Drakengard – A Futile Struggle

In a previous post here I explained my plan for a series of articles exploring each of the games in the NieR/Drakengard series. If you’re looking for a review of the first game in the series, Drakengard, then you may want to look elsewhere, but if you’d rather read a rambling, self-indulgent over-analysis of its mechanics and narrative structure, then this is the start of that.

Originally I intended to write only one piece per game, but working through my notes for the first game I found that there are just too many disparate parts deserving discussion to easily organise into something digestible. So, the aim now is to divide Drakengard into two meandering incoherent walls of text: the first, this one, exploring the unusual delivery and nature of its narrative, and a second examining what’s remarkable about its dated and awkward gameplay.

Taken As a Whole

There are a lot of obstacles in the way of actually enjoying Drakengard. First, you’ll have to get over the archaic camera controls, locate some enemies using the minimap because their draw distance is terrible, and then persevere with the ground combat long enough to find its virtues (tune in next time). You’ll also need to be okay with it looking like a PS2 game – and an ugly, bland one at that, despite some very interesting quirks here and there. If you stick it out for long enough you’ll likely notice that the music is cacophonous, repetitive, and unpleasant, but hopefully come to appreciate the frantic, violent atmosphere it creates. Then you’ll have to come to terms with the cast of characters offered up, which includes a mute, psychopathic protagonist, a feeble goddess, a cynical, human-hating dragon, a paedophile, a cannibalistic elf, and a fatalistic, cowardly priest.

So what’s the deal then? Why is Drakengard still worth playing – worth writing about, even? Well for one thing, whether by fluke or deliberate design, I do think that there’s a lot of depth and enjoyment to be found in the game’s ground and aerial combat mechanics. But Drakengard also offers up surprisingly offbeat narrative and world-building for a Japanese RPG, with compelling voice acting throughout (a minor miracle for an English-dub), and hints of the kind of social commentary and philosophy which becomes far more blatant by the time we get to Drakengard 3 and NieR: Automata. But by far the main reason I want to write about the original Drakengard is the innovative ways in which its narrative delivery exploits the interactive medium – something I’m not aware has been replicated in the decade and a half since its release.

World-building

Although narratively connected the Drakengard games take place in a whole other world to that where the NieR games are set – though not a different fictional ‘universe’. We’ll call this other world the ‘Dragon Sphere’ henceforth, since that’s what the ultimate ending of the first game calls it.

Despite a fairly generic high-fantasy foundation with knights and dragons, swords and sorcery, goblins, ogres, golems and fairies, Drakengard does a lot with its tone and laser focus to distinguish itself from contemporary Japanese RPGs. On the surface we see the old tropes: warring Union and Empire forces, the mortal goddess Furiae who is no only kidnapped, but is also one of the ‘Seals’ of the world, which, of course, the enemy is trying to break for… reasons? But the game doesn’t dwell on lore at all – instead it puts us behind the blade of bloodthirsty Caim, to whom the Empire soldiers are nothing more than enemies to be cut down, and the Goddess merely his sister – perhaps even just an excuse him to go on a rampage. Caim doesn’t give a damn about history, religion, or anything else, and I for one appreciate that being reflected in what we’re shown.

The majority of the game is a grim trudge through fields, forests, ruins, and thousands of human soldiers, brightened somewhat by the voice-acted musings of your grim companions playing out during gameplay – primarily spoken by the aforementioned misanthropic dragon and the fatalistic priest, Verdelet. It’s only in the final chapters that things become suddenly hellish and bizarre. Somehow the Dragon Sphere manages to be a high-magic fantasy setting with the tone of a low-magic one: It feels more akin to Berserk (the Golden Age arc of the 1997 anime) than, say Warhammer, despite having human factions operating squadrons of airships, wyverns (stupid wyverns!), and ‘gargoyle cubes’ that fire lasers at you. Verdelet and the rest of the cast help in that regard because they don’t even seem to understand anything about the ‘Watchers’, the ‘Seals’, or the ‘Seeds of Resurrection’. The dragon even indicates that the legends passed down by man are incorrect: “These are not the Seeds of Resurrection. They are the Seeds of Destruction.” “Man bends the truth for any convenience.”

Also noteworthy is the strangely modern-looking, ruined imperial capital, with its tall, square buildings resembling modern skyscrapers. I could try and break down why that may be based on what I know from the other games in the series, but it’s not worth dwelling on right now.

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Better Branching

Describing NieR: Automata as having numerous ‘endings’ is inaccurate – explaining to people that they need to get at least five of them to see the big picture is discouraging, and trying to explain why it shouldn’t be without spoiling the experience is a difficult task. In the case of some games with branching narratives it isn’t only the repetition of gameplay that’s off-putting, but the need to uncover often obtuse and illogical branching points.  While unlocking the final chapters of NieR: Automata does indeed involve playing the prior part of the game through twice – kind of – it doesn’t really require the player to figure out how to reach different endings, instead guiding them effortlessly from one to the next, and this lead-by-the-hand approach is something that the series hit upon in its first entry.

Reaching endings B to D in Drakengard requires only that you replay missions where the story branches, meet the objective for that branch, and complete the additional missions unlocked as a result. You can skip ahead through the story, playing only the additional missions unlocked rather than retreading unaltered ground. Tooltips on locked missions tell you exactly what is required in order to unlock them, but not the reason, and though many such requirements are a simple matter of ‘complete mission n in less than x seconds’, usually a narrative reason for this becomes clear after the fact. For example, reaching Drakengard’s ending C requires that you beat ending B’s penultimate boss so quickly as to trigger a change of heart in one particular character, preventing the creation of B’s final boss, which otherwise keeps our anti-hero so preoccupied that he doesn’t notice the world falling apart around him.

In another example, after having satisfied all the other conditions to unlock Drakengard’s penultimate ending, the game still lets you fail if you don’t manage to defeat an enemy armada quickly enough at a critical moment. Not only that, but it does so subtly, and even goes so far as to insert two additional, pointless missions, before (presumably) branching back to a previous ending where you arrive too late to save Furiae. The second of these missions is a truly disconcerting trek through a level devoid of enemies, who have already evacuated while you were outside fending off a wave of reinforcements. Here we see that even when you’ve fought hard for a reward, the game is not only happy to let you fail, but also to taunt and toy with you for it. While we’re not dealing with procedural or emergent storytelling here, and the mechanics by which the story branches may not be interesting taken out of context, these examples should begin to illustrate how they might integrate meaningfully with the narrative and the interactive experience.

Most early branching leads to the acquisition of new companion characters that are useful in gameplay, and side missions which do little to flesh out the world or events within it – though the last companion’s, Seere’s, does give a good insight into the backstory of his twin sister Manah, high priestess of the Cult of the Watchers, and main antagonist of the game. It’s only in the final chapters of the game where the branches become truly significant.

With the exception of endings B and C, I believe, endings A to E of Drakengard must be unlocked in alphabetic order. A standard trope followed by many games would see these endings, each unlocked by extra work, by extra % completion of the game’s content, grow steadily more positive or crowd-pleasing, to varying levels of actual narrative significance. In most cases we’re simply treated to a little bit of extra dialogue or a different cutscene, and you can count on some players working through a whole, near-identical game multiple times just to see that difference. Not only does it take less work to unlock the alternative endings of Drakengard, but in doing so you unlock whole chapters – new places and events which give the player fleeting glimpses into the minds of characters who might otherwise seem fully one-dimensional, and a growing understanding of just what is unfolding as their continued effort results in increasingly calamitous conclusions.

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Every End’s a Bad End

Ending A, which you’ll see on first completion of Drakengard, is bittersweet: the seals are broken and the goddess sacrificed to plunge the world into chaos; Caim and the dragon fight through a menagerie of monsters, legions of fanatic soldiers, and a giant infant girl to save the Dragon Sphere; Caim even redeems some of his humanity as he refuses to give Manah the mercy of death, and weeps for a dragon – a creature he once despised with good reason  – as his partner sacrifices herself to become the new seal.

Reaching Ending B will net you a few more hours of hack-and-slash fun, a pretty horrific cutscene, and an conclusion which is essentially apocalyptic. Ending C is no brighter, really. This joke is carried right through to ending E, where it seems that events culminate in the wholesale termination of the Dragon Sphere and, as we learn from the continuity of the game in NieR and NieR: Automata, a magical blight upon our own universe, leading to the ruin of the Earth, and the downfall of humanity here.

If you were hoping to at least succeed in saving Furiae in one of these eventualities, you’ll be disappointed, and mocked for you naivety: In the branches where you do eventually manage to reach her before she is ritually sacrificed, her romantic feelings towards her brother are tauntingly revealed by the by mind-reading high-priestess, Manah. Our player character, Caim, proves too emotionally inert to even appear sympathetic – a facet of his character reflected in the blood of the thousands of soldiers he slew to get here, ostensibly to save her – so she plunges a dagger into her breast, this time instigating the apocalypse by her own hand.

Having progressively more miserable conclusions, although unique and interesting, isn’t especially meritorious on its own. Punishing players for their hard work and time investment with bad endings, whether you really see them as less desirable or not, seems like a strange decision at best. In a video released on YouTube through official channels, director Taro Yoko commented on his thought process during the creation of the original Drakengard:

“I was looking at a lot of games back then, and I saw these messages like ‘You’ve defeated 100 enemies!’ or ‘Eradicated 100 enemy soldiers!’ in an almost gloating manner. But when I thought about it in an extremely calm state of mind, it hit me that gloating about killing a hundred people is strange. I mean, you’re a serial killer if you killed a hundred people. It just struck me as insane. That’s why I decided to have the army of the protagonist in Drakengard be one where everyone’s insane.”

From the director’s comments, and the more direct approach of later games in the series, it seems clear that his philosophy runs thick in the blood of Drakengard, and that its quirks deserve closer inspection. At the very least we can be sure that the growing unpleasantness of each ending was a very deliberate choice; in another interview, Taro reportedly comments: “any game that centres on slaughtering hundreds in war shouldn’t deserve a happy ending.”

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Mechanics Matter

Structuring the characters and the conclusion of the game game around this philosophy may be interesting, but the integration into the game’s mechanics is what’s exceptional. While the obvious approach may be to provide a pacifistic or non-lethal option, as a number of more recent games have done, Drakengard embraces violence in order to critique it within the framework of a what is strictly a hack-and-slash action game.

Caim and the dragon each has a character level which, as in many videogames, is tied to the number of enemies they have killed. Not only that, but weapons in Drakengard also level up based on the number of enemies that have been killed with them, and new weapons are often found in hidden chests which appear only when all of the enemies in an area are dead. In this way the game’s systems encourage you to kill as many soldiers as you possibly can, rather than just the marked objectives, then to return and kill them all over again in search of hidden loot. Need some friends to help you slaughter all those soldiers, and to unlock the last two endings of the game? Well, finding those companion characters will mean killing more, killing faster, and completing additional missions based around killing. One of these missions sees you hacking apart hundreds of child soldiers while listening to the protests of a particular companion (the paedophile).

The important fact is that all of this killing is ultimately pointless. Endings B and C see the world plunged into Armageddon even after the trauma of fighting bastardised versions of Caim’s nearest and dearest. After going to the trouble of finding all the companion characters to unlock ending D, they prove to be too weak-willed or deranged to be of any help – with the exception perhaps of Seere, who is appropriately the most sympathetic of the crooked bunch. But the real gut punch comes in the fifth and final ending, E, for which you must acquire every last one of the game’s 65 weapons.

Ending E branches off of the same part of the narrative as ending D, wherein all your companions but Seere and the dragon have proven worthless in the face giant demon sky babies. It is the most important, and perhaps the most divisive part of the entire experience. Some have accused the unlock condition of this ending of being just a cheap way to lengthen the game, which seems like a strange criticism given that the game is already long enough and developers of that era had no micro-transactions or DLC with which to profit from your extended playtime. More importantly, the extra gameplay unlocked for ending E, the final boss, uses wholly different mechanics from the rest of the game. This is a pet peeve of mine – a thing that the likes of Lost Planet, Dark Void, and the entire Sonic the Hedgehog series are guilty of; its unfair, unfun, disregards everything that the you have learned in the playing the rest of the game, and in doing so, is uniquely appropriate for Drakengard.

The final boss fight takes place in the sky above modern-day Tokyo (don’t ask), which means you’ll be riding the dragon, which means that all of those weapons you grinded for are worthless. What’s more, because the final boss takes the form of a rhythm game (don’t ask), all the offensive and defensive modifiers gained by levelling up the dragon are also worthless. All that is left at your disposal is patience and perseverance – you’ve at least demonstrated those in coming this far. But even if you grit your teeth and overcome what is by all accounts an unreasonable challenge, or if you do what I did and find ending E on YouTube rather than even bother to collect the weapons, then what you’re rewarded with is the annihilation of the two remaining characters by a pair of fighter jets, the implication that the Dragon Sphere is destroyed outright, and a roll of credits over the sounds of city traffic.

Violence Solves Nothing

What happens in each of Drakengard’s endings is, to some extent, Caim’s fault, and the player’s fault; it happens because the only way that Caim knows of interacting with the world is through violence, because the player only came for that violence, and because of these two things, violence was the only means of interaction we were provided. With that approach, Ending A was the best we could have hoped for. With only violence Caim is unable to reconcile with his wayward friend, is unable to attract worthwhile allies, and in being unable to console his sister, is unable to save her and thereby the world, even when doing so is inches from his grasp.

Thus, Drakengard adheres to one the virtues you might expect a protagonist in a typical video game to espouse, but thereafter completely disregard because gameplay: Violence solves nothing.  To put words in the game’s mouth: “What? Did you really think murdering more soldiers, gathering a party of nut jobs, and collecting weapons would make things turn out better? How?”

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Year of the… Dragon?

This year’s off to an interesting start: I have a new job (kinda – new company, tech, and projects, but same old faces and spaces), I’ve made a fairly consistent effort to pick up drawing and painting again, completed a short spell on jury duty back in January, I’ve been warming up to start running again in the spring, and now I’m writing here – something I intended to do a month ago.

The way things went at the end of last year left me with a lot of time on my hands. Besides a few job interviews, some scraps of work, brushing up on some technical areas that’d been left at the wayside, and a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, I was finally able to fiddle with a few long-standing ideas for personal projects. Between dabbling in Unity and Unreal I put together a bunch of weird game prototypes and experiments which I’d like to show off and muse upon here – I’ve been intending to since Christmas, but y’know – life.

There are other things I’d like to put into writing too, but writing takes a lot of time for someone as self-concious as me. Still, I’ve had the bug for it lately – strangely I’ve missed all of the essay writing and documentation that comes along with university projects. I think that writing can do a lot to help you put your thoughts in order, to take a step back and think about things more logically, and maybe even cement things in your memory. Moreover, I have a constant glut of ideas in my head – things I want to do and express but don’t have the time or skill to follow up on. It might be worthwhile putting those ideas into writing I suppose, however irregularly I manage it. And I might as well keep that record somewhere public, just in case it peaks someone else’s interests.

But it’s the Year of the Horse!

I’ve also gone off the deep end this year – gone off the deep end for a series of videogames in a way that I think I’ve only done once before. The first time I remember doing this was for Ys, a rather niche series of action/role-playing games by Japanese developer Nihon Falcom Corporation, dating back to the late 80s. After picking up Ys: Origin on Steam sometime in 2012 I struggled my way through its ‘Nightmare’ difficulty three times – once for each playable character. I fell so in love with that game that I proceeded to pick up every previous entry in the series, and a number of vaguely similar Falcom titles; I began with the games that played similarly to Origins – Oath in Felghana and Ark of Napishtim, then Ys I & II Chronicles+, Ys 7, Xanadu: Next, and the latest in the series that I’ve played, Memories of Celceta.

I loved Ys for its unusual mix of platforming, bullet hell, roleplaying, and hack-and-slash gameplay, for its tight controls, hardcore difficulty, and generally firm emphasis of gameplay over graphics and narrative. The characters and story in Ys games is typically cliche, simple, bright, colourful, and all you really need to support great gameplay. Only as I write this I’m remembering how the first gameplay footage I saw from NieR: Automata reminded me of Ys and its strange hybrid of genres – bullet hell, action, platformer, rpg – but that’s one aspect that’s not reflected in the majority of its lineage, the series I’m currently obsessed with.

My Current Obsession: Drakengard

Since Christmas I have played and completed (with some caveats) all three games in the Drakengard series, which likely has garnered a lot of attention of late through its frankly bizarre relation to the successful and brilliant NieR: Automata.

This bears some explanation for those who, like myself, weren’t paying attention until just recently: NieR: Automata released in 2017, developed by renowned Japanese game studio studio Platinum Games,  and is a sequel to the 2010 release NieR, set many thousands of years in the future, ostensibly (I haven’t played NieR yet) following from its Ending E. Likewise, NieR itself was a spin-off or sequel to Ending E of a the original 2003 release, Drakengard, set about a thousand years later on. Multiple ‘endings’ are a staple of the series, and their implementation is one of its most interesting facets. Drakengard saw two other ‘sequels’ in Drakengard 2 (2005) and Drakengard 3 (2013).

Unlike NieR: Automata, NieR and the three Drakengard games were not developed by a studio so respected for their stellar combat systems, and were not, by all accounts, well regarded either technically or from a gameplay perspective, even at the time of their release. Certainly, unlike the Ys series, the gameplay takes a back seat here, and that’s not the only difference. In every NieR and Drakengard game the characters are deeply flawed, damaged, difficult to read, and the story is a dark, complex mess that barely manages to make sense even when its not dabbling in social commentary or well-restrained fourth wall breaking. It’s not even the story necessarily that’s had me so captivated, but rather the manner of its delivery.

Despite all their rough edges (some would say near-unplayability by modern standards) I believe there is a lot worth discussing in these old games – as a game designer, as a storyteller, and as a human. I’ve been taking notes and thinking thoughts as I’ve played, and hope to write some of that chaos up into something palatable in the coming weeks – or perhaps a series of rambling articles like this one.

I still haven’t played Nier, and I’m going to take a break from the series as I ruminate on the journey so far, so it’ll be conspicuously absent from anything I write initially. I had considered continuing to play games focussed on dragons for the rest of the year, hence the title, but quickly realised that there are surprisingly few, and the obvious choices – the likes of Skyrim and Dragon Age – would eat up a lot of my time. I am going to dabble in some other games in the meantime though; I just started up Shadow of the Colossus this weekend, on the PS3, because I live in the past and the PS2 version is too expensive.

There’ll probably also be a conspicuous lack of an article dedicated to NieR: Automata, for a multitude of reasons: Nier: Automata is likely to get plenty of mentions as I cover the other games in the series, and desperately struggle to avoid mentioning any connections which might be considered spoilers for it. I’m happy to discuss the Drakengard series in depth not only because its age and flawed nature will likely prevent many people from experiencing it first-hand anyway, but because I simply don’t think ithat the nteresting parts of the other games is tied to the personal experience in the same way it is with NieR: Automata. It’s entirely possible, however, that I simply played NieR: Automata at a time when I was feeling particularly sentimental, and so was affected by it to a greater extent than is usual, but I know I’m not alone in having strong feelings about that game. And besides, lots of people are already over-hyping NieR: Automata; while I love it, I don’t want to contribute to that. Just go play it, and don’t stop till Ending E.

London Posting

So a couple of months ago I made this post about what I planned to do with my summer. Well, summer was shorter and busier than I thought it might be, so my best laid plans kind of fell to pieces. I don’t mind of course – I found a decent placement for the year after all – but the chaos that’s dominated the last month or so has left me kind of disorientated.

So where do I stand? I’m in London now, working full-time for a company named ‘Feral Interactive‘, and have just come off of a three-week stint without internet, during which I’ve walked too many miles, watched too many TV series, and played too much Ys. Before that, and before all of the effort that went into arranging the move, I did manage to get through those WebGL tutorials, read a good deal of the Python documentation, and dig through the internet in search of information about network programming for games (without much luck). Mostly though, I just studied Korean and house-hunted. I also bought a small graphics tablet – a Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch – but I’ve had no time to look into digital art, so I’ve barely gotten used to controlling the thing.

The apartment I have here is small, but nice. It’s essentially two rooms with an entrance down a back-alley – what would be the kitchen-bathroom extension on a terraced. I don’t really spend much time here, what with my working hours, but what I do spend here is comfortable. Once I’m settled I want to get to work on the things that got put off this summer. I’m four chapters in on this maths book, but I’ve yet to get around to doing any OpenGL programming and still haven’t regained any confidence in drawing. To be honest I’ve also considered just taking advantage of the Korean presence down here in London – making language study my extra-curricular priority for the year. Work is tiring, life is complicated. Time will tell.

Right now, I’m watching 원스 어폰 어 타임 임 생초리 (Once Upon a Time in Saengchori). Next? Maybe I’ll hammer out another chapter of this maths book.

Something smells good. I think I live next door to a takeaway.

Summer 2012

Since handing in my last assignment of the year, I’ve had a good amount of time to recover from the previous stressful semester and make a start on some of the things I wanted to get done this summer. This’ll be a short post outlining these mysterious things, mostly for my own benefit, though I guess it may be of interest to any passing traffic.

For the most part my efforts so far have been centered around finding work, and following a small series of WebGL tutorials based on the popular Nehe OpenGL series. I’m using WebGL to brush up on the OpenGL I covered last summer, and to serve as an introduction to JavaScript and general web development. Working with JavaScript has been relatively painless given my previous experience with ActionScript 2.0, and the useful developer tools included with Firefox and Chrome. Still, an environment which doesn’t crash when you call a non-existent function has it’s pitfalls.

Expanding my experience with a variety of languages is a priority for me at the moment (I’ll be starting some Python tutorials later today), but ideally I’d also like to move back into C and bring my OpenGL experience up to par with my DirectX experience so that I can make an attempt at some sort of deferred shading system. Graphics programming isn’t my favourite of subjects, but it’s challenging and the results can be very satisfying. The implementation of a renderer using deferred shading seems quite intuitive to me and could be a lot of fun to experiment with. To this end, I’ve also been brushing up on some maths, as I’m aware my lack of A-level puts me at a disadvantage in the eyes of some employers, and It’ll really help to fully understand more advanced techniques in graphics and other 3D programming tasks.

I found a decent book to help with my maths studies, but it’s part of a larger stack of books I’ve yet to wade through, including one on API design, and another one on x86 assembly programming. Assembly programming is something I particularly enjoyed during the first semester this year, but it remains to be seen whether or not I’ll get back to it this summer. I’ve resolved to get hold of a decent graphics tablet as soon as I’m sure I have a little time to burn – I may be a programmer now, but there’s only so long you can suppress your creative routes. I never really got into digital art before, but working with pen and pencil for so long has gotten me into a bit of a rut, and I feel like I need to stretch over into new mediums to escape it. While we’re off the subject of programming, I’ve also been studying Korean a lot more since the semester ended – even if the majority of that has been reading 루쿠루쿠 (Lucu Lucu) and playing Pokemon White. I should get back to Lang-8 and make a post there sometime soon to try out the new grammar.

At the moment I’m still living with the majority of Pillowdrift, and watching as they work away on Mega Driller Mole. I’ve even joined in with the effort this past couple of days, lending them my technical and artistic abilities to enhance the mineral system and throw in some new enemies (yes, there are demon cats now). Mostly though, I’m proud to say that they’ve had little difficulty adapting to my original code-base, and twisting it to their needs. I wasn’t even here during their initial work – they had to figure it out all on their little own!

I also worked with Bombpersons following a quirky little framework he threw together for a discontinued Mini-Ld attempt. He used SDL to create a very lightweight graphics module which allows the setting of pixels, never clears the screen, but blurs its contents every frame. I threw together an equally light weight (and not really well coded) game framework over the course of a day, and implemented a controllable player, just to see what it looked like, while he developed a simple particle system, which it turns out looks really freaking cool in such an environment. That’s as far as we got with this quick and dirty prototype, but we definitely think there’s room for a decent game implemented around the blurring gimmick.

Coming Soon
I mentioned something a while back about decent games made in Game Maker, and how I wanted to write something about that. Well, I’ve been playing a lot of Hyper Princess Pitch recently, and instead of tackling the subject head on, I figure I’ll come at it via review instead. Expect something up in the next day or two.

Updates, Updates Everywhere

Spent a good amount of time in the last two days putting up more videos and pages around the place. Most changes have occurred over on my YouTube channel and on the Year2 page. I also have new pages for all of my Console Development projects, and my first attempt at a DirectX game engine, DacquoiseX. Hopefully this place is presentable enough for now, and I can get back to applying for jobs, and doing actual work.

Ciao!

The End of a Short Year

Not to say that it’s been an easy one, but this year sure has flown. This last semester was a particular challenge due to dealing with five modules at once, rather than the usual four (or the three we had in the first semester). What’s more, I really poured a lot of effort into every assignment, which has left me completely drained after the last five or so weeks of pure work.

I’m back at my parents’ place right now, catching a bit of rest before I engage in any personal projects, or go on the placement-searching-rampage that will be needed if I’m to find something good for next year. That said, having only handed in my last assignment yesterday, I’ve already set about grinding through my backlog of Anki cards and reading one of the many programming/maths books I’ve had on my shelf for some weeks.

This ‘blog’ has been long neglected while I’ve been working on my Interactive 3D and Console Development assignments, so I’ll try and overhaul it at some point with a proper Console Development page and information about my latest works. While I’d like to have a proper personal website, I’ve no experience in web development and it’s not on my agenda right now. I’ll even put up source once we’re a safe distance away from assignment submissions, though I’m not sure how much of my work with the PSP SDK is mine to broadcast, and I won’t put up source for my Android game, Mega Driller Mole, because my friends at Pillowdrift are considering taking over that project.

Of Video Editting and Modules Past

In the first year of my degree at the University of Derby we studied a module named Ludology, which was all about the theory of games and game design. The final assignment for the module was to create a clone of an 8/16-bit era game using Game Maker (urgh) and pitch it to two of our lecturers, who were posing as 80s publishers. Despite having to make the game in Game Maker, choosing a challenging target, and being stubborn enough to use only blocks for the game logic, what I created for this assignment was actually an incredibly faithful recreation of the first level of Sunsoft’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch for NES, including all game mechanics seen in the first level, except for money.

Why do I bring this module up now, a year and a half after the fact? Well, Gremlins 2 is a gem from my past, a huge part of my childhood as a NES gamer (yes I know I’m too young to have been brought up on an NES, but being poor had its advantages I guess), and a game I still enjoy to this day. I’ve played it to death, and previously even uploaded a video of me playing one of its hardest levels without taking a single hit (see below). I distinctly remember other students last year telling me how closely my clone resembled the original game, and having recently come across its exe, I couldn’t help but be proud of how authentic it felt, even if it was made with something so childish.

 

This brings me neatly on to two issues:
The first is simply the heritage of Game Maker, it’s flaws, misuse, potential, and the fact that it actually is possible to make good, respectable games in Game Maker – people just don’t. I’d like to make a post about this subject later, but in case I don’t get chance, I want you to check out two people: MESSHOF and Remar. In particular I want you to download and play Remar’s games Hyper Princess Pitch, and Hero Core. They’re free, and if you truly have an interest in gaming, you will thank me.

The second is the one I want to discuss now: Video editing. I’ve always found this to be a tricky subject. My experience with the various free software solutions has been poor (no decent export settings, formats, unstable, lost work, poor interface, unintuitive, poor video/audio synchronization), and I have never been able to justify splashing out on something more professional. Add to that I’ve always found it quite difficult to find information on how people managed to capture and compress high quality gameplay videos so effectively, and you’ll begin to see why the video before the previous paragraph is so poor, with the audio gradually drifting out of sync as it runs.

Since making that video, I have discovered VirtualDub. VirtualDub is a simple, linear video editor which is perfect if all you want to achieve is some simple cropping, resizing, dubbing, appending and recompression, however, it does not provide the slick GUI or advanced non-linear features that other editors do. After a little bit of poking around and following a lovely video tutorial for high quality, small file size exports on YouTube, VirtualDub allowed me to create reasonably sharp videos for my recent projects, Battenberg and Pastry3D. However, I ran into a brick wall when I set about my latest video editing endeavours.

 

Back in January I recorded the two playthroughs seen above, of Gremlins 2, level 1. One of these is running on an NES emulator, while the other is my Game Maker clone, and the point of the video was to position the two side by side so their resemblance was truly put to the test. But the playthroughs were recorded separately, so how would I go about merging them in this manner? VirtualDub is too linear for this – it does not provide functions to merge videos in such complex ways.

The answer, as it turned out after three to four hours of research and work, was to download Avisynth and VirtualDubMod. Avisynth, as best it’s creators describe it, “is a powerful tool for video post-production”. As far as I’m concerned though, it just provides a scripting language which can be used to manipulate videos in a non-linear fashion by utilizing a number of simple functions, such as StackHorizontal, which fitted my purposes to a tee. Again, as far as I’m concerned, VirtualDubMod is simply VirtualDub with added functionality, and integration for Avisynth, including syntax highlighting.

The short story is, the solution to the problem was simple, but the information I needed was so buried, and so tricky to put to use that it took a considerable amount of effort to achieve my end goal. Still, it was interesting to see how programmatic a solution to a problem such as video editing could be (seems obvious now I write it down), and I’m considering laying down a nice tutorial if I find the time – though a tutorial on merging videos like this may be too specific, and I’m no general master of the tools involved.