Friday, April 21, 2017

Rise from your Grave

A common piece of advice for someone who can't sell their movie script is to turn it into a novel instead.  Wise words, but what if such scripts were made into video games?  Most Hollywood movie execs don't buy film scripts for the words on the page.  They buy them for the premise and ideas underneath.  Sometimes, during the course of rewrites, follow-up drafts, and changes of ownership, the original story ends up lost or replaced with something distinctly different by the time it makes it to the big screen.  Oftentimes that is a good thing, but other times it can be bad.  What if those good original scripts could get a second shot though?...say in the form of a video game.

"Ghostbusters" is one of those rare cases where horror and comedy successfully mix into a box office hit.  I enjoyed the film in my youth, but when I later learned what the original script was about it seemed like I had missed out on a far more interesting story.  A first draft has never surfaced online, but according to people who have read it, the tone was much darker and more terrifying.  For one thing the ghostbusters themselves were more paranormal investigators than pest exterminators.  They didn't have proton packs, but they did have P.K.E. meters and traps.  Most of the plot revolved around unraveling the mystery of why ghosts were appearing in New York City with ever increasing frequency.  Sort of like "The Ring," rather than the snobs-vs-slobs gimmick that dominated the final product.  Still, we do get glimpses of the original story in the form of Ray and Winston's car conversation about the end times, as well as some of the background chatter concerning Dana's apartment building; namely how it was designed by a mad 1920s architect to absorb and channel ghostly energy.  Speaking of ghosts, they were supposed to be extremely disturbing and grotesque.  So no Slimer or Stay Puff, but some of those other designs we get to see briefly might have had bigger roles.  To me it sounds cool in a creepy kind of way.  I don't think attaching the Ghostbusters license to a video game based on this original script would be a good idea, but I like the idea of a game based around these ideas.  It's sort of like a cross between Echo Night and Amnesia: The Dark Decent.

I used to watch He-man cartoons when I was little, and I think I even owned a few of the toys.  That said, I was never much of a fan, even of the live-action movie.  However, I recently got the chance to see a retrospective about the film, and was impressed with the concept art shown.  Even more intriguing was the original pitch for the franchise, which was basically going for Conan the Barbarian except no IP rights.  Obviously changes were made to avoid copyright infringement, but I rather like the idea of Conan going up against a skull-faced wizard and his band of bestial henchmen.  Evil-Lyn would make a pretty good femme-fatale and the kind of adversary that Conan never really found himself dealing with in any of the Robert E. Howard stories.  The concept of Prince Adam kind of works too, if you think of Conan as an adopted member of the royal family of Aquilonia (rather than Eternia).  Regardless of the nomenclature, it still has the potential to be an excellent addition to the sword and sorcery genre.  Maybe it could be an action RPG somewhere between Dark Souls and the Mark of Kri.

The Ridley Scott version of "Robin Hood" is not the director's best work, nor is it a particularly interesting interpretation of the famous character.  Supposedly, the original script for Robin Hood had a distinctly different title - "Nottingham."  In that version of the story the Sheriff and Robin Hood had a role reversal of sorts.  The Sheriff was the protagonist (rather than the antagonist) and a bit of a medieval Sherlock Holmes, using crude forensics to discover the whereabouts, motives, and identity of what was essentially a domestic terrorist calling himself Robin Hood.  This might sound a bit far-fetched, after all, everyone knows Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, right?  Well...that's true, and it's also true that Prince John raised taxes after the King went abroad.  What's often forgotten though is prince's reason for doing this.  It was because King Richard the Lionhearted had exhausted the royal treasury on expensive foreign wars.  From that perspective we have a compelling tale about a dangerous dissident trying to sow chaos throughout the realm in the absence of its rightful ruler.  Enter our blue-collar law enforcement agent as the last line of defense in a kingdom steadily being undermined from within.  It's sort of like a dark ages L.A. Noir meets a reverse Assassin's Creed.  I should clarify; by "reverse" I don't mean the Knights Templar instead of assassins, but rather the player taking the role of a guy trying to prevent wrist-blade stabbings instead of being the one doing them.  Maybe in this case it would be longbow shootings, but I'm sure you get the point.

Those are just a few examples of films that were interesting to me in terms of what they could have been rather than what they were.  It's unlikely that any of those three scripts will ever be conceived as a motion picture in their original form, but perhaps those lost and buried concepts could see the light of day in the form of a video game.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Thieves Guild

Internet piracy may not exactly be legal,
but it is paradoxically non-profit
In theory Steam keys are a useful way for developers and publishers to promote games.  By sending out these strings of letters and numbers they can offer prominent Youtubers, Twitch streamers and assorted review outlets free copies of a game they're looking to raise awareness for.  Just punch in the code, download the game, and you're good to go.  The thing is there's a dark underbelly to Steam keys when it comes to resale.

"What's the big deal?" you might be wondering.  People sell used games all the time through E-bay or upscale pawnshops (usually referred to as "Gamestop").  True, but I'd argue that the majority of the games you see for sale at those stores were trade-ins or simply the result of people getting rid of stuff they're never going to play again.  Steam codes being sold on websites such as G2A though are more often than not an online fence for scammers and thieves.

Steam trading cards?  CS:GO cosmetics?
DoTA hats?
It's all bitcoins to me...
In case you don't know how this grey market works, let me give you a pair of typical scenarios.  Developers, particularly from smaller studios, will sometimes receive E-mails from high-traffic video game websites (such as Giant Bomb) claiming they want to hold some kind of event based around a game made by said developer.  "Please send us promo codes."  Of course, it turns out that the message is a complete fake and just an attempt to swindle a few downloadable copies of the game for resale on G2A.  Because these stolen keys go for cheap, they get remedied before the developer even figures out what really happened.  It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but the second example is far more egregious.

Online credit card theft is a serious problem, but the thing is once the thieves get the info they need they have to find a way to turn it into a quick profit (before the owner figures out what's up).  One way to go about it is to hit up an online retailer and purchase digital copies of video games in the form of download keys.  Then quickly put them up on G2A for cheap.  By the time the credit card owner blocks the charges the thieves have already laundered their ill-gotten gains...hang on though, it gets worse.

Whenever a credit card is frozen, or has its charges blocked, the retail outlet in which it was used has to pay a fine.  This has led some developers such as the makers of Factorio (who allow customers to purchase digital copies of their game directly from them) to come out and publically ask people to pirate their game rather than purchase it with stolen credit card information.  Their reasoning being at least piracy doesn't cost them anything directly out-of-pocket.  Now, I'm sure there's a minority of gamers who end up with duplicate copies of a game for legitimate reasons.  Here's the thing, you should give those extra codes away to your friends not try to sell them for a quick buck (actually less after G2A takes their cut).  Shady websites like this should not be allowed to thrive because none of that money ever finds its way to the people who actually deserve it.  At least with used game sales the developer got their money from the initial purchase, but here it's all hot goods and greedy parasites.    

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Development Hellblade

Mental trauma is associated with schizophrenia,
but it's unclear whether it is a symptom or a cause.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was announced back in 2014 as a third-person action game set in Dark Ages Britain.  The titular main character, Senua, is part of a Celtic community that is devastated by norse raiders.  Being one of the few (or possibly only) survivor of the attack, she takes it upon herself to get revenge.  The twist is she isn't a very mentally healthy individual and is often plagued by hallucinations, voices and other problems typically associated with insanity.  It's an interesting idea for a game, but also has a lot of potential pitfalls.

For one, the game developers like to use the term "psychosis" to describe Senua's mental illness.  The problem is psychosis, by definition, can mean anything from trivialities like a child's imaginary friend or night terrors to dire issues such as schizophrenia or hypothyroidism.  Each classification has it's own particular set of symptoms and subcategories.  Schizophrenia, for example, has five separate subtypes including "paranoid," "disorganized" and "catatonic," each of which has its own rigorously defined set of symptoms.  I get the impression that the developers of Hellblade (at least initially) simply read a bunch of articles about what it's like to experience various kinds of psychosis and thought, "Hey, this is creepy and interesting.  We should totally make a game about this sort of thing!"  The problem is, it becomes a kind of insanity blender that doesn't have much to do with real mental health issues.  Of course, that's fine if the source of the madness is supernatural in nature, say in Silent Hill or Call of Cthulhu.  However, the devs have taken great pains to make the game feel authentic.  They've gone so far as to bring on two Cambridge professors (one a historian and the other a psychologist) as consultants.  Even Senua's character model has been meticulously detailed all the way down to her fingerprints.

Hallucinations are influenced by personal experiences,
but have shared aspects between individuals as well.
Despite taking longer than intended, the development team working on Hellblade has progress to the point that the game reached an Alpha state (playable from beginning to end) last year with a scheduled release date set tentatively to sometime in 2017.  Based on what I can gather from the dev diaries, it looks like the viking enemies in the game will appear distorted and unnatural due to Senua's poor mental health.  It's a cool idea, and not as far fetched as one might imagine.  We tend to think of our eyes as cameras and ears as microphones, but in reality quite a bit of what we see and hear is interpreted by our subconscious.  More specifically, parts of the brain that aren't executive function interpret the incoming data before passing it up to the command center (so to speak).  To put it in video game terms the human mind works a bit like the PS3 multi-core cell processor wherein the component that makes up a person's consciousness is only a small piece of a much larger whole.  Consider the fact that you don't have to actively think about things like blinking or breathing, your body just does it automatically.  Of course, you can control it directly so what's happening there is the frontal lobes of your brain are assuming control over a task normally left to the cerebral cortex to handle.  On the other hand something like heart rate isn't easy for most people to exercise authority over, and some functions of the body are completely impossible to control directly.  For better or worse, the same sort of thing can be said for the senses.  Mudding the waters further still is the subjective interpretation of sensory inputs.
Close your right eye and focus your left eye on the black spot.
At a viewing distance of about 6 to 8 inches from your monitor
the "+" symbol should vanish from view.

What tastes or smells good to one person might be foul and disgusting to another depending on how each individual's brain interprets olfactory data.  Even eyesight has this to a degree.  The human brain is constantly trying to apply patterns to visual data and fill in the blanks.  A really easy way to demonstrate this is with the blind spots we all have due to the way our eyeballs connect to the optic nerve.  The reason you don't have a blank patch in each eye's cone of vision is because your brain automatically compensates by guessing what's there.  In the case of someone suffering from dementia, they are increasingly unable to apply patterns leading to a decline in cognitive function.  Meanwhile a schizophrenic applies patterns haphazardly resulting in wildly incorrect interpretations of external stimuli. Personally, I'm curious to see what the game developers do with this sort of phenomenon in terms of puzzles and atmosphere - ditto for 3D sound and the controller rumble.

Sadly, story-wise I don't things are going to end well for Senua.  Effective antipsychotic medicines didn't exist until the 1950s.  Worse yet throughout most of human history the extremely mentally unwell were subjected to "treatments" such as bloodletting, trepanning and a variety of trials by ordeal involving water.  None of this helped, and in most cases did considerable harm. Regardless, fingers crossed that this turns out to be a psychological masterpiece (albeit inevitably tragic in nature).  If the developer's track record is anything to go by it's unlikely to be a very long game.  My guess is six hours tops.  That might be good thing though all things considered.  I just hope the time spent in her messed up head feels worth it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Horizon: Far Zenith

With 2.6 million copies sold in the first two weeks, I think it's safe to say Horizon: Zero Dawn is going to get a sequel.  The question is "where to go from here?"  As it turns out there's a lot of possible directions the series can go (spoilers to follow, obviously).

In the debut trailer for the game, the narration explains that the Old Ones built towers that reached the sky.  This might be an exaggeration, or it might not.  Amongst some of the text files that players can find scattered about the world, several mention a project called "Far Zenith."  Much like the Zero Dawn project, it was an attempt to preserve humanity in the face of its imminent destruction by the Faro Swarm.  Instead of going underground though, the idea was to use a spaceship called the Odyssey to relocate to a neighboring star system.  Sadly, it was a total failure due to an matter/antimatter power generator accident while exiting the solar system.  That might make it sound like a dead end story-wise, but in order to build something like the Odyssey, I think there would have to be pretty extensive infrastructure setup in orbit around earth.  Things like an space elevator connected to a ring habitat and geosynchronous assembly yard would definitely be within the realm of possibility.  Here's the kicker though, "why would anyone go up there?"  As it turns out there could be a very good reason to do so.

After defeating Hades, Aloy's next task is to reboot Gaia and re-establish her connections to the seven surviving subordinate AI systems.  The thing is, maybe that has to be done by someone onsite with Alpha Prime access.  If that were the case then Aloy might have some traveling to do.  I think it's safe to assume that each of the subordinate AI mainframes (with the exception of Hades) are in different locations than Gaia.  Poseidon, for example, might be located in some underwater base.  While Artemis, Demeter and Eleuthia (in charge of reintroducing animals, plants and humans respectively) are in all likelihood located on the surface of the earth somewhere.  Hephaestus is probably in a Cauldron under a mountain somewhere.  On the other hand AI constructs like Aether and Minerva (atmosphere and communications) might be located in orbit above the planet.  Given their assigned tasks, it makes sense for them to be in those locations.  There's also the question of Apollo, which brings us to the after-credits stinger.

Hades and Sylens are still out there.  The latter is continuing on his quest for knowledge while the former is a bit of a wildcard.  Some have suggested that any DLC for the game might revolve around these two characters.  Obviously, finding a backup of Apollo would be Sylens' dream come true, but Hades' motivation is a bit more muddled.  It's not clear if he is simply following his programming or has become a completely rogue entity after having his system hacked by a as of yet undisclosed third party.  While there's no evidence to support it, I wonder if Elysium has anything to do with all of this?  Maybe the last humans left alive, after the Faro Swarm stripped the planet bare, found a way to preserve themselves in their underground pyramid?  Cryogenic freezing, consciousness uploading or some kind of underground closed ecosystem might have preserved them beyond their intended tenure.  It's certainly a possibility when you consider what a madman Ted Faro was.  Part of me has a mental image of the inhabitants of Elysium continuing to exists and dwell underground like the Morlocks from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.

Story aside, I think there's  also some room for technical improvements.  For one the water physics could use another pass, particularly with regards to how it interacts with things moving into, through, and out of it.  Lip Syncing and facial animations (while not as bad as Mass Effect: Andromeda) could stand some improvement, as could the way robotic herds operate.  Instead of remaining in at set zone, think it would be a lot more interesting if they migrated across large portions of the map.  This might make it a bit harder for the player to find particular types of robotic animals, but I think the problem could be circumvented by having hacked Tallnecks constantly update the player via moving map icons.  I also have this idea of a nomadic desert people who shepard robotic camel/turtle robots that have a big tank (or two) of fresh water on their backs.  Being able to ride a Sawtooth would be cool, or even more awesome - a Stormbird.  Fighting against ape-like robots in the jungle or forest might be fun as well.  Although that last suggestion might be a bit too on the nose given the name of the developer that made Horizon: Zero Dawn.  Regardless, I look forward to seeing what the come up with next.

Friday, March 24, 2017