Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Developing the "Acts" concept from Sonic: Ristar and its music

It is a common concept in games to divide the content into distinct chunks. This is sensible: it allows the player to deal with only a small amount of information at a time, rather than having to consume the entire game in one continuous stretch and possibly become fatigued or feel overloaded. In games with a linear progression, where the player character is implied to be travelling from point A to B of a sprawling overworld, there is an additional tendency to subdivide. There are larger "worlds" divided into smaller "levels". This additionally allows a happy compromise of varied, cohesive, and economic design: graphic elements can be reused within a world, so that each level does not need new artwork, but as long as nothing is reused between worlds they will each feel visually distinct. Super Mario Bros. made use of the basic idea of "worlds" and "levels", but it had not yet occurred to the designers to maintain a consistent set of graphics within each world: the franchise would see that idea developed over the course of the next two games.

When Sonic the Hedgehog was developed, Sonic Team decided to be unique snowflakes by referring to "Zones" instead of worlds and "Acts" instead of levels. The first game had 3 acts per zone, but this was trimmed to two for the sequel and this has remained the standard for most games in the franchise since. Since Sonic had a much later start than Mario and other platforming series, the idea of having the worlds be visually distinct was already standardised. However, the Sonic games additionally paralleled the music with the graphics: each zone had its own musical theme, quite different from the conventions of the Mario franchise where overworld, underwater, subterranean, and castle themes would be used and reused according to the nature of the environment, rather than the theme of the world. Sonic 3 developed this idea further by having the music change slightly in the second act of each zone: sometimes only the bassline would be different, or the percussion more sparse, or the structure rearranged just a bit — and sometimes it would be almost an entirely new track with just instrumentation and some key bits of the melody in common. Compare the two acts of Launch Base Zone, for example...

...to the two acts of Hydrocity Zone.

The physical characteristics of the levels are also occasionally more distinct between acts.  The tropical Angel Island Zone is firebombed halfway through the first act, with this devastation remaining throughout the second. Near the beginning of Carnival Night Zone Act 2, Knuckles shows up to turn off the lights and flood most of the level. The Launch Base Zone, having been partially blown-up as part of a failed booby trap towards the end of act 1, is all exposed pipes and waterworks in act 2. Even when there isn't a clear visual distinction, just the change in music is often important in establishing a transition in moods: act 1 of Marble Garden has an upbeat, bouncy feel, whereas act 2 is more subdued and contemplative, thanks to a much more relaxed beat, a lead synth with a longer, more reverbing decay, a softer bass sound, and a few other subtle touches. The result is a distinctly different atmosphere.

This concept continued into Sonic & Knuckles, which was more of a continuation than a sequel, and was developed further. Sandopolis Zone begins in a scorching desert, but act 2 takes place inside a dark, ghost-infested pyramid - the music, in kind, takes a dramatically sinister turn. The most significant transition is not in the final zone, the Death Egg, but in Lava Reef. Initially the setting befits the name, with dangerous active lava-flows and fire-based traps aplenty. The music is bubbly and smouldering, but has a mellow undertone to it, lacking the aggressive feel one would usually expect from a fire-based stage. At the beginning of act 2, however, all the lava suddenly cools and solidifies, the entire colour-scheme of the level changing from heated oranges and reds to serene blues, and the shift in the music befits this: the only component that seems to carry over is a background accompaniment, rather than the lead melody, yet oddly the whole track feels familiar, as if it's changed completely on the surface but still consists of the same fundamental elements. That the change between the two acts should be so dramatic is fitting for another reason: it's from this point on that the game's plot actually starts to develop.

Ristar is a game developed towards the end of the Mega Drive's life cycle. As such, it was overlooked at the time, but has garnered a bit more attention retrospectively. Partly it's because, like Dynamite Headdy, it's a pretty good game, with a simple but satisfying central mechanic (you can grab enemies and face-smash them, also climbing up walls with your face and swinging off handles like a shooting star), rich level design, and appealing visuals. However, it's also noteable because it was actually developed by Sonic Team, purportedly based on an early, rejected concept for Sonic himself. I don't know exactly how much of its staff Ristar shared with the Sonic games, but it feels almost like a natural continuation of many ideas from the latter.

When we begin a stage, a title card pops up that is very reminiscent of Sonic 2. However, not only are the flat, graphic shapes more intricate, but we're also treated to a beautifully parallaxed pan across the planet's scenery. In-game, the environments feel like an amalgam of every Sonic game that came before, though with an extra solidity,  richness, life, and boldness of colour that can only be the result of a more experienced art team.

The Acts are here, though not by name: each of the worlds (actual planets in this case) is divided into two seperate levels. However, where the Sonic games at the time had only toyed a bit with the idea of visually distinguishing individual acts, Ristar goes the whole hog with almost completely distinct graphics for each one.

A few bits are reused, generally floor tiles and the odd bush, which, along with consistent visual motifs, prevent the acts from feeling disjointed, but the assets are almost entirely newly drawn each time. Even the boss chambers (which are too short to constitute levels) get their own graphics.

And not only are the individual elements that make up the whole drawn anew for each act, but every one has an overall artistic direction and colour pallette that marks it out from its predecessor. In most cases, we move from an open environment to a more closed one, with the colours often becoming darker or more muted to mark the transition. This makes sense from a practical standpoint, since Ristar has to initially land on the surface of any planet he travels to, but it also intils a great feeling in the player, as if we're breaking into a fortress and penetrating a lair of evil.

And the music feels like it's been developed from the seeds of Sonic 3 & Knuckles in a similar way. For one thing, the tracks are longer: Sonic 3 & Knuckles has loops ranging between 40 seconds and a minute; almost all of Ristar's tracks loops at around 1 minute 20 seconds. The compositions feel a bit more intricate as well, with a few more embellishments and more detailed use of the instruments themselves. Compare Launch Base Zone act 1 above to Crying World, the act 1 theme for Planet Automaton.

Both use a mechanical sounding style, focusing less on melody and harmony than on a rythmic beat and "samples". Launch Base's consist mostly of vocal clips, percussive hits, and sound effects, whereas Automaton's are rapid, robotic bleepings and micro-tonal descending scales. The latter also meshes well with the frequent use of pitch-bends, giving the whole piece a cohesively dissonant feel.

Also contrast Lava Reef act 1 with parts of Planet Scorch's act 1 theme, Busy Flare.

Although the two tracks describe a different atmosphere, it's worth noting the rapid, effervescent background synth starting at 8 seconds in Scorch's theme, and the slow attack and subtle vibrato on the chords at 20 seconds. These are all techniques that I don't think crop up much if at all in Sonic 3 and Knuckles's music. Glissandos are another thing that's used a fair bit in Ristar's tracks that I don't think comes up in Sonic's.

Even more important, however, are the differences in the BGMs between the acts of each planet. Just as with the graphics, there's a completely fresh piece of music for each one, but with all the crucial, recognisable parts of the melody carrying over. Often the mood that each piece invokes is quite different, but it always feels like it's been developed from one act to the next. Listen to Planet Undertow's two themes.

They're both calm, but each evokes a different brand of calmness. The first is in swing time, the second isn't, so naturally the first act has a bouncier, lighter feel. It also uses carefully constructed bubbling sound effects and shimmering, climbing I'm-not-sure-what-to-call-them-but-they're-not-scales, first heard at 18 seconds. These both suggest bubbles and light-rays breaking the surface of an open body of water. The second act's theme doesn't have so many of these details, but you can hear a little oscillating, pulsing synth starting at 20 seconds, matched by a similar, subtle vibrato on the lead synth at 36 seconds. This is more evocative of the sounds of deep-sea life, or the echoes of grand subterranean caverns. The very sparse opening also suggests a still water's surface. All of these are completely appropriate for the change in environment: the first act takes place at the surface of a series of partially submerged ruins, with a roughly equal distribution of dry land and submerged areas, populated by an abundance of fish, jellyfish, eels, and crustaceans; the second act travels deeper into these ruins, and is almost completely underwater, the only life being a few seahorses and nautilus.

I could write a whole lot for each individual act transition, but I think it best to just let you hear some of the differences yourself. What do they suggest to you?

Planet Flora:

Scorch's second act, compare to Busy Flare.

Automaton's second act, Lock Up, compare to Crying World.

It would also be remiss of me to not mention Planet Sonata, the musical world. The first act begins with some pretty, cascading arpeggios, but it quickly becomes apparent that it's a very short loop. However, in order to progress through the level, one must deliver radios to a series of grumpy-looking birds. Upon doing so, each one will sing a snatch of a melody for you, and as you collect these they will be added to the BGM. Once you've satisfied all the birds and heard the full tune, it provides the backing for the miniboss. I can't find a version that describes the development on Youtube, but here's an MP3 that does the job, courtesy of the Ristar Cluster.


And here's the miniboss theme.

And in the second act, which takes place inside a sprawling complex of musically themed architecture, we're treated to an even bouncier, more spirited version of the same track. I promise you're going to be singing this melody all week.

The boss is something quite special. We walk onto a stage to see a little bird singing the game's boss music. Then a big, mean, ugly, and, crucially, tone-deaf bird drops in. So he knocks the little bird off his perch and, well, I'll let you listen for yourself.

Anybody who's ever enjoyed Touching Fuzzy and Getting Dizzy will appreciate the brilliance of this, I'm sure (though I should note that Ristar predates Yoshi's Island!) There's even a secret code that lets you hear the entire game's soundtrack with this distortion effect applied to it.

Why do I think all this business of reinterpreting existing musical themes, rather than reusing the exact same ones or composing completely new pieces for every area, is important? It's because it facilitates something very specific to games where you're on an adventure through environments that develop in a logical fashion, and that is the feeling of progress. Using the same pieces of music all the time makes the whole thing feel flat, as if you're not really travelling anywhere. I think this might be a weakness of many Mario games. Conversely, if every area you encounter has a completely unique BGM, they feel disconnected, as if it's not really one contiguous journey (Contra 3 springs to mind as a random example). Intelligent reinterpreting of musical themes is, I feel, the best way to make use of the "worlds" and "levels" concept I started with. The same ideas apply for the visuals of a game as well, but I personally feel that music is more important in creating atmosphere.

Of course, this isn't a completely new idea that I'm talking about. Motifs are an age-old device in music and many other artistic media. Both Ristar and Sonic actually make use of them in a more traditional sense, by having the melody from the title screen theme make its triumphant return during the ending. Ristar, however, has one up on his predecessor again with another subtle use, as the bassline from the intro video, where we first see Greedy, the big bad, reappears for the final confrontation. It's pretty much a leitmotif!

Sonic and Ristar are probably not the first or best games to make use of these ideas. I just thought it was really interesting to see them being clearly developed from one series to another. I mentioned that I hadn't found out exactly how many members of Sonic Team actually worked on both series, but one thing I do know is that two of Ristar's composers, Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata, worked on the music for Sonic CD, whose Present, Past, Bad Future and Good Future versions of every level each have their own fitting musical accompaniments. Clearly, they were already familiar with this concept by the time they worked on Ristar, so it's little wonder that what they did for it was so skilful.

I'm currently working on a comic, but am finding it hard to get into. Comics are really, really hard! It's like a storyboard, only without the knowledge that you will be able to use acting or timing to compensate for stuff that isn't clear in the board itself. To take a break I did a few doodles trying to reimagine Annie from League of Legends, sort of like what Joe Sparrow did with Veigar and Cho'Gath. Only I'm not as good of a designer as he is.


Really she's just a generic little girl with fire powers and a bear. I made her a... more evil-looking generic little girl with fire powers and a bear? Eeeeeeh. Her lore as written for the game is that her parents are a pair of refugee mages from the conveniently-evil city-state of Noxus. Which is great because it suggests absolutely nothing about Annie's personality, so I still have almost nothing to work from. Some digging reveals that she's friends with a sad mummy, and is "surprisingly genteel" in her daily life, but that's pretty boring. I figured it'd be neat if she looked like her parents, being from a high-class background despite their refugee status, had tried to put her in a nice dress and carefully brushed her hair, only for her to burn it all because burning things is hilarious to her. I couldn't really figure out an easy way to draw burnt hair, though. And as I kept drawing more she ended up looking more and more deranged somehow. I think I subcosciously just wanted her to be really evil and malevolent. The dark circles under her eyes also evoke a little too much of a gothic-lolita flavour, but I like them because of the suggestion that her pyromania keeps her up at night. These were fun doodles but I wish I could figure out a way to be more stylistically adventurous. Mostly I was just changing between two different hairstyles and fiddling with eye shapes. I might continue to try to work up something better though. Or just toss it all out and do another champ.

The illustrations for Annie's other skins are mostly pretty foul because apparently Riot's artists can't draw girls without massive tits. The Reverse Annie picture is decent and pretty funny though.

And apparently the Chinese game client has different artwork, which is really generic anime stuff (rather than generic modern digitally painted fantasy illustration stuff) but most of it is capably done, at least.

I'm looking at the side bar and it seems like I've got a few more people subscribing to this blog than when I last checked. I'm not sure when you all started, but welcome! If you came here recently, you did so at a good time. For bonus points, find where in this post I changed tenses. Also, I offer no apologies at all for the excessive Youtube embeds. If your Macbook overheated and the keyboard melted off the chassis I'm sorry, but it's your own fault.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

An addendum to my dissertation: the difference between Sonic and Mario boxart.

The dissertation I wrote at university was about Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. It was an examination of how the two series approached narrative aspects (mostly their handling of the characters and the worlds they inhabit, with less focus on strictly the plots of the games). There were a fair few ideas in it, but it mostly boils down to how the Mario series focuses on a simple and consistent story foundation with a more abstract, flexible world, while the Sonic series has a world mired in vague attempts at consistent continuity with stories and environments that try too hard to emulate movies. If you think it might interest you, you can download the Word document here.

This isn't an extension to the essay that draws from developments that have happened since then (like the fact that people haven't hated the last couple of Sonic games), rather it's just an orphaned observation that I noticed at one point during writing but couldn't think of any relevant conclusions to draw from or find a good place for. As such, you don't need to read the original dissertation to get this.

That is, that there's an interesting trend in the box-art of the two series: in general, Sonic is more often depicted looking directly at the camera; Mario is often looking past the camera or into the scene.

Any attempts at claiming equivalency broke down here. Also FUCK I forgot Sonic the Fighters and SegaSonic the Hedgehog. And Knuckles Chaotix. And Tails Adventure. But there's enough crap on here already, you get the point.

 Given the way Sonic and Sega's consoles were initially marketed, as been cooler and having more "attitude" than those boring old Nintendon't loser consoles for sad people with no friends, it somehow makes sense that he'd end up with a gaze that addresses and challenges the viewer a bit more.

It's not a profound insight, but I think it's interesting to notice these subtle things that probably only happened for subliminal reasons. I doubt somebody at Sega went "Sonic's meant to be cool, so he should be looking at the viewer as if to tell them how cool he is". It probably just came about naturally.

(It's fun to think about the exceptions too. The Mario Party series, for example, has Mario looking at the camera on almost every cover. Although stupid blogger shrunk the image so you can't see. Take my word for it.)

This isn't the post I wanted to make today, but the next, like, three that I can think of that I actually want to write all involve music, and sadly I left the cord for my good headphones at Cartoon Network on my last day on a recent job, and my crap headphones decided they were going to be REALLY crap, and the right ear died, and I can't bear to try to listen to music even for a little bit that way. So until I get my replacement cable in the post you get this discarded scrap of an essay from 4 years ago.

I just "updated" my website. "Updated" in quotation marks because really it's just an under-construction placeholder until I have the content, knowledge, and time to actually put together a fully fleshed-out page, and I wanted to at least get rid of the embarrassingly amateurish rubbish I had there before. It has my new showreel on it, so if you haven't seen it yet please check it out!

Unrelatedly: I recently got linked to a very nice bit of writing on why Super Metroid is an amazingly well-designed game. This is the sort of analysis I aim for with this blog. I've seen interesting stuff on Gama Sutra before, I should really get into the habit of following it more.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Dynamite Headdy: The Most Videogamey Videogame Ever

There are some mediums of entertainment that have become so ingrained into our culture that their names invoke certain descriptive qualities, which can be used to describe other mediums or themselves. We can refer to something we think has the qualities of a film as being "filmic", or something that is like a cartoon as being "cartoony". "Comic book" also applies. I think I have heard the term "videogamey" being used before, possibly in reference to the way a wad of cash would pop up like a power-up after killing a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto 3 (I don't know if it actually does, this is just my spotty memory talking). However, it's not a terribly widespread term, and I don't think I've ever seen somebody elaborate on what exactly constitutes "videogamey" characteristics. So if I'm lucky I'll be treading new ground with this post, as I look at what I believe to be the most videogamey videogame ever made: Dynamite Headdy.

This is one of a pair of one-off (that is, not part of a franchise) games that I loved and played alot during my childhood (the other was Ristar, we might be seeing that in a future post). Like many popular games of the time, it's a cartoony side-scrolling platformer, with the protagonist being Headdy, a puppet with a detachable head that he can shoot off in a paddleball fashion to attack enemies. It's good fun, as the central head-shooting mechanic is pretty gratifying, and there's a wide range of entertaining powerups, great bosses, some neat scenery interaction, and lots of quirky little secrets to find. None of these, however, have much to do with what I feel makes this game so uniquely videogamey. What I'm interested in is the world the game constructs, a world that I feel could not exist in any other medium.

 The central conceit for the visuals is that it takes place on stage. Or, at least, an environment that looks like a stage. All the scenery is cobbled together from conspicuous planks of wood, with clearly segmented scrolling backgrounds, dodgy broken props, backstage segments, and even a little maintenance man who pops up from time-to-time (and gives you a Secret Bonus Point if you kill him).

The first boss (Maruyama, Headdy's body-swapping rival) makes his appearance by knocking down the background, only for a new one to be pulled in by little stagehands.

For another boss, a carpet is rolled in.

The ending sequence even shows the whole thing being taken apart.

It's all deliciously quirky and totally distinctive. But what about it is "videogamey"?

A unique trait of sidescrolling games is their perspective, always a flat mid or long shot. Occasional forays into the world of Mode 7 graphics allow a front-on or over-the-shoulder view, but this is the exception: it is not unusual for a whole game to remain at this same angle. This happens to be the same way we view a play, as our seats do not move, and unlike in cinema, there is no moving virtual camera, and we see all the action directly through our own eyes.

But what is so intriguing about the world of Dynamite Headdy is that its nature is not actually certain. We're never quite sure whether we're literally watching a play being acted out on a real (in-universe) stage, or whether we're watching an adventure taking place in a world that just happens, through some weird quirk, to look like one. There are hints both ways. In particular, a moment where Maruyama gate-crashes again and pulls Headdy backstage for another boss fight...

...the "Continue?" screen where Headdy gets booted offstage and has to choose whether to listen to the cheering crowd and go back on or leave through the back door...

...and the secret end boss, either a caricature of the president of Sega at the time or the fat-cat owner of the theatre (depending on whether you're playing the Japanese or English version)...

No image of the latter, sorry!
...all suggest the former to some extent. However, how then do we explain the fact that when Headdy leaves one area on stage right, he enters the next one from stage left? There's certainly not enough time in the brief transition for him to have run around the back and for the scenery to have been swapped, and it's either that or this is a really big theatre!

There are more subtle hints, a few minor quirks that make it seem like if this really is a play, it's just a little too self-conscious, a little too "meta" for its own good. As we see the scenery being taken apart in the ending, there's a little blinking sign that says "ENDING DEMO NOW PLAYING" (mirroring a similiar sign for the opening demo), suggesting that this apparently fourth-wall-breaking action is actually intended to be watched (and aren't "opening demo" and "ending demo" curiously videogamey terms?) The first few instances of scenery destruction and backstage reveals occur at the hands of Maruyama (who is described in the manual as being jealous of Headdy and wanting to steal the star role from him), but one level requires Headdy to manipulate the scenery in very explicitly mechanical ways, moving sections of the floor, revealing the girders that make up the pieces...

...and even causing the entire background to fold upwards, revealing all the cogs and gears and inner workings that keep all the moving parts running.

The stage hands that we occasionally see maintainig the scenery are inconsistent in nature: the ones just above and in the ending appear to be flesh and blood humans, but many others seem to be keywound toys themselves, as if they exist within the boundaries of the play rather than governing it from outside. And while the villain of the piece, Dark Demon, could just be a character within a story, there are veiled suggestions that his powers and intentions extend beyond the scope of the stage itself. The reveal for his castle after defeating the Yayoi, the gatekeeper, involves more explicit scenery destruction.

 And after penetrating his castle, a central mechanic involves the use of stage-flipping devices, which are one of the few effects in the game that is not designed after a theatrical mechanism: the entire image simply flips like a card.

Sorry, no "After" screenshot because I'm dumb.
 It's as if Dark Demon's powers are truly magical, and are not bound by the limits of the world of the stage. The transition into the final battle is similar, as the environment dissolves away into a starry background, quite removed from anything we've seen before.

And then there's things that are difficult to classify. Like one boss that takes place on a little backstage stage for some reason...

...and the basketball minigame that you have to play to access the secret boss. The fact that, like the boss itself, it takes place in a clearly not-a-theatre environment should put it on the "evidence for the fact that it's all actually a play" list, but then what's with that very obvious "INTERMISSION: SUB GAME" sign? As with the "ENDING DEMO NOW PLAYING" sign, by nature it implies that it's meant to be read, and thus that this scene is meant to be watched. But by whom? The audience? What audience? Certainly not the one in the theatre, because we're not in the theatre. Or are we? Is it us? Or am I just overanalysing a meaningly element of standard videogame signage?

And then I start thinking about how Maruyama is shown during the deconstruction sequence, having a private little happy ending where he gets to use Dark Demon's castle as a new body...

 ...but then appears in the cast roll, sort of out-of-character and sort of not, and I get a headache (and oh god Dark Demon is there too even though he's evil and I don't know if this is now a play-within-a-play-within-a-play or a world-that-looks-like-a-play-within-a-play or whether I'm just overthinking it or aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah).

If one looks at all this objectively, there's probably more evidence for the "it's a play" camp. However there's just enough inconsitencies to sow doubt about the nature of the game's world into the player's mind. And, most importantly, there is one special factor that allows this ambiguity to hold even with just these few hints, and that is the side-on perspective. Why? Because if the camera were ever to rotate to the side, an explicit decision would have to be made. We would be able to either see the edges of the stage, the audience, and everything else that would come with a real theatre all at once, or the lack thereof, and any illusions would be shattered. And if this world were to attempt to exist as such in anything other than a videogame, the constantly forced flat perspective wouldn't work. The stage-like visuals are great in and of themselves from a design point-of-view, but what makes it truly interesting for me is that ambiguity, the uncertain nature of this weird world that we're looking at, and I don't think it could exist in quite the same way in a cartoon, a film, a comic book, a novel, hell, even an actual play. Anything other than a sidescrolling 2D videogame simply wouldn't work as well, and it's not because it is deficient in narrative or character (as is the case with almost any cartoon adaptation of a videogame series), it's because the strengths and the points of interest aren't played to by the conventions of any other medium in existence.

And that's why I think Dynamite Headdy is the most videogamey videogame ever. Because, in my eyes, it couldn't be anything but a videogame.

Here's a mopping man. From a recent job (that actually got cancelled in the end, but oh well at least I got paid and it kept me busy). It's actually my birthday today. So maybe this first post in a long time is a birthday present to myself? I have alot of things going on in my life right now that I need to sort out, but among them all I actually intend to prioritise this blog a bit more, because on the whole I just need to be getting more shit done. Stay tuned. I really do have more planned.