Monday, January 31, 2011

Never say never, Mr. Bond... I mean, Mr. Ebert.

Since I assume that I am brain damaged in some way, I can rarely tell the difference between genuine conviction in an idea and the low-down dirty attempt to invoke or simulate conviction for the benefit of some greater force. Every once in a while I run across a carnival barker or used car salesman that lets me see behind the curtain of deception a little, and I gain some tiny insight into how that mechanism works. But, it's not foolproof, and I am often tricked into thinking that I'm being tricked.

Had he not tried something similar before, I would not question Roger Ebert's recent declaration that 3D Film will never 'work'. Had he not made a bold statement some time ago that video games could never be art like a movie or a book or a painting, I might have believed unquestioningly that there were no larger forces at work and his current Luddite position against 3D movies was completely sincere. The house of cards that his video game argument was built out of came crashing down, and he even went so far as to apologize and admit his foolishness in breaching the topic - but it got thousands of comments and many times more page views in the meantime. Why shouldn't I think that he has an ulterior motive again?

Mr. Ebert has made some improvements this time. This time he has the opinion of a film editor to back him up, and not just some guy that worked on two effects shots for a direct-to-DVD horror film. He has the support of Walter Murch, editor and sound designer on some of Hollywood's most visually and sonically impactful films. To summarize Mr. Murch – the basic flaw with 3D films, in his expert opinion, is that we're asking our eyes to focus at one distance (the distance from your seat to the screen) and converge at some other distance (the distance from your seat to the perceived object on the screen where your eyes think they are looking). This is mostly problematic when the perceived object is well in front of the plane of the screen, asking your eyes to converge well ahead of the focus distance. I'm sure there is a substantial crowd of people that will cry foul at Mr. Murch's assertions on a variety of grounds. The first and most obvious point will be that similar complaints were lodged against sound and color when each of those were introduced to film. Another point is that a conventionally filmed movie already does funny things to our sense of perspective, focus, and convergence anyway so why should the 3D part matter? Yes, some people walk out of 3D movies with headaches. It may be that some people's brains aren't happy with the effects of simulated 3D. I would argue that those people now know not to watch movies in 3D, and in most instances can go watch the same feature in 2D in the same theater. I would love to do a thorough survey and testing of people that have issues with 3D films, but I'm guessing that the MPAA has no interest in a study being run by an engineer/mathematician/film nerd with no neurology credentials.

Part of the reason Mr. Ebert has to say this now and loudly enough for his peers to hear, is because Nintendo is about to put glasses-free 3D in the hands of hundreds of kids fairly soon. The handheld Nintendo 3DS comes out in March of this year which includes a glasses-free lenticular 3D top screen and adjustable depth slider. Nintendo is already adding 3D photography and looking into movie releases on the system. If you can't deal with the 3D, you can turn it down to nothing. If it turns out that it's a horrible flop, he has to say something now to look like a genius. Of course, if he turns out to be wrong, there's no harm because everybody will just go "Oh, that Roger Ebert. He's just a grumpy old man that doesn't get it." I think we heard that cry from the commenters before on the video game/art thing. The other part of the timing of this had to do with Mr. Murch's letter to Mr. Ebert primarily being a response to a tiny side note in Mr. Ebert's review of the new "Green Hornet" film where he complains about the 3-D film being "dim" - and we're talking about apparent brightness and not about a plot written for morons. I think on a certain level, we 'get' that there won't be quite as much light heading to our eyeballs since we're wearing glasses that are intentionally keeping some of the light from our eyes - the image that's for the other eye is kept out by polarization. That particular problem is surmountable, seeing as there have already been great strides in improving the reflectivity of movie screens since we started watching 3D movies. I think the biggest problem, and perhaps it is a problem that Mr. Ebert himself does not realize (or has blocked out in some strange case of dissociative amnesia), is that he has watched a lot of lousy 3D movies thanks to their recent resurgence. Walter Murch worked on one of the most-watched 3D movies of its era, Captain EO. But, like most of the other badly constructed 3D movies, they stupidly try to send a meteor way out in front of the screen, causing the very focus/convergence problem that Murch is complaining about. Another issue that I would take with the current crop of 3D movies is that many of the big-name films that were done in 3D were actually shot in 2D and had the 3D done in post-production, which is about like trying to take a still picture and turn in into a pop-up book, which looks like, a movie made out of a pop-up book. Everything tends to look like flat planes. Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton - that one's totally your fault), several Harry Potter movies, The Last Airbender, Superman Returns, G-Force, and the lousy (no offense to Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, or the late Pete Postlewaite) 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans were all shot in 2D. I find it sad that Paul W. S. Anderson's Resident Evil film team has to show up all of the alleged A-listers by using James Cameron's most excellent camera system.

Knowing that I was going to attempt to write about this, I trotted down to my local Sony Style store, and the kids and I put on some funny shutter glasses again and looked at a few things on the 3D TV's in the store. 3D TVs are inherently different from the movie experience - liquid crystal shutter glasses synchronize to the quickly alternating frames displayed on the monitor so that each eye only sees the relevant frames of the film.

We gave a nature documentary a try, and a little of Alice in Wonderland - I think it was the scene where Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee while she's still small - and a little bit of Gran Turismo 5. Alice in Wonderland comes off very unreal - Tim Burton spends too much time trying to break the plane of the screen, and having things fly around in the foreground. Looking at the screen without the shutter glasses on, the objects on the screen are very far apart, much farther apart than they would be in your normal field of vision unless they were only a foot away. Gran Turismo 5, on the other hand, was hard to tell that it was in 3D unless you put the glasses on - and then the landscape was so well-rendered that it actually made it easier to drive because I had a better sense of the space. The nature documentary was somewhere in between the two in 3D quality - I am always wondering how they aim cameras in a 3D system, and whether there is any convergence, or whether they just aim the cameras straight ahead and make you slowly crazy with the unreality of it. The 3D needs to be a positive experience for the audience, and add to the experience, and more importantly not take you out of the experience.

Most people that I know that have had a positive experience with 3D movies have had their most positive experience with animated features. How to Train Your Dragon, Legend of the Guardians and Coraline were all mentioned. James Cameron's Avatar is easily at least half animated CG. Of course, in a computer animated feature, it is comparatively simple to add a second virtual camera to the performance data, and render the film in 3D. In processing a 2D film, you would almost have to create a CG wire frame virtual set and map the 2D film back on to it, draw in a bunch of missing textures not normally visible, and then add in the second virtual camera. The flaw in a system like that is that the natural variations in lighting in textured surfaces would not occur correctly and it would still have the flat, pop-up book effect. Conversely, I found that Legend of the Guardians had a very natural 3D look most of the time, largely due the the wood and feather textures giving the viewers very good visual depth cues, and most of the shots were at a distance that helped that work. I don't remember them breaking the plane of the screen except possibly in the opening credits.

So, I contend, that it is possible to make a good 3D film. Certainly, some things need to be done differently - maybe there should be less things jumping out of the screen, maybe there shouldn't be so many jump cuts in a 3D film. People seem to show up and pay for the bad ones that are out now, so I think to say that they don't 'work' is a gross overstatement that some box office numbers would certainly disagree with. A problem like that should not keep us from our path of self-improvement. Additionally, learning how to make a quality 3D film may give us important insight into the nature of vision and how the brain processes it. Just because a new media possesses some new technical challenges is no reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Marvel vs Capcom 3, January 2011 edition

Over the holidays, without much fanfare, they added Haggar and Phoenix to the roster for MvC3. Haggar is finally making it to a fighting game long after his Final Fight compatriots Guy and Cody. Guy first appeared in a Street Fighter game in 1995 (Street Fighter Alpha), and Cody followed soon after in 1998 (Street Fighter Alpha 3). No, I don't consider Saturday Night Slam Masters a fighting game, it's a wresting game which is arguably its own genre.

Haggar certainly has a lot of moves that are similar to Street Fighter's Zangief, but the Red Cyclone never had to whip out a big lead pipe in the middle of a combo.

The powerful and beautiful Phoenix finally graces the screen, waiting for us to be able to handle her awesome power. She has homing fireballs, air fireballs, giant Kikoken style fireballs, flaming rushdown moves, and great range on the ground. I guess if Capcom's Dante and Trish are fair game now, there's no reason to hold back on Marvel's mightiest mutants.

Akuma and Taskmaster were just recently announced, but it took a few days for them to show up on the Marvel Vs Capcom 3 website. Akuma is simple - he's been in so many games that most people expected to see him. He's more of a draw for flashy players than Ken is, with his more varied moveset, air fireballs, and punishing super moves. Typically, this is offset by Akuma taking more damage from opponents. True to his original nature as a hidden character, Akuma is an unlockable character based on accumulating 'play points' during the course of playing through the game, similar to the home versions of Marvel Vs Capcom 2. Akuma is packed full of more moves than ever, and his air combos look pretty vicious. Here's his trailer.

Taskmaster is getting the same unlockable treatment as Akuma. In the comics, he's a mercenary with the uncanny ability to mimic anyone's moves in battle - just the sort of thing that reminds you of Mokujin from Tekken or Olcadan from the Soul Calibur games. Here's Taskmaster in action.

You'll see him doing a lot of Cap's and Spidey's moves here, plus some serious arrow action. I wonder if that means we should expect to see Hawkeye later, since this game is already Avengers-heavy.

On a side note I'm pretty proud of #1 son for finally defeating Megahammer in Super Mario Galaxy 2 after being stuck on that board for weeks.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bowling in Video Games

I have a great interest in bowling, although I don't own my own ball or shoes. Part of the game's appeal for me is that it's simple in premise but there is great depth to it. This also explains why I like the Katamari games and Tetris. The physics of bowling is complicated, but not so much so that you can't get your mind around everything that's happening. This is the sort of thing that makes a game a likely candidate for video game simulation. However this has not been without some major missteps.
Bowling for the Atari 2600 was a joke - one of my bowling teammates from school had mastered it within weeks. She explained to the rest of us that as long as you stood in one particular spot, you could get a strike every time. That feature notwithstanding, it also rarely left spares typical of actual bowling based on where the ball hit the pins. I ignored bowling video games for a while, hoping they would eventually catch up. I picked up Gotham Games' Big Strike Bowling out of the PlayStation 1 bargain bin, only to find that they incorrectly spaced the pins making it basically unplayable. One of the Spiderman games for the PS2 had a mode where Spiderman swung down the lane, swinging into a group of webbed-up enemies arranged like bowling pins. I think Bruce Campbell's voice-over was better than the game, but to be fair I am a big fan of Bruce Campbell. I was somewhat satisfied with Tekken Bowl in Tekken Tag Tournament. Despite the fact that the pins were top-heavy and the lanes had no gutters (errant curve balls just head off into the crowd), it felt a lot more like bowling than a lot of the previous games that I had played. Even so, I managed to bowl at least one 300 - since I figured out Gun Jack's aiming system.  Now, some of you will probably mention that they had come out with some serious bowling simulators that I should have been more satisfied with - for whatever reason I passed on all of these, instead opting for only semi-serious bowling games. This is in keeping with my overall character with a gamer - on the golf side, I like Hot Shots and Outlaw Golf a lot more than that Tiger Woods game. I also enjoyed the bowling modes in Super Monkey Ball, SMB2, and SMB Junior . There was still something not quite right about these games, but there was not a real way to fix it - after all, it's not like they could rig up a mock bowling ball full of sensors and let you swing it around the living room or anything.

So, that brings us to Wii Sports - or if you are just now playing Wii, possibly Wii Sports Resort. Each has a bowling mode in it, but they are not the same. Wii Sports has a fairly simple interface, and the controller doesn't really allow for too much nonsense with how the ball is released down the lane other than liberally allowing you to loft the ball. Wii Sports Resort, since it uses the Wii Motion Plus controller, is a little more advanced in its interface and allows you a choice between manual ball release and automatic ball release. If you played the original Wii Sports, you are already comfortable with the manual ball release.  Automatic ball release it what it says, I will discuss it no further other than to say you lazy slackers should be using manual ball release.

For those that are unfamiliar, here's the basic motion. You start by holding the Wiimote upright (the nose of the controller where the IR sensor is pointed at the ceiling) and holding the B button. (It's the trigger-shaped button on the back.) You swing your arm back like you would if actually bowling, and your character starts walking forward on their own. As you swing your arm forward again, you release the B button to let go of the bowling ball. The speed of your forward arm swing and the timing of the release determine the initial velocity.  Here's where it starts to diverge between the two versions.

In Wii Sports, a somewhat late release of the B button will give the ball some loft - in other words, it will carry through the air a little before it lands and  the static roll angle of the controller (presumably at the instant you release the B button) determines how much spin there is on the ball.

In Wii Sports Resort, a late release of the B button does not appear to yield any loft, as I have been unable to do it at all.  Spin on the ball is determined in a more dynamic fashion, by how much roll and in what direction happens to the controller during your throwing motion.  A slight amount of tilt on the controller yields almost no spin now, or a negligible amount.  Let's imagine the face of a clock, and the hour hand is the normal vector to the plane of the surface of the Wiimote where the all of the buttons (except for the B button) are located. If the controller were face up, we'll call that twelve o'clock.  If the controller were face down, where the only recognizable feature was the B button, we'll call that six o-clock.   For example, if in Wii Sports you were curving it a couple of dots to the left by angling the controller to ten o'clock, in Wii Sports Resort, you would have to go from twelve o'clock  to ten o'clock during the swing to achieve a similar effect.

This simple change, going from a static to a dynamic input for curving the ball, makes Wii Sports Resort even a little bit more like actual bowling.  The amount of curve you were able to put on the ball in Wii Sports was not anything like what you might see from a pro bowler.  Now, the experience of cranking a killer hook deep into the pocket can happen in the living room without one of the kids breaking a lamp. (Maybe.)  My typical hook is from ten o'clock around to four-thirty - I have to stand way to the left to make that work, but the pin action is much more impressive than if I just throw a straight ball into the pocket.

My other favorite addition to the bowling in Wii Sports Resort was the 100-pin game.  It's still ten frames, but it's 100 pins instead of 10.  The score is computed the same way, so a perfect score is 3000 instead of 300.  Converting spares of more than three pins are nearly impossible unless they're clustered together.  And what's even better, is that this awesome bowling game comes with a bunch of other games - Ping-Pong, Archery, Basketball, Beating Cartoon Avatars With a Bamboo Stick Fencing, Wakeboarding, and a few more.  So, if you have a Wii and liked Wii Sports, you should get it.  If you don't have a Wii yet but want to get in on the bowling action, the new bundles include both Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort (unless you get the Mario 25th Anniversary Red Bundle in which case I would guess you're not going to be doing much bowling even if you do get the regular Wii Sports).