Friday, April 27, 2012

Patterns and Sociology

It's interesting that a discussion can be boring and trite at 140 characters, but interesting at 1400.

Some folks on Twitter were trying to, again, discuss games and movies and what makes them similar and different. In this case, @spiralchris was talking about movies that were painfully similar (such as Seven Samurai being the basis for about eight other movies) and games that were painfully similar (such as San Andreas and Saints Row).

He got stuck up on patterns, which is when I decided to not bother to say anything on Twitter. Talking about the fact that there are patterns is like saying that everything you buy at the mall is made of matter, so therefore what is the difference between buying carrots vs shirts?

But the fundamental idea - that very similar movies are exposed as copies while very similar games are thought of as just being in the same genre - is one that has come up recently for me as well.

To be honest, I don't really think that similar movies are considered copies while similar games are not. Quite the opposite: nearly every movie that comes out is basically identical to an earlier movie. We talk about Saints Row and San Andreas being similar, but we don't hold it against them. Well, we talk about soap operas - so formulaic they can literally be written by a machine. But we don't hold it against them. Well, I do, but the target audience doesn't.

It's only when you realize that the chain hopped a few links that it becomes an issue. The Seven Samurai spawned a genre, and you didn't even realize it. So when you realize it, you're like, "whoa! Look at that! Look at how much movie A copied from movie B! Crazy!" Never mind that movies C and D are much closer together - there's no missing links between C and D so there's no sudden realization.


I do think we would benefit from making our inspirations a bit clearer. The great myth is that creativity is about new ideas springing full-formed from your skull like Athena. In truth, creativity is mostly about using something you saw somewhere to do something that means something to you.

Let's talk in concrete terms. Star Wars is an extremely popular movie franchise. A huuuuge amount of science fiction culture is derived from Star Wars, but people generally make the effort to conceal their inspiration. For example, Mass Effect is strongly influenced by Star Wars - a high council that dominates politics, knight errants, a mystical power few can use, a sinister evil that warps minds to dark action, aliens who are at that halfway stage one step more than Star Trek and one step less than real aliens, politics as a critical but largely ignored part of the universe... but it's all hidden. Mass Effect is "creative" because it is a "new science fiction setting".

One of the pieces of Star Wars I always really liked was the idea that you can fall to the dark side without even realizing it. Pathetic attempts to do good/evil duality don't have anything on that.

Now, I've written some tabletop RPGs about that concept, but the question I've always had to face is "how far do I have to distance myself from Star Wars to make this game acceptable to the gaming community? It's a concept Star Wars raises, the actual implementation is completely new, but... should it be about cool space knights with glowing swords? Or should I make it about, I dunno, fairies and elves? I'm a science fiction guy, but any science fiction will stink of Star Wars if I make it about this concept..."

There are certain things we consider to be "off limits", probably because of their highly successful legal campaigns. Doom and GTA started genres, but we don't consider those genres to be wholly a part of the Doom and GTA franchises. Similarly, a guy and a girl meeting up and having a rocky start with a sweet ending is a genre, and we don't consider "Sleepless in Seattle" or whatever to be the dominating force in the genre.

But Star Wars and a few others... they should have started up a new genre, but didn't. Magically, they actually killed their genre. The Space Opera genre more or less died when Star Wars became popular.

So, me? I say "fuck it". There's no shame in being clear about your inspirations. There should be shame in hiding them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Allergies and Opera

Guhhh. My face is melting and being leaked from my nose.

The Zyrtec does nothing. Those lying liars. And I remember their ad campaign so well:

Zyrtec comes in a little white vial
A little white vial?
A little white vial!
And a little white vial pours pills into your hand like they're candy
Ah! Ah!
And the Zyrtec candy goes into a part of your anatomy
And when you swallow you sneeze, and you're done with your allergy.

... That was the jingle, right? It sounds a little wrong, now that I write it down.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Game Concept: Game Remix

So, I was looking at this:

If you don't have sound or Flash, it's essentially a short song with two dozen or so short tracks that loop infinitely. By adding tracks in, you create a song. You can even "play" the song by removing and adding tracks live, giving a sense of progression and thematic repeats and so on. "Shuffle" mode does it automatically, creating an endless song that, while it never really goes anywhere, is very listenable.

The visual is great, too, but let's talk just about the audio.

I was thinking about this. The reason it can happen is because we have very structured music. We can build tracks which get along with each other in great quantities: you can add eight or ten tracks to the mix and it still plays okay. The structure allows us to make sure every track gets along with every other track.

It's possible to do the same with a game, if the game is also structured so the play elements get along.

For example, let's imagine a shooter where you play with just your left hand - you steer the ship, it automatically fires. Waves of enemies and obstacles sleet down the screen.

On the right side of the screen are a number of "tracks". These are different progressions of enemies and weapons attached to your ship. So if you turn on this track (using your right hand/mouse), you get the sine-wave enemies. If you turn on that one, you get the big bombers that come to midway down the screen, shoot a halo of shots, and then retreat back up.

You can even make tracks modify other tracks. This track makes every third wave of enemies bright green and fire homing shots instead of normal shots.

The ones that give your ship weapons make the enemies drop weapon power-ups which work just like normal games, upgrading one weapon or switching to another weapon, granting shields, satellites, etc.

For added joy, also do music, as with the link above. Also possible: bosses. Also possible: sharing "compositions" with others.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Game Concept: Echoes

I was thinking about rivals in superhero comics as opposed to video games.

Rivals in a superhero comic really do fight lots. They fight dozens or hundreds of times, right there on the page. It builds up a lot of expectation, a lot of bitterness, and a lot of patterns. On the other hand, your "rival" in a video game generally gets fought at most three times. This is largely because otherwise it gets repetitive and dull.

I was thinking: what if we allowed the players to build their rivalry as they fight?

Rather than fighting your rival dozens of times, what if your fight with your rival included flashbacks? IE, you cut away from the current fight to see a clip from a previous fight, where you and your enemy were both younger, both had slightly different capabilities? What if the flashbacks were actually a controlled element of play?

For example, you and your old mentor are bitter foes these days. The player's first fight with the mentor character has little previous knowledge - just the basic idea that this guy taught you everything you know. That's enough to seed the dialog: "I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know!" "Now the student is the master..."

The first clash will be really basic - the starting abilities of the player and the starting abilities of the master. Probably a more RPG-like fighting system, rather than something too action-packed.

Very shortly thereafter, one of them (the player or the NPC master) will create a flashback by choosing a length of time ago. Then the other combatant chooses an element from an extremely short list with an extremely short time limit.

These two combine into a flashback where the characters are younger, lower-level (usually), and are fighting over something. In this case, it flashes to the two in portrait, slams a quick title "Leaving!? Over my dead body!", and pops up the added powers each has due to the situation. There's a brief voice over to explain the situation while the players absorb the powers they have gained: "I can't stay in the military any longer, sir!" "You can and you will! I'll drag you back by force!" and burst straight into the fight.

In theory, the way the fight resolves will change the history of the character. Getting dragged back into the military is a pretty big difference from breaking free. But the fight is unlikely to complete, at least on this visit. Instead, the two fighters get used to their new power and try to earn some karma points by landing or blocking hits.

When someone wants to end the fight and flash back into the present, they can. The present-day fight continues, with each combatant now having their military combat powers to add into the fray. Both have recovered some of their damage and have additional karma to burn. (Whoever chooses to flash back loses their remaining karma, so burn it fast!)

When either one wants, they can flash back again, either to the same military fight or to a completely different fight. Same "I choose how long ago, you choose what about" setup, excepting if you choose a "long ago" that is already filled by a fight you chose before, in which case you just continue that old fight for more karma and maybe a resolution.

What I'm going for is a kind of dream-like story told piecemeal through a battle. The life story of the characters is well-defined by the time the fight ends (although there may be some mysteries about how certain things went). These characters are then more or less complete and you have a deep appreciation for them, and they can then be thrown into the "final" story (main story) right away.

There are actually some methods for creating arcs that can be adjusted like this.

For example, the master and the hero are not simply random characters. The hero has a friend and a love interest in her past, and they are often thrown into her earlier battles against her master. There may even be cooperative situations, where the master and hero were working together. These are programmed in ahead of time, not arbitrarily created.

Similarly, the hero breaking away from the military and either escaping or being dragged back is not guaranteed to happen, but it is an event whose parameters are programmed in. It affects the plots which happen in the years after that, and therefore affects which other things can pop up in the choices for flashbacks.

Imagine creating your four heroic characters like this, rather than simply choosing stats and skills from a list? You'd go into the adventure knowing their capabilities, personalities, and history. And you'd be invested in them!

... hmmmm, kinda interesting. Dunno whether it'd work well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Memetic Immune Response

So, I've been thinking about thinking.

There are a large number of people who deny things which are irrefutably true. For example, there are people who think vaccines are a scam, people who think evolution is a scam, people who think global warming is a scam. If you are one of these people, I advise you to keep it to yourself if you leave any comments, because all three of those are in no way scams.

The funny thing is that it doesn't appear that stupid people are any more likely to believe stupid things. In fact, there are some studies that indicate educated people are at least as likely to believe stupid things.

So it's not the nature of the knowledge: these subjects are well known and solidly presented. It's not the stupidity of the thinker: many reasonably intellectual people still deny them.

What it is, is memes.

Unlike the science of global warming, the "science" of memes pretty much doesn't exist. It's just a handy lens to look at the mind through. So that's what I'm doing.

We can consider a meme to be like bacteria. Everyone's got scads of bacteria in them. Most of them are symbiotic or at least harmless. A memetic version might be: you are generally positive on the subject of pants. There's no strong reason to wear pants, but I bet you can come up with a lot of justifications if you try. The truth is that you wear pants because you were taught to wear pants. It's a meme.

Some memes are not so harmless. For example, belief that vaccines are bad and refusing to get your child vaccinated has a reasonably high chance of directly killing somebody. This is not a harmless meme. The meme-bacteria is in your mind, giving you all sorts of weird symptoms that make you dangerous to those around you!

In this view of the mind, people who are anti-evolution, anti-vaccine, anti-global-warming, they're sick. I mean "sick" as in "they have a cold". They are ill. It's not something you really want to hold against them, although you may want to avoid them until they get better.

Unfortunately, "until they get better" is the iffy part.

Unlike the body, the mind has a pretty crap immune system. In fact, most of the mind's "immune response" to memes is run by the very memes you most need defending from. For example, the anti-vaccination meme erects barriers against all conversation that might attempt to shake it off.

So, once infected, you are chronically ill with the meme. It will be almost impossible to shake it and return your mind to equilibrium, where it can look at facts with something vaguely resembling reason.

Assuming that everyone is going to get sick in the span of their life, the next step is to ask ourselves: how can you grow an immune system for the mind? What would it be? How would it work?

You can't simply say "science", because while science is pretty good at laying down the facts, the whole point is that these memes exist despite the facts. There's got to be another solution.