Markov Chocolates: A New Diversion

17 January 2012

A new year, and a new toy to begin it.

This all began when Tom started tweeting the prose from the back of a chocolate box.

Tt tweets

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.

So I took the full prose from the back of Tom’s chocolates (Thornton’s Premium selection, for reference), some Markov text-generation code from an illuminating installment of Rubyquiz, and fiddled for a bit.

A short piece of work later and I had Markov Chocolates.

Markov

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.

Comrades in the Great Intergalactic Glee Club

09 March 2010

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.

Dan Griliopolous has some good stuff to say on That Mordin Moment: The Unusual Case of the Singing Salarian.

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.

And it made me guffaw.

“Humor is when something funny happens”

26 December 2009

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.

(Emphasis my own).