"I don't usually do in-depth analyses of my bots, especially one that's probably not gonna break ten followers, but my most recent bot is very personal to me, and the making of it turned out to be much stranger than I expected. It's The Bot of Mormon, "the most correct bot", a text-generating process with a very niche audience but the niche audience includes me, so I'm happy." Great, detailed post from Leonard on making programattic jokes: his explanation of the ongoing struggle to make the bot entertaining is good, and the solution he comes to smart.
"A wood and brass sound synthesizer built by Max Kohl after the design by Hemholtz. 39½ x 29 inch mahogany base with turned feet, fitted with 11 small wooden platforms, each marked with a number and the words "aus" [from] and "ein" [to], 10 of the platforms fitted with tuning forks and accompanying brass Helmholtz resonators, the tallest measuring 18½ high, each pair ranging in size according to their graduating frequencies, 11th platform fitted with 1 large horizontal master tuning fork." Oh my.
"When I was a child in school, the fact that the laws of nature seemed to be permanent and immutable, compared to the laws of the state, made science most attractive to me. And I recall as a kid in school, a physics experiment—and my also mischievous pleasure that even these overwhelming, secular authorities couldn’t change the direction of a beam of electrons." And it goes from there. Ursula Franklin sounds quite remarkable.
"The point is that this is lossless game design. There is no shark pit. When you buy a board game, what you take home and play is the original concept precisely as it was in the designer’s head. That’s the mecca for video games. For board games, it’s the norm."
"I don’t need some pencilneck with four Ph.D’s, one-thousand hours of simulator time, and the ability to operate a robot crane in low-Earth orbit. I need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies, three subsequent years in temp jobs, and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study. I need someone who can read The Bell Jar and make strong observations about its representations of mental health and the repression of women. Sure, you’ve never even flown a plane before, but with only ten days until the asteroid hits, there’s no one better to nuke an asteroid."
One look at that and, having gagged a little on the truly purple prose, there was only one obvious continuation: a machine to churn out chocolate descriptions infinitely.
Which was as good a time as any to play with Markov chains. Wikipedia will explain in more detail, but if you’ve never encountered them, a very rough explanation is: Markov chains are systems that model what the next item in a list will be based on the previous ones. The more previous items you have, the better it can predict the next thing.
They’re often used in toy text generators. You give them source text to seed them, randomly pick a word from the source text, and then start choosing what should come next. What’s nice about this is with nothing other than a piece of maths, and a tight corpus, we can produce things that usually read like English without having to teach a computer something as complex as grammar. Of course, sometimes you get grammatical-yet-nonsensical English out, but that’s hardly in a problem in our case.
Roughly once every four hours (but it varies), you’ll get a fresh, tasty new Markov Chocolate in your Twitter feed. It’s another of my daft toys, but it still makes me chuckle. I’m thinking of expanding the corpus soon, and I hear the Markov coroporation are keen to branch out into new product lines. For now, you can get your chocolate fix here.
Internet culture talks often about the moment some piece of media “jumped the shark”; I’d say that Mordin moment, is the inversion of this, the moment when games stepped up from being puerile, simplistic and arbitrary constructs of a moment’s pleasure, to fully-fledged self-sustaining, confident and internally coherent worlds of their own.
The belly-laugh I got from that moment was totally unexpected, and tickled me the more I thought about: a relatively obscure gag, that you’d only discover if you spent a while digging into Mordin’s personality (or the conversation trees that stand for it), and even then (not wanting to sound snobbish) you might not get it. Of course the Salarians are ideally suited to patter-songs. Of course Mordin feels like a character from a comic operetta anyway – it’s that serious, slightly po-faced character combined with a knowing and devilish wit.
Not all the content in Mass Effect 2 is for every player. Some players might never see the bad endings; some might never see the good endings. Some players might not see certain quests, or conversation branches. That doesn’t mean those assets, or that development time, is wasted: this is how Bioware have chosen to make games. Those choices are choices they value.
And so when I got to that joke, I recoiled: in laughter; in surprise (that someone had even bothered to make that gag – to write it, to animate it, to record the VO); and, most of all, in the wonder that I thought that the joke was written just for me.
A magic moment that, in the way it combined genuine characterisation with seemingly-private easter-egg, felt suitably game-ish. A totally optional dialogue moment, totally ephemeral in the course of the plot, became not only a moment of a humour, but also a further tight bond between my Mordin and my Shepard (for it is never “Shepard”, but invariably my Shepard, when you talk Mass Effect). They were not comrades not only in arms, but also in the Great Intergalactic Glee Club. It wasn’t just a gag; for me – and my Shepard – it became role-playing.
Dan’s right: it’s this little ephemeral moment, its unnecessary detail crafted with no less care than plot-critical dialogue, that reminds you how well filled-out the Mass Effect universe is. Characters don’t just have stats and firearms; they have hobbies and histories, too. World’s aren’t just created in the macro, but also the micro. This was one of the many tiny moments in Mass Effect 2 that made me love the game as much, if not more, than the tubthumping, huge moments.
My friend Steve Gaynor has put up his review of the year in gaming over at his blog, Fullbright. He’s got some sharp points, but I really liked his commentary on Street Fighter 4 – one of my favourite games of the past year. It deserved quoting in full:
Street Fighter 4: Simply put, I haven’t laughed so much at probably any game as I have playing SF4 in the conference room over lunches at 2K Marin. The fact that humor in games is “hard to do” comes up fairly often– only because people think of “humor” as “jokes,” which lose their power after their first telling. But humor is when something funny happens, and games are the only entertainment medium capable of making funny things happen in completely unplanned and unexpected ways. In the right company, Street Fighter 4, with its cartoonish brutality, over-the-top animations, and always-surprising reversals of fortune is a consistent laugh riot. Thank you, Capcom.
"Tommy, I appreciate you. You do so much for me. You make an excellent vegetable chili. And that time I was on a trip for work and you caught that mouse all on your own, you were really brave. On the flip side, Nick, Coach and your brother Ellis, they offer the security of a well-oiled killing machine. We cover each other. We share health packs. And we don’t cook vegetable chili."
"This guidebook is a practical “how-to” manual on the conduct of effective nation-building. It is organized around the constituent elements that make up any nation-building mission: military, police, rule of law, humanitarian relief, governance, economic stabilization, democratization, and development. The chapters describe how each of these components should be organized and employed, how much of each is likely to be needed, and the likely cost." Not your average "for dummies" book, then.
"In collaboration with Bungie and Microsoft we are bringing the artistry and almost infinite content of the Halo 3 world into your world. For the first time ever, custom screenshot images created on the Xbox 360 console during Halo 3 gameplay are available as remastered fine art products, and delivered ready to hang on your wall." Single-click from the Bungie.net screenshot viewer to buying prints (or canvases) of your screengrabs. Superb.
"Bayer’s DIDGET™ is the only blood glucose meter that plugs into a Nintendo DS™ or Nintendo DS™ Lite system. This unique meter helps encourage consistent testing with reward points that children can use to buy items within the game and unlock new game levels." Blood glucose monitor for diabetics that plugs into your Nintendo DS. Utterly awesome, and exactly what a new world of products should look like.
"I have realized that the traditional omelet form (eggs and cheese) is bourgeois. Today I tried making one out of cigarette, some coffee, and four tiny stones. I fed it to Malraux, who puked. I am encouraged, but my journey is still long." How have I only just encountered this?
"This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives." Adam Curtis has a blog.
"Storytelling began as ceremony and evolved into ritual. It was commercialised in the middle ages, became big business in the 19th century and an international industry in the 20th. Today it is the ubiquitous wallpaper of the postmodern era." I still think there's some separation of plot/narrative to be considered, you can't deny Schrader makes some sensible points.