Saturday, May 28, 2016

The great framerate debate

Thirty? Or sixty?

There is a huge debate over this, with many people defending games that are being locked to thirty frames per second as not a bad thing. Some call it cinematic, some call it a stylistic choice...and some call it a really dumb idea. So...what do we do?

The answer, of course, is that we turn to SCIENCE.

Each human eye is different, and every person sees reality at a different frame rate. Older people tend to see things at a lower framerate, but that's not a hard-coded rule, just a strong tendency. On average, a human being can distinguish around 45 to 50 frames per second, with people who have gotten specialty training going up to insane numbers like in excess of 200 frames recognizable.

So, it does seem that sixty frames per second would be beyond the average human's ability to perceive, but thirty frames would be too little. Not exactly; a person who has plenty of experience with FPS games and the like probably has greater twitch reflexes than the average Joe - and twitch reflexes are dependent on seeing precise fractions of a second in which to press a button.

In that sense, increased framerate is beneficial for games dependent on quick reactions to sudden events. The FPS genre is one of them, and quite a few other genres reach that level in top competitive play (RTS games like Starcraft II come to mind). Sixty might not even be enough in that case.

For the rest, 30 FPS is a little slow. It's not required for us to see units move in a turn-based game at a higher framerate, but it sure would look better and less jerky. I'd prefer it if games aimed for a 48 FPS number, which would fit nicely in with average human vision. And games like that are still necessary; there are always going to be people who have motion sickness, and we don't want to leave them completely out of the fun, do we?

So there you have it; neither is a precise magic number, but instead it's more about catering to broad groups. Sixty ain't bad, but we can do better. And thirty isn't good, but it's tolerable, I suppose. (And anything is better than games that dip into single digit FPS numbers, let me tell you. Ugh...)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Movies and video games, oh my

Why do video game movies keep failing? Okay, maybe some of them don't fail as such, but there hasn't been one yet that has been an all-out blockbuster? It's a question that many many many people have asked, and so, since it's something I wonder as well, I'd like to take a stab at answering it.

First, I'd like to point out that by video game movies, I mean movies ostensibly based off the plot of video games. (Whether or not they actually stick to this plot is not a factor). So no, I am not going to include Wreck-It Ralph in this blog post. (Which is unfortunate, because I liked Wreck-It Ralph it.) I'm also going to focus on Western films - I know Japan has its own adaptation, but I'm not familiar with them enough to cover them.

To travel back to the early ones like Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros., back then video games didn't really have much in the way of plot, so the writers were having to invent it wholesale or the game companies were trying to dictate what had to be done without understanding the different nature of film. The results were cheesy at best and dreadful at worst; but those early movies were just that, early, and probably couldn't be taken too seriously.

It's a shame that critics did. During the 90s, video games were still very much a niche hobby, and not quite in mainstream culture they were now. So film critics back then had no good ground for evaluating these movies, leading to them panning them. Mortal Kombat is a good example; these days, most people recognize it as a solid film that embraced the cheesiness of its premise. A shame that the CGI was so crude back then.

The first major breakthrough was the less-than-stellar Resident Evil film (2002). While not good by any stretch, it rode its action flick status to box office profits and several sequels, which got progressively worse while still continuing to make money. And maybe this was the path forward; aim for the summer action movie crowd, and ignore the rating. Except, of course, the actual people who played the games, who were not too happy.

You see, a video game movie has to walk the fine line of being both a good movie and pleasing the fans of whatever video game its based on. And since a good number of the things that make a video game good are not elements that can really be recreated in film...well, there's part of your problem. Even if it was appealing to game fans, a lot of film critics would bash it for trying to do so. And so, for that matter, would a number of gamers, since some of them (surprise) would understand what makes a film good.

Meanwhile, in Germany, an aspiring film director decided to take advantage of a tax loophole and produce several movies very loosely based on video games. You guessed it...Uwe Boll. Most of his work is low budget flicks designed to exploit popular trends (this also applies to his films covering things other than video games). It was his work that really cemented the idea that video game movies were inherent failures. And that's all I'm going to say about him, because there's nothing else left to say about Boll that's polite.

Between all this, several other companies attempted movies. Some went to theaters, while others opted for the direct-to-video approach. None met with any major commercial or critical success, further driving home the message that video game movies fail.

This brings us to 2016, with a couple of films looking to shake up the status quo. Warcraft comes out in a month, and in December we're getting the Assassin's Creed movie. Can they break through the obstacles I've noted above and appeal to critics, movie fans, and gamers? Well, we'll just have to wait and see. At least if the Angry Birds early reviews (it comes out next week) are any indication, critics are going to be much more favorable...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The end of happiness

Alternate title: why I decided I'm not actually interested in Fallout 4. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

I liked Fallout 3 (or at least, the vanilla game; Broken Steel I could devote an entire rant to the problems with it). I wanted to love it, but the game did have flaws with its writing as well as a few too many glitches to count it as one of the all-time greats.

With that said, I don't want to play Fallout 4. At all. Why? You would think that I would want to see what improvements had been made, and how the game had done things differently. You see, Bethesda committed what I consider to be one of the worst storytelling gaffes you can make when it comes to video games.

To take a step back, one of the things that differentiates video games from other forms of narrative fiction (except tabletop RPGs)  is that the player gets to take an active role in moving the story forward. The hours aren't just spend reading or watching, but participating in the world the game's creators put in front of you. That kind of engagement is why I love video games, and a key reason why they have become as big and influential as they have.

Not all games are self contained stories, but are part of a larger series. Since this requires multiple purchases, guaranteeing the next game is bought demands more than just the last game being good. It means rewarding the involvement of the having the choices and actions matter. If I want to earn a happy ending, then I can get that happy ending.

The problem with Fallout 4 is that a fair amount of the good work the player did and saw was undone, particularly the nature of the Brotherhood of Steel. It's not as bad as some examples (I'm looking at you, Chrono Cross), but it does mean that the hours I spent on Fallout 3 feel less meaningful, knowing that my character's accomplishments did not amount to much.

Before I get accused of being a blind idealist, there is nothing wrong with a person's efforts amounting to nothing after the fact. It's common enough in real life, as depressing as it sounds. But a video game isn't just a story about the character. On some level, the player character and the player are one and the same. The achievements of one are the achievements of the other, and taking them away from one means taking them away from both.

 Beating a story-driven game isn't just a reward for its own sake; it's about seeing the story through to a satisfactory conclusion. If you take that away from the player, what's left? Why would anyone play it for the story, when their efforts to resolve the story in the way they want it amount to nothing? This is an attitude that does not further the medium, instead limiting what can be done.

If people want me to follow their series of games, it has to mean something to actually play them. And since Bethesda decided my playthrough of Fallout 3 wasn't worth that much in terms of changing the setting for the better, I won't be going back to that setting. Not that it will stop other gamers, but I do want people to consider the value of the stories they're experiencing...and the choices they make while playing through them. So go on, think about it.