Experienced Points: Escapist and Me

  By Shamus   Jan 27, 2015   9 comments

My column this week is about the column itself. It’s about how the gig works and what kind of controls the site imposes on me.

For context, last week Deft Media (company that owns the Escapist) let a bunch of their staff go. I had no idea this was coming, and nobody really said anything afterwards.

Another interesting point: I set up the askshamus@gmail.com email address specifically so people could propose questions for the column, and almost nobody uses it. The Diecast inbox is constantly overflowing with more stuff than we can answer, but people don’t seem interested in seeing questions answered in column form. I’m not sure why, but there it is.

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Diecast #90: Secret World, Batman, Destiny

  By Shamus   Jan 26, 2015   91 comments

“This week, let’s plow through the backlog of mailbag questions,” I said. Everyone agreed this was a good idea. And then over an hour later we’d managed to cover two.

Direct link to this episode.

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Hosts: Shamus, Josh, Chris, and Rutskarn.

Show notes: Continue reading »

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Five Games Josh Liked in 2014: Part 2

  By Josh   Jan 23, 2015   78 comments

This is the second and final part of my 2014 retrospective. And you thought it was never coming.

Last time I said I thought 2014 wasn’t such a bad year, and then spent most of the post raking two games over the coals for their collective bad design decisions. I think it’s only fair I start talking about the games I really liked in 2014. These games would be on this list regardless of how well the AAA market was doing.

3. The Last of Us Remastered

Well the version *I* played came out in 2014.

In a market that is increasingly dominated by games that seem more interested in being movies, The Last of Us is the most movie-like game I’ve ever encountered. This is not a compliment. It’s not a straight “movie” like Heavy Rain or even the more recent Telltale titles, but the entirety of the narrative, almost all of the character development, and even much of the most important action sequences take place in cutscenes.

I’ve always been enamored by the potential of the interactivity of video games. “What unique stories,” I thought, “could be told by taking advantage of the player’s input to influence the way the narrative unfolds?” Instead, at least when it comes to big budget AAA titles, everyone’s more interested in making a Hollywood blockbuster with the action scenes replaced by poorly justified shooty segments. These often go together about as well as oil and water, and the player ultimately has no more control over the character they’re playing or the way the story unfolds than a viewer watching a movie. One almost wonders if it would have been better for them to make a movie from the start. And while I’m not presumptuous enough to say that this is an invalid way to make a game, I’m still a bit bitter that anyone with enough money to actually explore this potential is instead wasting it on vapid action movies with by-the-numbers revenge plots.

But perhaps the other reason I dislike these “games as movies” is that I never once got the impression that they’d make very good movies. That is, if you were to strip out all of the gameplay segments and replace them with typical movie action scenes and then release them in theaters as movies, I doubt they’d be very well received. I think film critics would generally pan them, and they’d be relegated to “this summer’s bombastic-yet-vapid popcorn film,” equally inoffensive and insubstantial. It kind of makes the whole exercise seem a bit pointless, doesn’t it? Not only are they often not very good games, with action segments that too often clash with the story they’re ostensibly trying to tell, but they can’t even manage to be very good movies, either.

Continue reading »

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Project Button Masher: Triop Employee of the Month

  By Shamus   Jan 22, 2015   35 comments

In 1994 I discovered that the only reason I listened to all that nu-wave synth-pop in the 80’s was because I was waiting for someone to invent proper electronic music. I don’t know where music historians would say electronic music beganProbably something like Kraftwerk, way back in the 70’s, actually. but for me it began with System Shock.

I usually rank this as one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. But look, this game will turn 21 this year. I was a different person when I played it, obsessively, for the better part of a year. I can’t untangle my nostalgia from my musical taste when it comes to this soundtrack. In fact, when I hear the music all I can see is the levels they belong to.

If you’ve never heard it, or if you’ve forgotten it, here is the whole thing, exactly as it sounded to 23 year old Shamus in 1994:

Link (YouTube)

The tracks range from quasi-industrial to straight electronic. I can’t capture all of that in one track, so for inspiration I looked to “L02 Research” “L06 Executive” and “L08 Security / Bridge”.

Distinctive characteristics:

  1. Very basic synth instrumentation. Unlike (say) Doom, these instruments aren’t pretending to be electric guitars or string instruments.
  2. Take a simple melody, and then take 2 of the notes and yank them way up a couple of octaves.
  3. Bitcrush the drums. This is something I hadn’t worked out until now. You can lower the bitrate on the drums (or other instrument) to make them sound more raw and 1993-ish. It’s the audio equivalent of pixelating an image. Doing this to the drums really gave it that System Shock feel.
  4. In a couple of tracks I noticed this stylistic quirk: The drums tap out a slow, steady rhythm, but then once in a while with suddenly do this rapid-fire snare for a couple of seconds.

Here is what I came up with: Continue reading »

201535 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

Five Games Josh Liked in 2014: Part 1

  By Josh   Jan 21, 2015   99 comments

Shamus called 2014 The Year of Meh, a sentiment that certainly seems to resonate with a lot of people when they look back on it. And I can’t really blame him or anyone else for holding that view. This is the year that Facebook bought Oculus. The year Google almost bought Twitch, and then Amazon did. The second half of the year was dominated by an oft-violently heated debate, with social movements and counter-movements that, no matter where you stood on the issue, probably managed to piss you off somehow. But all of this is beyond the scope of this piece, and what really I’m interested in discussing here is the games of 2014.

And as far as games go, last year had a lot of misses. Ubisoft took the brunt of it with the triple whammy of Watch_Dogs, The Crew, and Assassin’s Creed Unity. But it was also the year we saw Dungeon Keeper turned into a “free” to play monstrosity of naked corporate greed. It was year where even the “great” games were more often just good games that had no competition from their peers. 2014 is a year without instant classics. There was no “Gone Home” or “Paper’s Please” or “Last of Us” that unified and galvanized gamers like there were in years past.

Even so, I just can’t quite bring myself to say that 2014 was a bad year. There were a lot of games in 2014 I really liked. No instant classics, but I feel that helped me to appreciate the games that otherwise might not have gotten the attention they did. I want to talk about five games in particular in this list, the five games I liked the most this year. This list can be read as a top 5 list, with #1 being my “Game of the Year” if indeed such a thing has any meaning. Of course the actual gradient is much more nuanced and the games so different in what they do and do not do that a direct comparison will always open to interpretation.

I’ve also had to split this list into two parts, as I am apparently completely incapable of writing short, concise blurbs when I’m passionate about something. And the first half of this list is the two games that I feel probably wouldn’t be on it if 2014 had a stronger lineup. So maybe I’m not making a very good case for my point here. Don’t worry, it’ll all come together later.

Without further ado…

Continue reading »

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Experienced Points: What Makes the Technology in Grand Theft Auto V So Great

  By Shamus   Jan 20, 2015   51 comments

So a couple of people asked me to elaborate on why GTA V is so amazing in a technological sense. So I did. This might be a little unfair, because GTA V is the only urban sandbox game to make the jump to current-gen consoles.

Still, all of this was basically true when comparing (say) GTA IV to Saints Row The Third, so it all evens out.

While running around the city, I ran into this bit of sidewalk, which gives a little clue as to how they cram so much detail onto mundane surfaces without blowing their texture budget:

Continue reading »

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Reset Button: Playstation 3

  By Shamus   Jan 20, 2015   86 comments

This video is mostly a more organized version of things I said throughout the last console generation. I guess I wanted to give the PS3 a proper send-off by gathering all these points into one video.

Link (YouTube)

I had another whole section in here talking about multi-threading, but it made the video LONG and I don’t think it was needed. (Although at one point I say, “You’ve probably guessed that the big hurdle here is the need for lots of parallel coding.” That doesn’t make total sense to expect non-coders to “guess” anything without the long rambling section on multi-threading.)

Another thing I didn’t get into is the idea of processing latency. As I read it, your program gives tasks to the PPE and it delegates to the SPE. If your program is really parallel friendly then the PPE ought to be able to keep all the little SPEs busy all the time. However, this introduces a middleman to the process. Even assuming you can keep all the little sub-processors busy, you’ve still got this annoying lag.

Let’s say you’re trying to send a package. One courier uses a bike. He can take one box across the city in a day. The other outfit has a van that can take ten packages across the city, but they spend some time sorting packages at the distributions center or whatever. They deliver in two days.

The van has higher throughput: Ten packages in two days instead of one package in one day. But sometimes you don’t want to wait two freakin’ days. So arguments over which one is “faster” are kind of confused. It sort of depends on what you’re trying to send and when you need it.

More importantly, processing latency is really bad for games. It’s fine for rendering farms and crunching primes, but in a videogame latency matters. I don’t care if a game has mega graphics at 200 frames a second, if it takes five seconds between the point where I hit the jump button and the moment when I see my character jump on screen, then this computer is not useful for gaming. Obviously the PS3 wasn’t that bad, but the processing latency is yet another unwanted thing coders might have to worry about. I didn’t bring this up in the video because I have no idea how bad this problem was.

I am really glad these next-gen machines have settled into more or less standard quasi-PC hardware. This ought to make them nice and cheap over time, and should make cross-platform work less of a headache.

Transcript: Continue reading »

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Diecast #89: 2014 Happened

  By Shamus   Jan 19, 2015   148 comments

EDIT: Comments are open again. I have no idea how I managed to disable them by accident.

I know we’ve spent most of January talking about 2014. Well, we’re not going to stop now. At least this time you’ll get to hear what Mumbles thinks. Also, watch for spoilers. (Check the show notes to see where they are.)

Direct link to this episode.

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Hosts: Shamus, Josh, Chris, and Mumbles.

Show notes: Continue reading »

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Happy Birthday Rachel

  By Shamus   Jan 17, 2015   30 comments

A little over eight years ago we had this gut-wrenching day, where I wasn’t sure if my eight-year-old daughter would make it to adulthood. Well, today she turned 17 and she’s just fine.

She’s shy and so I don’t want to post a picture of her. So here is something she drew today:


Addendum: I feel old. Also, my wife was 17 when we met. So this age feels a little weird.

201030 comments. (A twenty-sided die has 30 edges.)

Dénouement 2014: Part 3

  By Shamus   Jan 16, 2015   93 comments

Here are the rest of my important games list in 2014. Like I said last time: They’re numbered, but this isn’t like a “Top games” list where #3 is supposedly objectively better than #7. Really, I just numbered the list so you have a sense of how far you are from the end.

Sort of. I dunno. I guess the last one is my favorite after all. Just resist the urge to haggle over the ordering, okay?

Continue reading »

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Project Button Masher: Reroute Kanal

  By Shamus   Jan 15, 2015   51 comments

We’ve done synth sounds for the past couple of weeks. This time let’s try something more modern. We’ll take a shot at the Half-Life 2 soundtrack by Kelly Bailey.

Here are the distinguishing characteristics I came up with:
Continue reading »

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Dénouement 2014: Part 2

  By Shamus   Jan 14, 2015   73 comments

Here is the first half of my list of important games in 2014. They’re numbered, but this isn’t like a “Top games” list where #3 is supposedly objectively better than #7. Really, I just numbered the list so you have a sense of how far you are from the end. (Un-numbered list articles always feel a little strange because the end feels kind of abrupt. “Oh? We’re done? Okay then.”)

Also I totally forgot about Thief. Like, I forgot the game existed. So it’s not on any list (bad or good) in any capacity.

This is a list with with room for games that maybe I appreciate professionally even if I didn’t totally dig them as a player. Also I might put titles here that I personally admired but might not 100% recommend. You folks know what you’re doing and I know you’re not here looking for a list attuned to the current fanboy zeitgeist. So let’s do this…

Continue reading »

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