Friday, March 31, 2006

Painting Madame X

Some of you may remember "Dead Bob," the barker for our Blackwood Mausoleum attraction last Halloween. He's none other than local legend Bob Diven - comedian, musician, artist, and actor. And now he's a playwright and an even more accomplished actor.

Tonight, we went and saw his one-man show John Singer Sargent: Painting Madame X at the newly-renovated Rio Grande theater in downtown Las Cruces. What a great show! Bob wrote and performed the play, and it was directed by another local legend, Academy Award Nominee and Tony Award winner (for Children of a Lesser God) Mark Medoff.

Bob's masterful performance gives you a compelling window into the very private life of John Singer Sargent, a victorian-era painter whose rising status in French painting circles was cut short by an unwarranted scandal about an enigmatic painting he submitted to the Salon de Paris in 1884, and the terrible choice he had to make in response to it. Filled with wry humor and subdued emotion, the play examines the unexpected regrets that can affect us for the rest of our lives if we cease, even for a moment, to be true to ourselves.

I particularly liked that during the course of the play, Sargent actually works on sketches for a mural. As the story of Sargent's life unfolds, so does the mural behind him start to flesh out in form, and, just as the mural remains largely unfinished at the end of the show, you feel like you have learned much about the real Sargent, but that there remains great depth in the man that remains a mystery. Bob is a talented painter and sketcher, and as such, he brings a genuine presence of a painter to the performance, both overtly through the sketches he makes while speaking in character, and implicitly as the author and actor by bringing the sensibilities of an experienced painter to the screenplay and delivery. The result is a very compelling and thought-provoking show, and I'm very glad I had a chance to see it.

And you can see his show too. Bob is looking to tour Painting Madame X around the state and beyond, and if you know of a venue that could feature it - museums, schools, theaters, etc. - be sure to check out the Painting Madame X web site for details. If you are in New Mexico and your organization qualifies, the New Mexico Humanities Council will subsidize the cost of bringing Bob to perform for you.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Flash app showing Coalition force casualties

BoingBoing posted a link to a Flash-based visualizer showing Coalition casualties in the war in Iraq. Each frame of the animation represents a day, and it plays back at 10 frames per second. Each flash represents a fatal attack on Coalition forces.

This is a very good use of Flash to help visualize complex data. If you watch the animation, it's clear that the violence is not slowing down, nor is it contained, and it's much clearer than anything you've heard a pundit on either side describe. Be sure to check out the animation.

But more disturbing, though, is when you watch the animation again, only this time, you uncheck the USA casualties so it doesn't show where US soldiers died. The difference is staggering. We are bearing a huge portion of the fatalities for this war, way more than all the other countries helping out combined, including the UK. Even if it's just proportional to our deployment there, that just underscores the fact that this is a "coalition" in name only.

I'm pretty liberal, but I break with the party on the withdrawal issue. I don't think we went in for the right reasons (i.e., fabricated WMD claims, fear- and hate-mongering over 9/11), I don't think we were prepared when we went in (i.e., weak medical preparedness, no exit strategy), and I suspect we're making more enemies than we're killing over there. But now that we're there, I think we have a duty to stay there until the place is stable again. It's only going to make matters worse if we withdraw and let Iraq settle its differences with a region-destabilizing, bloody civil war brought on by a vacuum of power of our own creation.

But visualizations like this sure test my resolve on that stance. My gut reaction is to get our people the heck out of there. This must be why the White House prevents the press from reporting on returning caskets, even when they are photographed anonymously - reminders of the human cost of war do little to raise people's "patriotic" support for it.

Kingdom Hearts 2 out tomorrow

I don't often look forward to the release of video games, being more of a developer than a player, but a game is being released tomorrow that I am looking forward to. It's Kingdom Hearts 2, the sequel to the surprisingly good collaboration between Disney and Square. I really enjoyed the first installment because the gameplay was good and the character modeling, animation, and integration were outstanding. The game areas were themed to particular Disney movies, so you could explore the jungles of Tarzan, fight in the arena of Hercules, and even visit Halloweentown from Nightmare Before Christmas (my fave, natch). They were rendered with such detail and care that they felt like extensions of the movies - it's not often that movie-themed video games are fun, so it's quite an accomplishment to make a fun game that uses multiple movies.

I've been looking forward to the game on an abstract level because of this for the last year or so, but tonight was the first time I actually went and looked at some screenshots, and now I'm looking forward to it on a more visceral level. It looks like they did some really fun things with the Disney lands for the second installment.

First, they are keeping and expanding upon Halloweentown, which is, of course, a tremendous bonus considering the interests of yours truly.

Next, they're visiting the world of The Lion King, which normally I wouldn't be too jazzed about, but check out the design on Scar. If the animation is half as good as the character modeling, that character is going to pop.

They're also visiting the world of Mulan, which is a treat, since I really enjoyed the visual design of that movie. They nailed the character design and the humor.

This time, they're even visiting worlds from the live-action movies with an area for Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with flesh-rotted zombies. I've always had a soft spot for the classic dark ride, so I'm happy to see that in there.

But the real kicker is that one of the lands is straight out of the original Steamboat Willie, rendered in black and white with simpler character designs and furniture that rocks to the music. You even get to steer the steamboat. Very cool, and an unexpected nod to the historical roots of Disney animation.

There is other stuff in there, too, like you get to fight in another Hercules level, you get more yawnworthy Winnie the Pooh sidegaming, and we apparently finally get to meet Belle from Beauty and the Beast (who is by far the coolest of the princesses, 'cause she has that dark-side jones-for-the-beast thing going on), so it looks like a lot of gameplay hours. Unless they really drop the ball on the gameplay, I'm pretty sure I'm going to like this one as much as the original.

I'll be making a trip to pick this one up tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Scary Flash Games

I found a few fun little Flash games recently that are really well-produced considering it's a lone garage developer putting them together. They're interactive horror adventures in the vein (pardon the pun) of Hellraiser and Evil Dead. The first one is called Exmortis, and the second, a sequel, is called Exmortis2 (found by way of Jay is Games).

The first game feels a little rough around the edges, and has a few game elements that it shouldn't, like having to do some events in an apparently arbitrary order. But it develops a surprisingly strong tone for its unique fictional world, which gets even stronger and more distinctive in the second installment. There are some good jump-scares in the game, rare for a Flash game, and it is fairly forgiving in the instant-death department, considering the subject matter.

I won't engage in spoilers here. Just go check out the games - be warned, though, they're not for the squeamish.

Monday, March 27, 2006

That must be why people smoke after sex

The British Medical Association has published a study that shows that smokers are much more likely to be impotent. And the more you smoke, the larger the danger.

When we did our tobacco education project a while back, we went with the philosophy that talking about the health risks of smoking was ineffectual, because the target audience was young and feel invincible. Instead, we went after the social risks of smoking: bad breath, yellowed teeth and fingers, the stink of tobacco that follows you around, and the money you could otherwise spend on CD's, DVD's, etc.

We couldn't have used this information in our project, since it was aimed at kids, but this sounds like the ultimate social deterrent to smoking. If you light up, you won't get up. If they're smart, the anti-smoking health organizations will start leading with this study. I see an ad where the smoker watches in puzzlement as the cigarette he's holding starts drooping...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

More Death in the Family playtesting

We played more Death in the Family, my card game about the Machiavellian intrigues of a twisted clan of nobles in a gloomy manor house, this weekend.

Unlike my previous game, Sex Farce, which had an almost perfect game balance right off the bat, this one is proving very difficult to make right. We've playtested it many times, and each session has provided great improvements, but the game still took a good two hours to play, and could have taken longer if there hadn't been a series of murders in the first round. It's quite frustrating to make some changes only to discover that, while they solve the earlier problems, introduce new ones which are just as problematic.

Still, I'm convinced there's a good game in there somewhere. I love the core game mechanic that models the backstabbing, conspiracy, and corruption; it's the stuff around it that tries to bring that mechanic to a full-fledged game that is problematic. If I can get those ironed out, I'm certain it would be a great little game.

As usual, this play session generated a lot of ideas for improvements, but we didn't have time to immediately test those ideas, so I'll have to wait for another time to see if those improvements work. It's a slow process relying on the patience of your friends for playtesting, because, really, no one wants to play a game that drags on forever, even if they know it's playtesting rather than straight-up entertainment. Thankfully, I've got some friends who are patient enough and good-natured enough that they're willing to do it every once in a while. Heh.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Gaming Weekend

My friend Kurt is hosting a marathon gaming weekend this weekend, and it's been pretty fun so far. Here are some games we played, and what I thought about them:
Before I Kill You, Mister Bond
This easy and quick Cheapass game has a great premise: You're a villain building an evil base to lure secret agents to kill. When you capture a secret agent, you can just kill him for the listed number of points, or you can taunt the secret agent for huge multipliers to the agent's value, but by doing so, you risk the secret agent escaping and blowing up your base. Very clever, very fun, and a nice game mechanic.
I was really impressed by this game. There's twelve nobles lined up to get their heads chopped off, and players take turns beheading the first noble in line. Each noble is worth different points - Marie Antoinette is worth lots, while martyrs are worth negative points. Then, you play cards to shuffle nobles around in line or do other fun things. Another simple mechanic which makes for a good game.
Chez Geek and Munchkin Bites
These two games are pretty similar. Play cards that give you advantages and points, and the first person to reach their point goal wins. Chez Geek was fun, but Munchkin Bites was really slow for the first round through the deck. It finally started picking up near the end, but by then, we were weary of the game.
We're getting together again today, and the plan is to play Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings game and playtest my own Death in the Family and Sex Farce.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

And so it begins

We've had our first disturbing look at the thought processes of least radical of Bush's two supreme court nominees. Roberts wrote the dissenting (thank god) opinion in a case about warrantless searches.

Basically, the question was whether or not you lose the right to be free from warrantless searches of your home if someone you live with decides to waive that right. If the police come to your door wanting to search your apartment, without a warrant, and your roommate says yes and you say no, then, the court ruled, the police need to get a warrant to search the apartment. This makes complete sense - your roommate shouldn't have the right to take your constitutional freedoms away from you any more than the police should.

But Roberts apparently disagrees. His point is basically that requiring the police to get a warrant in this case makes it harder on the police. Well, duh. That's kind of the point - you don't want it to be easy for police to search your home without a warrant. Why does he think that provision against unreasonable search and siezure was put into the Constitution in the first place? But more disturbing, Roberts seems to be of the mindset that removing an inconvenience to a police officer - forcing him to go talk to a judge before coming in - trumps you being able to exercise your constitutional freedoms.

Remember - there are times in one's life when you don't really choose who you live with, like that first college dorm roommate. Think back to all the people you've lived with over your life, and ask yourself if you would be willing to let all of them be the custodians of your personal freedoms. Yeah, that's what I thought. That dysfunctional idiot you lived with for five months back when you were a college sophomore is not a good judge of your best interests.

What does Roberts have to say about that? Hey, "sharing space entails risk." Yes it does, but one of those risks shouldn't be that you waive the right to your constitutionally-protected freedoms.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Jungle Jimmy gets Hitched

BoingBoing posted a link to an awesome site today. It's called Superdickery, and, among other things, it makes a compelling case that Superman is not the bastion of all that is good and pure that he is often made out to be. This is done by simply presenting a series of Superman comic covers.

And not only does Superman come off as a massive dickhead (apparently, he's left Lois to die quite often - I guess she's as resilient as the Man of Steel is), he actually seems to go to incredible lengths to be that massive dickhead. Case in point:
The Bride of Jungle Jimmy
Yes, you read that right. Apparently, in this issue, Superman became a witch doctor so he could set Jimmy Olsen up to marry a female gorilla. Which of course begs the question: why wasn't that the plot they used for the third Superman movie?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Watch Luke grow up

Next, on a very special BlossomStar Wars...

Looks like the Sci Fi channel is in talks to create a Star Wars television series, set between episodes III and IV, wherein you watch a young Luke Skywalker growing up. While I guess I'm on board with a Star Wars series, this premise sure sounds like a mistake. Considering Luke was whining about nothing interesting ever happening and how wet-behind-the-ears he is, clearly, not much of interest happened to him during the formative years before the two droids came into his life. So either they stay true to that, and we get teen angst dramas set against a space-desert backdrop (do landspeeders have back seats to make out in?), or they break that and have Luke fighting off stormtroopers and Sith lords, which has to be explained away with some contrivance to set things right before the start of Episode IV.

Seems like it would have been a better strategy to focus on the general Star Wars universe, with new characters, than to try to shoehorn a series around a character that has so much rigidity to his story already. I guess I'm just worried the show will "Jump the Womp Rat" before it even finishes its first episode. All I know is: the first time Luke has to choose between being popular and befriending a poor Sandperson who's being picked on at Tatooine High, the show's getting turned off.

Multiple Cameras in Shockwave3D

Sometimes, you have to deal with vastly different scales in your Shockwave3D projects, such as when making space scenes that have to display objects from tiny spaceships to planets to solar systems.
In these cases, using multiple cameras can come in handy by giving you great control over your hither and yon values. Multiple cameras can also assist with making skyboxes and heads-up displays.

I've been researching this topic for a while, and I decided to pull it all together into an article about multiple cameras in Shockwave3D. The article has a fair amount of detail on the use of multiple cameras, and comes with some sample code to use in your own projects.

This will hopefully be the first in a series of articles wherein I am going to try to document more of what I find out about developing for Shockwave3D as I build personal and work-related Shockwave3D worlds.

Friday, March 17, 2006

A Halloween Treat from 2005

I was pretty busy last Halloween, so there's no way I would have noticed this, but apparently, Wizards of the Coast has updated the canonical Dungeons and Dragons adventure Tomb of Horrors to the new rules, and, in a surprise move, released it as a free download. Out of all their properties, that is perhaps one of the most memorable, so it's pretty cool that they decided to do that rather than charge everyone for an update, something I suspect they could have easily done by having it ride on the coattails of its earlier success.

And I'll tell you, few scenarios would need updating more than Tomb of Horrors. One of the deadliest adventures ever published by TSR (there are places where the entire party could get wiped out with no saving throw if they do the wrong thing - and "wrong thing" is defined as everything but a handful of right things), Tomb of Horrors was very tightly wound around the first edition rules for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, making it basically impossible to run in the update rules systems without changes. Even if the tomb was just translated in the usual fashion, it still would need tweaking, since the introduction of specialist wizards would practically guarantee that a party would be doomed with their only hope was a spell from their wizard's opposed magery school.

The reason I stumbled upon this is that my buddy Byron, while a pretty avid and experienced player, has never gone through the Tomb of Horrors and expressed interest in playing. I think it will be a fun nostalgia trip, but I'm in no rush to go back to the 1.0 rules set, so this updated version will fit the bill nicely.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Multiple bomb threats

We had a bomb threat today on campus. We're not in one of the buildings that was affected, but we still got notified through the campus-wide emergency phone message system that several blocks on campus were being evacuated.

Apparently, at the same time, a bomb threat got called into the Las Cruces Sun-News as well.

Of course, there could be any number of nutcase reasons to call in multiple bomb threats, but the guess around the office here is that it was an attempt to disrupt the unionizing meeting, and the press coverage of it, that was to take place in that area on campus today.

This scenario makes sense to me, since there isn't exactly a lot of controversy and flared tempers here at NMSU. The unionizing effort is about the only hot topic around here, now that the Frenger Food Court debacle is over, and I've known people who get their panties in a bunch at the very mention of the word "union," so I could see some unhinged person thinking that this would be a clever stunt. And this would be the meeting to disrupt - apparently, this was supposed to be the big, pivotal meeting with a large turnout, where they were going to collect petition names and count cards, and have a state legislator and labor board member in attendance.

Of course, it could just as easily have been some whackjob who thinks Jesus is talking to him through the neighbor dog, telling him to kill, kill, kill the campus librarians or something. But in this case, there seems to be a confluence of little things that suggests someone more malicious than mentally imbalanced doing the deed.

Update: According to the Las Cruces Sun News, the bomb threat was issued by someone with an Arab accent, and mention of Al-Quaida was made. Still, that could just be an attempt by the would-be disruptor to throw off investigators and add fear to the situation.

Multi-Touch Interaction Research

Multi-touch screenCheck out this tré cool
multi-touch interaction screen developed by some guys at NYU. Most touch screens track single pokes and drags to interact with applications similarly to a mouse, but this touch screen tracks many touches and drags at once, allowing for some interesting Minority Report-like interactions. Be sure to check out the QuickTime video on the page!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Apple releases a Ruby on Rails Dev article

Lately, while searching Google for web development articles about problems I'm encountering, I keep landing on Apple Developer Connection pages, which almost always give me the depth and detail I need to solve my problem while still being readable and quickly understandable so I can do it quickly. Today, this trend appears to have continued, as I came upon a newly released Apple Developer Connection article entitled Using Ruby on Rails for Web Development on Mac OS X, which looks to be a good primer for anyone looking to get into Ruby on Rails development. As with all web development articles out of the ADC, they're not just for Mac people - while the "how to install Ruby on Rails" stuff might be Mac-specific, the rest is useful to people of any platform looking to get a primer on Ruby on Rails development.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

New Shockwave Player Released Today

Tom Higgins has blogged that Shockwave 10.1.1r16 update is now available. Of particular interest is the new Flash 8 Asset Xtra, which allows us to use Flash 8 authored content in Director. Tom points out that one of the ramifications of this is that Director developers now have access to the new filter effects of Flash 8 for use with their imaging Lingo tricks. Sexy!

More caverns

I worked some more on the cavern tileset for Sacraments 3D tonight. Here's a screenie (click to enlarge):
Shot looking down narrow cavern corridor
I'm also trying to figure out whether I can feasibly just use LightWave as my level editor; the shot above was laid out inside LightWave, for instance. Again, here's a screenie (click to enlarge):
Lightwave as level editor
I came to the conclusion that LightWave, while nice, is not a level editor, so I'll probably be writing my own editor that lets me add, move, rotate, and delete tileset elements to create maps. But it was a possibility worth investigating, since that would have saved me a lot of time.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Beware, for Gobi the Destroyer comes for thee!

Warning: geekery ahead.

My buddy Byron started some of us on a first-level Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Our group has traditionally been playing characters levels seven through twelve or so, so it was a bit of a treat to go back and start at the bare-bones, a-housecat-can-take-you-in-a-fair-fight, first level beginnings.

Our group is not a serious group, and we like to have fun with it, so we decided that our party would all be "little folk." We have (in descending order of height) a gnome, two halflings, and a kobold in the party. Four shrimpy little dudes out to make their mark on the world, with names like Gobi, Bango, Dudley, and Zook.

That much is fine, but the interesting part comes when our little band met up with our first encounter. (This was taken from a pre-written adventure Byron was using out of a book.) We were attacked by six Bugbears and a Bugbear Captain. The pre-written adventure said that the encounter was set up to force the players to flee in a particular direction (indeed, we had that option). But the smallest among us, the kobold, happened to be an overzealous paladin (don't ask), and he opted to charge.

It all happened so fast that I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but somehow, without any DM cheating-in-our-favor that I could detect, we actually won the battle. The kobold paladin and my halfling barbarian killed the leader in the first two rounds, and the druid gnome successfully entangled half of the remaining bugbears. A couple of well-placed magic missiles from the halfling sorceror killed a fourth bugbear and primed the stage for a very high intimidation roll that scared off the remaining two. We came away wounded pretty bad, but...four bugbears and a captain!

That single encounter raised us to second level. I think I'm more proud of that victory than any of the battles we waged at higher levels.

For a more detailed account of our exploits, you can follow them at Byron's Never pick up a duck in a dungeon... blog.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cavern Tileset

Been tinkering with more Sacraments 3D assets today. I've got the basis of a nice cavern tileset going. Here's a screenie:
Cavern tileset screenshot
(In the actual game, there won't be quite as much light in the caves, of course, but I bumped up the light here so you could see more of the tileset.)

Now I'm Scared

Boingboing is reporting that Bush has issued an executive order that the Department of Homeland Security is to create a "Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives." It was questionable to funnel money to Bush's religious buddies under the guise of supporting social programs, but this is downright dangerous. Didn't Bush learn from the FEMA debacle that it's unwise to play politics with security?

"Have you been in possession of your luggage ever since you packed it?"
"Has anyone asked you to carry a package or other item onto the plane with you?"
"Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Figure Drawing is de prOn!

Why is it that it's always uptight jerks in charge of things, and the cool people under them? According to this article, an art teacher was making recommendations to some of his high school students interested in improving their drawing skills in preparation for studying art in college. Among the suggestions the teacher made was that they take figure drawing classes from some local educational entities (such as the New York Academy of Art and the local community college).

But OMFG! Figure drawing classes have nekkid people! *GASP!* It is de prOn! Polluting the minds of children!

So, like Hypatia being dragged off to an appointment with some oyster shells, this enlightened, celebrated teacher is finding his 25-year educational career put on hold - and possibly cut short -by what appears to be simple puritanical thuggery. He's been suspended, and will possibly be fired. For recommending that students interested in pursuing a career in art take figure drawing classes. Boggles the mind.

It's a shame, really, because some of the drawings done by the students who went on to take figure drawing courses are really nice.

(Via Drawn!)

Blogger's Block

I've been writing this blog approximately daily for about a year. Sometimes, it's difficult to keep it up, but so far, I've at least managed to avoid this.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Deleting files on your laptop is illegal?

Yikes. Corporations get yet another court decision against employees. Recently, a judge supported a corporation who is pressing charges against an employee who deleted files off of his laptop, even though the agreement with the corporation explicitly required the employee to "return or destroy" the data in the laptop when he leaves the company. Apparently, they wanted to sue him for going to work for the competition, and tried undeleting files on the returned laptop to go fishing for things to punish him for.

The reason, apparently, that this flies legally is because there is a provision in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that makes it illegal to "cause a transmission" and thus "knowingly cause damage without authorization" to a networked computer, and the judge took the view that deleting a file constitutes "damage" to the computer, and typing on the keyboard constituted a "transmission." Apparently, I issue transmissions to damage my computer every day.

Moreover, the judge ruled that the "authorization" provision was violated when the employee had a "breach of his duty of loyalty." In other words, whether or not you can delete a file at work is based on whether or not the company would want that file, even if the reason they want that file is not for business-related purposes but simply to find something to sue you for. And apparently, this is true even though the company explicitly gave him permission to destroy the data on the laptop, indeed required him to do it in a legal document. Moreover, if that contract had said only to "destroy" the data on the laptop when it is returned to the company, instead of "destroy or return," then he would have been liable either way - for destroying or not destroying the data on the laptop - a legal catch-22.

One wonders, then, what the distinction between this and it being illegal to securely delete, say, personal emails. If any. If your employer would like to keep that data, regardless of motivation (and what corporation would willingly give up rights to any content?), does that mean you are in breach of your "duty of loyalty" if you don't want them to keep that data? And given this ruling, it is unlikely to have the analysis of the situation continue to reside with the owner of the actual hardware - more likely, the focus is the data on the computer. Does this mean that if you use a personal laptop for work, then you don't have the right to delete files off of your own computer?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

More Carnival of Souls 2005 photos available

Animatronic skull circuitryUploading photos to flickr just got easier - there's an iTunes flickr plugin that makes it a snap to upload photos. As a result, there's a whole pile of new photos in my Halloween 2005 photo set.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

More Guitar Hero coming!

Gamasutra is reporting that RedOctane and Harmonix are working on five or six Guitar Hero sequels that will include Guitar Hero 2 with 40+ new tracks with country-western (yuck) and heavy metal (yay) expansions and perhaps a new Gibson Flying V guitar controller. Rock on!

Moral Authority in RPG's

As I mentioned in my last post, I played a fair amount of Neverwinter Nights while I was laid up in bed last week. It got me thinking again about the role of the dungeon master and game designer (basically, one and the same in a CRPG like Neverwinter Nights) has with respect to the moral authority of the game.

The prime example of this, for me, was Ultima IV, which, although just a game, got me, a surly teenager, explicitly thinking about virtue abstracted from admonitions from parents, preachers, and teachers. Pride is not a virtue. Not a deep exploration of the topics by any stretch, Ultima IV still acted as a touchstone which actually advised the adult I would become.

That means that when Richard Gariott, sitting in his Austin, Texas, home or office in the early 80's, had the idea of incorporating an explicit moral system in the game, it was not just an academic exercise. Whether he knew it at the time or not, the portrayal of that moral system would have a real effect on the way his players would think about morality.

On one hand, this shouldn't be so shocking. After all, video games - and RPG's in particular - borrow much from traditional forms of art and storytelling. By making morality the theme of the game, of course the player would think about morality.

But on the other hand, it is striking. We play to be entertained, not to grow as individuals, so many of us decline to grow as individuals in pursuit of the game's entertainment value. (Who among us listened to our feelings of guilt for killing the Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus and set down the controller in protest?) Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Doom, Grand Theft Auto - they all remain meaningless, unreal abstractions that are obviously detached from reality and really make no attempt to address the player's personal morality as a topic. Despite what the soapboxers would claim, no one plays Grand Theft Auto and comes away thinking it would be a good idea to go around randomly running over people and shooting them, because those game elements are trappings hung off of the game mechanics. They're fun explicitly because that behavior is wrong and unwise and we would never do it in real life.

So to have an RPG that actually reaches through that dense gulf between the game world avatar and the gamer to address real issues for the player is rare. In the case of Ultima IV, I believe it works because the challenge is to be virtuous, not as bad-as-you-can-be. Everyone can do the latter for fun and without consequence. But to challenge the player to eschew the inventory-stealing, monster-slaying, gold-hoarding ways of the typical RPG hero is to challenge the player himself on some level. That's why I think it worked - that, and the fact that in the final analysis, it was a pretty defensible and reasonable definition of virtue. It wasn't the trite white hat black hat morality that is typically seen in games, which prompts you to actually think about the moral dilemma it poses.

Which brings me to Neverwinter Nights. Based on the d20 System from Dungeons and Dragons, the game uses the practically cliché double-axis system for measuring the morality of its characters. One axis describes how obeisant you are to order (ranking you from "lawful" to "chaotic"), while the other axis describes, basically, how evil you are (ranking you from "good" to "evil"). Thus, an approximation of a character's behavior can be summed up with an adjective and a noun: "lawful good" or "chaotic neutral" or "neutral evil" for example. In the CRPG, these axes actually get assigned numbers - "lawful (20) good (85)" - to judge when your character has slipped over into a different category.

Unlike in the tabletop game, then, you get a running tabulation of your moral choices in the game, almost like how you score points for shooting down space invaders. You can rack up "good points" or "chaos points" to help you achieve your goals, which gives a distinctly mercenary feel to the moral system. In essence, the game is quantifying morality.

Moreover, the game designers, then, reveal an interesting window into the way that they would judge certain choices in a moral dilemma. At one point in the game, you come across several escaped convicts, one at a time, each of whom surrender to you and attempt to explain the extenuating circumstances behind their crimes and subsequent harsh punishments. These convicts range from an evil braggart who shows a complete disregard for life to a man who took revenge for terrible crimes against his family a bit too far and has come to understand and regret his folly. After hearing each convict's story, you have the option to let them escape or to kill them for bounty.

Normally, I would think that this is an interesting moral exploration - where on the spectrum from unrepentent evil to guilt-ridden absolution-seeker do you draw the line of forgiveness? This could be an interesting commentary on social justice.

But unfortunately, that illusion crumbles back into the realm of point-crunching statistics in Neverwinter Nights. No matter which one you're talking to, the game consequences are the same. If you choose not to kill the escaped convict for the bounty and let them go, you see the message "Your actions have shifted you five points towards evil." For showing mercy. Evil. The good thing to do, at least to the game designers, apparently, is to kill the person who has surrendered to you, cut off their ear, and turn it in for money. Yikes.

In another part of the game, you become the mystical judge over an ancient case of infanticide. It is your job to determine who the guilty party is, and make your sentence. The case involves two brothers who accuse each other of being to blame for the murdered children. In the course of your investigation, you discover that a demon convinced one of the brothers to kill the children to attain great magical power, and duped the other brother into luring the children to the castle where they would be slain. One wrinkle in this is that the entire town has been frozen in time, trapped in a maddening limbo, awaiting your arrival (as the mystical judge) so that you can deliver the verdict.

When you go to deliver your final judgement, though, the game's conversation engine steers you away from being able to do what seems to me to be the obvious verdict. Through what appears to be mere conversation tree mechanics, you are forced to do one of four things: acquit both brothers, convict one brother, convict both brothers, or convict the demon and acquit both brothers. (This last option, by the way, dooms the entire village to remain in its damned limbo state forever, something that is certainly not made obvious before you make your decision.) In particular, there is no way to convict both the demon and the power-hungry brother while acquitting the innocent brother and all the innocent people trapped in time with them, which seemed the reasonable course of action to me.

In the end, the option to convict just the one brother and let the demon go free turns out to be the one most rewarded by the game developers. In this case, the real architect of the slaughter and the one most likely to repeat his crimes - the demon - goes free. Presumably, this is made palatable by saying that if you didn't do that, the innocents in the village would suffer along with the demon for all eternity. But of course, you only find that out if you dial back to saved games and see the alternative play out. The truth is that as you actually play the game, the conversation tree doesn't even allow you to explore the possibility of accusing both the brother and the demon - the way the conversation is structured, the avatar presumes that if one is guilty, the other is innocent.

Put together, these two experiences have a somewhat similar effect as Ultima IV did, in that they made me think explicitly about real-world morality and what it means to show mercy or to stand in judgement over someone. Unfortunately, unlike in Ultima IV, I found the moral yardstick against which my avatar (and by extension, me) was measured seemed flawed. I ended up wondering more about the scenario designer's morality than my own.

Which raises the final issue. By instituting a moral judgement system in an RPG, you are essentially acting as the architect of the fundamental morality of the game world, and by extension, standing in judgement over the moral decisions made by the player potentially as governed by their real-world morality. Moreover, you may be revealing your own moral code in the process. If anyone needs to re-examine their moral code for defensibility, consistency, and robustness, it's a CRPG designer, because you literally take on the mantle of St. Peter for the duration your players are in your charge. You need to make sure that you do not reward an action that could be done with good intent by calling the player "five points towards evil." You need to make sure that if you set up a juicy moral dilemma, you allow the player to respond in a reasonably nuanced way to that dilemma, rather than forcing the player to accept moral compromises through the conversation engine that they would not accept if they were not bound by such a game mechanic. If you're going to take on the subject of morality in a CRPG, it needs to be deep, and wise. If you can't do the topic justice, leave it alone.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Among the Living

Those of you wondering what happened to me after not posting for several days, no, I didn't end up succumbing to Captain Trips, although I have been laid up with a nasty sore throat stuporous nasty bug of some variety that has left me without enough energy to blog.

Or rather, nothing worth blogging about, which takes more energy than days when I have something interesting to blog about. When you're sick in bed all day, there's not a lot new to report that would be of interest to anyone else. The things that excite you when you're sick are not the sorts of things people want to read about, and when you live life from "dose of Theraflu" to "dose of Theraflu," being able to set your watch off of the return of symptoms half an hour before you can take your next dose, it's tough to come up with something that matters to anyone who is not also suffering the same affliction.

I did manage to play quite a bit of Neverwinter Nights for Mac. Thank god it has many, many hours of gameplay in it, because it was pretty much the only thing that kept my mind off of the cluster of razor blades and sandpaper rolling around in the back of my throat all week. The game took on a pretty surreal feel for me, though, since I would play it in a half-awake zombie state, thanks to sleep deprivation and over-the-counter "nighttime" meds.

I'll blame that disconnect from reality for my unwise decision to create a Bard character to play the game with. I've come to the conclusion that Bards suck. Yeah, yeah, they can sing and cast a few spells, but they generally suck at fighting and suck at spellcasting, which makes them okay in a party but not so good at going it alone. (Yeah, you get a henchman, but how much fun is it to have a lower-level halfling rogue do all your killin' for you?) At one point, I tried going back and creating a real fighter-type, but the thought of having to go through all the locales and dialogues again just seemed too overwhelming, so I fell back to my Bard save game. Now, I just tell myself I enjoy the challenge of playing the game with a suboptimal character class.

Anyway, that's what I've been doing, and why I haven't been blogging recently. I'll pick it back up more as I get feeling better...