I’m being well trained - I’ve learned to be scared by my own shadow

Posted: 01.30.06

This last week I've been playing "F.E.A.R.," a Sierra game, and so far (I'm about three-fourths of the way through it) it lives up to its name. More than once I've had the hair stand up on the back of neck, literally, as an elevated level of adrenaline coursed through my system. It is a classic FPS (and also available in multi-player mode) based on a new engine developed by Monolith. And although it's lots of fun, in some ways it's like a lot of other adventure FPSs, and there is one scene that is completely copied from another game. But that's OK for several reasons: first, it's what I came for, an FPS, and second, it is so enhanced with high-level graphics, and Ageia physics, that the game play is dramatically different, which leads me to one my points—it is cinematic.

Nvidia can be given credit for introducing the phrase "cinematic game play." Even though we suggested ATI's AGP 8x interface laid the ground work for cinematic quality in September 2000, it was Nvidia who popularized the concept.

And John Carmack, in his discussion about the work of "Doom3" at Quakecon in August 2004, suggested shadow buffers are the key to cinematic game development—shadow buffers, hair, skin translucency, and eventually secondary shadows.

The game has some very dark passages, and although you can turn up the gamma it's never going to reveal all the scary stuff that lurks in the shadows. Therefore, it's most fun played in a darkened room, and if you do that, there will definitely be times when you'll be scared. At one point I was sneaking down a hallway knowing that bad news awaited me, and as I turned a corner I saw my own shadow on the wall, moving toward me. Needless to say, I blasted the hell out of that shadow and it took me three shots before I realized what it was (no matter how hard you hit them, shadows just don't go down).

And that's the main point here: a new level of training was taking place. When you play a computer game, you basically train yourself to deal with the ideas, tricks, and strategy of the creator, as well as the logic (or sometimes the apparent lack of it) of the AI you encounter. That's why a good game will have different scenes written by different teams. Usually you can spot those transitions; most often it's when you go from inside to outside or visa versa.

Now with the added effects of real ray-cast shadows, you have to learn to ignore them, other than to pause and admire the craft that went into generating them. In "HalfLife 2" and "Lost Coast" we learned about eye contact. "F.E.A.R." lacks that trick, but soon that and shadows will be in all the high-end games.

"HalfLife 2" has better skin than "F.E.A.R.," and "F.E.A.R." has the best water, reflective and submerged, I have ever seen. I also like the sound of the casings hitting the floor and bouncing.

But there are still hurdles to cross. Teeth. The only realistic teeth I have ever seen are in Face Robot from Soft Image/Avid, and the technique has not yet (that I know of) found its way into a game. The problem with teeth in games is they are brilliantly white, smooth, and disproportionately large. The result is they are distracting and take away from the cinematic effect—you have to learn to ignore them.

Body movement, especially when a character is running, needs work so runners don't look like they're floating—there's no physics (secondary bounce and compression), no ground scatter or dust, and the game studios think the mocap they get from one runner can be used for all characters in all conditions. And runners almost universally lack shadows, which would help eliminate that floating look. So you learn to overlook that as well (Natural Motions could help this a lot).

And most annoying of all, if I'm in a game that does have shadows, the enemies can see right into them; there's no cover for me in shadows, yet there is for the enemies. I also don't like it (especially true in "Call of Duty" and "Medal of Honor") how the enemies can be crack shots and take me out with a bullet, whereas I have to hit them several times, and even if I pick up one of their weapons they still outpower me. This too is a training exercise, and I (as thousands of others, no doubt) have learned, you have to be damned cautious in certain situations because they can be deadly.

Ohm only knows what training awaits me as I work my way through the rest of "F.E.A.R." I'm sure I'll be a better person for it—certainly better trained.

Since I'm so hyperactive or curious or whatever label is popular this week, I generally have at least four games running at once—some on the Xbox, one on the PSP, one on the killer AMD FX60 SLI Nvidia box, and one on the big Intel-ATI box. "F.E.A.R." is running on the FX60 machine, although I have tried it on the 3.4-GHz Intel (and with the big Apple 30-inch display) and the game play is different. But that's a story for another time (although I will say there is training of the player involved in both cases).

The main game on the Intel-ATI X1900XTX box is "GUN," a goal-oriented game set in the Wild West. It's not cinematically great, although the horses are pretty damn good. It's an FPS but with nice "Myst" twist and puzzles to it. It's fun and I'm having to learn yet different skills (like how to ram a buffalo with my horse, make my horse jump, and do a quick draw and fan). There's no shocks in it like "Doom," "Quake," or "F.E.A.R.," but there are plenty of surprises.

So I approach these games with the stated intent of seeing how (well) they do graphics. In the process I usually get my pants scared off, and always have to learn new tricks and strategies (like to not blast my shadow because it gives away my position).

I have learned that I usually don't finish games that don't let me save. I don't have the time or patience to keep starting over. (Aside from the total lack of story, that was one of the reasons I dumped "Far Cry" and will dump the intriguing "Perfect Dark Zero" on the Xbox, even though I read (and can recommend) the associated book.)

Epilog—how can you?

Friends and family find my behavior disturbing. How can a grown, a real grown, man spend 10 to 20 hours or more playing a game? (That's in one- to two-hour segments, mind you.) My answer, although not appreciated or totally understood, is simple. The game costs $50 max. If the play is 20 hours that's $2.50 an hour. A movie is $9+, and if it's two hours that's $4.50 an hour, plus gasoline and travel time. At the game I'm home, and with a good bottle of wine from my cellar. At the movies I'm eating overly salted, overpriced popcorn. Clearly, playing games at home is better for my health and less expensive.

Plus, in the game I'm a participant, and have some control over how the story goes. In the theater I'm a passive, non-participative watcher (unless it's a sad movie and I'm crying, and who wants to pay money to be made to cry?). And if the game sucks, I can dump it and start something new, whereas if the movie sucks (and most of them do) I can't just get up and leave because I'm there with friends and/or family and that would be rude. So I pay $9 and suffer for two hours.

It's another part of the training.