Thirty-five years ago, Douglas Trumbull, the special effects wizard who created marvelous spaceships for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and not-so marvelous spaceships for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Motionless Picture also worked on a process called Showscan.
Showscan used 70mm film projected onto a screen that curved 150 degrees around the audience—exactly like the Cinerama screens of the 50’s and 60’s. The difference between Showscan and 70mm Cinerama was that Showscan was photographed and projected at 72 frames per second. The impact on viewers was profound. The image was so clear it looked three-dimensional. All film grain disappeared. If there was dirt on the film, it wasn’t on the screen long enough to register. All that was left was the image. Even better, fast moving objects didn’t flicker, didn’t blur, didn’t shudder—they just moved smoothly. The inevitable roller-coaster demonstration was visceral.
Trumbull tested the Showscan process in front of several live audiences; he also had researchers from UCLA come in and measure the physical reactions of Showscan viewers.
What they found directly influenced the direction of home theater technology.
Most of the tools that humans have invented are designed to increase physical ability. Only a few tools have been invented to increase mental ability—language was the first. Then math. Then books. And finally, computers. (If I’ve missed any, someone will happily point it out in the comments section. Thanks in advance.)
But a computer, by itself, is about as useful as a boat anchor in South Dakota. You don’t buy a computer to own a computer, you buy it to run software. And it’s not software you want either. What you want are the services that all that hardware and software makes possible.
You buy a computer and you fill it with software so you can expand your ability to process information, simulate situations, extrapolate possibilities, make informed choices, discover synergistic opportunities, access information. And communicate, so you can be informed, educated, and entertained. You use software to expand the reach of your mind, your identity, and your ability to affect your environment.
That’s pretty good for something that’s ultimately nothing more than a bunch of ones and zeroes. The real trick is knowing how to put the ones and zeroes in the right order. Remember, the plumber doesn’t get paid for banging on the pipes, he gets paid for knowing which pipe to bang.
Part two? Part two? Oh my goodness, you're totally lost, aren't you? Part one's right here, and it ended with this really rad cliffhanger with a car chase and everything. Basically, you have to read it, or part two won't make a lick of sense to you. So get to it. Or try your luck with part two. But you'd have to be, like, some kind of mega-genius to even begin to comprehend the complexities of an ordered list like this one without proper introduction.
Metal Gear Solid 3
“Eh. Metal Gear’s all right, I guess.”
No one has ever said this. You either love the zany stealth franchise and all its fat men on rollerskates, nanotech vampires, and cyborg ninjas -- despite their tendency to speak in cryptic psycho-babble for 45 minutes at a time – or you completely reject it as the human body would an amputated arm that occasionally takes control of your brain and tries to conquer the world. Point is, Metal Gear’s crazy, Japanese, and crazy.
And I love it.
Metal Gear Solid 3, in my opinion, is the height of Snake and co.’s adventures, with creator Hideo Kojima’s eccentricities toned down just enough to create an emotionally captivating tale that’s still unabashedly strange – but not mind-bogglingly so. The game mixed tense “hide in plain sight” stealth sections, battles with everything from masochistic bee men to ancient wheelchair-bound snipers, and a backstab-heavy plot that’d make even James Bond’s head spin to create a balanced concoction of Kojima’s mad science that actually didn’t eventually explode in players’ faces. (The game's bosses, however, did.) After Metal Gear Solid 2’s many missteps, I kept waiting for MGS3 to take a colossal leap off the deep end, but it never did. Instead, it upped the ante at a near-perfect pace, culminating in my favorite boss fight of all time.
The battle with “The End,” as the aforementioned seemingly comatose oldster was known, absolutely blew me away. In a single confrontation, I was forced to make use of nearly every skill Metal Gear Solid had ever taught me. He used a sniper rifle, so naturally, I evaded, gave him the slip, and tip-toed until I was right behind him. Metal Gear Stealth 101, in other words. But then he did something that surprised me: he sprinted like a six-legged cheetah. On his brittle old stick-legs. So much for the wheelchair.
So here we are. The ball’s just about to drop on 2010, and while we’re not controlling games with our brains or Vulcan nerve pinching aliens on the holodeck just yet, it’s been a pretty great decade for games, all told. So I’ve written an arbitrarily numbered list of my favorite games of the past decade, because what else are you going to do to ring in a new decade? Your glamorous parties, oceans of alcohol, and prison cell slumber parties can wait. Read this list now.
My memory’s all right, I think. It’s not bad, by any means, but it’s also not great. As a result, looking back on a linear first-person shooter – for me – is kind of like looking back on a really good sandwich. Sure, I enjoyed it – as evidenced by the giant belch I expel shortly afterward, as I do after anything I truly enjoy – but I couldn’t in good conscience tell you about its different parts. It all just sort of runs together. So it’s a pretty big deal when – after only playing a shooter once – I can remember its every twist and turn with near-perfect clarity.
Half-Life 2 is the ultimate roller coaster ride. Each of its locales exudes an unsettling “strange-yet-familiar” vibe that I image would accompany an actual alien occupation of earth. Yet, more than that, when Half-Life 2 switches areas, the game changes. Rarely – with the exception of a few unfortunate vehicle sequences – does it ever force you to do the same thing twice. Other shooters are content to call their samey shooting galleries by other names and hope you won’t notice, but Half-Life 2 never settles into a predictable rhythm, and it’s headcrabs-and-shoulders above the rest because of that.
Also, if you didn’t scream while playing through Ravenholm, you’re lying.
Do you want to know how long I’ve been doing this? So damn long that I covered the original Monkey Island games. Friends, back in my day, we had only two colors (black and not-black—and black’s not even a color!), and we liked it!
Actually, it kind of sucked, and one of the pleasures of covering games throughout the 1990s was watching sound and image improve to the point that spectacular graphics barely warrant a mention. If you can’t make a game look and sound good in 2009, you really should be making something other than games. Burgers, perhaps.
It’s illuminating to be able to play something you remember fondly from ye olde days, only with the ability to hotkey back and forth between the old game and a shiny new version. The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is a gorgeous hand-painted version of the original game, with a slightly “improved” interface. This has been laid right on top of the old game, and the most fascinating thing is the ability to hotkey 19 years into the past with each new screen.
Elinor Ostrom recently became the first woman to win the prestigious “fake” Nobel prize for Economics, for her research on how self-governing groups successfully share resources. She spent years refuting the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons—a thought experiment dating from 1968 that basically said anything shared would get spoiled because people would only value something they owned. The man who authored the idea, Garrett Hardin, presumably observed very unruly preschoolers.
Ostrom actually looked at how people share finite resources like forests and grazing land, and found that with the right ground rules people not only did fine, they did better than companies and governments. Yipee for her and all, but why am I telling you about it in a column about digital rights and IP?
Turns out Ostrom laid the groundwork for thinking about the commons, including our very own digital commons. Her work also shows in economically solid terms how and why total monopoly rights, like copyright and patent, might not always be the best for society. Ostrom showed that, when a commons can manage itself, the proximity of the users and the governance, i.e., the two being the same thing, makes the system work more efficiently than either centralized government or strong property rights.
Gotta say, it’s a bit ironic that a blood-soaked week of virtual warfare – during which, more than twelve million casualties met their abrupt, though most assuredly excruciating ends – is the perfect template for videogame immortality. But hey, when happenstance writes my jokes for me, who am I to complain? And so it is with Valve’s Team Fortress 2.
As you’re probably already aware, last week saw Valve launch its latest update for the now two year-old Team Fortress 2. Which, in videogame years, roughly equates to dead. And a half. At the very least, you’d expect the public eye – easily distracted as it is -- to have wandered elsewhere by now, leaving Valve’s wacky shooter to the vultures and tumbleweeds of the world. But it hasn’t. War, as with each of TF2’s other updates, grabbed all kinds of attention – even as newer games like Modern Warfare 2 watched jealously from the outside.
So, why hasn’t interest in Team Fortress 2 faded over the years? Well, I can’t uncover the entire recipe for Valve’s incredibly intricate immortality potion, but I can outline one of its major ingredients: presentation. When Valve gives TF2 a tune-up, it does so with style. While other developers are content to toss their DLC out into the cold, harsh world with little more than a press release to keep it warm, Valve rolls out the proverbial red carpet with comics, videos, week-long Advent Calendar-style reveals, and – most recently – in-game competitions.
I’ve had fun shopping for graphics cards, especially when a power user is within earshot. I’ll innocently ask the salesperson, “What’s your slowest graphics card?” The reaction is precious.
As I’ve confessed before, I’m not a gamer. Years ago I edited a videogame magazine and didn’t realize how weary I had become of games until the magazine unexpectedly folded. I stopped playing that day and haven’t resumed since. That’s why I don’t need fast graphics. Playing a YouTube clip is the most taxing graphics workload demanded of my computer.
Often, I won’t even buy a graphics card. I’ll scrounge a hand-me-down from a friend or cannibalize a junked PC. My oldest computer in regular use contains a discarded engineering sample of an Nvidia GeForce4 Ti-4200 from 2002.
Are you cringing yet? Mock me no more, power users. I’m reconsidering my wayward ways.
Every year, tech pundits take stabs at predicting what hot new trends or gear will consume our interest in the coming year. I want to take a somewhat different tack, and talk about what I’m genuinely looking forward to checking out. Some of what follows is trends and industry happenings; I love this stuff, after all. Some of this represents tech that I’m really curious to personally check out. So without any more fanfare, here’s what I’m looking forward to in 2010, in no particular order.
There are dozens of different computing devices in my home, ranging from the common—TVs, PCs, smartphones, and digital picture frames—to the unusual. Some of the more eclectic gizmos, like smart alarm clocks and various types of music streamers, deliver kick-ass functionality on their own, but there just isn’t much communication between these devices. There are dozens of different protocols and software interfaces designed to foster communication betwixt electronics kit, but none of the manufacturers use them. Seems like all the cutting-edge hardware we buy these days uses proprietary cables, software, and communications protocols.
Sometimes propriety is the price of progress: A product includes some new functionality that requires more than existing technology allows. Sometimes a vendor chooses one standard over a different competing standard. And sometimes it’s just sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of the manufacturer. But regardless of the reason, it’s unacceptable.
Apple does a great job of integrating its gear with other Apple products, but is notoriously bad about integrating with third parties. For example, I still can’t pull photos from my Flickr account into my iPhone without using a third-party app. Likewise, there’s no way to stream the music collection stored on my Windows Home Server to an AppleTV, unless I use Apple’s proprietary iTunes software.