HEALTH – Max Payne 3 soundtrack

To round off the year, I thought I’d quickly take a look at my top albums for 2012.

Most of it isn’t too surprising, except for the Max Payne soundtrack.  What can I say here?  Obviously due to my modding background and past ties with Remedy, I had high hopes but low expectations for Max Payne 3.  It’s been almost nine years since the last game, and the idea of a bearded Max Payne with a skin head, shooting gangs in Brazil seemed wrong on paper.

Yet Rockstar exceeded them on almost every front — both in singleplayer and multiplayer.  Say what you want about the story, McCaffrey is in fine form and delivers some wonderfully cynical put downs (my favourite: “Rich parasites with delusions of humanity.“).  Maybe I just identify with bitter and broken anti-heroes a little too much these days.

But what took me, and clearly many others, by complete surprise was the soundtrack.  Of course, it shouldn’t have — Rockstar have proven many times that someone in their office knows their music, both old and new.  What’s evident though, is that they clearly understood both what made the Max Payne soundtrack work in the past games, and what was missing from them.

The first two Max Payne games were scored by Kärtsy Hatakka & Kimmo Kajasto, who set the tone of the series with dark, ambient pieces, mixing electronic, rock, and classical arrangements.  The second game also closed with a single from Poets of the Fall, a Finnish band who have continued to work with Remedy on their next game series, Alan Wake.

While I love these soundtracks, when it came to making new levels for them (particularly in Mona The Assassin) it became apparent that there are actually very few action tracks in the score.  Max Payne 2 literally has only one track , and as a level scripter you simply can’t use that one over and over again.  Considering that this is a game series that revolves around violent gunfights — mostly in slow-motion — it’s a strange omission.

What HEALTH have successfully managed to do with Max Payne 3 is carry over the dark, melancholic ambience from the first games, and inject a pulse into it.  From the moment you load the game up, the music immediately sets a steady pulse going and it never lets up as the action intensifies.  During gameplay, as Max takes cover you become aware of a drum rhythm, which then builds to a frenzy — mirroring the on-screen violence.  It reminds me of stories (I’m not sure of the origin) of warriors or soldiers driven mad, because of an unrelenting drumming sound in their head.  The drums of war, so to speak.  Certainly, when I hear it now, my pace quickens and my focus sharpens.

Modern game designers often talk about a concept called ‘flow’ — the careful control of tension and release in conflict based gameplay, which (if done skilfully) can heighten the experience.  Although it’s an obvious thing to do, Max Payne 3 is one of the few games I’m aware of that very consciously uses its soundtrack to manipulate the feelings of the player.  The audio is layered into the game in such a way that the transitions between chaotic gunfights and ambient introspection are subtle and go mostly unnoticed.

But it’s not just the use of percussion that makes the Max Payne 3 soundtrack great.  The game has many melancholic and reflective tracks, that evoke (for me anyway) that dark electronic sound you hear in 80s films like Manhunter.  For me, the more introspective tracks like Pain, Torture, Dead, Panama, and Future are the most interesting to listen; and as a whole, they give the album a sense of balance.  That’s important, because it feels like a complete music piece – a concept album – rather than just a movie or game soundtrack.

It’s not an easy album to listen to, and ambience and noise is always an acquired taste, but I think it more than stands up alongside other releases this year.  That said, it’s a dark album, and in the context of the game there are undertones of loss, regret, failure, violence, and self-hate.  This is the soundtrack to a man who indulges in self abuse, labels people as “chumps” and “parasites”, and unconsciously sets himself up for repeat failure — which he then wallows in.  It’s a soundtrack to a man who finds escape and release through being shot at.  In some respects, Max Payne is exploring just how far down the downward spiral he can go before reaching catharsis; and HEALTH’s soundtrack perfectly reflects the pain, anger, and conflict of a man trying to piece back together the fragments of his broken psyche, cutting himself on the shards in the process.

On a personal level, it’s a  dark soundtrack to what has been a surprisingly difficult year —  full of failure, change, uncertainty, doubt, and loss.  Bleak as this record might sound, it’s important to remember that when facing difficulties, the message is not to wallow in self-pity, alcoholism  and violence.  Max Payne isn’t an ideal hero, nor is he a protector — a role he continually miscasts himself as.  When stripped to his core, Max Payne is a fighter.  If there is a message to take from the story, it’s to keep fighting.  Keep fighting for what you believe in;  fight for change; fight for hope; fight to make a difference.

Whatever it is you think is important, don’t give up on it, no matter how bad things might seem.  A simple message, but one that gets clouded in the day-to-day haze of modern life.  This is something I learnt many years ago, and having faced absolute failure in the face on more than one occasion, I believe you have to match difficulty with the tenacity to keep on going forward, to never give up, to keep fighting.  This record somehow captures that sense of hope,  surprisingly enough in the track entitled Pain.

You can listen to the whole album on Spotify here: Health – Max Payne 3 Official Soundtrack

Is Christmas actually getting later every year?

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Is Christmas actually getting later every year?

We all like to grumble about how Christmas is getting earlier every year — at least as far as supermarkets are concerned. But is this true for people’s listening habits? This afternoon we decided to take a look at our data, which curiously suggests that perhaps the opposite is true…

Like all of the best ideas, this graph came about it after a few rounds at the pub last night, and may or may not be scientifically valid. But it is scientific, which means it’s true.

Social Disconnect.

So last week I discovered that for the last month or more, Facebook, in its infinite wisdom, had set all my posts to only be published on my parents wall.  Brilliant. :D  Anyway, with the election nonsense going on, I’ve decided to unplug from facebook, g+, and twitter for a while until the dust settles.  I’m going to spend the time working on my blog here, and various projects I’ve left to stagnate.  I can still be contacted by email, if you remember that old technology, and I’ll still reply to direct messages (though I’m not expecting any, tbh).  When discussing this, one of my friends at work pointed out that the fact I wasn’t willing to delete my account outright implies that I’m addicted.  They’re probably right.

“10 of your friends like this stupid meme you posted? That’s great! Everyone loves sarcasm! Post some more of that and you’ll be become super-popular!”

The addictive nature of social networking sites is interesting to study though.  The way people mindlessly post and share content, looking for likes, retweets, +1s reminds me of how slot machines work with their pre-determined variable ratio reinforcement schedules.   I’ve written about the topic of reinforcement before because it’s as fascinating as it is scary.  Outside of gambling, RPG games like Final Fantasy, Diablo, and MMOs use VR reinforcement schedules to hook people into spending large amounts of their free time (tens or hundreds of hours) performing mindless, repetitive tasks – rewarding them with level ups, and item drops.  In gaming, we call this ‘grinding’.  It’s intentionally tedious, and many games nowadays encourage “micro-transactions” (i.e. spending real money) to skip all of that stuff.  Social games have this down to mathematical precision — if you want some insight into exactly how horrifying they are, I’d encourage you to read Tim Rogers’ review of The Sims Social and companion piece who killed video games? (a ghost story)

Social networks reinforce mundane, repetitive user actions such as refreshing the page, liking an item, or re-sharing it, by rewarding them with attention.  Anyone who has spent a lengthy amount of time online will eventually come to the conclusion that attention is gold dust on the Internet.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s sincere or not.  The internet is, we believe, a level playing field, and everyone is fighting for their share of attention online; you, me, your family, mine, your favourite band, your least favourite politician, fucking marmite, television celebrities, pundits, hacks, religious figures, anonymous hackers… I mean, hell, if Charlie Sheen can successfully reboot his career by having a mental breakdown on twitter, there’s hope for us all.  Right?

Facebook and Twitter give you a platform to project your trivial insignificant nonsense to the world, and this is reinforced by positive attention.  On a forum, if you post half the junk you do on facebook, you’d get branded as a troll or an ‘attention whore’ and ostracised by the community.  But not on Facebook right?  They’re your friends!  You’ll notice that Facebook has never implemented a ‘dislike’ button — negative reinforcement would drive people off the site, which would probably upset advertisers.

Due to the transitory nature of the wall and twitter feed, it’s quantity, not quality, that is emphasised.  Furthermore, you’ll start to notice that Facebook is now filtering content from your friends and pages you’re following, presumably based on popularity (likes/trends), so that you only see a percentage of what you’ve subscribed to.  Page owners – bands, magazines, and what not – are now desperately pleading with users to adjust their settings because they now have to pay Facebook to guarantee that their updates will appear on your wall.  What this means is that your Facebook wall is becoming an increasingly competitive space — already over-saturated with companies and corporations trying to advertise their special brand of bullshit on your wall.

So every day people and organisations just post random garbage to social networks, in a scatter-shot fashion, trying to out-shout each other.  I was actually employed to do this for 6 months, and frankly, I strongly suspect that over half of them don’t even know why they’re doing it, except for a pressing need to have “an active Facebook presence”.

Why?

“Because everyone is on Facebook”

That’s one of the things about social networks that’s really innovative — everyone is there.  You don’t need to leave the site or bookmark stuff any more, because they bring the best content from the web directly to you.  News, current affairs, interests, hobbies, music, games.  I mean, does anyone use email for contacting their friends any more?  Or, like me, do you almost exclusively use social networks to contact your friends and family?  It’s more convenient isn’t it? You may have noticed a couple of years ago they stopped emailing you every time you get a message or notification — it’s redundant when most people “check their facebook” multiple times a day.  It also encourages people to keep visiting the site.

Yesteryear sites like Yahoo, MSN, AOL, as well as your favourite ISP, tried and failed to pull this off.  All of them had (and still have) redundant content on their home pages — the latest news, fashion, and gossip, as well as their own webmail to boot.  But they all lacked the magic ingredient of social networks — instead of creating a universal, personalised hub for your friends and interests, they all created their own branded ‘portals’, each with distinctively bland, irrelevant, re-hashed ‘original’ content.

Convenience is the key ingredient to making convergence work, and social networks are massively convenient because they pull your friends and interests into an easily digestible, personalised news feed.  Social networking is better than static communication like emails, because they’re dynamic, engaging, and there’s an social vibrance or flow to them.  Breaking news stories spread quickly and gossip trends to the top — almost every time you refresh the page, or scroll down far enough, you’ll likely encounter something that piques your interest.  But that’s also why I find them problematic.  They’re designed to draw you into an unconscious routine of checking your notifications, posting or reposting content, and then refreshing page periodically to see if people have responded to your update.  Like a slot machine.

When I first joined Facebook, I saw it as an online community or forum “with just my friends”.  Now it feels like a crowded, uncomfortable, stale white and blue conference room with a bunch people I vaguely know from my past, intermingled with corporate PR reps and indie musicians wandering around like lost children trying to find their way.  Everyone wears a name tag containing a brief description of who they are, what they do, their sexual orientation, status, interests, beliefs, and their birthday, lest you forget.  On their backs they are required to wear a thing called their “Timeline”, which highlights the key events in their life, or lack thereof.  Mostly it chronicles your failed relationships.  The room is so crowded that you can only really speak to the people in your immediate vicinity,  but megaphones are available for a small fee so you can reach your friends at the back of the room.  In one corner is the games room, but it’s starting to look like one those dodgy stalls at the fairground, or one of those gambling arcades at a motorway services stop — you know the kind, with lots of bright colours and music to attract kids, but designed callously to rob you blind.  Except it’s not your kids getting hooked on this, it’s your mum.

I have nearly 200 ‘friends’ now and yet I can’t remember the last time I actually had a conversation with any of them outside of my circle of face-to-face friends.  We don’t need to, because they can just read my status updates and I can read theirs.  We communicate through automated validation.  Real friendship, which I’ve learnt to value through losing it, has been replaced with something superficial and alienating.  In a way, the more I think about it, the more I realise that I’ve actually lost touch with some of my closest friends.  Facebook has connected me to everyone, and by doing so, I feel connected with no one.

I’m not going to talk about privacy, that’s been done to death, you know the risks when you use sites like this, and the internet at large.  My primary concern is productivity.  Every time I’m writing an asinine comment on facebook or a witty “That thing” observation on twitter, I can’t shake the feeling I could be doing something more worthwhile with my time.  Yet, at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to delete my account.

And so, I guess we’re stuck with each other.

Custom Last.fm stations

With RQL and Combo.fm

Some of the most frequent questions and complaints we get at Last.fm include:

  • “I’ve added hundreds or thousands of artists to my library, but it doesn’t play them.”
  • “Is there any way to filter my music by a tag or genre?”
  • “Can I ban artists from my stations?”

Fortunately, there is a way.  Read on.

Radio Query Language (RQL) lets you combine Last.fm stations (artists, users, tags) and allows you to filter them with basic logical operators (or, and, not).

For example, if I want to filter my library radio to only play jazz, I can do this with the RQL string:

library:Maddieman and tag:"jazz"

If I want to exclude ‘Lady Gaga’ from ‘Pop’ tag radio:

tag:"pop" not simart:"lady gaga"

If I want to combine two unrelated stations:

tag:"classical" or tag:"electronic"

It’s perhaps easier to illustrate these as diagrams (click any image to launch the station):

Intersection between My Music Library and the tag ‘Jazz‘.

Exclusion – Pop tag radio, but not artists similar to Lady Gaga

Union between Classical and Electronic tag radio.

If you want, you can make more complicated stations, such as “1980s, Rock, Female Vocalists“, which hopefully will give music like Blondie and The Pretenders.  In practise though, this station didn’t give me the results I wanted (use the 80s tag at your own risk), so this one required a slight adjustment:

tag:"80s" and tag:"rock" and tag:"female vocalists" not tag:"pop" not tag:"hair metal"

However, be forewarned that overly complicated queries are unlikely to work. If you just want to listen to a very limited range of artists, you’re probably better off just creating a Spotify playlist.

Combo.fm

That’s all fine and good, but how do you actually create your own stations? Fortunately one of our moderators, tburny, created a very nice user interface for RQL, called Combo.fm.  It might not win any awards for web design, but it allows you to quickly and easily create custom radio stations.


On the left hand side, you pick the stations you want to include (from personal stations, artists, users, and tags). In the middle of the page you can edit the query and adjust the operators (or, and, not). On the right hand column you can launch your custom station, and you can also tweak the mainstream/obscurity of the artists played, as well as the repetition rates.

As a reminder:

  • Or = Union of two or more stations, gives you everything.
    • e.g. Pop OR Rock will play artists tagged as either pop or rock.
  • And = Intersection of two or more stations, used to filter a station by tag.
    • e.g. Pop AND Rock only plays music tagged as both Pop and rock.
  • Not = Excludes content from your stations, used to ban artists and tags.
    • e.g. Pop NOT Justin Bieber plays artists tagged as pop, but not those similar to Justin Bieber.

Discovery Mode is an advanced feature that attempts to play only music you haven’t listened to yet.  It effectively treats your scrobbles as banned tracks.  However, due to a quirk in its design, it doesn’t work with your standard Library radio by default, so simply selecting ‘Discovery mode’ won’t make any noticeable difference to your station.  In order to activate it, you need to include a dummy tag as well, for example:

library:Maddieman not tag:"pornogrind" opt:discovery|true

None of the music in my library is tagged with “pornogrind”, so nothing is actually excluded; all this does is enable Discovery Mode to launch, and play me music from my library that I haven’t listened to yet.

That’s basically all there is to it. I tend to use it mostly for filtering my library or recommendations radio by a particular tag (e.g. french + female vocalists). It also works well with friends and neighbours radio, and for setting up multi-user stations (good for parties, etc). Give it a go, and see what you can come up with!

Further Reading:

Finishing touches…

I’ve been somewhat restless this year…  looking at my wordpress dashboard, I have no less than 19 posts sitting in the ‘draft’ queue.  There’s so much more I want to write about, and yet it seems like these days I can only get two thirds of an article written before I run out of energy or inclination.  I guess a 45 hour week will do that to you.

I’ve been studying game systems and the art boss design with intense interest this year.

One of the limitations of making turning Max Payne into a fighting/adventure game has been that fights always come across a little underwhelming.  All of the characters are regular bipeds, and they share the same movements due to the enormous amount of time and effort animation takes up.  It takes a lot of work to prevent these fights from getting repetitive.  Even in the regular Max Payne games (1 and 2), the weakest aspects are the boss fights because they either boil down to basic shootouts, or elaborate stage puzzles.

This week I realised that the reason the boss fight I was designing fell flat is because there’s no payoff for actually beating the bad guy.  In Katana, when you defeat The Big Bad – your reward is crude but satisfying: –  the music intensifies; blood and light particles flood the screen; and your character echos  “Wuuoooaarhh!!!” as he tears his adversary’s head off in slow motion with his sword.  All of this happens in about 3 seconds.  A fitting, and brutally honest end to a  game is entirely focused around violent, bloody confrontations.

It is called Katana, after all.

Whereas in this fight I’m working on… it’s a bit of strange one because the conflict is optional.  The whole premise is that the player character is starting to believe in their inner strength and chooses to fight the big bad boss, even though they don’t have to.  In game terms, that means that the player should also want to choose to fight, because it’s fun; but if they want to, they can actually run away and load the next level.

This boss is intentionally tougher than anything they’ve faced before, so assuming they choose to fight on, I’ve added another shortcut — ring outs.  The setting is a small subway, and the player can lure the boss onto the tracks, wait for a train, and then jump to safety at the last moment.  The boss is scripted to try and climb back onto the platform, but most of the time he still gets hit.  Of course, the player can also get splattered by the train, so there is some risk involved.

So, I think all that stuff is okay, but what happens for the players who do take the time to beat this boss properly?  

He just yells “Yarrrgh…!”, keels over, and vanishes.

Until this week, I’d not given it that much thought, but I had an underline sense that it just felt wrong.  For stylistic reasons, I can’t have the player decapitate him or have him explode (the game is not gory at all); but I wanted to visually reward players for winning the fight.  Then it occurred to me — why not make it like a Mortal Kombat stage fatality?  I mean, sure it’s cheesy, but the train is already there.

So, after you ‘win’ the fight, the boss staggers to his feet, precariously near the edge of the platform.  I must stress that the player can still choose to run away at this point.

“overcome adversity… in an honest and visually unique way” 

It’s a very simple set up that guarantees that the train will suddenly appear and hit the character if the player chooses to kick or punch them off the platform.  This means the player can run up to the guy and perform their own custom juggle combo on the boss – really lay into them, and then cap it off with a cool stage finisher.  It’s not quite finished, but already the level feels more complete after this addition.

It occurs to me that not enough games outside of the fighting genre actually let the player beat up the boss after they’ve won.  And why the hell not?  Bosses are, by definition, challenging and borderline frustrating, so it makes sense to reward the player once they’ve overcome them.  Yet, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single recent game that lets you ‘finish’ a boss.  Bayonetta perhaps?  Even if the fight itself is solid, too many games these days retreat into a cutscene or quicktime event the moment that the boss hits zero HP.  It’s a real shame, because the idea of allowing the player to ‘Finish’ his opponent in style is a stroke of genius.

Say what you will about Mortal Kombat’s exaggerated violence and gore, Ed Boon and his team really understand the idea of overcoming adversity “in an honest and visually unique way”.  It’s about understanding your characters, something which MK has always excelled in — whether it’s Sub Zero with his deep freezing powers, Scorpion with his harpoon spear, Raiden with his electricity, or Kung Lao with his razor sharp hat.  All of these characters are instantly identifiable, and their finishing moves are appealing because they fully utilise the uniqueness of the character and their powers.

You can see this in their new fighting game, Injustice:

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the DC universe, but who wouldn’t want to play as Superman when you can uppercut your opponent OUT OF THE EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE.

Getting back to finishing moves, besides being visually striking, the most important thing is that they are interactive.

What do I mean by this?

  • They can only be performed if you win the match.
  • You can choose between 2-4 unique moves per character, and some levels offer special stage finishers.
  • You have about 5-10 seconds to enter the correct input.
  • You have to be standing in the correct place for it to trigger correctly.
  • They can be failed, and there’s no ‘try again’

The key point to take from that list is choice.

We’re not talking about a glorified quicktime event, where the player presses buttons in sequence as cool stuff happens.  And we’re not talking about violence for the sake of violence.  The point is that the player can choose exactly how they want to finish their adversary – even if that choice means running away or letting them go.

Something Ninja Gaiden 3 utterly failed to do:

http://kotaku.com/5894896/heres-everything-i-cant-stand-about-ninja-gaiden-iii  (skip to 1:30)

In this scene, the player character backs a defeated, unarmed soldier to the wall, and is then prompted to kill him.  All the while, the man is begging for his life.  It could have been quite thought provoking, adding a level of ambiguity to the character, and making a brave point about thoughtless killing in promoted in videogames.  Instead, it’s unsettling — and for the wrong reasons.  As the reviewer points out – “the player has no choice but to run him through, in slow motion.”  In his dying breath, the soldier reprimands the player for being inhuman.

This is a design mistake.  If you’re going to have your character commit a morally ambiguous action, you either don’t make it interactive, or you let the player choose and accept the consequences.  Forcing the player to participate in an action they morally disagree with only serves to alienate them from the character and the game as a whole.

Contrast that with the ending of Max Payne 3:

It’s subtle, but you have about ten seconds to decide whether or not to pull the trigger.  The game doesn’t judge your decision.

Meaningful choice is important because humans are problem solving machines.  When confronted with a problem, we make a choice and take action based on it.  We then analyse the consequences of that action (rewards and punishments); we consider the alternative choices that could have been made; we weigh these factors up and we determine whether or not we made a mistake.  Through this process of trial and error, we learn from our mistakes, and when confronted with similar problems, we apply this learning to make more informed decisions.  As we become more knowledgeable and experienced, we start to make less mistakes and gain a sense of accomplishment.  We then seek more challenging problems, so we can further our learning, and inch closer towards mastery.

Problem -> Choices  -> Consequences -> Learning -> Meaningful Choices -> Accomplishment

However, if you take choice away entirely, then you short-circuit the whole learning cycle.  Without choice, you can’t make a mistake, and without mistakes you can’t really learn.  Your actions become meaningless events with no significant consequence.  In the simplest terms: if learning equates to fun, then removing choice kills the fun in your game (although remember that overchoice can overwhelm players — everything in moderation, as always).  On the other hand, introducing subtle tactical and strategic choices can make a basic game system more refined and interesting.

For instance, even when God of War uses quicktime prompts, many of them are optional and have different strengths and weaknesses.  Usually performing a quicktime finisher lets you defeat the enemy early (when they have 20% – 33%  health left), makes you invincible during the animation, and it rewards you with a health or magic bonus.  In other words, these finishing moves give you an immediate, tactical advantage, as well as a visually strong way to defeat your opponents.  However, if you beat the enemy with regular attacks (slightly more challenging), you’re rewarded with more orbs — the game’s currency, which lets you purchase upgrades.  This gives skilful players a long term, strategic advantage.   

This means that during almost every single encounter, the player can choose between a tactical vs. strategic approach, depending on their current situation, and their goals and motivation.  But it’s not required of them — there is an optimal path, but they’re not forced to play it.  This adds subtle layer of depth to the game, without ever over complicating it.

In closing, when designing games and levels, I think it can be helpful to think of “the player as the director”.  Always remember that when the game starts, when someone calls “Action!” (or “Finish him!”), it’s the player who fulfils the role of both the lead actor and the director on set.  While it’s tempting to push them down the best possible path, ultimately it’s their story, and when it comes to the big set pieces, they should be the ones who control how the action unfolds.  Do they viciously finish their adversaries, or do they just walk away? That should be their decision.  Your job is to give them the opportunity to decide.

RIP: Psygnosis

Sony’s ‘Liverpool Studio’ better known as Psygnosis, one Britain’s most prolific develop-publishers back in the day, has been closed:

http://kotaku.com/5936821/sony-closes-one-of-the-oldest-video-game-developers-in-the-world

About 5 years ago, when I was researching for my dissertation, I remember reading a LOT of articles on Gamasutra about how selling your studio to a big name publisher guaranteed the studio security and resources.  Since then, I’ve lost track of how many studios have been absorbed into bigger companies, lost their identity, produced mediocre products, and were subsequently closed due to internal restructuring.