direction that was predictable from the beginning. And part of why we read, play games, watch movies, or other entertainment is to read, watch or play into the surprises, those twists that were completely unexpected, but hinted. To watch a complicated storyline become clear and see the conclusion with the actors, be it that book, the big screen, or your gaming system. For these stories, and dialogues to be more in the direction of life, not that we will ever do things like Bruce Willis in his action movies, but those twists, those turns, those surprises is what we wait for because we do face this is our own lives.

In conclusion I will say overall it is enjoyable to add and play these mods, to give a little more life to an old favorite game. One I may have played through at least a half-dozen times, trying out the alternate paths, attempting to find those hidden areas, small surprises, and hidden gems I may have missed during my earlier explorations, or playing a different character where I can choose such. Eventually they do become old, and I move on to try my hand at another. And maybe, at times I look back nostalgically and think of going back, to play such one more time, revisiting it like an old friend I haven’t seen in years, and maybe look over those mods, hoping to find some of the depth, to explore other parts of the game world, and watch as they give the game a chance to feel new again.

* * *

I continue to write another short story which will be presented here in the near future. I suspect that it will begin to show up here in February. I’m approximately 2000 words from the conclusion of the first draft – the easy part. Then comes the editing and revising before it’s ready for prime time. As the sub-title of this blog states, you can never be sure what the subject of the post will be unless the post is part of a series. Have a great week, and may you be here next Saturday for the next one. God Bless! (fdbrant.com)

Published in: on January 24, 2015 at 7:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Gaming, a Personal Perspective Part 3

This week I wrap up the 3 part series on “gaming, a personal perspective”. If one thinks about it, there was a time in the past where this form of entertainment almost died. Yet, it has become a very big part of the entertainment industry and continues to grow. And now here is that final post of this series:

Every once in a while I’ll look at comments made by other gamers about a particular game, and here you can find either praises or criticisms. Of course this (criticisms) applies to any type of entertainment that is out in the public view. We’ve all been drawn into what appears to be a good book, a good movie, or a good game, only to be disappointed when the hype didn’t match what we discovered. And with the advent of the internet it doesn’t take long for these comments to make an appearance and become widely known.

So when there are complaints about poor ports (moving a game from one gaming system to another), that the mechanics are bad, there’s a poor translation of the story, the NPC’s within the story are not remaining “in character”, the AI (artificial intelligence) is so poor that the characters are walking off of cliffs or into fires, or the game crashes or locks up all the time – these types of complaints I can understand. These deal with issues from the result of poor programing and testing, or a poor interpretation of the storyline. And when a game, or a poorly written book, or a badly edited or acted movie hits the public in this condition it deserves exactly what it gets – bad reviews.

Yet, if one doesn’t hear of these issues but instead complaints dealing with aspects of the story (I’m not talking about the actual story, which may be well done within the universe that it was created.), while ignoring other factors within that world, it makes me wonder where the ones who criticize are coming from. First off, most of what we watch, read in our favorite genre, or game, is fiction. And we enjoy immersing ourselves into these fictional worlds, living through the characters and their adventures. And I guess this is the key – all of these worlds are just that – fictional.

This means that if magic is what the world is based upon, then magic will be the controlling factor, as in fantasies. In science fiction it is based partially on the projected direction that science could take, but not necessarily where it will actually go. And to make these stories work then there must be some stretch of the imagination to allow us to travel the vast distances in interstellar space. None of this technology exists, and the theories are in their infancy, so even what we are guessing is possible and thusly reflected in those fictional stories, may in the end, prove to be impossible. Yet, when we read, or watch, or game, and the writer, or director, or gaming company, has done a good job, we become completely immersed in that fictional world and all the laws that control it.

So when I see complaints or statements about the holes in the physics (Referring to the scientific aspect, and not a broken aspect of the gameplay.) of these story lines, or the fact that there’s too many unanswered questions as to how this came about, it almost makes me smile and shake my head. After all, any of these worlds are just a moment in fictional time. And we do not necessarily know what brought things to the point of where they are presently (in that fictional world), nor will we know where it will go after the moment in time, which is this story, is over. After all, in the real world such is the case for all of us. We only can comment on what we have seen in our own lives. What has gone on before, and will go on after we pass from this world is beyond us.

And where am I going with this? A very good question. Not long ago I enjoyed the game Bioshock Infinite. This is the swan song for Irrational Games, as the owner is downsizing and wanting to head off into a new direction. For any who have played games in the Bioshock universe, know that we are dealing with many impossibilities within the story. Looking over the whole universe and the times that they were taking place immediately makes one realize that there is no way that any of these worlds could exist in our own time line. The technology or the money wasn’t available in those times to create these worlds. Immediately it means that for it to have happened, it would have been an alternate past, an alternate time, in other words a place where the existing laws could be the same and yet at the same time different.

After all Andrew Ryan, the builder of Rapture (The original Bioshock), couldn’t truly accomplish what he had in the 1950’s just as much as Comstock (Bioshock Infinite) couldn’t have created a floating city by using quantum mechanics in the early 1900’s. Yet, in these alternate realities both did, and somewhere along these alternate realities, when you, as the player, enter the story, as you try to solve what happened in Bioshock and as Rapture continues around you in ruins, you really don’t think about these inconsistencies. And when you arrive, you begin to learn a little about the world, for example, in Bioshock Infinite, as you work your way across the city and its history is revealed to you through discoveries, and the recording left by citizens.

I read complaints about how wrong the creators of Bioshock Infinite were in using the multiple worlds theory, and all the holes that exist as to the way that it was applied within that world – that universe. Or the way they use quantum mechanics within this fictional world isn’t even close to correct, plus so many other complaints, which I consider minor opinions on what was wrong with this game. Yet, here they gloss over the greatest impossibility and that is the successful use of a science that is now, in this present time, in its infancy. And while there is some understanding of what this sub-atomic world is like, it is still little understood overall.

So they get sucked into the world that is impossible in the first place, being fully immersed in the story and world,  and then put forth complaints or criticisms about these minor inconsistencies to the real world. Well, first off this is not the real world. And because it isn’t, means that the laws that govern that universe do not have to be the same as ours. Thusly Elisabeth can do what she does, and the multi-world theory as presented works. Again it’s because it all exists in that alternate universe or reality where laws are similar but not necessarily the same as ours. It is not real for heaven sake. It’s entertainment, there for our enjoyment.

While each and every one of us have a right to our opinion, and the right to express it, sometimes it is more important to stand back for a moment. Really look over that world that you are about to comment on, realize that your real world is not the fictional world, see where you’ve accepted the reality of this world that you’ve immersed yourself in, and realize that if you’ve accepted it to this point, then the ones who have created it have done their job. All of us can nitpick, and we do at times, almost any fictional world out there. Yet, if the result of the work put forth, have brought you to the point that you have enjoyed the storyline, even with its warts and flaws, and are anticipating a DLC (downloadable content), or a sequel, it is really all you can ask. The story has done its job of leaving you with the nostalgic view of your personal enjoyment of what has been presented.

After all, every story, every movie, every book, and every game out there stretches reality. It is the ability of the ones who create these worlds to bring us along for the ride inside of these fictional worlds, to enjoy that ride, and at the end to leave us wanting more. So please make your comments, add your criticisms, because, at times, it is important to see how others see one’s work, but at the same time acknowledge the amount of work that went into this to give you that chance to escape the real world for a while. A chance to take a journey through imaginary worlds that would have never existed had it not been created by some author so you could do something you cannot do in your lives, and probably wouldn’t want to. And remember that all of us, each and every one have our blind spots, our lack of expertise, and sometimes it does arrive in those fictional stories.

We all require entertainment in our lives that allows us to escape the reality that is life. Within in this modern society the need for escapism seems to grow as the world continues to grow and becomes more complicated. In the end it comes down to you personally as what you use to escape reality. Is it that good book, or that blockbuster movie? Is it quiet time at night listening to your favorite music, or experimenting with some new recipe? Is it gaming with friends, or exploring that new fictional world within that game world by yourself? Or so many other directions we can travel to refresh our minds and spirits that allow us to return to our daily lives and push on. For me part of that even at this time of my life is gaming, and those interactive fictional worlds still out there to be explored, even though I have been and continue to be an avid reader. After all, each has their own appeal at different times. Yet, if one really thought about it, there are similarities between gaming and reading. So for all of you out there in this real complicated world, enjoy the times that you can escape and enjoy an adventure from the safety of your home. And when we must return to reality and face another workday, remember that these fictional worlds are there always waiting, giving you a chance to once again experience the wonder that such can present.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series can be found in the right column under May 2014. Next week we take a trip through time. Maybe not the way you would expect it, since this will not be a nostalgic trip through my past. The title of next week’s post is, Time Travel – Really? Please have a safe week, and for many it is a short week. I have to admit that personally it seemed that these short weeks were longer than a regular week. Maybe it is because we are having to do more in a shorter time, or it just seemed that way. Again however this week goes I hope to see you here next Saturday.

Gaming, a Personal Perspective Part 2

Yes, when you first enter the world of a new game you face the challenges, the learning curve, the puzzles, and the overwhelming enemies that just happen to be a bit more powerful than you. It means that initially you are scrambling to keep that avatar alive in the world where he or she exists. And in the first play through you are seeing the world new, and somewhere along the line you reach a comfort level as you understand how this fictional world is going to act and react to you as you work your way through. Many times it becomes like an old friend, where you can enjoy their company when you meet.

Of course this is just a fictional world with its own rules, and you find that your avatar dies a lot. Immediately we find the difference between real life and the avatar or gaming. Healing is almost instant – if only in real life – death is not fatal – wow what a concept – it is generally, but not always, easy to know who your enemy is – again, this is a very long way from real life. So while this fictional world that you are living in, through your avatar, is harsh and dangerous, at the same time because you have these other aspects it is more forgiving. I have played games where once you die, within the game universe, your avatar is dead. This can be very frustrating because of the time that you have invested in this character. And to have lost him or her and to have to start over can be enough to make one abandon the game. After all you do become attached to them and the progress you’ve made within that storyline.

Truthfully one of my favorite parts of these game worlds is discovering what is there. I have to admit that I really enjoy exploring these game worlds, attempting to locate everything that’s there. And generally there is much that is hidden purposely for people like me. Plus I enjoy running the boundaries of the maps and see if I can break them. While most games it is impossible to do,  I have found ways beyond the maps in a few. (Map? What is a map? It is the area where you move within the game world. Generally when you go through a portal of some kind you are moving to a new map.) When you do, you learn a little about the environment that is programming. We, in our own world look around and know the rules that make it all work, even if we do not understand the science or natural laws behind it. So when we enter a game world we expect much of the same rules to exist. Now I’m not speaking of the gaming environment here since the fictional world that you may enter has rules that allow magic, or teleportation, or phase shifting, or so many other impossible capabilities that do not exist in our real universe. Here I’m referring to the ground, the trees, the buildings, the lighting, water, and so many other things that we take for granted.

If we are able to step beyond the created world in these games, get beyond the map boundaries, we can see what it takes to bring this game world alive. And it is vastly different from what we imagine. Absolutely everything has to be created, and because it must then be rendered, it takes computing power to do so. So wherever possible things are cut so that what is seen or touched does not slow down the system to a crawl or cause a scene to freeze. It is a delicate balancing act to bring this about even with the power of the modern computer (If one wants to be honest, consoles are specialized computers.). And if you look at the credits that run at the end of the game the list there would be as long if not longer than any movie credits you have seen.

Back to what can be seen from outside of a map for a moment. First off what is called collision is turned off, other than for the surface that you walk, although, even here there can be areas where it is. And for most of us, through actions within the game, we have been pushed through this collision to fall to our deaths outside the actual map. Simply stated collision allows an object to feel solid and real, like the dirt, that building, the doors, and vehicles. Without it everything becomes untouchable. You walk through walls, you fall through the floor or ground, and even the weapons you may want to use cannot be picked up as they have no substance.

Outside of the map you see walls of buildings that cannot be seen from within the map, becoming invisible because it is unimportant that they remain visible, saving CPU cycles, and the vegetation, trees and such are what is called 2D sprites. From within the world they appear to be real, but once out and among them you can see the truth. And from this different perspective you might find buildings floating in the air with no apparent support, yet from the game world they are on a hillside or cliff. Oh that bridge over there outside of the map is also 2D and has the collision turned off. And as that hillside drops away from the game world, where it cannot be seen, it becomes a simple texture, and here you can see the base that the whole physical game world is built upon.

Find a way within the map to an area you are not supposed to be able to get to and even here you can see the savings in CPU cycles. An example of this is where an enemy sniper stood. Find a way to his location and because this character is an NPC (non playable character) and while he acts as if he’s real, the truth is he is not, and all is in the programming, the AI (artificial intelligence), and he only does what he is programmed to do. Yet when you find a way to his perch you find that there is no floor in that building – that he was literally standing on air, and other parts of the hidden game world become visible since it was never meant to be seen by the avatar or you since you are the one controlling that avatar.

For most of us that game we do not consider any of this and this is true of much of what is in the real world. We take things for granted unless they do not do what they are supposed to do. And this is true even here in these fictional worlds. Glitches happen, games lock up, and exploits are discovered. Each having to be corrected once the game is released. And with the advent of the internet, it doesn’t take long for the gaming community to learn of these problems and mistakes or finding ways to take advantage of an exploit.

But, bottom line, these games are a form of entertainment, and, as I said earlier, I enjoy exploring these worlds, the stories and sub-stories that exist in these worlds. And sometimes they do surprise by the depth of story, the strength of character, the atmosphere that is created. And when that happens, like when you discover that special author who writes in such a way that you can hardly wait until his or her next book comes out, it is magical, and it can leave you thinking. And yes, while there can be a mindless side to all of this, including a way to get out your frustrations in a fictional world instead of the real one, if one spends the time, and works through these worlds more than once, to take your time and have the patience, you can discover a hidden gem, one that can leave you in awe to the power of a good story. And I, as long as I can do so, will continue to enjoy these worlds, enjoy the exploration, enjoy the infinite variety of stories, the interactions between these fictional characters, the societies created, and know, just as exists on the big or small screen, or in that great novel, what is there can be quite deep, but one must look. Yes, one must have the desire to look beyond the eye candy and find what is truly there.

Next week we break from this series as Memorial Day weekend is upon us. I am a veteran of foreign wars – spent 2 years in Vietnam in my youth. So I understand much that ones who have never had to face such challenges never will. This next post will be my Memorial Day post. Again a reflection from my perspective and the understanding of why we should honor those who have given everything that they had so we can continue to be safe, and enjoy the life we have. God bless and may this be a good week for all of you, and that you have a chance to take advantage of this up and coming weekend.

For those first visiting, part 1 of this series is in the sidebar under May 2014.

Gaming, a Personal Perspective Part 1

If any have dug into the archives, they would have discovered a 3-part series dealing with this very subject (gaming). This time around I want to look at this from my personal perspective as both a gamer, and as a writer. Many who do not game, write this whole thing off as no more than something to entertain males and their egos. I see it differently and will put forth different and obviously personal thoughts on this. After all much could be said ( negatively) about the wasteland that we call TV – hundreds of channels and absolutely nothing of value to watch and enjoy.

Of course, even I, who do not watch much TV, have a few (very few) favorite programs that I watch. My guilty pleasure lies in NCIS, and the spinoff NCIS LA. Add to this Haven on the SYFY channel and you have it. Oh I enjoy Aerial America, and many of the programs that deal with allowing the layman to understand the world of science. And in the crime front we watch the First 48, when it is new. But when you count the hours spent either on the computer or watching TV, the computer wins hands down. Of course I write my blog posts, short stories, and my books on the computer and that takes more than half my time that I spend on the machine.

Gaming fills part of the remaining time, as well as researching, and I spend more time gaming than I do watching TV. Yet, when we do get on this subject of gaming one must become a little more specific than just the generalities. Because we can deal with almost as many genres in the gaming world as we can in fiction writing. Just as there are those many genres in stories, because of the differences in each and every one of us, the writing style, or subject matter, it applies exactly the same way to gaming. Some like the puzzle games like Bejeweled, others adventure games like Syberia, where you point and click to solve the mystery of the story, and you work your way through in a leisurely fashion (These are considered casual.). We can get hard-core with the flight sims, RPG’s (Role Playing Games), and FPS’s (First Person Shooters), or go more casual as in the Sim’s.

The one thing that most of these have in common, and that includes books, is there is a story in there somewhere. The difference is the illusion, in gaming, that somehow you are influencing the outcome of that storyline. And because it’s interactive it requires a lot of work by the creators, in the background where it is never seen, to pull this off. These fictional worlds can be very linear just as your favorite book or series, or, as in RPG’s, cover a world and the many stories, sub-stories and subplots that are existing, and that you as the player have a chance to become a part of. While there is usually a main quest within the RPG worlds, generally these worlds are open allowing the player to go where they please. And if you decide not to follow the main quest line – so be it.

Unlike that movie, you, through your avatar, are adventuring throughout these fictional worlds, and yes, according to the genre, you can see it from the 3rd person view, or the first person up close and personal view, where you are literally looking out through the eyes of the protagonist. And, for you who do not game, these stories, and back-stories can be as deep as any novel out there, and, here’s the best part, you are a part of it. You live it, of course, in the comfort of your home, but if the game has been well constructed such as F.E.A.R. and the sequels, you can have the same chills, surprises, as if you were watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie or some other thriller. And it is so much more difficult to pull off that kind of timing within a game where you can never guarantee how the gamer is going to move through your fictional world. A movie is a static universe, while the game world is constantly changing and adjusting to the player’s style.

One of the games that became the defining game for FPS’s is Half Life (an old game). And here is a science fiction story told through the eyes of Gordon Freeman as the world he knows goes to hell. So instead of reading the story, you act it out, making it so much deeper than just the words on a page. Yet, as we move through the many series of games out there, for me some have become my favorite, which is no different from favorite movies, TV series, or book series. Yet, when I try to identify why, I find that I have different reasons for the different games.

For example: If I were to look at a series that is both intellectual, a tragedy, as far as the story line, well written, and a great fictional world created, I would have to put Bioshock on the top of my list. Much of the story is based on ideas that Ann Ryn had put forth in her books, including Atlas Shrugged. One of the main characters that you deal with indirectly is Andrew Ryan (Ayn Rand is possibly where the name came from) who is responsible for Rapture, a city at the bottom of the ocean. The story is deep and well written with many twists and turns, filled with wreckage that is the people of this world, and an unexpected ending. Of course there are many of the standard elements of a first person shooter as you fight your way through this broken world, raising the bar the deeper you go and the more you learn or think you know.

This was followed by Bioshock II, and Bioshock Infinite, both great games in their own right. Bioshock II looking to the past of Rapture, as well as the future after the time you spent there in the first Bioshock. While Infinite is another well written fictional world that exists in the clouds. As in the other two it is deep, with many twists and turns before the tragic end.

Then one could look at Borderlands, and Borderlands II, both classic FPS’s, yet at the same time adding elements of the RPG (Role Playing Game) – there is much adult and dark humor included. Here they successfully meld the 2 genres – FPS and RPG – which are normally separate and far apart requiring their own style of game play. The series having a background story to bring you along through the world of Pandora. Both would be considered science fiction if they were books instead of games. And if we were to look at most RPG’s (role playing games)  the storylines would be medieval, definitely dungeons and dragons in style or maybe along the lines of middle earth in the Tolkien universe. The worlds are huge, and the quests epic in nature. And as is always the case in these worlds, one must succeed to prevent the fictional world from falling into the hands of evil, or chaos. Most MMO’s (massive multiplayer online) are of this gaming genre. An example of one of these MMO’s would be WOW.

As one can get sucked into a good book, losing track of time, it is the same for a well crafted game and the world that awaits the player. The one difference being, the world created by the gaming company is there for you to see, while the worlds created from that book are completely within your mind, within your imagination. So whether it is to save mankind from extinction, sometime in the distance future, as in The Wing Commander Universe, or to look to an alternate past as in the Bioshock series, there are as many directions one can find here in these gaming worlds, as there are in literature, be it novels or short stories. And if one will leave their prejudices behind, one might be surprised at the depth that awaits one in these fictional interactive worlds that is known as gaming. Finding that one can ride the emotional roller coaster that many books bring to the reader is truly available in many of these modern games. And interestingly something that has been trending for a while is the world of co-op. A world of fiction where you explore with your friends, adding to the depth and fun. And with the internet your partner in this game world could be anywhere in the world – and thusly here I end part 1, an overview of gaming, and a taste of the worlds out there.

Next week will be part 2 in this present series. As always I hope that what I write is something that will hold your interest and a place that you’ll want to return. This is a  place of many subjects, and many ideas. In a way by reading what is here you know me, who I am, the way I feel. So while you may never have a chance to meet me personally, in a sense you already have. And for all of you mothers out there tomorrow is a day set aside to honor you. It is an honor that you aptly deserve – Happy Mother’s Day. Have a good week and I’ll see you here next Saturday.

Gaming, A Layman’s View Part 3

Fist off before I look at the history, I must apologize to those who are console gamers, since I am not. Much of what I am writing here has to do with PC gaming. So if you are wanting to see something on consoles you must look elsewhere.

While gaming on computers can be traced back to a lab where Pong was invented and played, followed by small computers that you could build and personally program, to include games, it wasn’t until IBM started releasing the first Personal Computers, running on DOS (Disk Operating System), with a small hard drive, that gaming truly began. These machines were wimpy, and quite expensive, but for the first time anyone who had the money, time, and a willingness to learn the DOS commands, could own a computer. Most originally were purchased for businesses, and business software dominated, as expected. Yet most of this software did not push the systems, and even though as time passed, and the PC’s became more popular, there had been little or no reason to upgrade.

Then games began to proliferate, mostly through the channel of “share ware”. Share ware meaning that you got a chance to try the software before purchasing. These small games usually were on 5 1/4 inch disks originally, but then moved to the 3 1/2 inch disks later. When you consider the size of a modern game, these early games wouldn’t even make up a single file, since these disks held respectively 1.2 megs, and 1.44 megs, and the whole game rested there, albite compressed. Most computers at the time only had a tiny speaker that was part of the unit, and sound cards were nonexistent, RAM sat at 2 megs, and hard drives were around 40 megs or less. RAM at this time sat directly on the Motherboard, and while modern computers place RAM directly on the motherboard the method then and now were completely different. To increase the RAM on those early systems, you had to buy an above-board card, then purchase RAM in 256 bit chips, set the jumpers so that both the motherboard and DOS knew what type of RAM it was seeing, and hope it all worked. Later as PC’s improved the standard configuration included 4 megs of RAM. Very rarely would you find a system with more. RAM was prohibitively expensive, and hard drives also fell into this category of expensive, thusly even a bottom of the line system would run into the $1000’s.

Duke Nukem, Jill of the Jungle, Commander Keen, Cosmos. all got their start at this time, all as share ware, and all were side scrollers. Apogee software was distributing much of this early stuff. They distributed games from Id software, which is still operating today, and this company was the creator of the FPS. Eventually a company called Origin, that operated out of Texas created a space combat game called Wing Commander. This series ended up with 5 separate games in the Wing Commander Universe, plus expansions. This company was also responsible for the first game that started the MMO revolution. This game was Ultima, and was as popular as Wing Commander, and was an RPG. Alas Origin is no more, and the innovative games they created are gone.

Wing Commander was important if for no other reason, that when another game was released, it required the gamers to upgrade their systems. Each game pushed the capabilities of the Computers, bring forth improved Sound Cards, faster CPU’s, and better Graphic Cards. Yet if you look at the full size of Wing Commander 2, it took up less than 30 megs of space on your hard drive. Compare that with some of the modern games that take upwards of 16 gigs. When you played these games you had to learn how to manipulate your operating system. And this required creating a boot disk which included the autoexec.bat, and config.sys. Because DOS allocated RAM in certain ways, games such as Wing Commander required all the RAM that DOS allocated. So the boot disk was necessary so you could squeeze every bit out of it for use of the game. Wing Commander became so popular that it showed up in a couple of commercials on TV for PC’s. Wing Commander also used branching trees in their game, while almost all games, other than RPG’s, are linear, meaning go from point “A” to point “B”, and so on and so on. Branching allowed the actions the player performed to change direction, like in life, and the outcome at the end of the game could be different each time one played. The other big game they produced started another revolution in gaming. Ultimate introduced a dynamic game world. Up until this time most game worlds were static, meaning that if you left an area of the map, and then returned later nothing would have changed. This dynamic world would continue to operate even when the player was not at any certain point on the map. It functioned more like the real world. This type of world eventually existed in the Wing Commander Universe also. Just a sidenote here, most console games had static environments until the consoles themselves became powerful enough to sustain dynamic worlds.

Another company that began a very successful franchise was Westwood. They were the original creators of The Command and Conquer Universe, and like Origin are no longer around. They were one of the early adopters of RTS, and up until that time most of the Strategy games were turn based. (Oh just a fact, EA was responsible for closing both of these successful companies down.) One last thing to mention, gaming at the beginning was all single player. Networks only existed in business, and college, and dial-up only connected to message boards where you could post messages. The World Wide Web did not exist, as well as email. With modems running at 12 baud one could not expect a game to run very well, if at all. It wasn’t until the internet, and broadband that finally multiplayer gaming could become a reality, and as time passed eventually the true MMO’s emerged.

In 1995 Windows became available. It was originally built on top of DOS, and had its problems, which many may say that it still does. But it brought a stable platform for gaming to build from, and now with gaming being a multi-billion dollar industry world-wide, with continual growth, it probably will be with us in one form or another, until the Holodeck from Star Trek becomes a reality and like this article is considering the world of DOS, then today and today’s systems will be looked at as the bad old days of early, primitive gaming.

Published in: on January 28, 2012 at 8:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Gaming, A Layman’s View Part 2

This week I want to look at the basic genres within the hard-core gaming world. There are others out there, and I am sure that there are those who might complain a little because their favorite may be missing from this list. As in life there are no 2 people alike, and there are no 2 gamers that are alike either. This led to the development over time of different styles of games and game play, and as time passed with gaming becoming more popular, different categories were developed.

Like every other medium out there, gaming was attacked as the work of evil, that leads our children astray. It is responsible for crime, murder, and all sorts of mayhem. If this sounds familiar, look back in your history and check out comic books, and you will see a familiar pattern develop. Then the cry was comic books were corrupting our children leading them away from what is right and good! In all of these cases, with no true facts to back them, and only riding on the roller coaster of emotion the cry was, “There needs to be a law to ban, to control . . .” And in all of these mentioned examples the media that was under attack, came before congress for congress to do just that. Of course comic books were not the only media to face these attacks in the past, but is one that is easy to research. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and we still have our graphic novels, comic books, and digital gaming.

Now if you are new to gaming then what I state below may help you in deciding what to try. But remember this, if you enter a multiplayer game where you have no experience, then expect to lose heavily, and be called all sorts of things. “Noob!”, is probably one of the least offensive terms you will hear. But don’t let it bother you, as in all things there are people (peeps), and more so on the net, that seem to want to make it difficult for any and all who want to try their hand at something new. Mostly they forget, and many times they are around 12 years old, that at one time they were “noobs” also. “Noob”, is a shortened version of “newby”, or new to the game and one who doesn’t know anything. Now let’s get to it.

Action: As the name suggests, any action you perform in the world has direct consequences. And as the genre has matured, the environment has become destructible, so one can see more results from the actions you, as your avatar, do. Here there are two main sub-genres, FPS, and Third Person. FPS stands for First Person Shooter, and is set up to make it appear that you are the one walking through the environment, just as you do in life. An example of this is the one that in the end defined the genre, and that was Half Life. Third person is an over the shoulder view, and an example of this would be Gears of War. In this genre hand-eye coordination is critical. Just a thought here, and I feel an important one – I have found that by playing these games that in real life you can recognize things developing much quicker, thusly responding much faster. An example for me, I was driving home on a 2-lane backcountry road, and some one passed into me. I saw it developing and reacted very fast, and avoided a possible collision.

Adventure: Many hard-core gamers do not consider this to be worthy. It is less frantic, and more casual in its approach. These games usually deal with some kind of mystery or horror that must be solved. The action is based on finding clues within the scenes and solving puzzles to move the story along. The Syberia series is an example of this genre.

MMO: Massive Multiplayer Online. WOW (World of Warcraft), and Everquest are the 2 biggies out there. Based on the RPG genre (which I define further down), they allow players from all over the world the interact, battle, form guilds, and such. While it is about gaming, it is also about social interaction between the players. It is one of the influences that has helped in shrinking the real world. Instantly one can talk and game with anybody from almost anywhere in the world.

RPG: Role Playing Game. Almost all MMO’s are role-playing games. Unlike an Action game, you choose at the beginning what your character will be. Many allow you to even create the way your avatar will look to everyone else within the game world. Most often they are based on fantasy, and are in the 3rd person. In this genre, you are playing a role. And while it appears that damage is being done to an enemy with the actions being presented, if one looks at the time of the strike, whether it is a cast spell, or a weapon strike, you see negative numbers roll off of the target. These represent hit points, and are determined by the level, experience, and the power of the weapon being used. Experience points are called XP. As an avatar in the game you have a health bar which allows you to see what condition you are in. Then there is a power bar which in some games requires mana to recharge, others it will slowly recharge over time. This bar provides the energy necessary to cast a spell, or to add power to a strike. Through a complicated system within the engine that runs the game, this back and forth will eventually kill either the enemy, or you. The game thrives on quests, and is usually an open world. Meaning that you can go almost anywhere you want to explore. In RPG’s you have real-time, and turn based games. An example of real-time would be Elder Scrolls, and an example of turn based would be the Final Fantasy series.

Simulation: This is where the real truly hard-core gamers exist. They demand realism in their games, and usually have the peripheral equipment that simulates the real thing. Most often found in military style games, and especially flight games, the only thing missing is the feel of the “G’s”, as they take their fighter into a tight turn to face an enemy. A couple of games that fit this category is Janes, and MS Flight Simulator. Although most of the MS Flight Simulators deal with private aircraft, and only the expansions have the military fighters.

Sports: This genre covers all the popular sports out there giving sports fans a chance to either play as a member of a team, or to manage a team.

Strategy: This genre is an over the top view. In these games you must build, collect resources, manage and protect your bases, build your defensive and offensive weapons, seek out the enemy and use your strategy to defeat them. Here you control all your forces as a general might, but unlike a general, you have the view of the battle field. Although the enemy can enter the map from beyond what you can see, they as you are limited by what they control, how much resources they can gather, and then the manufacture and deployment of the weapons. Again in this genre there are two types, RTS, Real Time Strategy, and Turn Based. Turn Based simply means you take a turn, and I take a turn – very popular when computers were underpowered. Turn Based strategy is almost dead and gone, for obvious reasons, and the RTS has become king. The Command and Conquer Series is one of the best known and is a RTS.

The last I am talking about this week has to do with the blending of certain genres which may lead to a creation of a new genre. What we are beginning to see is the blending of the FPS, and the RPG, taking elements from both and creating a fresh view and play. Examples of games that are doing this are: Borderlands, and Fallout 3.

In the last part of this article we will look back at a bit of history, returning to the bad old days of DOS.

Published in: on January 21, 2012 at 8:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Gaming, A Layman’s View Part 1

For many out there, understanding gaming is very difficult. In this multi-part article I want to first look at games from what transpires on the screen, and how it comes about, followed by part 2 where we look at the genres within the gaming world. Here I will be using and defining terms so that a basic understanding will emerge. Remember that the ones who create these worlds are always trying to balance game play, the environment within the game world, with the computing power available in both the CPU, and Video Card, and insuring that the gamers can have a great experience within these fictional worlds. So in this first of three parts, we will look at maps.

When you look at the world that the gamer is participating in, this present area is called a map. These maps can be large or small, and usually when a loading screen is reached, then the player is being moved from one map to another. Within the map exists all the terrain, buildings, trees, plants, and whatever will remain consistent within that world. To make this map work, there is a number of things that has to happen. First off let me say, that one cannot depend on what you know about the real world to create the maps within the games. After all a computer doesn’t have any idea what laws dictate the real world. The computer will only do as it is told. So if the program says that trees must grow from the sky, then that is what it will present. So here is the basic list.

Let’s look at collision. Now when most of us think of collision it is traffic accidents, running into something or someone, or having something fall on us. In the game world collision has to do with anything the avatar (your in-game character) makes contact with. If collision is not there, this in-game character will be able to walk through a solid wall, and fall through the floor or ground. If this has been programmed poorly, then falling through the ground, which has happened to me in the multiplayer maps in Halo, or getting stuck in an object and not being able to get out can easily be the result, as in the game Gears of War.

Remembering that each area that one inhabits within a game is a separate map, then the programmer has to make sure that the player stays within the map boundaries, but at times there are places within the map that are also blocked. This task is normally handled by walls. These walls are usually set up along the perimeter so that one cannot get outside of the map world. Some companies do a great job of blocking and others leave gaps that can be found. The nice thing about the software used to create these walls, is that they  start out visible, and then are made invisible after the walls have been checked. In the first STALKER game, the company did not do a very good job, and I have been able to get outside of 50% of the maps. I was also able to get outside of one map in Fallout 3, and the demonstration map Lost Coast.

Now why would leaving  the map world be so important? A very good question, and the answer for me is simple. From there you can see how the map was created, and once outside you can normally walk around the whole map and view it from the outside in. One of my favorite things in these games is exploring. I love to find what the creators have placed in their fictional worlds. But once outside you can see the shortcuts that the programmers took, more to conserve CPU power than shortcuts to speed the process. After explaining the next subject I will revisit this.

Eye candy! What the heck is eye candy? Simply stated it is the visuals that one sees within the game environment. But just because you can see it or touch it, does not mean you can interact with it. This item or object can be there to help make the scene as real as it needs to be, and this includes areas that are off the official map playing area. After all, if you are in a forest and looking out into the distance, then you expect to see it continue even beyond the playing area. If it just ended at that point then there would be an obvious end, and break the immersion within this world. Eye candy is what makes the world “sweet” to the eye, just like candy is to one’s taste.

Now I will revisit exiting the official area of the map. Here you can see much of what is used to create the map world. One of the first things you find is that collision is turned off. So if you were to try to walk across an obvious bridge you would simply fall. You then find that many objects out in this area are 2 dimensional sprites, and many times are not even anchored to the ground. But from within the game world you cannot see this. The buildings that may sit out in these areas only have walls that are visible from the game world itself. If you look at them from an angle that would not be visible from there, they simply disappear, cease to exist, and yes, they are 2 dimensional, with collision turned off. And those large piles of rubble of a collapsed building – from the other side is just a hollow area, like when you used clay as a child to make an impression of something. Again all of this is done for efficiency and keeping the frame rate up. After all, no one wants a slide show. “Got to conserve wherever one can.” Then when get beyond what could be seen from the map world you run into the mesh that the map is built upon. A flat plain, that in some maps has collision, and in others none. Here you can see where water areas just end, or in others a gray area leaving one feel that they are standing on the edge of a great abyss. Yet the weather effects, time passing, and even the NPC’s (Non Playing Character), continue to roll in from beyond this map world. And according to where you are standing outside of the map, as an example, you can see a solid hill with houses built on it, and then by moving the hill completely disappears, and the houses are now floating in the sky with nothing supporting them.

So if you look at it, when a map has problems, then the game will have problems. Of course you can say that for any portion of a game. Yet the map is the world, and everything within the game must use that map, and it is from here that all things within the game happen. Of course there is much more that goes into maps, but here I am just wanting to give an overview, and a brief understanding of a game world map. I have no plans on getting into the actual programming of games, since each genre has its own set of problems. Next week we will move on to part 2, and look at the different types of game play that is out there.

Published in: on January 7, 2012 at 8:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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