Non-Binary Computing

Check out this presentation on non-binary computing! It’s for an entry for the Hackaday Prize, a competition to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hackaday’s founding.

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Tamagotchi Hacking

 

So it turns out that the age-old Tamagotchi uses the architecture from the 6502! What is even more startling is the discovery about how Tamagotchi toys actually work. The programming of Tamagotchis revolve entirely around one-bit logic: all of the interaction between a Tamagotchi and the player is controlled through switches, checking to see if a player has pressed a button at the right time. Further, all of the data associated with games on the Tamagotchi toy is bound up with the frames of animation.

It\’s all so simple, despite the need for more reverse engineering due to the use of mask ROM within Tamagotchis: since the toy manifests its programming in discrete transistor logic, it notoriously difficult to ‘dump’ its data. The author of the presentation hypothesises that if she can get a hold of the test program associated with the industrial mask ROM burning process, a program used by the chip company to prove that hardware errors are not their fault, she might be able to finally shed light completely on how Tamagotchis work.

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Warp Drivel

A very fitting pun for what is being done to the Star Trek franchise lately. In this post, I’d like to echo the sentiments of old-school trekkies about this J. J. Abrams ‘era’ of Star Trek.

For some reference, read this very well-written Gameological Society article about the new Star Trek game that has just been released. For some entertaining listening, the reader should also direct their attention to second part of ContinueCast’s podcast discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, where they express some mixed feelings about the changes made to the execution of Star Trek media.

Both of the sources seem to agree that Star Trek has been subject to more mainstream Hollywood production values. This is alarming, given what the series was meant to mean. Star Trek was meant to represent a social ideal of overcoming social conflicts through communication and shared understandings. This common core message was conveyed in both implicit and explicit ways throughout all of its media (TV, movies, even games) until recently, and one of the concrete things that it achieved throughout all this time was character growth and development. The original Star Trek ethic for character development is the complete inverse of franchises like Seinfeld, where characters are never meant to grow or change, existing exogenously–Star Trek characters developed through endogenisation, by learning through making mistakes and coming to understand the reason why things are the way they are. This is why characters like Commander Data, Seven-of-Nine, and Mister Spock are absolutely critical elements of the series, they provide a kind of blank slate from which to build upon rationalist humanist ideals. They provide a kind of relief against which the contradictions of humanity and can explored and explained.

What the contemporary iteration of Star Trek has done is refocused the franchise on the age-old hero genre. The complex web of personal relationships upon which the traditional Star Trek formula subsisted has been done away with, and instead the (no less traditional) Hollywood formula involving the defeat of a great obstacle has been foisted on the franchise in its stead. Two arguments can be made at this point, and I think both of them are equally pursuasive:

    1. Star Trek, as a series, was better off under its old formula;
    2. The old Star Trek formula, for all its flaws, is objectively better than the ‘hero-questing’ one now being saddled on it.

Heroes may grow and learn under the hero-questing formula (i.e. Star Wars), but they always grow in the same direction–towards enormous power and wisdom. The humanist Star Trek formula never demanded ubermenschian qualities from its characters, it only asked them to perform the most comprehensive self-reflection they could manage, and I think this rewarded the viewer with a far deeper, and more fulfilling entertainment experience.

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Borderlands and Battlefield: Bad Company

This post would’ve benefited greatly from consistent alliteration in its title had Bad Company been named something else, but, like the substance of that game, it’s obvious that not everything is perfect, or even wholly good. Gearbox’s Borderlands and DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company encapsulate almost entirely everything that is wrong with the current trends in popular video games. While Borderlands is by no means a bad game–I find its sense of progression very rewarding–it suffers from exactly the same thing as Bad Company, along with games such as Call of DutyGears of War, Crysis: all you have to do is shoot things. They also reveal something very interesting about the development of the video game industry, and the current state in which it finds itself. While they might be terrible games, they’re incredibly popular, and that means something.

The reader is perfectly entitled to arrive at the sentiment that what is about to be discussed is here merely a rehash of a pop-culture debate that is almost certainly careening away from any kind of rational coherence (much like anything to do with pop-culture). But, given the social and economic significance of games like CoDGoW &c (although there is probably much to be said about the business model upon which their production values are set, given the stellar profitability of casual iOS games), revisiting this popularly discussed subject is unavoidable. Millions upon millions of copies of these first-person shooters sell year after year, and continue to be critically acclaimed by an influential, if not wholly uncorrupted video game media. BioShock Infinite stands as a case in point. I hope to deal with Infinite later, once I have enough money (hah!).

The pseudo-theory that I developed while discussing platformers earlier asserts that games that place special emphasis on substantive elements–in other words, conveying meaning–always make the better game. On the other hand, games that emphasise procedures and rules more or less always fail aesthetically. This argument was based on both logical and empirical claims–for example, some understanding of human cognition in a concrete sense is very important for getting a game to \’connect\’ with a player. This conceptual schema is the basis on which I criticise Borderlands and Battlefield: Bad Company.

Both games rely heavily on first-person shooting concepts in the wrong way. It is by no means bad for a game to rely heavily on a small set of ideas and concepts (NB. Tetris, Pokemon), and with respect to first-person shooting it is entirely possible to convey substantive, meaningful ideas to a player by exploiting such a genre (Half-Life (2)?), but the two have not been combined successfully, here.

Aside from the fact that it is almost impossible to play–its battle mechanics being very difficult to master given its dichotomously enormous landscapes but then unbelievably cloistered and claustrophobic close-quarters environments–Bad Company merely requires you to murder everything in sight in order to complete the game. It relies entirely on a single truth-procedure that fails to convey anything of substance to the player in order to be ‘played’. The tone of the game is light-hearted, and you get the sense that you’re a kind of post-Iraq war swash-buckling soldier-pirate, but that’s all the game gives you in terms of context. Like almost all first-person shooters, BioShock included, the story is delivered to through a radio. However the story floats on top of the actual ‘game’. Bad Company‘s story is an excuse for the actual game: it’s like telling you to go for a jog while you listen to an audio-book. You could just as easily go for a jog listening to anything.

The same thing goes for Borderlands, except its RPG elements make patently obvious the hollow repetition involved in the game’s execution. The idea of melding an FPS to an RPG places an additional obstacle in the way of satisfying the game’s truth-procedure: collecting things serves as a distraction from mindlessly shooting things. The emptiness of the game is apparent very early on, as you learn to sift through thousands upon thousands of dropped items. The incredible thing about games like Borderlands and Bad Company is that they have sold many millions of copies. Developers have achieved their goal to maximise sales and revenue without having to worry about important things like good plots or sound character development–substantive conveyance of meaning.

This situation reminds me of an infamous argument regarding Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Proponents of this argument charge that specific features of human biology such as the ability to perform abstract analytical thought, and practice highly complex forms of communication are incredibly wasteful and inefficient behaviours from the viewpoint of maximising individual and/or group species survival in a competitive environment. This is a pretty convincing claim; things such as talking and thinking would, in an immediate sense, certainly get in the way of any given animal’s interest in surviving and propagating itself. Coupled with this persuasive argument, however, is the fact that biological reproduction is not in any sense uniformly simple and straightforward. This doesn’t render it false, however. The argument and that observation are compatible, as we shall see.

What this argument from evolution has to do with video games bears directly upon the almost endless success of shooters these days. It holds a lot of explanatory power in elucidating why these games are so successful, despite any normative ideals we might hold about what a ‘good’ game is. The reason why terrible FPS games are so commercially successful is because they are very definitely graphically appealing, and at least enjoyable at face value. Those factors secure the absolute minimum measure of success in the video game industry: their purchase. The same goes from the game-Darwinian perspective: success is relative to the degree of a title’s dissemination.

However, just like the almost pointless complexity of human behaviour from a biological standpoint, even the stupidest first-person shooters seem like a pretty big waste of time and energy just to maximise the level of fun you want to have. Why not just take drugs? Some drugs might be really expensive, but they’re certainly more efficient at making you feel good. Why waste days trying to hone your motor skills when you can just chemically stimulate your brain?

The reason why gamers play games, and don’t just shoot up when they want to have fun is the same for why humans have evolved to be capable of incredibly intelligent behaviours: both are by-products of evolution. Communication and abstract thought are derived from two very simple processes having completed many iterations over a long period of time: interpreting the environment, and coordinating behaviour. Games, correspondingly, are form of entertainment that has evolved from the humans repeating the satisfaction of the desire for pleasure.

The important thing to take away from this is that the process of evolution is by definition:(a) totally random and entirely contingent on accidents, (b) slow and incremental, and (c) unfair. Following this way of thinking, the entire development of the video game industry makes perfect sense, and a water-tight explanation for its current status quo is achieved. Think about the way Nintendo is treading water in terms of conceptual development in its most recent titles, in this light. They might be ‘failing’, but they are appealing to the exact same motivations as their competitors: base pleasure satisfaction.

The amazing thing about the above evolutionary argument: it unifies the causal factors for all games. Aesthetic success (a ‘good’ game) comes from the same process as aesthetic failure. This might trigger the objection that evolution can’t tell the difference between a good and a bad game because it reduces everything down to pleasure satisfaction, but that misses the point. Just because evolution can’t tell the difference doesn’t mean rationality doesn’t exist. We have developed critical reasoning skills and observed the process of evolution from outside of it. The same should go for game development.

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BioShock and Language

Something I feel compelled to comment on is the powerful role of language in the original BioShock. Formally speaking, much of the game is nothing more than a fetch-quest set within a first-person shooter. The player is guided through these sequences by the recorded voices of non-player characters. The language of these NPCs frame the access that the player has into BioShock‘s game environment, and conditions the interaction that the player has with it.

‘Guidance’ and ‘being guided’ here means something a little more than just the straightforward instructions that the player must perform in order to cause the plot to progress. The audio clips that are littered throughout the game fill out rooms, hallways, theatres and roads that are otherwise dank, repeating the thematic elements of the levels they inhabit. Offices become real places because they are connected to people’s (albiet frequently sick, twisted) lives. This idea dawned on me when, paradoxically, I became annoyed that there were so many opportunities for BioShock to ‘just talk at you’. One can, at times, feel as if they are being chased by Tenenbaum, Atlas, Fontaine and Ryan. Furthermore, if one felt compelled to listen to everything they came across, one might find the fears and desires of all the people throughout Rapture quite suffocating. Despite this, however, it is possible to express, in words, what one is doing. The difficulty with games like Borderlands and Half-Life 2 is that human contact is frequently vary sparse, if not totally unsociable, and this makes comprehending one’s environment incredibly difficult. In Half-Life 2‘s case, the player has to be coddled by Alyx Vance–for much of the game, you just copy what she does. By contrast, BioShock is painted with thousands of pieces of detailed dialogue, describing things, explaining the purpose of an area’s contents. Often, different people will corroborate information, or maybe contradict one-another. Everything is, in a ghostly ethereal manner, socialised. This is ironic, given Rapture’s ostensible purpose. The communicative function provided by the dialogue clips provide a medium through which people can source and construct identities. Everything is, funnily enough, understood a lot better because it is better communicated.

By making gameplay explicable, able to be parsed in lexical terms, conveyed to anyone just by talking, BioShock is converted into an experience that is able to be shared universally, rather than one which requires someone to have ‘been there’. It also allows a game that is merely about moving through a series of corridors killing things to transcend its formal structure, and take on the very convincing appearance of a fully-fleshed out world.

Platforming: Rules and Narratives

I think that the genre of platforming elucidates a lot of interesting things about the ludological perspective of comprehending games. Ludology (contra narratology) stresses that games should be understood in a formal, abstract manner–as a system of rules and abstractions. Central to this perspective is the idea that games should be views as games, as opposed to the narratological perspective, which sees games as yet another medium through which to convey meaning. Before going further, the reader should take a look at these three posts that Electron Dance wrote (123) about the relationship between ludology and narratology.

Simple early platformers are really good examples of the primacy of ludology in games because game developers were quite obviously physically limited by what they could make a game do. The limitations with which they were faced forced them to make their game concepts simpler and more abstract, which led them to focusing on their game’s rules.

Generally speaking, the principle rules into which we can break down a platformer is that such a game will:

    1. have a main character that has to move around in an environment with some convincing implementation of Newtonian physics (whether two-dimensional or otherwise);
    2. require the player–through the main character–to collect things and/or move from one place to another;
    3. (perhaps really a component of Rule 1, but we’ll make this distinction separately to help us to rule out games like rail-shooters more clearly) the player will usually have a high degree of freedom with respect to their movement.

I realise that, at this point, these rules probably don\’t allow us to discriminate between some sports games and that which we traditionally conceive of as platformers, but for the purpose of this post I think they’re good enough.

XBLA-jolly-roger[1]It’s interesting to consider, absent of any other details, that the key rules of a platformer are usually just to travel somewhere and collect things. It’s obvious to us now that the point of a game like Mario 3 is just to get to the end of the level, or in a game like Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot 2, find some collectable object, because I don’t think that that’s the most entertaining aspect of these games. I think this is why the supposed pesudo-genre of atmospheric platformer has gained such a great incidence of mention among gamers lately. The atmosphere of games like Banjo Kazooie is indeed frequently toted as a a key virtue of a good platformer, alongside other features as ‘exploration’ and ‘freedom’.

Atmosphere, exploration and freedom are very qualitative concepts to be advancing as central elements of a good platformer and they seem to be more derivative in relation to the implementation of the actual rules of platforming, rather than a direct consequence of the the player’s strict pursuit of the game’s goal or ‘purpose’. Despite this, I think they’re valid virtues to value highly when setting out to appreciate a platformer.

Why? An example might provide the best entry into an explanation. Remember the levels that lead into the chamber where you fight Bowser in Mario 64 (and their corresponding throw-backs in Sunshine and Galaxy–and, come to think of it, all the bonus, and later space-themed levels in Crash Bandicoot). While they possess their own theme and atmosphere, these levels stand in stark contrast to the bright, colourful, and reasonably realistic levels that exist everywhere else in the game’s castle. These levels are composed of highly linear, abstract platforms that serve to test your raw platforming skills. The platforms have no meaning in connection to the environment around them–the player has have no point of reference in this environment other than the platform they’re on, and the platform they want to get to. These levels are brilliant examples of the purist execution of ludological platforming. Watch this part of a Super Mario Sunshine Let’s Play to get a feel, if you think you need to re-familiarise yourself.

Needless the say, even simple such levels are nerve-wracking. The player almost always feels disoriented and must focus carefully on the game environment in order to properly interpret it. It is pretty easy to jump from this observation to the conclusion that players must need some greater degree of contextual information in order to better engage with their environment.

The significance of this difficulty in ‘immersion’ that players experience when playing abstract levels has direct consequences for how we should approach the study of video game aesthetics. The study of a game through its rules simply isn’t substantive enough to help us explain why we become so with engaged with them. While it’s true that people can train themselves to become exceedingly proficient at even the most abstract of games (Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be the Guy), the fact that a person has to drum out their common sense in order to successfully interact with a game should be taken as a symptom of the weakness of the ludological approach to appreciating games.

Moving outside the realm of platforming, think about all the pointless rooms you encounter in both the single player and multi-player modes of GoldenEye 007. I only just had this brought to my attention! All those rooms make the game-play better by helping the player better come to terms with the game environment, help convey information in manner that is more effective because it is congruent to the way people’s cognition works. One could of course just counter here: well that could be expressed in the form of a rule! All we have to do is pay attention to the way human cognition works in order to come up with better procedures for conveying the information contained in game rules.

Such an argument, however, conflates narratology and ludology. Ludology is about decision-making, and patterns of behaviour, and the role that the communication of meaning plays adjacent to those two concepts is of course important, but it gives the idea of meaning an insanely narrow reading. Taken this way, ‘atmosphere’ gets boiled down into something instrumental–a way to help players better process information contained in the game environment.

capefly[1]What about those times in Mario 3 when you have the P-Wing, and you totally transcend the level’s construction, completely exploding its challenge? Or those bonus levels in Mario World where you just fly around and collect tonnes and tonnes of coins? The feeling of complete freedom, and the contrasting purposelessness of the level you’re leaving far behind form an integral element of those games–the idea that you’ve gained special powers, and that the environment that you’re inhabiting is magical and mysterious, full of secrets and hidden truths (see more about flight in Mario games). It should be readily admitted that these moments do not do much in the way of advancing a narrative in these games, but it should be accepted that they form the first few steps developers need to take in order to achieve in order to construction one: the evocation of emotion, the construction of something affective and not merely mechanistic or ‘challenging’ in an everyday sense.

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Bending the rules: Wall-jumping in Super Mario Bros. 3

I think that if it can be shown that something affective about even an old NES platformer plays a prior role in its aesthetic significance than just its rules and mechanics, then it surely must hold that way for most games. I think the best way to put this might even be to say that meaning-construction is so important in games that it’s probably best when a game’s rules are purposefully sought out to be broken and ignored, that when you move beyond the ‘purpose’–not in an obsessive Otaku sense but in a transgressive sense–of a game (a kind of game in itself), unlocking an unintended transcendent game-form, that’s when gaming is at its best. Why else would we care so much about game glitches and tricks? Following this line of thought, surely to understand gaming, perhaps approaching it as a culture must be a priority. The most salient things about gaming aesthetics must in all the feedback loops of emergent meta-narratives and communicated gaming practices (like players only using the shotgun in Gears of War).

Guerrilla Pong

I came across these two webpages only just recently: Josh Nimoy’s MiniPong and Hakon A Hjortland, Havard Moen, and Alf Storm’s unassumingly named 5×7 LED dot matrix pong.

The most immediate thing you\’ll notice about these two pong clones is that they are tiny. Their display resolution can be counted on fingers, and their hardware can be packaged into dimensions just as unbelievably small. Ignoring any discrete components involved in their construction, they, quite amazingly, only really need a cheap five-dollar microcontroller.

The units seem definitely playable, and this really pushes home the most important thing about these pong units: electronic communication is a serious aesthetic medium with its own distinctness. Although this is now obvious from the fact that everyone possesses a handheld computer many hundreds of times faster than most home PCs from a decade ago, the primitive concreteness of these tiny pong clones serves as a reminder that the fantastic virtual worlds we now live in through our tablet computers and smartphones are based on manipulating our physical reality.

Take a look, for instance, at these two photos taken at (basically) the same event, one captured 8 years after the other:

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These two images place in stark relief the impact of the digital technological revolution that has been undertaken over the last 30-40 years. These pong clones are significant in this light because they are a reaction to the rapid digitalisation of everyday life. This is especially true in Nimoy’s case, because of its subversive message. The purpose of MiniPong is that it is to be quickly and securely installed into public places for mass attention. The transgressive act of mutilating a piece of the public environment with an attention-arresting electronic meme carries with it obvious political and ethical overtones–who controls the information you receive?–what is it being used for?

On this point the description of Nimoy’s pong clone at an art exhibition reads:

The present generation of new media artists espouse an approach that is a reaction against commercial software-driven art. They have little concern of the media critique of their immediate predecessors. Rather, they dabble in commercial software critique, and see programming as a means to become empowered.The result is a complete circle, where the earliest analogue computer generated images of the 50s are duplicated in the software art we see today. The pioneers of computer art have always been writing their own software in the 50s and up until the 80s before desktop computers and packaged software became broad consumer products. Today, the reactionary artist resurges: the new Modernist who seeks to liberate art from commercial media.

Aside from the social commentary of which these simple pong clones are capable, it is not difficult to be very impressed at the ease with which it is possible to clone, at a hardware level, a game that took the world by storm forty years ago. You can do it for around twenty dollars, in an afternoon. You can find a video of Hakon, Hardvard and Alf’s pong clone being played here

Aaand We’re Back: Moved Again

Yes indeed – we are to be back from hiatus. Schoolwork, the efforts of hackers, and personal affairs have kept me away from blogging for far too long. Expect more material to come back to this wordpress blog, where personal information finds itself most secure!

Cel-Shaded Graphics: Hardware and Art

It should be pretty uncontroversial to say that software and hardware have something to do with one-another. This idea is very strange, however, given just how opposite the individual natures of software and hardware are. Computer hardware is the physical, tangible component of computer science: if you took an electron microscope and applied it to a computer, you would be able to see the doped silicon lattices in its semiconductors. Computer software, however, in its ideal form, is conceptual. Software is something that is not necessarily physical. Software possesses the ideas and ‘thoughts’ contained in its programming, and this is something that can’t be manifested physically. If we tried to look at software in its physical form–say, on a hard-drive or on an EEPROM–all we would be able to see or sense is the patterns in which a program’s atoms and electromagnetic charges have been arranged.

The Hogfather: Your Ideal Swine

The character Death in a Terry Pratchett work, Hogfather, puts the dilemma rather well. Obviously here Death is talking about morals, but the argument is analogous to concepts or ideas:

…then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.

Admittedly, it’s pretty well understood that software is written for hardware–computer instructions are specifically written for physical machines to interpret and process. And, it is in fact true that the line between software and hardware to be somewhat blurry; take, for instance, firmware. Firmware exhibits the features of both software and hardware by being (a) machine-interpretable instructions, but (b) static and physically manifested. But, if software was hardware, how have we managed to construct complex and flashy edifices like Modern Warfare 3 on top of incomprehensible patterns of transistors? How can we copy and mimic the world so convincingly if we were not, at any point, permitted to employ the use of ideas, thoughts, morals &c? In philosophical terms, we have a real dilemma here: are pieces of software just physical parts of the universe, like hardware, or are they something more? Something… metaphysical?

The direction in which I’m now heading obviously seems perilously similar to the mind-body dualism dilemma that has been so numerously and irritatingly rehashed in philosophical writing, so it should appear welcome to the reader when I say this is not what I’m doing to discuss, but that I would like to take a look at what the alleged divide between software and hardware means to video games as an art-form.

The supposed software/hardware dualism mentioned above has everything and anything to do with video games. Video games feature both hardware and software in their constitution, making them an incredibly complex beast to understand when it comes to dealing with them aesthetically. Why? Take video game graphics/visuals as an example. Kotaku recently ran two articles about the graphical prowess of the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles (Graphics Don’t Make Good Characters and Remember They Have More to Offer Than Just Graphics). Both of these articles make arguments to assert that something other than video game console processing power (if not complex and fantastic visuals, which is probably more on the mark) is also needed in order to make a good video game. This other element, character development, story-telling, plot structure/substance, is not as dependent as game visuals on hardware architecture–it is something that is idealistic; semantically speaking, this doesn’t mean the pejorative term of not being pragmatic, but something that is not physically tangible. A character or a story is an idea, a kind of ghost that inhabits the physical shell of an actor or a 3D hardware-rendered model.

Thus far one could say that we seem to have identified another famous dialectic here–albeit one that is potentially illusory, as physicalists (proponents of the ‘software-is-hardware’ philosophy, as I’ll call it) are wont to interject: hardware determined visuals versus almost entirely software-inhabiting story and character development. This kind of opposition seems to have existed since time immemorial–one can easily think of the way paperback novels transformed the way books were read. The same thing must go for video games in the league of Battlefield 3. The kind of artistic malaise in games that critics like Yahtzee on The Escapist identify is evidently not something new, and will probably never cease.

Indeed this fantastic article on the Gameological Society‘s website performs an assessment of the likely future of the mainstream video game industry within a similar framework to that being pursued here. Speaking in light of the mysterious launch of Sony’s PlayStation 4, the critical component of the article comes right at the end:

Creativity thrives under limitations. People who love games understand this implicitly, since the best players find the most creative ways to succeed within the confines of the rules. The Great Train Robbery is a masterpiece not in spite of its limitations but because of them. So if David Cage doesn’t think he can produce an emotional work of art with a PlayStation 3 and an eight-figure budget, maybe he shouldn’t be in the art-making business.

Expanding the technological capabilities of our game machines is not inherently bad, but treating new tech as a magic bullet is a self-destructive delusion (if a familiar one). The reason that so many games suck is not because the technology is too modest. The reason that so many games suck is because so many games suck. Making art is hard. No microchip changes that.

The really important thing about this quote (and the whole article, really) is not that it reinforces the idea developed above that artistic ideas are independent of their physical medium. The important thing mentioned in the quote is that it brings up the idea that artistic ideas can be constrained by their physical medium. It asserts that the medium through which art forms its expression sets ‘rules’ that artists need to find creative ways in which to work. Here we have a slightly more nuanced interpretation of the software-idealism position, which mixes in a little bit of physicalism: hardware determines the boundaries of software’s concepts/ideas/thoughts/substance. One could almost call this ‘soft software determinism’ because a more radical version can immediately be imagined: hardware outright determines the substance of software. Against software determinism you obviously have software indeterminism (or free-will &c) which asserts that hardware and software aren’t causally related.

Enter Jet Set Radio

It’s important to note that the software determinism position is related to the software physicalism question because the software-as-hardware (physicalist) position directly bears on how software and hardware are causally related. If software is just hardware, its realistic-seeming appearance is just a clever arrangement of atoms and magnetic charges. This will become important later on.

In any case, consider Jet Set Radio on the Sega Dreamcast. Its artistic direction was so influential that it inspired a virtual (in the potential and not epistemological sense) artistic movement in video games. JSR legitimised the use of cel-shaded graphics at a time when realism was a dominant driving force in the artistic value system of the video game industry. Realism obviously still remains an important way of going about and making games today, but if it wasn’t for games like JSR (or Windwaker–I wonder if Nintendo saw JSR and decided to copy its visual style?), we’d be left with an overwhelming corpus of mainstream games trying to copy the visual appearance and mechanics of the real world.

Humouring our determinism discussion, we can arguably put JSR‘s cel-shaded graphics down to the limitations of the Dreamcast. See this useful comparison of the raw processing power of the Dreamcast to the Nintendo GameCube and the original Microsoft Xbox. I find it so illuminating that I regularly go back and re-read it to make sure I haven’t missed anything that it might have said. The particularly interesting point it raises about the very modest increase in RAM and, to a lesser extent, CPU processing power relative to the other hardware features of the Dreamcast in comparison to the GC and Xbox is thought-provoking. The Dreamcast‘s unique Z-buffering technology is also interesting.

cel-shading1Cel-shading is most importantly related to the lighting in a 3D-rendered game. It replaces what would otherwise be gradients of light in shadows on models with a larger incidence of solid colours. One can easily connect this to the way in which a game engine would deal with textures (something the Dreamcast was, on paper, noticeably weaker at handling than the other two consoles), and what you have is, like John Teti said in his Gameological Society article, a creative way to succeed within the limitations of Sega’s (admittedly cool) console. Or, more intriguingly, you have the hardware design of the Dreamcast subtly dictating to Smilebit how they should make their game.

What about Gauroud shading on the N64? It was a solution to the incredible challenge posed by the cripplingly small texture cache on the platform. The N64 had its fair share of games with realistic graphics, but the fact that it struggled with complex textures meant that programmer’s favoured method of dealing with this–shading–lead to better performance with cartoon-ish visuals that dealt with simple colours.

More broadly, consider the transition from 2D to 3D graphics. Games like Tomb Raider were unthinkable in the late 80s–the hardware processing power simply didn’t exist to render such complex environments. Games are more or less forced to resort to 2D graphics when being based on more limited hardware. The kinds of experiences 2D graphics can deliver can be brilliant substantively/qualitatively, but they must be far more limited formally than those based in three dimensions: Zelda-esque RPGs, platformers, 2D RTS games. Indeed, search and you will find that 2D platformers by far outnumbered games published in any other genre (much like first-person shooters today).

Zizek and The Matrix

Slavoj Zizek’s Parallax View gives us a good schema to not only deal with the ideal-software/physical-software dialectic, but also that of the determined-software/undetermined-software simultaneously.

In an extended passage in which Zizek discusses the operation of ideology in today political environment, he performs an analysis of The Matrix series. Following his Lacanianism, he works out that the function of the matrix is based on a kind of perversion. The perversion on which the matrix is founded is two-fold:

  1. Perceivable human reality is reduced to a virtual domain whose rules can be suspended. It’s theoretically possible for someone to do or have anything in the matrix.
  2. The concealed truth of this apparent freedom is that humanity is actually the perfect kind of slave. Ultimately passive and instrumentalised, humans are farmed for their ability to generate electrical energy.

This dialectic corresponds to, and informs that of the ideal/physical and determined/undetermined ones. Humans are not only divided into ideal and physical components in the matrix, but they are also controlled and possessed by it, in exactly the same way that a piece of game software is with its corresponding hardware platform.

The perfect conception of software as an idealistic form is that which is totally independent and undetermined by its hardware base, free of any kind of limitation or constraint. The best kind of illusion imaginable, any kind of creative desire could be pursued with this form of software: characters of infinite depth, plots infinitely complex and intriguing. The complete opposite of this would be software as a ‘slave’ to a dominant and ‘parasitic’ hardware base. Instead of being a perfect dream, software would really just be a host from which for hardware to ‘feed’. This image isn’t meant to be literal, it means that hardware is just exploiting software in an attempt to ensure its survival. A good example of this would be the way iPhones are propagated by Farmville, and other kinds of ‘casual’ games (the marriage is perfect, isn’t it? A device that is always with you, always requiring your attention). Some more examples are the way operating system update schedules work, always requiring you to keep your device ‘up-to-date’, and the way console launch titles work–to make their console seem appealing.

The way The Matrix solves this dilemma (ultimate freedom/ultimate slave) is by giving Neo the ability to practice the powers he has in the matrix outside the matrix. Zizek quite rightly regards this method of synthesising The Matrix‘s virtual and real worlds as insufficient–much like revealing at the end of a detective novel that the murderer has incomprehensible magical powers. It merely conflates the original premises of the dilemma by trying to confer upon human-kind, in its slave-form, the virtual freedom it is able to possess in the matrix.

Zizek’s preferred solution to The Matrix dialectic puts us on the right track to conceiving a coherent relationship between games and their platforms: why didn’t humans try to sabotage the matrix by refusing to secrete any more energy into it? The important thing about this possible solution is that it is negative: it destroys both humanity’s slavery by the evil machines, and its ultimate freedom in the matrix. What is left is just good old, really-existing humanity–which is in fact a very complex way of arriving at the same conclusion as John Teti: software is partly constrained and determined by the limitations of its hardware, and is in reality physical.

But by performing all of this work, while we rather uninterestingly return to the position that software does have an existence that partly transcends its physical determination (the form that this transcendence takes isn’t of immediate interest), we learn that software needs that obstacle. The idea isn’t the mundane truism that software needs hardware in order to run, but that hardware presents a game designer/developer/programmer with a mould that needs to be broken out of. A good example to demonstrate this point is the amount of first-person open-world games that proliferate our present gaming culture. We’ve reached a point in our gaming hardware development that allows us to render huge worlds, but they’re not necessarily fun or interesting–it’s basically ‘filler’. As Teti points out, Jonathan Blow’s upcoming game The Witness has attempted to make its game world as compact and as carefully constructed as possible. Like Teti, I regard this as good design, and good art. Blow’s piece is evidence of getting over the obstacle of taking orders from one’s hardware base.

Think about some games you know that did their best to transcend their hardware limitations. A few that I can think of are Exhumed for the Saturn, Super Mario 64 (compare with the horribly linear Crash Bandicoot series which stole SM64‘s hub-world concept–NB that SM64 was a launch title!), id software’s Doom and Quake, and the first two Pokemon generations.

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Virtua Racing

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I’ve always wanted to square off Virtua Racing against Starwing. That’s a much bigger job than just reviewing either one of them individually, and since I lack the time to immediately that, and, having been playing a bit of Virtua Racing recently, I thought I’d forgo my original plans to review it alongside its early home console 3D-graphics competitor. In its home console form, Virtua Racing is obviously important for two reasons, the first being its conceptual import, and the second its innovativeness in terms of its use of hardware.

Previously, racing titles relied on a carefully constructed two dimensional illusion of distance and depth of environment in order to convey a plausible game scenario. While VR wasn’t the first 3D racing game to do away with these techniques, it was the first to do it well. What was definitely not lost in VR, and indeed continues to be an important concept in racing games after their transition to three-dimensional environments, is its persuasive illusion of speed.

See that dot on the horizon? Yeah. That's your Badiouian Truth-Event.

See that dot on the horizon? Yeah. That’s your Badiouian Truth-Event.

I didn’t find VR‘s Acropolis level to be particularly well-executed level in conceptual terms, but its intermediate-difficulty level, Bay Bridge, a shining example of what Sega and Yu Suzuki were trying to achieve. While VR‘s environment can be divided up binarily, interactively speaking, into obstacles and non-obstactles, Bay Bridge demonstrates the kind of raw, intuitive feeling that you can only get from a (what was then) realistic three-dimensional environment. On the level, you pass through the namesake steel bridge, which is enormous. It towers over you, and the feeling of that empty column of space stays with you the rest of the level. You pass through a mountain in a tunnel, underneath huge freeway-like concrete manifolds, and alongside imposing grey retaining walls. The level design and eye-candy work together to drive home this concept of speed and transit in a very convincing manner.

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The only time this breaks down is when you crash, or, through naive level design, become aware that–much like any 2D racing game, Hang On and Out Run being famous Sega examples–basically all of the world is proceeding towards you from a point in the middle of your TV screen. At these two moments you’ll realise just how much VR has inherited from its ancestors, as it will become patently apparent that the car onto which you’re projecting your will, and the environment around it, are not inhabiting the same plane of existence: the player’s car, at times, feels as if it is being drawn on top of everything that’s happening on the screen, like it’s not really ‘there’ on the road. This should all be regarded as forgivable, because, first, most of the time, the player’s car feels flush with the road, and secondly, this criticism is minor gripe. Seeing as the technology powering VR was very, very new, the fact that they managed to pull off a game as atmospheric and realistic as they did is a real achievement.

virtuaracingmegadrive1The second important thing about VR, its use of hardware, is also something worthy of praise. I think it speaks to the great flexibility of the cartridge format that game manufacturers were able to incorporate secondary processors into their games in order to better realise their creative ideas. Today, one is more-or-less stuck with the hardware they have when they come to possess a new game title, but that was not necessarily so with cartridge-based software. Cartridges could–and did–contain extra RAM, or special memory bank switching hardware (think the NES) in order to push the envelope in terms of sprite and background complexity. As with Nintendo and their Super FX line of chips, Sega made use of a secondary microprocessor to handle the calculations necessary to display 3D visuals on their fourth-generation console. What distinguishes VR‘s special chip, the ‘Sega Virtua Processor’ (good old-fashioned marketing spin at work here) from the Super FX is that it was not a full, multi-purpose microprocessor. It was a Digital Signal Processor (DSP).

virtuaracingmegadrive2A DSP is microprocessor that is custom-built for a very particular purpose, which is frequently a very simple and repetitive, but power-hungry task. That’s not to say that all custom-built microprocessors are DSPs, but in this particular case, the “SVP” was designed to perform two operations (multiplication and addition) for the purpose of calculating VR‘s 3D polygonal data, and transforming it into “8×8 tiles” (which one can assume to be 8×8 pixel patterns). These two-dimensional tiles are transferred, ultimately, to the Mega Drive’s video RAM via Direct Memory Access (which is only possible through the use of cartridges!).

You could be forgiven for thinking that the SVP stood in the same league of semiconductor fidelity as the RISC Super FX chip, because, short of performing some sort of hard empirical comparison between VR and Starwing in terms of their polygon-count (VR displaying somewhere between 300-500 polygons @ 15 FPS), early alternative to Z-buffering (see Quake’s Binary Space Partitioning), use of colour, and frame-rate (&c &c), the visuals that both games push are comparable. Honestly, whenever I pick up VR I forget that the SVP is only capable of rendering polygons on-screen in 16 (!!!) colours.

starfox venomThere may be something to be said for Starwing‘s better player game-environment interactivity and command of atmosphere (NB Starwing‘s final level), but, short of performing the all-out compare-and-contrast disclaimed above, Virtua Racing is an absolute stellar title. I’m asserting this despite the fact that I don’t particularly like racing games as a genre–as a game in itself, the world environment that this title manages to convey to the player is reasonably deep and tangible. While I haven’t spoken about the game’s controls at all, its scheme of interactivity is solid. In that manner, it doesn’t fail as a racing game.

The great thing about VR is that it is able to be acquired on eBay and other retro gaming shops on the internet for ten to twenty dollars. That’s a far cry from the game’s original asking price. With Mega Drive systems being correspondingly so durable and cheap, it’s worth getting both and learning a bit about the history surrounding the video game industry’s fits and starts into the 3D graphics era. Retrogarden puts it pretty well when it says that

the SVP chip brought hope to die-hard and downtrodden Sega fans; if Virtua Racing was possible, why not Virtua Fighter too?  Could 3rd party developers  take the SVP chip and use it to port Doom, or even make a Starwing-type game?

The SVP represents the highly contingent nature of the aesthetics of the Western video game industry from the mid-nineties onwards. The progression to more and more complex foundations of hardware didn’t push more complex artistic ideas with it, as disillusioned Sega fans can surely attest. While VR offered a glimmer of hope, the future wasn’t secure as the industry moved into the mid-to-late nineties, as everyone is so obviously aware.

For a brilliant in-depth hardware analysis of Virtua Racing (which Jump’n Shoot will probably exploit later) on the Mega Drive, see this blog post.

For more information about the “Sega Virtua Processor” (a Samsung SSP160x Digital Signal Processor), see this forum thread.

 

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