Best Games - Caverns of Khafka (for Atari computers)
Caverns of Khafka feels like a game that could shake apart at any moment. Is it possible to glitch your character clean through the floor of the level and crash the game? Probably. Can you get your character up into the scoreboard area of the screen and run around on top of the numbers? Absolutely. It seems like maybe this game shouldn’t work at all. It seems like the game was slapped together with very little thought.
You might think that, until first blind pit you get to. A few ledges down from where the character starts, there are two choices, the left or the right pit. The bottom of both pits exists just off the bottom of the screen. If you choose the left pit, the screen will scroll up to reveal lava. You will fall into the lava and die. The right pit is clear, and would have been the safe choice. If you instead choose the right pit, you will find that it is filled with lava and the left pit is clear. When you start the game, both choices are wrong. This only happens once, after you choose one pit, and die in the lava, for the rest of that play through the pit with lava and the pit without will remain locked. There is a way to reveal the lava without dying, but it involves navigating to the far side of the map and back again.
As soon as you figure that out, you realize. This game isn’t broken. This game is fucking with you. Not only that, It’s inviting you to play along.
There are areas that can only be reached if certain, nebulous requirements are filled. There are areas that can only really be reached by glitching through walls. Some traps are rhythmic and predictable. Some are erratic and random. They often mix together. Careful movement and patience are your main weapons.
Caverns of Khafka takes place entirely in one very small playfield, but discovering all the fine intricacies of it’s design takes many repeated attempts. All the while you are left wondering if there is a slightly better way to glitch your character through that wall.
I hate rendering. Can’t stand it. I would be positively ellated to never have to render anything ever again.
That leads to the obvious question. What is rendering, and why do you hate it so much? Since a lot of my past work has been in 3D graphics and animation, the context from which I invoke the word “rendering” is probably important. Rendering is when you, as a digital artist, ask the computer to please take all of the 3D models, texture maps, particle effects, and lighting trickery, and pass the whole mess through some sort of prettying sieve. The pixels extruded out the other side of this process should be in the order that you expected, or at least arranged nicely. Depending on the renderer you are using and what you tell it to do, you can get all sorts of different looks, anywhere from photorealistic, to pre playstation 1 era polygon soup. Every computer generated image had to pass through a renderer of some description. Some just light up the screen pixels you suggest to the rendering software might need lighting up. Others read the geometry in the scene and calculate the way that light bounces around the objects turning each impacted surface into a new light source, with it’s own colour and scatter parameters. The thing calculates the movement of light. No matter how efficient the calculations are, that’s a job that is going to take some time.
I used to dread rendering. When you first start a scene there are only a few simple objects in it, and the instructions for how to colour and light them are usually fairly simple. Rendering software could take less than a second with a scene like that. Maybe you can even have the scene render at near realtime, at 10, 20, or 30 frames per second. Testing animation, geometry and lighting setups is a pretty brisk affair at this sort of speed. Add a few more objects and some nice high resolution textures and the framerate plummets. Soon it’s taking several seconds per image to render. You can still work and iterate on a job at that speed, but you are usually one or two additions away from it taking several minutes per frame. Now you have to do tiny spot renders. Maybe just check the top of a lamppost, or only the last few frames of a walk cycle. Rendering an entire animation is no longer feasible. That is usually the precise moment when a client will ask for a major timing revision, or a camera angle change. You proofed and got a signoff on all this stuff when the render time was a few seconds per frame, now that making changes eats up the whole afternoon you need to do a 45 degree rotation to the camera pointing it at something you haven’t textured yet, and they need the new render by the morning. Now you might be seeing why I hate rendering.
Pixar and ILM have massive refrigerated rooms full of computer hardware to tackle this problem. A render might take minutes, or even hours per frame, but if you split that up over 200 cpus, 500 cpus, several thousand cpus, you should be able to see the results of any changes right quick. If you are working on one machine in an advertising shop, 15 minutes per frame is a recipe for a bad time.
Over the past few years I have been using game engines. Game engines use a renderer to put graphics to the screen, but games prioritise speed over beauty. Games have to spit out 30-60 frames every second just to remain playable. The ones that dive below that suffer the ire of players and reviewers. For years we have been hearing that new graphics software and hardware will allow a game to look like a Pixar movie. Depending on how you view that moving goalpost, Pixar is still working to make their movies look better too after all, games may never get there, or they may have gotten there around Ratchet and Clank Future. Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction came out in 2007 and it’s still wall to wall gorgeous.
I recently loaded a very high polygon model that I had been working on into the Unity 5 engine. The recent addition of an advanced lighting system made the model look fricken beautiful before I even did any advanced processes to it. I could make changes, move the camera anywhere, and change the lighting all at roughly 30 fps. The same model took several minutes per frame to render through the Blender Cycles renderer, even with hardware acceleration turn on. The visual difference between the images that came out of Cycles and the Unity renderers did not justify the extra time. The Unreal and Crytek engines can do similar quality images. I don’t think I care how pretty the latest Renderman derivative can make a scene look. I’ll be using game engines to render everything in the future.
There is a slightly higher learning curve to getting things running smoothly in a game engine, but I figure if a person took the time to learn Maya or 3DStudio they probably won’t have much trouble navigating game asset requirements.
I still hate rendering, but I think I like where it’s headed.
There are a lot of great digital tools available now that let creators work in rapid, iterative ways. We owe a lot of the progress made in the last 40 years to the humble “undo” command.
The undo feature of most software is second nature. We roll our fingers across Ctrl-z like we pick lint from a shirt. Removing a minor misstep from digital work is mundane. There are usually several levels of undo and redo and we can walk back and forth through the past at will. This ability has advanced human creativity explosively. Attempting and testing new ideas in visual arts, music, literature, science, engineering, medicine, frankly every industry touched by a computer, comes at very little risk. Undo isn’t an eraser. Undo is the freedom to make mistakes while appearing to all the world like you’ve made none.
Like most tools, there is a downside to undo. The ease of undo can sometimes make us forget that every creation has an end point. Usually several end points, laid out in intervals along the path toward a finished work.Even the most well thought out workflow passes the point of potential undo. There are barriers that need to be crossed when digital information is converted from one form to another. Separate instrument tracks need to be mixed into a single recording before you can present it as a song. Visual effects need to be blended into filmed footage, and the footage must be edited, before it can be presented as a movie.
When someone works with physical materials, the understanding that changes can be irreversible is inherent. If you tear paper or cut wood while creating something new, that change is permanent. Almost everyone has, at least some, experience with computers, and almost everyone has used undo. There is a rampant perception that digital creation tools, like photoshop, contain within them a turbocharged version of undo that allows those in tune with it to access a world of infinite malleability. The truth, of course, is that at some point along the way wood gets cut, metal gets melted, paper gets marked, and digital files get converted. The process is always one way, and undo is not possible. When undo is so readily at hand for everyone, the belief that creators can revert changes and modifying anything without limit, usually follows. Most creators will understand the limits of their tools. Unfortunately, their clients rarely will.
Educating clients, calling out the points of no return in the production process, has never been my strong suit. People never like to hear that something can’t be done without significant difficulty. Significant difficulty usually translates into more time and more money. This can make it uncomfortable to raise the issue. Of course that usually means eating the time and cost when a client requests late stage changes. Changes past the point where undo was ever useful. There is also the problem of creator ego. It’s nice to be able to just say “OK” and turn around the changes as requested, making you look like a master of your craft. In the end, it would probably be healthier for everyone if clients could be gently educated to the cold hard facts of production. You can measure twice and cut once, but after you cut, there is no undo.
I watched An American Werewolf in London on a CED when I was a kid. You could go and ask your grandpa what a CED is, but for the sake of this story, I’ll fill you in.
CED was a weird sort of video record that came in a plastic case. The machine that played these discs had a long, narrow, covered slot that you would put almost the entire plastic case into. The machine would grab hold of the disc, and you would remove, the now empty, plastic case from the machine. The discs only held 60 minutes of video per side, so around halfway through a movie you would have to flip the disc over. Since exposing the disc to the outside world in any way would apparently cause a tear in reality, that meant you needed to slide the case back into the machine. The disc would be delivered by some arcane mechanics back into the plastic case, and you could pull it out, flip it over and put it back in again to finish the movie. Laserdisc players that could play both sides of a disc without flipping and long play video tape also existed at the time, so this obviously stupid practice of flipping the disc died with the CED format, and we were all better for it.
I only remember this, because I was scared to flip the movie to side 2.
Billed as a horror comedy, An Werewolf in London is actually a strict horror movie right down to it’s core. The comedy is layered around it as seasoning. It’s a movie that knows what it is, and goes for it. The scares are scary, the gore is gruesome, and the tension is high. Of course it is also an extremely funny movie, but that never gets in the way of the films intent. It is constructed around fear.
Recently I have been playing Wolfenstein The New Order. It is a big, dumb, loud, action spectacular of a game, but in the corners it is also one of the most finely realized, touchingly written and presented games I can remember playing. It only works because this is a game that knows what it is.
I have written before that I had some real problems with the way that the story of games like Uncharted and Bioshock Infinite betray the gameplay that they are ostensibly created to support. Characters and events that carry one very clear tone in the story, lie at hard angles to the actions the player must execute to succeed at the game. The whole is weaker for it.
Wolfenstein The New Order shifts seamlessly from one speculative fiction melodrama to another. The characters remain true to their, occasionally thin, personas. Peripheral events are handled with a subtlety and humanity that is usually reserved for much slower paced games like Gone Home. Through all this, the story is never asked to upstage the bombastic and harried action.
There are several successful horror comedy films. An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, and Tremors, are a few of my favorites, because they know what they are and remain horror movies first. I suspect that if a joke in the script of any of these movies stood counter to the tension, it was cut or altered. It has the net effect of making all of these movies seem more human and heartfelt than any of the Saw sequels.
Games are a tricky storytelling medium. There are always two stories running in any game. There is the story that the developer has written for the player, and the story that the player is creating through their actions. Some games, like point and click adventures, limit the players actions to put the focus more heavily on the written story. Some, like roguelikes and sandbox games, mute the creators intended narrative in favor of the story the player creates. If a developer wants to influence both, the two threads at the very least, need to agree with each other on tone. If the game is an over the top action shoot fest, the writers have to respect that intent. There are plenty of places that comedy, tragedy, terror, and humanity can support such a game. The creators just have to stay acutely aware of what sort of game they are making.
Take a lesson from the doomed CED player. You can’t get more narratively at odds than making someone to get up and flip a disc over to play media that’s main ask of it’s audience is that they sit quietly and focus for two hours.