Thursday, 29 December 2011

Explorations In The Dark

Over the years, I've enjoyed many hundreds of hours playing the Thief series of games, by the mighty Looking Glass Studios (may they rest in peace).  Thief is an excellent immersive simulation from a collection of technically-gifted and highly imaginative game developers.

Initially released in 1998, Thief re-defined first-person viewpoint games to a vast degree, with its genre-creating "stealth" element.  The player's position in the game world actually mattered, which it rarely did in games past.  A light gem, on your screen at all times, would begin black and become increasingly brighter as you moved further away from darker, shadowed areas of the gameworld.

Sneaking around and snagging loot, avoiding guards and critters, is all well and good, but Thief had one other ace up its sleeve: the "missions" in which this gameplay took place were often HUGE.  A single mission could take the form of scoping out a mansion, or a museum, or a church... and the church's grounds, and a network of caves / crypts underneath... and the adjoining sewer system.  Or you could find yourself in a sizeable section of a dark-ages-themed city.  The diversity of situations, places, events and Stuff To Do in Thief is another string to its bow.  One moment you could be running from guards, or sneaking past them, scouting city roof-tops for vantage points of entry, raiding old crypts, desecrated tombs, or avoiding shambling unholy entities in defiled cemetaries, chapels.

In opposition to the extensive dumbing-down and "over-tutorialisation" of today's games, there are no quest arrows, there are no waypoints.  You are given objectives, you MIGHT have a map, and you are placed in a position within the mission gameworld and allowed to go where you wish, and do as you please.  Looking Glass never insulted the player's intelligence, this was another of their games that gave you a ton of things to do, and allowed you to discover and explore at your leisure, learning the game "system" as you progressed.  Sadly, no-one cares to produce a game that does such things any more.

I'm simplifying the game mechanics for the purposes of brevity so please check out Wikipedia for a more detailed run-down on the series. The point of this post is that, while the gameplay in Thief still holds up, 13 years on, the visuals are rather lacking technically (though not artistically).  Not that I'm personally bothered about this, but amongst other reasons (and the lack of legally-released source code for Thief's "Dark Engine"), this is why fans have taken it upon themselves to release their own Thief...

The Dark Mod is a free "add-on" package for Doom 3, which aims to re-create the Thief experience from the ground up, using the now open-sourced, and more modern graphics id tech 4 engine.  And it thoroughly succeeds.  It does not currently feature a campaign of missions, rather it is a "tool set" of materials that one may use to create and play missions.  Thankfully many fans have already created a good amount of missions in the few years since its release.  Hot on the heels of update 1.07, which adds yet more superb content, here's some thoughts on a few of the missions I've been playing:

Winter Harvest by Shadowhide

Winter Harvest
(image from The Dark Fate)
I'll begin with something out of the ordinary.  There is little loot, not a huge amount of sneaking, and the setting is quite unusual.  A snowy forest, surrounded by mountains, is the locale for this particular mission.  While Winter Harvest does suffer a touch from rather unpolished storytelling - you're plonked into a house on a snowy peak and told to "go find something valuable" - the resulting journey makes up for it.

Not that there aren't dark cathedrals, twisted pagans, huge spiders, and well-stocked castle libraries to plunder and explore, but the dense winter forest one finds oneself in is an usual locale, and certainly not unwelcome.  It's pleasant to have some friendly AI that chats to the player, also.  There is a curious lack of readables, which some may find disappointing, and a few "doors that aren't doors" (side rooms with a few extra bits of loot would have been nice), but this is recommended nevertheless.  Solid thumbs up.

Caduceus Of St. Alban by Bikerdude

Caduceus Of St. Alban
(image from The Dark Fate)
Caduceus encapsulates aspects of Thief's gameplay and provides a classic experience, distilled into a small but fully-formed gameworld.

You are tasked to retrieve a sacred relic from a Builder outpost.  So this is out-and-out classic sneaking all the way.  Many methods of entry and egress, many floors to explore (also various ways to reach them), and towering heights to visit.  Some interesting readables, solid texturing and a successful atmosphere make this a must play.  Shame there isn't more of it.

Flakebridge Monastery by Jesps

Flakebridge Monastery
(image from The Dark Fate)
One aspect of Thief that many champion is its occasional, and highly successful, dips into horror.  Far more effective than any Resident Evil game, a trip through a down-trodden, wardended-off corner of The City, or a long-forgotten Builder chapel full of haunted undead makes for a fascinatingly chilling experience.  Keep in mind that neither Thief nor The Dark Mod emphasise combat so you're better off avoiding these monstrosities wherever possible.

I'm pleased to say that, finally, The Dark Mod has an exemplary example of undead lootery in Flakebridge Monastery.  A sizeable mission, with a very well fleshed-out gameworld: the player will visit a bell tower, the guard and guest quarters, an infested kitchen, and a very dangerously haunted chapel.  They all connect in a coherent manner, and finding your way between them is half the challenge!  There's a bit of roof-top shenanigans too, which feels deliciously dangerous.

My only complaint would be that the crypt section was disappointingly small, and could stand to have far more dangers present for the player to over-come.  Otherwise, this is my favourite TDM mission so far and a fantastic few hours of skulking were had playing it.

The Transaction by Sotha

The Transaction
(image from The Dark Fate)
Continuing the saga of Thomas Porter, having stolen an arcane tome and risked life and limb (as one does) for the thing, Sotha returns us to a more well-trodden locale with another take on a City mission.  With some huge twists.

There is little scope for exploration, few side-quests (but there IS a great one in there, that's one distressed damsel), but this matters less when one considers the plot.  There are suprises aplenty, some good readables, and even some purposeful - as opposed to gratuituous - combat (one of The Dark Mod's weakest areas, and the team would do well to overhaul the combat and make it closer to Thief's).

Small cutscenes are used to great effect, and the city area - small though it is - is rendered with good texturing, modelling and some well-placed puddles, torches, convincing weather effects.  Just a shame so little of it is explorable: there are rather too many unuseable doors.

Still, it's absolutely worth playing - though start with Mandrasola, it's the first in the series - and carves out another niche of stealth role play excellence that The Dark Mod provides so well.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Autechre 2010: 28th Century Music Now

The following are two reviews I composed for Autechre's last two album releases, initially posted over at discogs (along with quite a few more about other artists and albums).  

A belated Merry Christmas, and happy new year, to you for reading. :)   Here's to a productive 2012.


After pandering to the pseudo-intellectual cretins in their fan-base for the last 10 bloody years, Autechre have FINALLY written an album that is listenable. Because, on Oversteps, they are writing melodies again. And they're really fucking good ones at times. Gone, thankfully, also are the endless cockwaving drum/glitch bollocks of Draft and Untilted. And most of the tunes on Oversteps sound like fully fleshed ideas, not experiments in collage a-la Quaristice.

Oversteps sounds like a natural continuation of EP7 only with even more complex drum rhythms (thankfully not the headache-inducing pummeling fanboy-wank that is LCC and the like) and pristine production: the FM sounds cleaner and crisper. The rhythms are more intriguing, and the melodies they employ here are developed to a far greater degree than even the best LP5 or EP7 had to offer. I'm hearing shades of Tangerine Dream, Telex, Vangelis, and Moskwa TV in this album, so that's a pretty good start. Oh, and it's not MINIMAL either, thankfully.

Ilanders is effectively Robot-Jazz. Its "structure" is little more than that of a trad-jazz jam, opening and closing with the main theme and exploring it from every angle in between. I'm no jazz fan, but the idea is sound. The underlying rhythm is some concotion of electro crossed with breaks and hip-hop. The roiling pads underneath the crunchy FM drums and plinking melodies are a welcome return after the last 10 years. Proof that Sean and Rob can write them!

Treale is where they take the whole "reform, redevelop, destroy, then reform again" ethic on their melodies about as far as they ever have. This is 100% composition right here, computer-aided or not. I find it hits my personal "melodic threshold" at times, like a lot of jazz tunes tend to, but I would still have the interlocking FM tones of Treale than ANY of the 7+ minute drum wank exercises of Confield, Draft or Untilted. Nice that they stick to a fairly simple hip-hop/big-beat style rhythm and let the synths "be complex" for a change. Well done, lads!

Known(1) is a mess. Oversteps is - on every other track - a brooding aural dystopia, somewhat meditative and atmospheric with the bare hint of malignancy, but Known(1) is totally at odds with this vibe, coming across more as a twisted EP7 outtake with extra-trashy FM tweaking thrown in. They over-do the out-of-tuned'ness on this one. Thankfully it's the only track that is sub-par.

See On See is just arpeggiated bliss, with a bass-line continuously morphing underneath some lovely higher-octave tones. Call it a requiem, it's beautiful. I haven't said that about an Autechre song since Drane! Os veix3 and O=0 contain some of the most emotionally resonant and melancholic melodic phrases I've heard from Ae, as well as some fascinating key changes in the latter. st epreo has a less distinct hook than other tunes, and is more drum-focused, but it doesn't fall into the Untilted trap of endless clatter. d-sho qub has an infectious, slightly-shuffled "fast hip-hop" rhythm and it's hard not to love those hugely satisfying, crunchy snares blasting away under more very memorable synth lines, coming across "happier" here (love the way it devolves into vocal choruses, too!). The album finishes on the more minimalistically-composed Yuop, which gradually develops into lots of noisy pads and synth "wibbles". It works well as a closer.

As an aside, I find it hilarious that some people complain that there's been some blatant use of plugin patches from Tassman and Reaktor. If this is true, so what? Ae love FM, and if it works, just fucking use it. I can't be the only one that's lived through the naughties' endless sound exploration and gradual detachment from conventional composition techniques (ANYTHING from Mille Plateaux Records, for example), and find that 90% of it is barely interesting for a few listens, then just gets boring. It may be "exploring new sonic frontiers", but ultimately, focusing upon sound creation and texture as opposed to melody, often leaves you with music that is forgettable, for-occasion, aural wallpaper. That is never a problem on Oversteps.

Sean and Rob do a FAR better job of exploring melancholic, detached alienation on Oversteps using MELODIES than they do pissing about with drums and stepping on Venetian Snares' toes (Draft, Untilted, Confield). If you have any interest in challenging electronic music, you want to hear this. If you like Ae but found their previous albums lacking for any reason, believe me: you must hear this. If you spooge copiously over FM synthesis, then I'm surprised you're reading this and not listening to the bloody thing already. If you'd like to hear the "genre" of IDM broken and completely destroyed, well that's probably some personal issues you might need to work out, but don't let that stop you from trying Oversteps. Heck, I'm no "fan" of Autechre OR IDM, and I've fallen completely in love with this album. It's hard to at first, this is Autechre, not Arovane (who, melodically, came across as more of a romantic) but this is Sean and Rob showing their 100% robotic, programmed, circuit-driven souls. And I wouldn't want it any other way. Not perfect - ditch Known(1) - but bloody close. 10/10.

P.S. Oversteps makes for a superb alternative soundtrack to System Shock. :)

Move Of Ten

Move Of Ten has put to rest fears that Autechre were committed to the high-functioning-autistic-beats of their mid-naughties records, they're now following a more melodic and textural direction, at least for now. Though you wouldn't think it on first listen, MOT is bookended by two pieces that are little more than designed to "please the fans": Etchogon-S and Cep puiqMX.

Etchogon has a pretty standard - by Ae "standards" - glitch-hop-on-smack rhythm, occasionally allowing in some prickly synth bleeps that never really form a solid hook. The drums, bass and synths develop and fall away in typical "pseudo-random" Autechre fashion. With Cep puiqMX, the story is very similar: noisey glitched beats, punctuated by vacuous, reverb-plastered single-chord synth blasts. It's the usual LCC-style near-self-parodying concoction of endlessly glitched beats and almost nothing melodic. Both tracks will induce major hard-ons in elitists and IDM producers but thankfully, that isn't the case with the rest of the EP.

nth Dafuseder.b is one of the big hitters on Move Of Ten. After the initial shock of the shameless stealing of d-sho qub's drum patterns, cool little repeated "rhodes" style keys play while drenched in reverb, and the occasional appearance of a BOC-ish "flute" synth plays some surprisingly twee melodies. Shocking, Ae are clearly going soft! OMGWTFBBQ tehy stol BOC-synths! (Note how it makes for a better "BOC tune" than anything on Campfire Headphase... CONSPIRACY!)

no border switches between almost-4/4 and some amalgam of big-beat and dubstep, bursts of noise produce the rhythmic backing to more distant, emotive FM pads and stabs. Not as sucessful as similar pieces on Oversteps, but that dark, emotionally-detached feeling prevails and is still enticing. pce freeze 2.8i has a truly addictive "electro-big-beat" rhythm, with huge drums underpinning a properly solid filter-shaped synth hook that continues to morph, occasionally descending into noise. The spontaneous clickery of the end with one final shout of the riff is a great way to conclude.

4/4 Autechre is good. y7 has a melange of dark synthery around that incessant 4/4 pulse. Oh and two words: AUTECHRE ACID! There's definitely a kinda-303 synth part squelching away here and there. No, there's no hook, but I'm not looking for one when everything else in the track makes up for a great "electronic jam". Later they drop the bomb that is M62. Wow, is this Ae really doing 4/4 again? Sell-outs! Okay now the fanbois have gone crying, let's enjoy some ae-trance! Put the usual multi-layered FM synth stabs and pads to the most basic of electronic rhythms, and it is just as enjoyable as glitch-hop, hip-step, or whatever you'd call Ae's more "traditional" rhythms. It's another dark synth and texture jam across 6 minutes, with continuously morphing synths, joined later by some pads. Then around the 4th minute it all breaks down to the kick and one synth, and stays more "minimalistic" until the end. Pretty simple structurally - by Ae standards - but completely enjoyable and accessible! Yes, Ae fanboys, I just used the word "accessible" again in an Autechre review! Punch that disagree button with all your elitist, self-righteous might!

iris was a pupil is solid evidence that these tracks are taken from Oversteps sessions. It has very similar metallic FM synths to redfall and see on see, drenched in reverb, with some more squelchy FM/303-type sounds bouncing around the edges playing counter melodies, until it becomes much darker around the 2-minute mark. The synth riffery doesn't stick quite as well as most of the Oversteps tunes, though. No don't say it, it's not an out-ta*SLAP*...

Many songs feel less structured than Oversteps pieces, and more like jams. No bad thing, though, since most don't last much past 5 or 6 minutes. I don't require hooks, just interesting stuff going on beyond spastic drumming! There's definitely much more than that going on during Move Of Ten's 40+ minutes. Finally, I'm just so pleased to say that Ae are stepping away from autism-stroking drums for a while. By keeping them simple(r) and instead going nuts with t
he textures and synths, Autechre are going for exactly the opposite of the composing approach they took on Untilted and Draft. And it's TREMENDOUSLY more invigorating and enjoyable as a result. B+ or 8/10.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Some brief melodic observations

Perc - Wicker & Steel (Perc Trax 2011)
Boom, boom, boom, boom, crackle, bam, crunch, minimal bandsaw techno.  Occasional punchiness doesn't make up for the lack of much going on in most of the tracks.  Better than Redshape though, by miles.

Oriol - Night & Day (Planet Mu 2010)
Fantastic melodic funk / disco / electro / IDM crossovering into... Oriol makes his own sound here.  Successfully merging many of his inspirations into something that's more than the sum of its parts.  Not necessarily perfect, but there are tons of great moments, e.g. the Tom Jenkinson-esque bass throbbery set to loungy piano and spacey vocals on Spiral, Night And Day's REAL dubstep/breaksy beats set to space pads and gradually rousing space synth solos, or Flux's immediately memorable arpeggio set to 4/4 beats that morph effortlessly into breaksy/big-beat rhythms.  Top work.

Hudson Mohawke - Satin Panthers (Warp 2011)
Warp "darlings" are rarely all they're cracked up to be, but Hud Mo breaks out some surprisingly melodic wonky/IDM/hop on this EP.  Thunder Bay's trumpet bass-farts and Cbat's annoying glitchery are the only issues.  Octan, Thank You and - particularly - All Your Love all burst with melodic synth explosions set to solid beats and breaks.  More of this, please!

Radiohead - The King Of Limbs (Ticker Tape / XL 2011)
The further away from mumbling emo drudgery these guys get, the more fascinating they become.  I would even dare to say they sound positively euphoric at times, on this highly experimental but thoroughly engrossing album.  Bloom recalls Four Tet's style with its thickly atmospheric design, tumbling drums, and distant pads.  But - crucially - these electronics are tempered with memorable vocal lines from Thom.  The descending hook on Little By Little, the quiet down-tones on Codex, and the prickly rhythms of Morning Mr Magpie are just some of the moments that stand out.  Worth seeking out the separate 2-tracker Supercollider / The Butcher also.  I'd argue they form an essential addendum to TKOL.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Back to Doom

Amongst the slow, slow progress modeling architecture and props for my game project, I've been taking some time to return to playing Doom.

Every so often, I peruse the newest maps or "WAD" releases over at Doomworld. Doom has an enduring simplicity in its gameplay, and vast possibilities allowed by its level design. Fans are still releasing new levels, map packs and addons for it to this day.

Paired with a "source port" such as GZDoom which adds many useful features to the game such as high video resolutions, mouse-look and various graphical improvements, Doom continues to make for a compelling and satisfying sci-fi action thriller of a game. Certainly there aren't any FPSs being released any more where you can expect - shock horror - more than one enemy on screen at once? Let alone two or more of different types.

So, here are the map packs I've been playing lately.  I'd highly recommend taking a look, there's more fascinating level design in one Doom level than there could ever hope to be in five hours of Call of Duty.

UNLOVED by BlueEagle

Author BlueEagle cites Silent Hill as an influence upon this staggeringly well designed map set.  You wake up - as you do - in your bedroom, only to find that things aren't as they should be.  Unable to leave your house, you find an eldritch-looking entrance to a gothic dungeon, infested with critters that must be put to rest, with haste!

Unloved exudes Lovecraftian, gothic bleakness from every pore.  The "house" is designed as a hub, though progression is linear until you have all the keys necessary to open the final door.  I've been assaulted from all corners, distances, and often in enclosed spaces.  Upside-down studies, corridors resembling decrepit hostel halls, crumbling artifices and evil forests packed with corpses that come to life to fight you.

And the great thing is, BlueEagle is currently producing the sequel!  Unloved does suffer from "key/switch/door-hunt" syndrome (some might call "Hexen syndrome"), but it is tremendously well balanced, even quite possible to play through on UV difficulty using "fast monsters" (a special option to further push the difficulty of the game).

Top marks, thoroughly imaginative and simply great fun.

Here is a video playthrough.

LUNATIC by Skillsaw

Skillsaw seems to be a relatively recent addition to the Doom fanbase, but that hasn't diminished his impact on the scene.  I've only played this one map pack by him so far, but it's up there with the likes of Scythe.

As the title and screenshot hint, this map pack takes place on the surface of the moon, though this is mixed with a few tech bases.  Combine the relatively unique (in the Doom world) scenario with expertly-placed monsters, absolutely gorgeous visuals, and near-perfect difficulty pacing, and you have some top quality Dooming.

There's some clever secrets, interiors are well-mixed with exteriors, and the finale is a healthy challenge which I shan't give away, but is a fitting end to the pack.

There were one or two moments where UV / fast monsters made the maps a touch too difficult without a bit of crafty quick-saving.  If it gets to this point then I feel like I'm having to cheat to continue, but thankfully Lunatic doesn't quite tip into the realms of the unfair.

Deserves a Cacoward, highly recommended.

Here is a video playthrough.

NO REST FOR THE LIVING by Russell Meakim and Richard Heath of Nerve Software

This is an additional 9 levels available when one buys Doom 2 on the XBOX 360 live arcade, so I cannot link to a download here.

Unlike the previous two map packs, No Rest For The Living is an official Doom release!  The first commercial map pack since Final Doom was released in 1996.  Also unlike many fan-made maps, it is also resolutely "vanilla" in appearance.  This certainly isn't a negative and, if anything, speaks volumes of the visual diversity capable with the Doom engine.

Enemy placement is perfect, the gradual difficulty curve is well-placed, and the levels exude that classic Doom-ness (a proper technical term, dontchaknow?), where you'll find yourself in tech bases, green marble hellrooms and dingy, eldritch pits fighting off enemies from every direction and often many of them at once.  There are tons of secrets, too.  No Rest steps out of the vanilla Doom tropes on occasion though, with some excellent outdoor stone / dirt "canyon" areas with imps and arachnotrons sniping at you from the distance, while you dance with nearby revenants and demons.  Another example of the tremendous diversity Doom's gameplay is capable of presenting the player.

It's just a shame there's rather too little of it.  Russell and Richard should consider producing further maps, and preferably available for the PC in some official and legal capacity, please!

Here is a video playthrough.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Are the 80s back? Well for gaming they might be.

I'm old enough to remember baggies the first time. 'Avin it. Largin' it, even! Of course back in the late 80s/early 90s, when acid was popular (I mean the music, of course), rave became massive (say it loud!) and many gamers were to be found browsing through the racks of my local newsagent, to find that treasure trove much loved by gamers of the time: computer cassettes. Orange for Amstrad CPC, yellow for Spectrum? I forget which for Commodore 64... but yes, going entirely on some tiny screenshots and provocative (or not) hand-drawn cover art, finding a diamond in the rough happened all too rarely. These were all independently-created games, published by "real publishers" but the people involved could usually be counted on your hands.

After the rise of the PC in the 90s, Amigas and all the 8-bit machines fell into sharp decline. More and larger software teams were putting out games, and big boxes were in (and so was the hand-drawn art, thankfully). This era has a lot of collectables, and sadly to this day I cannot count System Shock in my collection, so collectable it is.

With the advent of the Playstation 2, and the turn of the century, gaming became big business. Small development teams were a rarity, and it was becoming increasingly more common to find AAA games being produced for PS2 or PC by teams comprising hundreds of people. The notion of "indie" gaming was a flicker in Jonathan Blow's eye. It would have seemed likely that the XBOX 360 era, with its stupendously high production values, would be the final nail in the coffin for "indie" or "independent" video and computer game production. Well, thankfully, it wasn't.

All of the three current major consoles have their "online" stores, and - particularly the XBOX Live Arcade - feature many independently-created games, including the mighty time-trickery of Braid. There are others that prompted this movement beforehand, but I mention Jonathan Blow and his game Braid, for a reason: Many will, and do cite it, as probably the most important independently developed game that was released commercially in recent gaming history.

And not even for the rather cool and quirky time-shifting gameplay. No, that wasn't important. What mattered was the notion that, again, an "indie" game could have commercial potential, and could even be distributed and sold on a major game console.

The short of it is, the last few years have seen an explosion in independent game design again. And not only for online game console stores, but for the more recent - and possibly even "bigger" - iTunes / iOS app store. There are now many and regular releases on mobile platforms such as iOS and Android, let alone PC, of independently-developed games. Often by small teams, or even just one or two people. Heck, the last game I purchased was Deadly Dungeons - a first-person action RPG for Android phones and tablets - and it was developed รงalmost entirely by one person.

It is a good time to be a game developer.

More discussion and news on independent games can be found at and TIGSource.

(As for my current progress, I am steadily learning the process of creating colour maps, normal maps, specular maps and alpha maps. Vital stuff, and I'm most of the way there already.)

Sunday, 3 July 2011


Serpentine of The Dark Mod made this tremendously pertinent comment about amateurism over at the Radiator blog:

"if everything was perfect there'd be no contrast and no rough to find the diamonds in.

So, amateurs? Hell yes. We enjoy making things because we enjoy the process or end result, not some kind of popularity-seeking fetish. What's better than being surprised by something slightly different? I don't know a better feeling from gaming..."

Obviously I'm quoting him out of context (please just go read the Radiator blog as well, it's excellent), however I resonated highly with this comment - if you'll forgive the somewhat indulgent phrase - particularly as I've also enjoyed his work for The Dark Mod and fan-missions for Thief. The process of composition and production is more compelling to me than putting out product for mass consumption. Might explain why I detest Ke$ha, too!

No I don't even listen to her ironically!


More Radiator loveage, but particularly because Robert discusses gaming obsessions with ruined architecture (not to mention pertinent level design issues), as well as posting this superb article discussing our obsession with ruins.

And I must admit, it's part of the more compelling aspects of Metro 2033s and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s level design...

Friday, 1 July 2011

Hello! Beginnings and prognostication.


So here is my attempt at blogging which few - if any - are likely to read, but in the unlikely event I have any readers: your presence is much appreciated.

I am Chris Wigman, a musician and computer technician, also dabbling in 3D modelling and game design. My last major projects were as Casimirs' Blake and Leniad, and I have had album releases as both. If, dear reader, you have any interest in electronic music, please click on the appropriate links to find out more!

As this is my personal blog, I will probably spend less time talking about my own music here, and concentrate on my projects as a whole. Currently I'm learning Blender and Unity3D, with the intention to create computer games! At this stage my major project is to attempt to create an immersive simulation, which will be difficult and involve many things including AI, extensive level design, probably fleshing out a lot of quests and - possibly most importantly - a player interface appropriate for interaction in such a game. And some graphic and sound design. And music. Phew!

Worthy Peers, Never Met

My primary influences are the once-mighty Looking Glass Studios. I say once as, sadly, LGS no longer exist. Having spent a decade producing some of the very finest PC games ever made, including Ultima Underworld I & II, System Shock I & II, Terra Nova and Thief I & II, they have become a martyr for intelligent game design. The short version is: they lost funding from their publisher, who was too busy throwing money at one of the most terrible games ever released.

I've spent the last month re-playing both Ultima Underworld games. You can find them over at, for a very reasonable price. They are still an object lesson in how to do a "first-person dungeon-crawler action RPG". Or at least an action adventure. They emphasise personal choice and discovery, exploration and experimentation. And, of course, they have a fair bit of exciting combat whether a player prefers to do so bare-handed, with swords, maces, axes or magic. As players explore the various levels and worlds in Ultima Underworld, they are expected to improve and learn, and adapt their abilities to various tasks and adversaries, in all manner of conditions and places.

Here is an article covering the history and games of Looking Glass Studios. Don't forget to come back! :)

Modern RPGs and Grind

Ultima Underworld does also offer some measure of "character creation", a staple of traditional Role-Playing. Many consider character creation and design (e.g. strength, dexterity, defence statistics, physical skills, magic skills etc) to be the most important aspect of an RPG, hence most modern multiplayer RPGs (known commonly as "MMO-RPGs" - Massively-Multiplayer-Online Role-Playing Games) emphasise a large amount of choice when creating a character. This is a dead-end as far as I am concerned.

I have asked some of my MMO-RPG-playing friends, what is the point of undertaking the same quests over and over again? I've never been entirely satisfied with the answers. MMORPGs have a common fallacy, and that is known as "grinding".

In order to level up and retrieve or achieve the next best shield / sword / spear / plot mcguffin / quest, a player's character often requires better statistics. Primarily this is achieved by doing a lot of quests, or fighting a lot of monsters and enemies to receive experience. This is a valid and common gameplay design choice, and obviously it is popular. One could certainly state that this happens throughout much of System Shock, and Ultima Underworld. However in these games the player continually progresses through new lands, levels, dungeons, and places. Players will often meet new challenges, in new places, and have to employ their abilities in new ways.

In MMO-RPGs, players spend a lot of time "grinding": repeating the same actions over and over again in the same place just to receive a better item or finish a quest, and often having done so for the 283rd time just to raise a few character statistics.

I don't enjoy this, frankly. I value exploration and discovery over such things, and Looking Glass games also prize this under-appreciated aspect of game design. Thief offered little choice with regards to "character design", and yet a good Thief mission offered many, many different ways to approach tasks. A player would be confronted with large, maze-like cave systems, or elaborate mansions, prisons, sometimes even whole town areas. The game-world would have its own rules and the player is given a lot of tools with which they may approach the challenges the game-world sets for them, thus allowing for many different methods of achieving goals. The player learns by experimentation, and becomes better-equipped (in all senses) to deal with the challenges the game puts to them.

The Modern Equivalent, Isn't So Equivalent

These days, the closest game type to the immersive simulation is the sand-box. Grand Theft Auto being the most popular example. I don't really wish to extensively examine the game here, I don't play it any more and personally I find it takes itself too seriously. But from a gameplay point of view, despite supposedly offering so much choice, it boils down to following linear missions in a large space (typically a city) that a player can run and drive around. There are completely arbitrary "mini-games" and side-missions, but - as with such nonsense as Infamous, Prototype and Just Cause - there is no feeling that the player can truly interact with a world or have a long-lasting impact upon it.

So What Am I Doing About It?

Whatever I achieve with my first project, it will not be a sand-box in the form I have just discussed. I am hoping to be able to produce an experience that feels interactive in a similar way to System Shock or Ultima Underworld. I have already managed to put together a basic first-person interface in Unity3D (which I will talk further about later on) which allows switching between traditional mouse-look and - crucially - a cursor. What I mean by this is that, at any point, hitting a key "freezes" the player view and shows a mouse cursor. This will eventually allow the player to do various things, particularly examining everything - right down to the walls and doors, not just items, furniture, other characters - and giving the player a physical interface that allows them to interact with the world, pick up items, and also put them down wherever they want.

The best example of this is System Shock 2, some might say the ultimate immersive simulation, but even the now-aged 1992 masterpiece Ultima Underworld allowed this, from a first-person perspective. But item placement is not the only aspect of an immersive simulation, as Artificial Intelligence, quest and goal structure, open level design also factor as well as many other aspects. I shall not elaborate further as I am not the authority on this subject, and I would highly recommend reading the following blog on the subject for more information:

Early Days

So having indirectly lamented the "death" of the immersive sim and the poor alternatives that have "replaced" it, what is my reasons for attempting the ridiculously complicated task of making not just a game, but an immersive simulation?

I am utterly depressed and disillusioned with modern gaming. Having spent a large part of my life enjoying games as entertainment and as inspiration for practically everything I do, viewing the roster of games available for the X-Box 360, Wii, Playstation 3 and even mainstream PC games, leaves me empty. I feel that there is nothing out there of interest to me. Few are bothering to make immersive simulations, let alone dungeon crawlers. There are a few on the Nintendo DS, and Code Zombie recently released the fabulous crawler Deadly Dungeons for Android phones and tablets. But it simply isn't enough, hence my desire to attempt this herculean task.

I began to explore tutorials for Unity3D at the beginning of the year, primarily following Peter Laliberte's superb Burg Zerg Arcade RPG tutorials and, more recently, some Blender tutorials. I've never particularly enjoyed coding, but I've found C sharp fairly understandable, particularly within the scope of Unity3D's modular, object-based approach to design. Blender, also, surprised me. Many consider 3D modelling to be impenetrable, but somehow I've managed to grasp the basics of Blender fairly well, to the point of being able to construct some reasonable geometry and apply textures to it. Unity3D imports from Blender, but currently not the newest versions without some hacking. I'm hoping the 3.4 update for Unity - which is imminent, apparently - will address this issue.

For now, I am concentrating on learning Blender. A modern 3D game requires content, and being the glutton for punishment I am, I'm going to have to make a lot of it. Basic objects, furniture, architecture, and - later on - characters.

It wil take a lot of time, but hopefully in a year or two, I will have a game to show for it.

... that's if Minecraft and Terraria aren't persistently dragging me away!