Monday, December 16, 2013

Alphabet Terminus

That's the Alphabet Supremacy done. Didn't quite get all the posts done, but missed less than I thought I would at the start of the year.  Some time in the next few weeks I guess I'll record my thoughts on the whole thing. Overall it was fun, and nice to have +Jonathan Lange as a spur to keep going.

He, being far more diligent than I, has compiled all of this year's posts into a single handy table.  You can find it here.

Zenith

Most commonly it's only possible to say that something has reached its zenith post fact. You need to see it on the way down before it's reasonable to say that it has peaked. In fact, until something begins to decline one could argue that it can't have peaked. Sandwiches are probably as widespread and popular as they're ever going to be, but they haven't reached their zenith, they have plateaued. They have been at the same popularity for a long time, and it's hard to imagine that sandwiches will fall out of favour or achieve sacred significance without a major shift in global attitudes. Sometimes, though, decline is built into the system and it's possible to know you're in a golden age as it's happening, just waiting for it all to come to an end.

The boundaries are a little fuzzy, but from roughly 1998 to 2008, Australia was the best cricket team in the world. For most of that period we weren't the best by totalling up wins and losses and realising that one team was a few percentage points in front of the others; we were the best in the sense that nobody could beat us. Most teams couldn't even come close. From 1999-2001 Australia set the all time record for consecutive test match wins (16), then drew a few matches, won a few, even lost a series before matching the record again from 2005-2008. For comparison the next highest in the record books is eleven. During the same period we won three consecutive one day World Cups, the second one without losing a game, the third one without even a close match.

I knew at the time that it wouldn't last, couldn't last, but ten years is a long time to maintain the idea that decline is inevitable when all the evidence is to the contrary. A good player would retire and a player as good or even better would come in to replace him. We lost The Ashes to England, everyone assumed the era of Australia was over, and we then proceeded to beat them 5-0 when they toured Australia, something that hadn't been done since the 1920s.

People would say at various times during this unprecedented period of winning "I wish we'd lose a few games, it's boring knowing we're going to win". These were the same people, unsurprisingly, howling for blood when Australia lost several series in a row two or three years ago. Constant winning only seems boring in the middle of it. What people really want is the something that feels like a contest while it's happening, but with the secret knowledge that victory is inevitable. Once that assurance of victory goes away and you realise that you're be watching a five day game that will probably end in a loss, oh how you yearn for the "boredom" of excellence

During that same period other teams had players that were as good or better, but only one or two at a time, never eleven at once. So I know that I'll see Australia produce players just as good, but it's disappointing to think I'll never see a team as good as the one I spent ten years watching. After a few years of mediocrity, Australia is once again competitive, but not in a fashion that suggests long term success or short term excellence. I think most cricket fans recognise that Australian cricket has seen its zenith and while it won't be continual decline from here on out, there will always be part of me thinking "eh, I've seen better".

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Zombie

You may recall earlier in the year I discussed what I think about elves. My opinion towards zombies is fairly similar although for somewhat different reasons. In the end though what drives most of the anger in both cases is the laziness that it represents from the creator. Most of my exposure to, and hence frustration with, zombies comes from playing computer games, so I'm going to focus on zombies in games.

Point of order: I don't care why they started shambling around or what the designers call them, a zombie's a zombie. "Oh well technically they're not zombies, they're infected". Sod off, they're zombies. Mind control, plague, fungal infection, head crabs, virus, whatever. The end result is something that shambles/runs mindlessly around trying to eat people, and it's a zombie. I guess technically this my first problem with zombies: designers try to pretend they're not zombies.

First proper problem, now that we've all admitted that zombies are zombies. Zombies are visually lazy. It's reasonable enough to want to create a disturbing or distressing visual style. Doing so by having partially decayed and disfigured people as the main motif is the easy option. A regular person in day-to-day clothing but covered in blood and an empty ravenous expression is horrifying, sure, but is now so familiar as to be reassuring. Adding various "they're not zombies" flourishes just creates zombies with prosthetics. There are hundreds of talented artists in the games industry, and thousands who'd like to be. Let them use some of their creativity for something.

From a technical stand point zombies are lazy programming, relatively speaking. Zombies allow a variety of different parts of a team to use a bunch of their existing skills from dealing with human characters, which almost every game has, to get the zombie work done. It's the same reason so many fantasy and sci-fi game races are humanoid; things like animation are a whole lot easier. One of the advantages of zombies, for a programmer, is that they're proverbially mindless. See food, walk at food, hit food. I'm not going to claim that zombie AI is easy, but it's got to be substantially easier than writing the AI of intelligent enemies. It's also a modular kind of AI because zombies can start at the dumbest possible base level and add extra behaviours as allowed by time/budget. If there's a particularly troublesome reaction event, just cut it and say the zombies don't react to, for example, the sound of explosions because blah, blah, zombies, blah, blah.

For those focused on characters, narrative, and related issues zombies are lazy here too. Zombies are human shaped and so produce a twinge of player empathy without anyone having to go to the effort, narratively, of creating human characters. Most games struggle enough making the protagonist interesting, zombies are manna from heaven in reducing the number of characters that need to be developed. At the highest level, the world-building load is reduced. It explains why things are post-apocalyptic, who the enemy are, and why they're the enemy. When writing zombies there's no need to worry about enemy motivation, they eat brains, the player has brains. There's no need to worry about character motivation, the zombie will ceaselessly try to eat your brain, therefore the zombie must be killed. The morality issues go away. Nazis are well loved because it's easy to justify killing them. Zombies are on a whole new level, because they're not even people any more. Issues of morality about killing can be happily put to one side so that the story and gameplay don't clash.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly zombies are a really lazy, pandering market driven decision to make. The target demographics love zombies. Zombies are cool. Zombies mean blood and dismemberment and brutal animations of unusual implements being used to murder things. If things aren't going well, just add a zombie mode. If that's not enough, just replace the entire existing enemy concept with some zombies. Zombies can be anywhere. Space zombies. Western zombies. Bikini zombies. Nazi zombies. Zombie zombies. Choosing zombies doesn't guarantee sales, but it guarantees to pique the interest of a large and vocal part of the gaming community. And if you're a game designer and find yourself arguing that it's all right to have zombies because the game's not really about the zombies, here's an idea: if it's not about the zombies, take the zombies out.

Zombies are played out. There is no aspect of the zombie concept that hasn't been explored, and more than once. And the concept wasn't that interesting in the first place. They are as a genre what they are as a monster: a mindless husk of a once dynamic and vital entity.

Next week's final word will be, because it seems vaguely appropriate, zenith

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Yesterday

Note: yesterday was the correct day for this to be published but as the hour crept later, +Jonathan Lange and I looked at each other, febrile and bone weary, and agreed Sunday the 1st of December would be Alphabet Supremacy Armistice Day.

Back in school, the early years where there was only one teacher and there were pretty good odds on any given day of getting to do some finger painting, one of the weekly activities was the Monday morning writing. We'd get out our exercise books, the poorly cut ones with the lines far enough apart to house the handwriting of a seven year old, none of the fancy 8mm feint ruled lines that would define the later years, and write down what we did on the weekend.

(side story: I remember in grade two (age six) on one such occasion realising that it was possible to write down two different words that were both pronounced "week". I wondered, considering how many words didn't seem to be spelled the easiest way, whether perhaps it was properly spelled "weakend". In a cunning move I deliberately used the word weekend twice in my Monday composition, once with each spelling, which would thus force my teacher to point out the incorrectly spelled version. In hindsight I could have just asked but at that age adults were not, to me, beings one simply talked to. I was furious when my book was returned with a series of ticks and neither spelling corrected. It turned out the exercise was about getting children writing, and that spelling would be dealt with during spelling exercises. It annoyed me then, it still annoys me a quarter century later.)

This was one of my favourite parts of the week, it was when I could finally communicate with breathless excitement what I'd been doing for the last two days. I was not alone in my excitement, it seemed like most children couldn't wait to be asked to read out the amazing things they had done. Sometimes they had gone to the beach, perhaps climbed a tree and almost fallen out, or maybe even had their favourite meal for dinner on Sunday night. There was not a lot of flow to the narratives, I'm sure, mostly a lot of "Then I did this. Then I did that. Then mum said. Then the dog". Similes were unlikely to have featured prominently, although there was probably a little magical realism from the more fertile imaginations.

Long weekends were the goldmine. Oh, the things we did yesterday when asked on Tuesday. Tales of shacks, barbecues, and every stripe of activity you can think of that, in retrospect, desperate parents had come up with to get some peace and quiet. Yesterday was today but with excitement crackling off every surface and everything painted in only the brightest primary colours.

Thinking back, I wonder how I would report on the same day if asked now, when yesterday is today already faded to a foggy greyscale. I imagine it would be something like:
"What did you get up to yesterday?"
"Not a lot. You?"
"Not much."
Awkward pause.