I want to talk about sci fi doors. Okay, this is important.
Actually, you’re right. It is super not important. It’s silly. But I just want you all to know that I have a real problem with sci-fi doors.
Before I get too far ahead of myself and start ripping on some artist's work, I know, I get it. I’m an artist too, and I have made a lot of sci-fi nonsense. Greebles and patterns that really don’t mean anything on machines of indeterminate function. I do it a lot. And I will do it again.
I get it. I understand. Designing something that looks futuristic and interesting is tough. There are only so many techy looking crates and boxes a person can think up before things start getting weird.
I do have a real problem with doors. Sci-fi doors. Some of ya’ll got to get it under control when you are thinking up doors.
Every single one of you has used a door. There is just no way that you are this far into an art career that you have been given the opportunity to draw, paint, model, or construct sci-fi decor and you don’t know that form and function of a door. It’s just not possible. You have used a door.
I went and typed ‘sci-fi door’ into google image search. Go ahead, try it now. Type that in. An awful lot of them look similar, don’t they. You know what they don’t look like. Doors.
Doors might be one of the most practical and least artistically adorned bits of architectural technology that we have come up with. They are never overly fancy, pokey, or embellished, because people will be interacting with a door on a near daily basis. They are usually pretty smooth. They have one extremely obvious interaction point. If they have hinges and rotate on those hinges, they have to be fairly light or at least well balanced. You know what I didn’t see in several pages of the google image search? A door on hinges. You know what most doors in the world have? Hinges. Even most doors in space and at sea have hinges. Because hinges are practical and reliable and if the door breaks, those hinges are easily accessible and repairable. You can make a solid airlock or water seal with a hinged door. Doors on hinges are good and useful, so I doubt that we will abandon them in the future.
Look at this regular ass door.
Not only is this door easy to understand, but depending on the frame it could also be watertight or even airtight. It could be fire poof, bulletproof, even blast resistant. This door probably has most of your door needs covered for centuries.
Okay, so let's just say that we have figured out a really amazing and robust sliding door mechanism in the future. They are more reliable than elevator doors and we can install them everywhere. Fine. Maybe prefabricated doors that slide into a bulkhead or some other sci-fi structure can be made cheap and common. Totally fair.
Have a look at this thing.
Again, I don’t want to drag this artist. The modelling work on display here is pretty good. The material work is nice, and the color scheme is pleasant enough. But what the absolute fuck is going on here. How do I open this? Why are there so many angles and shapes? Why do the white paint lines cross multiple panels? Is it supposed to blend into the rest of the wall? Why are there so many bits you could catch your sleeve or finger on? This door looks like it’s always a little bit greasy. Or it might give you tetanus. Whatever it is, this doesn’t look like a practical door.
That door isn’t an outlier either. I didn’t pick it just to make a point. It was literally in the top row of images when I typed sci-fi door.
So was this.
Why is the edge lit up? Wouldn’t it make more sense to light up the latch or handle? Which brings us to, where is the latch or handle? Who knows. Maybe it’s an automatic door. If that’s the case, what are all those indents and shapes for? Does it have really high cat flaps? Are there multiple peep holes? Do you have to be close enough to read the text before the automatic door sensor goes off? I don’t know about you, but 99% of the automatic doors I come across are pretty smooth. Because there is no need for all that other crap. Smooth is all it needs to be to do its job as a door.
If you thought those were odd, have a look at this.
This door looks like it intends to open me up. I can’t even guess how this thing slides or pivots. Maybe it’s like a transformer and it unfolds into an entranceway. I feel like someone said sci-fi door and this just manifested. Like calling for the Candyman.
Again, and I can’t say this enough, I am not ripping on the art. Making any of these doors is tough. It takes work. What I am questioning is when did we decide this was what a sci-fi door looks like. What in the past several centuries makes us think that we will deviate so wildly from current trend of door technology. Doors are one of the few things we as a species have really nailed. Our doors work very well.
It’s not all terrible.Have a look at this
Other than have a jog in the split of the door for some reason, it’s not bad. There is a clear touch pad or entry system off to the right. There is a door mat for you to wipe your feet on. The light is aimed at the entrance so you can both see the door and, presumably, the occupants can see on video who is at the door. Surface adornment is kept to a minimum. Access panels might hide the workings of the door for maintenance or upgrade. All in all, a well considered door. Even if it is of the slidey variety.
Have a look at this one.
That looks like a regular old, hinge door. Pretty basic. Functional. Recognizable. There is no doubt, it’s a door.
So, here is my plea. If you find yourself designing some sci-fi thing in the future, don’t overdo it. If the thing is a kettle, it’s okay if it just looks like a kettle. Doors can look like doors. Shoes can look like shoes. These are things that won’t change a lot as we venture out into the stars or to the depths of the ocean or across dimensions or whatever. A door can look like a door, and that is good enough.
Best Games - Karate Champ
Now hear me out. What if a game could be one of the best games ever made while being completely broken in very fundamental ways? What if a game could have innovative, even revolutionary, controls while being terrible to play? What if a game could represent a tectonic shift in what multiplayer games could be, while mostly coming down to random chance?
Without Karate Champ, we don’t get a Street Fighter or a Street Fighter 2. Without Karate Champ, there is no Mortal Kombat. Karate Champ represents a fundamental shift in how arcade games could, and would, be made.
If Karate Champ didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.
Karate Champ (or Karate Do in Japan) is a one on one fighting game released in 1984, well before fighting games were a genre.
It is a game that aims to be as much a simulation of a sport as it does a martial arts fantasy. In the single player mode, the player alternates between rounds of one on one fighting with computer opponents, and challenge stages where you have to break pots or bricks or fight a charging bull. It’s weird, but it all works as a piece. All at once, regional Karate tournament and martial arts action movie.
In the versus mode, you use all of those same Karate skills against a real live human on the same cabinet. It can make for very fast, fun, and dynamic matches.
The innovation in Karate Champ is, without a doubt, the control system. Most arcade games in 1984 used one joystick and one or two buttons. Any layout that varied from that template usually meant you were in for a wildly different game.
A couple years earlier, Robotron: 2084 operated with two joysticks. That game was a fairly standard move and shoot type game, but the two joystick control scheme allowed players to move in one direction while shooting in another. It was the game that created the twin stick shooter genre.
Karate Champ used that same control system, but combined the stick movements together in a sort of macro. The left stick was primarily used for moving your Karate combatant around, but when you chained movements on the left stick with directions on the right, you could pull off all sorts of authentic looking Karate moves. It introduces pull back to block. It includes high, middle, and low attacks. If you pull down on the right stick and up on the left, you can do a forward flip that can put you on the other side of your opponent. There are moves that attack behind you. There are jumping kicks. Link all of this with the ability to fight a real human opponent and, make no mistake, Karate Champ is a fighting game.
Karate Champ, out of the gate, incorporates so much of what would become the core of modern fighting games. It was an arcade hit, but it could have been massive. A cultural totem. It comes up short in one area, otherwise we would probably be playing Karate Champ 8 at EVO now. It’s the one thing that fighting games wouldn’t get right until Street Fighter 2. It’s really hard to hit anything.
The collision system for Karate Champ is odd. Often, your fist or foot will pass harmlessly through your opponent. Then, every once in a while, a strike that seemed to end a few pixels before them will land. In a game where it only takes two solid hits to win, it feels far too random. The hits, when they land, are solid and satisfying, but it could be anyone’s guess whether they will land at all.
Street Fighter 2 is far from any sort of simulation of fighting. There are a lot of strange impact shenanigans that happen every match. It is also extremely rare that a punch that looks like it hit, will whiff. You can always be reasonably sure that your range is right for a particular attack. It feels like what you try to do, you can do. Karate Champ is just too much of a constant dice roll. The same kick at the same range may or may not hit depending on the frame of animation your opponent is currently in.
If you played some chess, but on every turn three of your pieces went into a quantum superposition between two other pieces, it would become impossible to play. You wouldn’t know, until you made your move, if a piece was a pawn or a rook. If you lost, it wouldn’t feel fair. If you won, you would have no idea how to repeat it. That’s what playing a lot of Karate Champ feels like. A constant game of guessing if the thing you are doing with your hands will have the desired effect on screen.
I’m certain that there are people out there who have become deft at playing Karate Champ. Not nearly so many as there are for Street Fighter 2. It’s a matter of expectation and consistency. If you swirl the controls in a certain way in Street Fighter 2, you can be pretty sure what will happen. Not so for Karate Champ.
This is another one of those almost games. Arcade experiences that point the way to huge things in the future. I think it’s fair to say though, without Karate Champ, we may never have developers explore the one on one fighting space. It does so much right, and it is still fun to play. It came up inches short of being revolutionary.
Maybe it’s only for historical reasons, but Karate Champ is one of the best games.
We just got back from a trip to Disneyland. We’ve been a couple times, and I always wonder at their ability to design spaces. If you have done any game development, or even if you’ve just played a lot of games, you will know that most of game design is moving people from one place to another, one task to another. Doing that smoothly, interactively, and enjoyably, is arguably the core of game design. If a menu is difficult to use, if an interface is tricky to manage, people won’t play your game. If there are too many unintuitive moments or situations, people will quit playing. Difficult puzzles and complex interaction take a distant backseat to the more common knob twiddling and button pressing that players are required to do. It’s these spaces between the ‘gameplay’ where most players fall off. The people who design Disney’s parks are absolute masters at this. If the rides and shows are the ‘gameplay’ getting people from one to the other is the game design of a theme park.
I have written a little about how they use eyelines and the transitions between spaces to guide your experience. That’s probably what most people will notice and comment on. The physical movement from place to place. You usually won’t be able to see one area or land from another. Structures will block your view until you get pretty close to another area, and even then the transitions can take you by surprise. This makes you feel more immersed in the land you are in, but it also makes you feel like you are discovering things just by walking. You turn a corner, or pass under an archway, and suddenly you are in a whole new place.
This manipulation and crafting of physical space is amazing, and it’s worth studying if you are at all interested in how game levels work. Especially if that game level has to accommodate hundreds or thousands of players. I want to focus on something else. A little bit of UX that disney has really refined.
Information. It would be easy to just provide all information at all times. A lot of seasoned game designers often say that you should provide as much information to the player as you possibly can, and then let them decide what to do with it. Like most things, it’s never that simple, and the user experience can sometimes be improved by withholding some information. I will provide a couple of examples I noticed during this last disney trip.
First is the most obvious bit of information. The length of ride lines at Disneyland is posted at the entrance gate to each ride. This is something they have been doing for some time. They break the times up into five minute increments, but if the board says five minutes, that really means you can just walk right on. Anything from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes will probably be shockingly accurate.
Now this bit of information can do a few things. First, guests of the park can decide if they want to wait in line or not. Lines to ride popular attractions are a given, so some amount of waiting is expected. As the time to ride increases, the amount of people who are willing to wait decreases. Only the most popular rides will ever have line times longer than an hour. There are so many other attractions at the park, you might as well head off to one of the other ones. Just this little bit of information will naturally spread guests around the park, and get people to try out less popular attractions.
That bit of information does something else too. You can see most of the lines snaking out from the rides, but people are extremely bad at estimating. If you looked at the line to, say, The Haunted Mansion, it would be difficult to judge the difference between a half hour long line or a one hour long line. Often, parts of the line are out of view of the path, so you wouldn’t even be able to count the people if you wanted to. Ride operators will adjust the length of the line by opening and closing different loop-backs and u-turns. Visually, the lines can be very deceiving. The shape and space of the lines changes from ride to ride as well. Something that looks like a very long line on one ride might only be a few minutes on another. Those boards will help you decide how to spend your time at the park. Pair that with the phone app that provides you with the same information about ride wait times, and you have the makings of a really powerful queue and crowd management system. All you had to do is provide the information.
The next thing is maps. Disneyland has a distinct lack of maps. You know those ubiquitous mall guide boards? Yeah, Disneyland doesn’t have any of those. You can certainly grab a map from the information booth, or you can look at the one in the phone app, but everything in the park is set up so that you don’t need one. If you follow any path, it will loop back around to the main hub. Every path, eventually, feeds back into the central ring of the park. This means, if you know where it is you want to go, you are probably never very far from it. But also, if you don’t know where you want to go, and this is the important bit, you can just keep walking forward to inevitably see all of the park. You could just walk around and experience a constant sense of discovery. There are no maps, and almost no road signs to direct you. They want you to feel like you are exploring and discovering. Because that makes simply walking around fun. There are lots of little alcoves and cul-de-sacs to find. All of them designed specifically for discovery.
If there were waypoints and road signs that pointed you directly to Space Mountain, there would be a lot of park goers who would miss other attractions.
So, here we have two very different examples of how to use information. Deliberately providing or withholding information can change user experience for the better. Disneyland has had decades to get it right, and for the most part they do.
I didn’t even get close to talking about how they pack ride lines into ridiculously small amounts of space, or provide a show experience while you are in line so that wait times don’t feel as long. I think I will go over those at some point, but these two bits of informational experience design should be enough to chew on for now.
Blender has a new-ish feature called geometry nodes. I won’t be doing any sort of tutorial or how-to about it here. I have done a few things with it, but I don’t have any level of expertise that I would feel comfortable sharing. At best, I might be able to explain it.
When you are modelling something… let’s use an example. Say you were modelling a drink vending machine. This is a vending machine that needs to be able to work, or at least look like it works. There is one of those little drink elevators and a bunch of slots that hold all of the beverages. This is the sort of thing that you could model traditionally. You could make all the parts. Find out what the average vending machine sizes are and scale a box to that size. Design each of the drink bottles or cans. Create a marquee and set up an array of lights behind it.
If you only need one of these drink machines, that’s it, you’re done. What if you need a handful of them? A few different sizes, different marquees, all with different drinks and different lights burnt out behind the marquee.
You could set up a few of them. But how many? Six? Twelve? How many different vending machines would it take to ensure that when you spread them out over an entire city, no one would be able to see the repeats? Each machine would seem unique.
Geometry nodes is a way of programming your models. You create a set of rules that spit out models, and then you can have it randomize the results. You can either feed the system a selection of prebuilt parts, or you can have it build the entire thing from a single vertex on up to a full object. The system incorporates the material nodes system as well, so you can have the surface color and texture change along with the model. You can have it swap out the type of drinks, what slots are full or empty, how many drinks are in each slot. There really is no end to it.
Every time the generator runs it will create a new vending machine based on those rules.
Geometry nodes can be more complicated to set up than regular, straight ahead modelling, but the end result can create a dizzying array of assets.
It’s not a tool that needs to be deployed in all cases. There are probably a lot of assets that are better built as one off models, but some things, things that are repeatable objects with slight, but important variations, could make excellent use of this tool.
Like I said, I’m not going to do any sort of breakdown of it, but I did use geometry nodes to create a system that can make any sort of rail line, or road, or path, or really anything that is roughly a repeated object along a curve. And it works.
I love to pick apart stories. Not to criticize or poke holes in them, but like tearing down a machine, I want to see how they work. Or don’t. How setups are paid off. How motivation is sold. Or isn’t.
We watched The Batman. I liked some of it. I didn’t like other parts. That’s not really important. I’m not going to review the movie or give it some sort of a score. If you want to want to watch something and be entertained for a couple hours, you could do worse than watching The Batman. When you open it up and start looking at the parts, there are some places I think they could have done better.
When I hear or read a critique of a story where it becomes clear that the person forwarding the criticism simply wanted a different story than was being told, I always bristle a bit. I’m not going to do that. I think the story, as they were telling it, is fine. But it could have been much better. The problem they have is with familiarity.
At this point, there should be very few people who would go to see a Batman movie who don’t know who Batman is. In fact, this movie is counting on it. They make reference to the Wayne family in ominous tones, but they never explicitly say what happened to Bruce Wayne’s parents. Because they don’t have to. They know that you know. They know that you know this character. They know that you know minute details about the crime families of Gotham. They need you to know, or this story doesn’t work. The success of this story, of this movie, depends on it.
And then they somehow forget.
I’m going to point out three scenes, three key moments, and this will get very spoilery. I’ll toss in a fourth for good measure.
The opening monologue is overwrought and emo, but it’s done in a fun and knowing way. I can let all that pass. It establishes that we are in a heightened reality. What you are about to see can be corny in an earnest way and as long as you are on board with that you might be in for a fun ride. That’s great. It establishes that tone and sets up the audience for the story to come.
During the opening monologue, Bruce Wayne as Batman tells us how he uses the shadows and fear as a weapon. We see miscreants scatter at the sight of his bat signal. Good stuff. Batman stuff. They know that we already know this and are attempting to meet our expectations. So far, so good.
We see a group of thugs accosting an innocent man. The writers also know that we know, Batman will always defend the innocent. That’s what he does. Our expectation is that he will show up to protect this man. They meet our expectations, but there is something wrong with this scene.
Batman does show up, but he pretty much just walks forward and punches them all. Fair. It’s a well done action scene. The punching looks sufficiently punchy. But we just heard how he uses the shadows and fear as weapons. This guy just marched forward and punched. More important, we as the audience know who Batman is. We know that isn’t what Batman does. He darts around, he uses the environment to his advantage. He fights smart. We have to know that he could just march forward and punch, and that would be enough, but that isn’t Batman. Batman isn’t strong, he’s smart. That’s the character.
Now, we can wave this scene off. Maybe this was put in to establish that he isn’t quite what he needs to be yet. He doesn’t fight smart yet. Plausible. Except the police already have a bat signal set up, specifically to instill fear in exactly this sort of miscreant. So the scene is very at odds with everything the storytellers want us to think.
Anyway, let's move on to the next scene. A crime scene. The Mayor has been murdered and Batman shows up to the crime scene to, we can only assume, help with the investigation. When he arrives, Detective Jim Gordon vouches for him and the phalanx of officers lining the hall let him pass. This is a good detail. It establishes a history and a sense of trust. The officers don’t trust this masked vigilante, but a very senior detective does. That could only have happened if they had some history, if Batman had proven useful in previous investigations. This is the sort of welcome that you would expect from a Sherlock Holmes type character. A person who, while onerous, is extremely useful in exactly these circumstances. That’s good. That’s the Batman that we as an audience already know. The Batman that they need us to know for any of this to make sense.
Then they have him sort of stand there, in the way, and Jim Gordon tells him everything. Absolutely wild. It’s like whiffing a T-Ball. Had he walked in and immediately pointed out all the crime scene details the investigators were missing, put together the missing puzzle pieces, and basically did the job, it would have made sense to have him there. It would have made sense that Gordon vouched for him. He would have been acting like Batman. They had all the runway laid for this masked weirdo to be a superhero, and they just didn’t. Very strange.
Again, nothing else about the story would have to have changed for this to be added to the scene. The investigation would still go on because the riddler would still be ahead of them and the next plans were already in motion. But the character would be acting like the character. The one that they, as writers, need us to know before we started watching for any of this to work.
Next we have another scene with Batman and Jim Gordon. They are searching an old orphanage for clues. It has been abandoned for some time, and junkies hooked on the trendy new drug are squatting there. The two investigators are walking through darkened hallways, Gordon with his gun at the ready, and Batman skulking behind in the shadows. Good. That’s how these two men move through the world. That is their characters.
Suddenly, out of the dark, a junky runs into the beam of Gordon’s flashlight. That just sort of happens. He’s startled, but nothing else comes of it. Again, we have the opportunity for Batman to show who he is. Gordon is the grizzled detective who might raise his gun, and he might even fire. Batman would be the man who would stop him. These are junkies, but they are innocent. They are the type of people that Batman would protect. Him simply grabbing the gun and pushing it down would be enough. This is the guy that reacts faster than everyone else, who thinks faster than everyone else. He is the scary thing in the hallway, not the junky. We know that because we know this character. When given the opportunity to prove it, the filmmakers simply let it pass.
Again, we could be charitable. We could imagine that they intended this Batman to be young, unseasoned, early in his development. But that read falls flat. The film depends so much on the audience being familiar with this character and this world, that having him act counter to what we know is jarring. If this was a new superhero, if this was a new world, if this was a new story, by all means, write them any way you want. But it’s not, and we know that, and they know that we know that.
Those three scenes alone are enough to make me scratch my head, but, like I said before, I’ll toss in one more.
Near the end of the movie, the Riddler has amassed a reactionary army of disenfranchised and angry young men. Topical and mildly haunting to be sure. When Batman figures out the plot, he rushes off to intercept them before they can shoot a bunch of innocent people trapped in a building. There is an assumption made that there is no way one man, no matter how well-trained, well armored, or fanatical, in the pursuit of protecting people, could possibly stop all of these terrorists. It is assumed, but never voiced. Did it need to be voiced? Maybe not. Just running into danger with the intent to help is enough to prove that Batman is the hero in this situation. But there is also the assumption that he thinks he will win. There is an exchange omitted. Let me attempt to fill it in.
Batman moves to leave, the room. He and a police officer have just figured out Riddlers plan to have terrorists attack hundreds of trapped and defenseless people.
Cop - Where are you going? There are dozens of them. Even you can’t fight that many. What do you think you are going to do.
Batman - I’m going to give them something else to shoot at.
As the scene plays out, that is pretty much what happens. Batman acts as a distraction more than an actual assailing force. The terrorists are occupied long enough for people to start escaping, and for backup to arrive. The scene could be read that way, but it’s important for it to be voiced, or at least presented unambiguously. Why? Because we already know this character, and acting selflessly is what he does. It is always what he does. And you absolutely need to drive that point home at every opportunity for this story to work. Maybe that line is a bit cheesy. That would not have been out of place in this movie.
At no point did I expect a different story or tone than they delivered. The pacing could have been sped up significantly, but overall The Batman is competently made and assembled. It works. But for a movie that depends so heavily on the audience filling in blanks, they deviate from the main character that we already know quite well in strange and almost careless ways.
Superheroes are, at their core, deeply goofy. Not much of it makes any real world sense. But they are archetypes. Characters that act and react in a steadfast way. They are always that character. They have to be. It comes with the genre. It’s what people expect. Sometimes, meeting people’s expectations is just as important to telling a story as subverting them. It’s not always twists and character growth arcs. Sometimes these people just have to be who we already know they are. That’s the bar. That’s the assignment. Comic books understand that. We are getting to the point that most comic book based movies know that too. Apparently not all of them.
So, I have false teeth. I spent most of my life playing a lot of hockey, and I have found that pretty much everyone assumes it’s due to that. Fair enough. If the sport is associated with anything, it might be missing teeth. Nothing so gruesome happened. Honestly, in all the games I have played, I think I have only been hit in the mouth with sticks a couple of times, and pucks never. Well, maybe only once. Or twice. Who keeps track of these things. Nope, it’s the mundane genetic reason. I have hypodontia.
Hypodontia, if you are not familiar, is naturally missing teeth. I am specifically missing the lateral incisors. It’s so common that I have noticed it in a lot of other people. I have also noticed that most of them don’t like other people pointing it out. Oh well.
The long and short of it is that I have had false teeth since I was about fifteen. I try to take very good care of them, so I am only on my third set. This last set, they didn’t last as well as others. Yep. I broke my teeth.
Here’s the other thing about me. I’m that weirdo who will fix his own teeth. I’m also that weirdo that has acquired all the skills necessary to fix his own teeth. Life casting with alginate and plaster. Done that. 3D modelling and printing to make my own dental impression tray. Can do. Working with acrylics and acrylic solvents. Literal years of experience. Handy with a dremel. Sure.
I printed my own dental tray, got some alginate and plaster from one of those hobby hand impression kits from the dollar store (trust me, it’s exactly the same stuff), and got some acrylic powder and solvent from denture repair kits (also, trust me, exactly the same stuff). I made a positive cast of my upper teeth and mouth and used that to align my denture and teeth.
The first time I broke these teeth, I was able to put them back together, but I hadn’t mastered getting the bite right.
The second time they broke, I got them fitted really well, but the connections between the teeth and the plate were too thin. There was no way they were strong enough to last.
This time, I put them all back together, but the original plate has been taken apart and put back together too many times. I know what happens to acrylic when you repeatedly apply solvents to it. I don’t have a lot of confidence in it anymore. Also, I ran out of acrylic powder.
Even though I am exactly that weirdo who will fix his own teeth, it’s now time to call in the experts.
I’ll go in and get a new set of teeth made. Hopefully they last for another ten years or so. If they don’t, I suppose I could always fix them again.
Best Games - Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
The resolution of the gameboy advance screen is 240 x 160. That isn’t a lot of space. In the english version, a single font character is about six pixels tall by four pixels wide. That is extremely efficient for a font, but it also means that you can’t put pages of text on the screen. There just isn’t enough room for all of it. That’s why the menu system for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is amazing.
I just finished looking at some old reviews of the game. Time capsule takes from the early 2000s. There were a lot of people praising the game, but the menu system was either not mentioned or maligned. I think a lot of people just didn’t know what they had on their hands. Or, in their hands.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is part of a long-ish series of strategy rpg game put out by Square. It is charming as hell, and mostly joyful. The art takes beautiful advantage of all 240x160 pixels of a Gameboy Advance screen. Subtle touches make the character designs and landscapes appear more detailed than they actually are.
The story, though slow to get going, is interesting and nuanced for a game like this.
The missions are fun and work like a multilayered puzzle, where you can sway the constraints and advantages in your favor even before your first attack.
Strategy games like this live and die on their interfaces. There is usually a lot of complicated machinery and statistics that the player needs to be aware of at all times, and 240x160 pixels is just not enough room to display it all. Rather than attempting that, the devs of FFTA decided to tuck all the relevant menus and UI away under a few button clicks.
I think this is what reviewers were complaining about. They would have rather had all information visible at all times. That would never have been possible on such a small screen. Instead, they made every relevant menu one click away.
Now this might sound obvious, or simplistic. Every PC game has pop out menus. Most PC apps have pop out menus. They are context aware so that only the stuff you truly need at the moment is available. You would think that game menus would be exactly the same. Except they aren’t, and back in 2003 on a handheld system, they super weren’t. Menus would commonly be stored in subscreens where you had to press the start or select button first, and then navigate around to what you were looking for. Or you would press ‘Attack’ and all of the relevant attack menus would become available.
FFTA uses true, context aware menus. For everything. No feature of the game is more than two or three button presses away. And as soon as you get used to navigating it, you can just fly around those menus. And that is where the interactivity of a strategy game lives. A series of menus and button presses.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is one of the best games, and it’s not because of the story or the art or the music or even the complex but satisfying strategy. It’s because they did menus so very, very well.
I started a story about two years ago. Best I can figure, anyway. The first date on the original document is April 11, 2020. I didn’t really know what the story was going to be about when I started it. That’s how it usually goes. I start with one image or idea and sort of figure it out from there. By the time I have a few pages typed up, I start to understand who the characters are and what they want. After that, I gradually walk my way to an ending.
That story, All Legacy Hardware, is now published in the sci-fi and fantasy magazine, Cossmass Infinities - issue 8.
Before it landed there, that story was all manner of things. Eventually it was whittled down and refined into what it is now. It had no title, and then a placeholder title, and then a different placeholder title for a bit. It was always about an athlete getting a spine replacement, but as soon as I added the sister character, the story became about two sisters. The order of the events changed. It was much longer, then only a little longer, then a tiny bit shorter, and finally the length that it is. Which, I will admit, might be slightly too long. Character names changed, events were rearranged. I did research and got the opinions of a lot of different folks. Some of them, former and current, professional writers, scientists, and athletes. I changed the story based on a lot of different feedback. Hopefully that made it better.
Before it found its home at Cossmass Infinities, I sent it out to a few other places. They all rejected it. I used that time to go back over the story and punch it up in places where it was lacking. I even got some useful feedback from a couple of them, so that was nice. I still think there are some spots that I would like to change, where it isn’t as good as it could be. But I know that when I started the story two years ago, that was the best I could do. Maybe I could write it better now, maybe not, but at the time, I tried to write the best story I could.
In any case, All Legacy Hardware, is my first professional sale, and my first published story.
In the two years between then and now, I have started, and finished, several more stories. Some of them, I have submitted to professional outlets for publishing. Most of them will probably get rejected, at least a few times. I think my writing has gotten better since I started that story, slightly more confident, a little more dexterous.
These posts here, these are stream of conscious things. They aren’t trying to be efficient or punchy. They will probably continue to be just as meandering and clunky as ever. But the stuff I take my time with and put some real work into, there are a few more of those floating around out there just waiting for a place to land. Hopefully one of them will eventually.
If they do, I will be sure to mention it here.
shhh. I'm editing a story right now. It's broken, but sort of limping along. The fixing is happening.
Back to it.
Best Games - Syndicate
Sometimes, one of these best games isn’t really a very good game. Sometimes it’s just the promise of the game. The thing it could be. What people imagine it to be.
I have played the first few missions of Syndicate many, many times. There are fifty missions in the game. I doubt if I have ever played more than twenty.
As a game, Syndicate controls pretty poorly. You point and click where you want your agents to go. You point and click where you want your agents to shoot. You point and click what you want your agents to carry. If there is a thing to do in Syndicate, you probably point and click it. While this does seem like the simplest type of interface on any computer with a mouse, this game is too complex for a simple point and click. Syndicate wants you to do a lot in a short amount of time. It gets really cumbersome, really fast.
Why then, have I played this game, or at least the start of this game, so many times over the years.
Syndicate has amazing promise.
It’s for the same reason that people bring the game up with fond nostalgia in their voices. It’s why the game shows up on a lot of classic games lists. It’s why people have tried to make sequels or successors over the years, and it’s why there is probably someone actively pitching for a new Syndicate right now.
Nothing ever comes close. Nothing ever will. Not even Syndicate comes close to being Syndicate.
The concept is the most jet black of dystopic fiction. The world is terrible. As an escape, the entire population is fitted with chips that distort reality for them just enough to not be constantly depressed. The sky is artificially just a little brighter. The earth just a little greener.
Of course, the same chips that keep people happy and docile can be used to control them. Corporations turn ordinary citizens into cyborg agents and wage wars for territory and control. The Syndicate with the most brains under their control wins.
Wins what exactly, we will never know. The world of the game is in a constant cycle of domination and control. The dominators change, but the world is stuck in an awful stasis.
It is unapologetically bleak. More important, you are not the hero of this story. You are not a savior that will free everyone from the shackles of evil. You are the evil. You are in control of a squad of agents on missions to murder, kidnap, and coerce until the world bows to you.
There is something very cathartic about that sort of fantasy. A perverse joy in being morally empty. It’s a role that very few games let you play.
Besides the setting, the world of the game is surprisingly dynamic. For a game from 1993, the world can occasionally feel alive. People and traffic follow their own patterns. Guards and police are usually quite stupid, but there are flashes of brilliance every once in a while.
But, not enough.
Syndicate is an almost game. It almost controls well enough. It almost breaks new ground for a an interactive, dynamic environment. It is almost fun enough to last for fifty levels. But it isn’t.
I think that is why it persists. Why people still remember this game. It’s a game where you can imagine all the things it could have been, but no other game has ever come close to matching that. Syndicate has never matched that.
It’s so very close though.
It’s like that movie that would have been wonderful if only they had a slightly higher budget, or that book that almost hits, but there are two chapters too many and a major plot element is unresolved.
Most games are either pretty good or pretty bad. There aren’t many ‘Almost’ games out there. Syndicate is one of them.
Is Syndicate one of the best games? No, not really. But it points firmly in the direction of greatness. The direction that games like Grand Theft Auto, and X-COM would eventually go.
I think that’s why Syndicate still lives in the memories of so many people who played it. Something about the setting and the dynamic open world really dug into players thoughts and expectations.
Syndicate might just be the best almost game.