Games are enjoying a golden age. The first generation that never knew a world without video games is well into bringing up the first generation that will never know a world without the internet. Games and gameplay are not only ubiquitous, they are shared and shareable experiences. The media that promotes, comments on, and criticizes games is in the midst of an overhaul and only a small handful of “enthusiast press” seem to be ready, or willing to keep pace. Maybe it’s time to be done with the game review.
I have had a subscription to PC Gamer since the third issue. That’s the american version. I purchased, at the newsstand, several issues of PC Gamer UK before that. I would sporadically pick up issues of CGW, Gamepro, and the like, but I only had subscriptions to a few other magazines. NextGen, Play, Polygon, and Game Developer all got the subscription nod. The only ones that still exist are PC Gamer and Game Developer. After almost two decades, I won’t be renewing my subscription to PC Gamer, and the reason is game reviews.
Not every medium requires interaction. Interaction is how video games work. Interaction is how much of the internet works. That's sort of their jam. Magazines are are not interactive. Magazines are archival. As a medium, print has one great strength. It lasts. This blog, along with much of the internet, could blink out of existence in a nanosecond. Any time and effort put in could be just flat out gone. If a copy of a 1912 Ohio newspaper exists, what is printed on it, has and will remain unchanged for as long as anyone cares to store it in a cool, dry, drawer somewhere. The same factors that make the internet so fragile, make it instantly and radically mutable. Journalism on the internet, can be interactive. Journalism in print, just isn’t.
Reviews are a naturally transient thing. Normally, you read a review sometime around the release of some other piece of media. A piece of media you find considerably more important and interesting than the review you are reading. You read it for one of two reasons. You want to know if someone else thinks that thing that you are interested in is worth your time, or you already know and you want to see if that other person agrees with you. Either way, the review itself is not of much value to you, and you are done with it almost immediately after reading. Most people are done with it after reading the number at the bottom of the page. For an interactive medium like video games, that can change and evolve over time, that change and evolve even as you play them, the speed and malleability of the internet is perfectly suited. Storing reviews in a permanent medium like a print magazine, is misunderstanding the medium.
Reviews are not criticism. In a review, someone is offering up a yea or nay judgement, usually accompanied by some qualifiers and considerations. Criticism is the examination of a cultural artifact. Criticism of a game could weigh it's comparative strengths and weaknesses, but it also could be an in depth study of some aspect of the game, and how it relates to, history, art, biomechanics, psychology, sociology, or really anything in the length and breadth of human experience. Which of these two seems more suited for an archival medium?
The second problem with most reviews is that games are experiences, not performance. Your experience of a game will probably be much different from my experience. I’ve seen people compare writing about games to travel journalism, which really makes a lot of sense. Describing your experience through a game rather than describing the nuts and bolts seems to be closer to the spirit of the medium. I can’t remember a time that I read the sports page and saw a blow by blow breakdown of how the sport of Hockey is played. That is what I am treated to month after month in the pages of PC Gamer.
Now that a game reviewer can put up a two minute youtube clip breaking down what is good and bad about a game, then move on to writing a more detailed and investigative piece on why that game matters, doesn’t that seem like a better use of their time and talent? Doesn’t a well thought out argument on the refresh of the Lara Croft character, and why she does or does not advance the cause of feminism in the games seem like a better use of archival media than a “back of the box” list of the weapons? As navel gazing as it can be, I think the press that reports on games, owes it to the medium. I know they feel a respect for games as an art form, and a part of our cultural fabric, maybe it’s time to treat them that way.
My Neighbour Totoro is one of my favorite movies. It's probably in my top five, if I cared to order the movies I love in that way.
I don't. There are just too many. Do I rank them by times watched? First by genre, then by quality? By what they make me feel? Nah. I like a lot of movies for a lot of different reasons and any sort of ranking system would pivot on some other criteria. What movies top the list would depend greatly upon that other criteria. I love My Neighbour Totoro because it is quiet.
Quiet, probably doesn’t fully cover it. It’s not really the decibel level of the movie. There is a pervading gentleness to My Neighbour Totoro. While there are scenes of danger and adventure, there is no conflict that needs resolution. The two main characters, young sisters, quarrel and bicker, but there is no implied breakdown of their relationship. Their mother’s, seemingly chronic, illness drapes the entire film in a melancholy, but the family’s love for eachother is never tested. They hold steady from the first scene until the last. There is very little in the way of plot. There are no twists. Dialogue is sparse, simple, and without subtext. It’s all very subtle, beautiful, gentle and quiet.
When it was released, My Neighbour Totoro ran on a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies. Grave of the Fireflies shares most of the qualities of Totoro. Very simple plot, simple characters, simple dialogue, simple quiet sounds. I would even say that it is very gentle, at least in the telling of it’s simple story. While Totoro is enchanting and wonderful, Fireflies is the saddest movie ever made. That isn’t hyperbole. I’ve checked. There certainly are more disturbing movies, and maybe more tragic, but there are none sadder. I think that it is an amazing movie, well worth your time, but I’ll offer fair warning. Once again,Grave of the Fireflies is the most heartbreakingly sad movie ever made.
As I think my way through the entire Studio Ghibli library, I can hear that theme repeated time and again. Arrietty’s first borrowing is played out slowly and deliberately. A scene that could be played for tension, is instead, very simple. Every sound is crisp and clear, but the scene is mostly quiet. There is a thoughtful quality to many Studio Ghibli films, but when they just turn down the music and highlight the simple clean sounds of footsteps, leaves rustling, water flowing, they do it like no one else.
I started writing this with a point in mind, about how films have figured out the use of sound in ways that games haven’t, but now I see that really isn’t fair. It’s not just games. Very few films, and filmmakers, have the level of mastery over soft quiet sound, soft easy pacing, and soft gentle storytelling, that Studio Ghibli does. With well over a century of films to reference, that subtle quality still eludes most filmmakers. Of course, not all films need that level of subtlety. The standard summer blockbuster, would probably not be strengthened by gentle, poetic sound design.
Games, it seems, is a medium of blockbusters. You can point to the beautiful audio work of Team ICO or thatgamecompany, but that’s about it. Everyone else is in the business of making blockbusters, with blockbuster sound. When anyone goes for a “Ghibli style” in a game, they always, always mean the art style. That’s nice and all, but I think, just once or twice, I’d like them to be talking about how their game will sound.
This week I was cleaning up some models, making a couple new models, and doing a UV unwrap on this character.
There are about seven thousand tutorials on UV unwrapping available one google search away. I don’t think it would be worth your time if I did another one. If you ask me in person I will gladly walk you through the process in my own inimitable monotone fashion. You will probably fall asleep before we get to seam placement. So here is a quick, high level overview of UV coordinates and UV unwrapping. If you are at all familiar with 3D modelling and UV layout, this will be pretty boring for you. Feel free to leave now, and I’ll see you back here next week. Also you could just jump to the bottom where I explain why none of this will matter soon.
A 3D model is just a collection of points in space. For this character, a little over 1300 of them. They all have 3 coordinates that describe where they sit in space relative to some arbitrary zero point, or origin. You have x position (Horizontal), y position (Vertical), and z position (Depth). Some folks like to swap the y and the z, since z axis rising up perpendicular to the plane of the earth is how it’s usually done in aviation. Unless you’re some sort of heathen, x sits on the horizontal where it belongs. Whatever orientation you go with you put three numbers in the x, y, and z slots for each point. From any 3 points in space you can create a triangle. Making a 3D model is really just managing these triangles. Those 1300 form the corners of 2600 triangles. You move them around, add and subtract them, until it looks like whatever you are making. Sort of like Michelangelo freeing the angel from the rock, but in reverse. And with at least twice as much computer power.
So what is a UV then? Well after you line up all those triangles into something recognizable, you might want to paint it. Those points and triangles aren’t really anything. They are groups of numbers in a computer. Kinda tough to paint on math. But what you can do is take all those points and triangles, cut them apart and lay them out flat. You know when you get a paper model in a book or on a cereal box or something? You have to cut it out and then fold the paper so the edges come together to make some sort of three dimensional shape. Laying out UV coordinates is the opposite of that. You take this perfectly good model, mark the seams where you want it to come apart and then spread all the pieces out flat. You arrange the model pieces in a totally separate set of coordinates. The model sits in xyz space and this new flattened version of it sits in UVW space. UVW - xyz... yep, clever as it sounds.
Now that you have everything laid out flat, and organized you can create a texture, or image, that is also flat. The points on the UV coordinate system will match up with their corresponding points in xyz space. The texture will stick to the same places on the model as they do on the UV layout.
You might say, “hey wait, you said UVW. What’s the W for?”. Just like the xyz coordinates the UVW system also has a depth element to it. It lets you do fancy stuff, like fake reflections and procedural volume textures. Probably nothing you need to worry too much about.
UV unwrapping is one of those tedious, but vital steps in setting up a model. There are a lot of tools that can help you speed up the process, but you will have to do it, and it probably will suck at least a little. It’s all right though, we probably won’t be doing it for much longer.
There are a few new tools that will automatically generate UV coordinated and pack them in ways that are not very photoshop friendly. While you probably couldn’t make heads or tails of these image maps, they are really not meant to be viewed in 2D. They are for painting 3D models in 3D applications, for 3D applications. There are a few issues yet, when dealing with real time environments like game engines, but they are already very common tools at use in CGI production and animation studios. It’s really just a matter of time before the tools and the pipelines make their way into game development. When that happens, you probably won’t have to deal with UV maps again. I think I will be just fine with that.
I wanted to create a small sample scene of actual assets from Adventure Caddie. I’m only now coming to grips with the rigging and animation systems in blender, so I opted instead to use a bunch of primitives and some character models culled from the Unity asset store. I think the test still gets the look across. Here's four minutes of me twiddling knobs.
This is a video clip of me playing with the shader I created for the game. The scene has no lights. All the effects are controlled by a couple of sliders hooked to range variables, some colors, and one texture. For this test scene I’m only using one material, but setting up multiple materials for all the objects is pretty easy. The only extra bit of management that we will have to build is a sort of lighting board control system, so that different layers, and objects in the scene can be controlled as groups, rather than having to tune them all one at a time.