Sunday, September 4, 2016

Goofus and Gallant: Contrasting No Man's Sky and Obduction

So No Man's Sky finally came out last month, to great fanfare followed quickly by thrown tomatoes.
I'll do my best not to make this piece about developer Hello Games's overpromising and underdelivering after two years of hype; much has been written and said about that elsewhere. Let me just sum up my sentiments with the observation that when your development staff has a headcount less than that of a private elementary school class, maybe don't literally promise the universe.

The game itself is not strictly bad. Even after all the disappointment I'm glad I purchased it and played it. And I applaud the developers for attempting to break the mold in modern gaming. Unfortunately the game is plagued by numerous baffling design choices that all add up to a sub-par gaming experience:

  • If the game is about open-ended exploration, why do things like life support, ammunition, mining beam charge, and starship fuel all deplete so quickly? It ruins the one thing the game has going for it: immersing yourself in an alien world.
  • Unobtrusive "Achievement Unlocked" notifications have existed for over a decade now; why must the user interface be hijacked for 15 seconds every time a new achievement Milestone is awarded?
  • Why does spacesuit-Siri feel the need to notify you "LIFE SUPPORT POWER LOW" when your power supply is only at 75%? And again at 50%? At 25% it starts to make sense, but most gamers are smart enough to keep an eye on a power meter like that. In fact in the age of the cell phone, I'd say most people in general have been trained on that.
  • Why is the player's spacesuit so vulnerable to environmental hazards? It's a SPACE suit; it's supposed to be sealed. Toxins should not be a threat. Neither should going underwater!
  • If the game is all about boldly going where no one has gone before, why does every single planet, without fail, contain multiple outposts manned by members of the three alien species in the game?
  • Did this game really need 18 quintillion planets? I would've thought 18 trillion would do.

I think the biggest problem with the game is that ultimately all the planets feel the same. The game goes for a colorful aesthetic, which is good because too many games focus on a very limited "real is brown" palette. Unfortunately that distinct aesthetic permeates the entire game universe, and as a result the planets all start to feel the same.
Look at these three screenshots I took from three different planets:

Now compare with these three images of three real-life worlds: Earth, the Moon, and Mars:

I will admit that there is definitely some variation between planets in the game, just not enough to prevent them from gradually blurring together in one's memory after several hours. There's a reason I don't have many screenshots besides the ones above; I just don't find much reason to do so when I'm playing. The problem seems to be that while the planets are different colors, they all have the same level of colorfulness. There are no stark, monochromatic planets to contrast with the colorful ones. Furthermore, there is no biome variation on any of the planets; each of those screenshots could be considered representative of their entire planets. The only variation is in the terrain. That's excusable on barren planets, but on life-bearing worlds? Expect to see the same plants no matter where you land. If I used that photo of Earth to represent all environments on Earth, anybody criticizing me would be right in doing so. The Moon and Mars are more representative, but Mars does have its polar ice caps. I haven't seen ice caps on a single planet in the game. Contrast this with Minecraft; that game has forests, plains, mountains, oceans, deserts, icy wastelands, and even mushroom forests.

A couple weeks after No Man's Sky was released, I purchased Obduction.
This is the long-awaited return of Cyan Worlds, creators of the Myst series I talked about before. And it is glorious. The game only features four alien worlds (sort of), but each of those worlds is hand-crafted by the developers rather than procedurally generated.

Naturally my favorite is the purple planet surrounding the displaced village of Hunrath.

Wild rock formations, some of them floating. All with a purple tint. At least two other planets are visible in the sky, and both of them appear to be habitable. Now in No Man's Sky, if I see another world in the sky I could fly to it, but I would also know that it would be little different from the planet I was currently on. Here the worlds in the distance are left to the imagination. And as anybody who was excited and then disappointed for No Man's Sky is undoubtedly aware, one's vague imagined idea tends to be better than reality. It's not often that creators are able to meet an audience's expectations.

The other planets are, for the most part, conventional biomes that will be familiar to Earth-dwelling players. Though some impressive vistas are still present.

This game cost $30 to No Man's Sky's $60, but it only took about 8 hours to complete, and being a puzzle game, its replay value is limited; once you've solved a puzzle once, solving it again becomes trivial. Despite this, I still consider Obduction the better deal of the two games. No Man's Sky has theoretically infinite replay value, but there's no reason to keep going because every hour played will be fundamentally the same as every previous hour played. The two "story" goals in the game, the "Path of the Atlas" and the "get to the center of the galaxy" goal, have practically nothing to offer once achieved. And I'm not spoiler-warning that, because potential buyers deserve to know what they're getting into. Obduction, on the other hand, actually has a story that motivates the player to keep going. Even Minecraft has a dragon waiting to be slain, even if there's practically no indication of it in-game. And I sincerely doubt that No Man's Sky will ever produce a creature as distinctive and memorable as the Creeper or the Enderman.

And yet, despite everything, I don't regret purchasing No Man's Sky. I got to play a game with alien worlds unlike any I had seen before. I don't fault the developers for trying to make a game that breaks the mold. But when held up next to Obduction, we see that one still cannot automate creativity. Human-crafted settings blow the procedurally-generated settings out of the water, and No Man's Sky's quantity cannot match Obduction's quality.

I hope that lessons will be learned from No Man's Sky. I hope that procedural generation can be leveraged to help developers - or even writers and concept artists in other media - brainstorm new settings. And I hope that someday we can get the space exploration game we were all hoping for.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Best of Pokémon

I guess with Pokémon Go becoming the defining moment of pop culture this year, now would be a good time to talk about the visual design involved in the long-running franchise. I haven't jumped on the Pokémon Go bandwagon but only because my phone's too old to run the app.

I've only played the original Pokémon Red from the original Game Boy, but from what I understand, the basics of gameplay have remained through the years, though the number of species has grown from 151 to over 700. Though "species" is a word I hesitate to use because of one of the series' most fundamental aspects, the poorly named "evolution."

(All images taken froBulbagarden.)

What the series calls evolution would be better called metamorphosis, as a single creature changes its form dramatically over the course of its life cycle, like a caterpillar to a butterfly or a tadpole to a frog. For example, I like how the weak Magikarp, resembling a fish, transforms into Gyarados, a powerful creature resembling a Chinese dragon. There aren't many works of science fiction that come immediately to mind that use metamorphosis, and I think the basic concept is something with a lot of potential when creating a fictional world.
However, this means that Magikarp and Gyarados are the same species, just at different points in its life cycle. So the number of Pokémon species is likely a lot lower than the number of what people call "Pokémon."

Another aspect of the series that appeals to me is the creatures that are part animal and part plant. Most of these are "Leaf-type," such as the Venusaur family, or Oddish and its evolutions, which make me think of Pikmin (heeeey...)

I've always wondered what kind of conditions would give rise to motile plants. Even on Earth, in regions with wildly varying seasons, plants would rather stay put and go dormant than move. (Maybe that's for the best...)

Vulpix and Ninetales make me wonder why we never see animals on Earth with more than one tail.

Nidoking and Nidoqueen bring to mind the concept of sexual dimorphism, where the males and females of the same species look markedly different.

Metagross just looks cool; a giant quadruped crab.

Gigalith looks similar, with an exoskeleton that seems to serve as camouflage in a volcanic environment.

As does Scyther, with its exoskeleton and massive claws.

For some reason, though, my favorite Pokémon is Lapras.

It has no evolutions, it's just a plesiosaur with a turtle shell, that's capable of being domesticated and ridden across the ocean. The only way it could be better is if it could fly. A simple yet creative design with appeal to one's inner child, and in my opinion, a good example of what makes Pokémon so popular.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Anatomy of a Creeper

Minecraft is known for many things. Unbridled creativity. Wasted time. YouTube videos. Aaaaand these guys:
It's not every day a programming mistake turns into a franchise mascot, but when a programmer accidentally mismatched the height and length of a pig, the Creeper was born.

They're best known for hissing and exploding, wrecking your stuff and ruining your day. Obviously video game logic at work, but could there be another explanation?
That's not quite what I had in mind, but A+ for effort.
Why does the creeper explode? Maybe it's not on purpose, maybe a real-world creeper would explode by accident because of a buildup of methane? Maybe creepers build up flatulence but are bad about...releasing gas?

In Minecraft, it's possible to kill a creeper without setting it off. And guess what they drop? Gunpowder.
Gunpowder item.png
Gunpowder, in its most basic composition, consists of three chemical components: nitrate (supplying oxygen), carbon (supplying fuel), and sulfur (lowering the ignition temperature while also supplying fuel). So while I don't know what the ins and outs of the production process might be (and to be honest I don't want to think about then too deeply), it's not impossible to imagine a scenario where a creature produces a buildup of organic gunpowder in its own body.

But why would evolution select such a creature with a disposition for self-destruction. Well, in Minecraft, it's possible to breed passive "mobs" like cows, pigs, and chickens, but good luck breeding hostile mobs. So we really know nothing about their "society." Maybe they're secretly a hive-based species? Bees die after using their stingers, but because they do so to protect their hives, it's a factor in favor of species survival, not against. And Telltale's Minecraft: Story Mode does see them attacking in groups. Plus, you could also consider the fact that Creative Mode lets you spawn creepers from eggs:
Presumably laid by a Yoshi.
True, you can spawn any mob from eggs, but it's all we have to go on. Still, it all makes a kind of sense. A creature that is hatched from an egg in an underground hive, explores the environment while camouflaged to look like foliage, and explodes if its hive is threatened. That definitely sounds like a creature out of a pulp serial. If any Minecraft modders are reading this, I'd like to see a new mod where the player can stumble across an underground creeper hive, and if they're strong or clever enough, fight and slay the Queen Creeper. I'd play that game.

(Edit: Turns out Game Theory addressed the same topic in a lot more depth. His conclusions differ from mine, but I still think it's a great video, definitely worth a look.)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Naming The Most Interesting Exoplanets in the Galaxy - Part 1

So the first wave of official IAU names for extrasolar planets went really well, but it ignored a lot of the really cool planets. I can understand why this was done, instead focusing on planets with enough evidence of their existence to be declared "confirmed", but it seems to me that it's the interesting ones that merit naming the most.

With that in mind, the following are some of my proposals for names for discovered exoplanets, based on the few details we know about them. At some point I hope I can make a poster of them or something. Keep in mind that I'm not necessarily advocating these names be made official by the IAU just yet; our understanding of these planets is constantly evolving, and most of what we "know" about them is really conjecture. But my last piece was about figuring out whether Starkiller Base was terraformed; our main priority here is speculating and having fun with scientific rigor a close second at best.

Image source: NASA

Designation: WASP-12b
Constellation: Auriga
Distance from Earth: 871 ly
With one of the tightest orbital paths known, orbiting its sun in just 26 hours(!), tidal forces stretch this planet into an egg shape. Hence the name.
You know, because...Easter eggs.

Image Source: NASA

Designation: PSR J1719-1438 b
Constellation: Serpens
Distance from Earth: 4000 ly
A pulsar planet that is believed to be composed of solid diamond. Thus, I think it should be named for the Greek god of wealth (from which we get the word "plutocracy.")

File:J1407b seen from its exomoon.png

Designation: J1407b
Constellation: Centaurus
Distance from Earth: 116 ly
Remember that Super Saturn discovered last year? The term "diadem" basically means "crown," so I think that fits this planet's most prominent feature.

File:Artist’s impression of Corot-7b (alternative).jpg
Designation: Corot-7b
Constellation: Monoceros
Distance from Earth: 490 ly
This is a planet that could have extreme volcanic activity or even seas of lava, so I named it after Mount Yasur, a volcano in Vanuatu.

Source: David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Designation: Kepler-36b
Constellation: Cygnus
Distance from Earth: 1530 ly
OK, I admit I picked this name as a reference to Mustafar from Star Wars Episode III. But when I first saw the above artist's concept, I was reminded of this shot from the movie:
"That's no moon." No really, it's not a moon, it's a planet.
Volcanic planet backdropped by purple gas giant? Too on the nose to pass up. This is only reinforced by the supplemental material which confirms that Mustafar is not a moon of that gas giant, but stuck in a tug of war between two gas giants, tidal forces producing extreme volcanic activity. With the Kepler-36 system, there seems to be only one gas planet involved in this gravitational tug of war, but that's still close enough for me.
Not sure what to name the other planet though. "Mustafa" is a common Arabic given name and an epithet for the prophet Muhammad (meaning "the chosen one"), so maybe we can complement that by giving Kepler-36c a feminine name of similar significance: Khadija, the name of Muhammad's first wife. I think this works because it paints this solar system in a more positive light, seeing the volcanism not as a state of destruction but as a thing of natural beauty in the universe.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Starkiller Was Probably Terraformed

So I got Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Blu-Ray, and after a rewatch something occurred to me: Starkiller Base isn't as big as it looks.
Not to scale, but closer than you think.
Recall the scene in the Resistance base when a holographic size comparison is given between the Death Star and Starkiller. The latter only appears to be six times wider than the former, give or take.

Now it's never specified whether they're talking about the first or second Death Star. According to the recently released nerd-guidebook, Ultimate Star Wars, the first Death Star was 120 km in diameter, and the second was 160 km. So we can estimate that Starkiller is 720-960 km in diameter.

How big is that? For comparison, Earth's moon has a mean diameter of 3474 km, and Earth itself clocks in at 12742 km. Nothing in our solar system that small has any atmosphere to speak of. Yet as is so common in science fiction, the surface could easily be mistaken for Canada.

Now maybe planets are just smaller in movies directed by J.J. Abrams? It would explain some of the plot contrivances in his Star Trek movies. But let's just this once give Abrams the benefit of the doubt and try to explain this. I think that this planet was terraformed as the weapon was constructed around it. Why? Because the only native life we see on the surface is coniferous forest. Exactly the kind of plants you would use to recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen if you knew the artificial environment you were establishing would be very cold (say, lacking sunlight for long periods of time). I mentioned last time I discussed this movie that I thought the planet's environment made sense because of periodic lack of sunlight, and this conclusion seems to resonate with that one.

Suppose Starkiller began as an airless, lifeless rock. This makes sense; when you've drawn up the plans for a superweapon built around a planet, you need a very specific set of geological properties in order for your giant gun not to blow up in your face upon the first firing, and the First Order seemed very confident that this would not occur because the planet had not been evacuated before it destroyed the Republic capital.
So naturally occurring habitability is going to be a low priority.

In fact, now that I look again, that trench they gouged out of the planet looks much too deep to not have hit the planet's mantle if it were a copy of Earth. Smaller bodies lack geological activity, so that's another point in favor of my theory; the First Order probably needed an object small enough to be completely solid.

Furthermore, since your weapon needs to be mobile (a fact we can assume even if we don't take supplemental Star Wars material into account because it eats stars for ammunition), smaller is better. I don't know how hyperdrives work, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that more massive objects are harder to move in hyperspace, same as in normal space.

So how did we get from barren moonlet to Canada? Well take another look at that big trench they dug into the planet. Where did all that rock go? I imagine the Star Wars galaxy has technology where one can reduce mined rock to its constituent molecules or atoms, then separate gaseous elements from the silicon and metals, and release those gases - carbon dioxide, molecular nitrogen and oxygen - into the environment, generating an atmosphere. Then those trees I mentioned earlier were planted to ensure all troops, staff, and radar technicians would be able to breathe indefinitely.

So there you have it: terraforming exists in the Star Wars galaxy. Now you can point to this whenever someone asks you why there are so many livable planets in the movies.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Ages of Myst

How to describe the Myst series...
Needs more love.

Myst is that series that people remember as being a killer app for the CD-ROM format back in 1993, but that few can actually attest to having played. How many people do you know who have actually played one of the games, let alone all of them? (And people on the Internet don't count. Yes, that includes me.)

My experience with the series goes back to the late 90s or early 2000s. My sister and I were staying at my aunt and uncle's house while my parents went off to do...something. It was a long time ago. I spent that whole afternoon rotating between different games on my uncle's computer, trying to find one I could actually play with my minimal skills. One of these was Riven, which as far as I could tell, was a game about exploring a tiny section of an island, with hopelessly locked doors at every turn, and for some reason came on no less than 5 CD-ROMs.

It wasn't until I was in middle school that I asked my uncle if I could borrow the game. He obliged, along with a small strategy guide that I ended up using heavily. That Christmas I got the first 3 games in the Myst series on DVD-ROM, and over the years following, I eventually played through the remaining games in the series (which hasn't seen a major release since 2005, so I'm not going to beat around the bush regarding spoilers).

It's disappointing that this series gets disregarded mainly due to being a game in a genre that hasn't aged well. That much is true; point-and-click adventure games have largely died out (though to my knowledge they were never that big to begin with). It does deserve more credit though, as a work of fantasy fiction.

Most people think of Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, or something in that vein, when they think the word "fantasy." Medieval castles, knights, elves, dwarves, goblins and dragons. This is a pretty narrow paradigm for a genre. I'm not saying this is a severe problem today, but I do like to see a fantasy work like this one which tries to do something truly original. The central premise of the games is the fall of a civilization known as D'ni (pronunciations vary). The D'ni possessed The Art, through which they would write books in which they would describe worlds. They could then use these books as portals to the very worlds they described. According to the lore, the D'ni did not create these worlds (although some characters have beliefs to the contrary) but were linking to pre-existing worlds created by the Maker, who gave the D'ni this art. This extreme application of Murphy's Law to the multiverse basically gives the producers of the series license to come up with whatever surreal settings they want, and they use this license well.

Instead of a top ten list like I did with The Clone Wars, I'll just go through the series, one game at a time, and describe some of the worlds I like, and maybe a few I don't like. Strongly.

A simple yet elegant premise: trees growing out of the water. I'm a little surprised this concept isn't used more often.

Something of a hodgepodge location, but with interesting features like red-leaved trees and a "stone forest" that makes whistling noises when the wind blows through it.


A comparatively mundane-looking world at first glance, with jungles and forests, until you realize the water...doesn't behave normally. Look at that screencap again and you'll see there are holes in the water.
Basically, the water in this world is permeated by colonial bacteria that tend to avoid heat sources. Thus you can have holes or even minecart tunnels (yes that actually happens in the game) in bodies of water if you arrange heat sources a certain way. Again, it's a simple concept but I'm surprised it hasn't been used more often.

No name given, as the guy who wrote its Linking Book wasn't very creative with names. Still, island mountains stacked on top of each other? Looks impressive. It's implied to be due to caustic oceans with a...sizeable tide.

Imagine if you took a tree and turned it inside-out. Sorta. The entire age consists of a giant tree-like structure with layered ecosystems inside.

One of my personal favorites, so naturally it's one of the ones the player barely gets to explore. Floating algae-like plants called "Lattice Trees" above a fog-shrouded ocean under a salmon sky, with a civilization living in those trees. Though in the backstory, the trees require near-constant maintenance from the inhabitants, leading one to wonder how the people were able to survive long enough to learn this.

Very little lives on this world, but the aesthetic is incredible. Glowing green minerals against forbidding mountain peaks under a forbidding sky. The whole thing is reminiscent of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II's Malachor V, though I think Spire actually predates that. There are more cloud layers below these peaks though, so imagine what the surface looks...
Uh, ladies and gentlemen, reality is out to lunch.

Yeah, believe it or not, the fact that this all exists on floating islands is actually the least improbable aspect for me; those glowing minerals are supposed to have piezoelectric properties that allow the islands to levitate in this planet/sun's magnetic field. How they are floating above a green sun is anyone's guess. Green stars don't exist to our knowledge, so maybe this is a gas giant with lots of electrical storms? Or a dwarf star with unique chemical composition? Of all the Ages in the series, this is probably the most trippy.

The polar opposite of Spire: physically mundane, but teeming with exotic life, like the timid bipedal zeftyr, and the hammerheaded flying and scavenging karnak, and the aquatic predatory cerpatee.

Giant mushrooms on a planet where the sun never rises or sets, just circles around the sky in a matter of minutes. Watch out for the alien whales in the ocean.

The great cavern of D'ni is perhaps the series' only look at a subterranean ecosystem. With a massive underground lake populated by bioluminescent orange algae that only glow for part of the day, thus creating a simulated day-night cycle.
This location is central to the series' lore, so it's a shame the player doesn't get to see more of it.

Seriously, what is up with those trees?! They look like they all have gout or something. Maybe it has something to do with how they can keep their leaves in freezing temperatures?

You can find some good wallpapers with more screenshots here:

Regrettably, this series hasn't seen a new release in over a decade, but I have some good news: Cyan Worlds, the creator of the Myst series, is releasing a brand new game called Obduction in just a couple months. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.
Obduction Logo.jpeg