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Three Audio Game Proposals

So, I was reading Scott Steinberg’s Music Games Rock (free PDF and $3 for Kindle or iBooks… how can you not), and it rekindled a bunch of memories not only of great games of my youth and adulthood, but it also kicked loose a few ideas from the dusty cobwebs of memory that had been set aside to think about.

Some of these might be viable, some not, but I’m never going to get around to doing them myself, so why not let them out. Ideas are cheap, execution is everything. Besides, there are one or two novelties in here that I would be pissed to see someone patent — the premise of patenting loose ideas being sickening enough already — so I seldom pass up the opportunity to post some “prior art” when I can.

The common thread here: using the microphone for new gaming experiences. The mic is criminally underutilized, and can do more than just convey insults and slander to fellow gamers across the ether. So here goes…


No, not my idea obviously. The game show dates back to the 60’s, and to the early 80’s in the Alex Trebek incarnation. And since the late 80’s, there have been electronic game versions for computers and game systems. And in all that time, none of them have gotten the one defining trait of the game right: they don’t allow for free spoken-word response.

I get that this hasn’t been practical before, and so the UI had to cope. The first Jeopardy! I played was on the Sega Genesis, where you had to punitively spell out your response one letter at a time with the D-pad and action buttons, trying to remember which button accepted a letter and which entered the whole response. In the early 90’s, the CD-i (of all things!) developed a superior UI where you’d begin to compose a response from a grid of letters on the left side of the screen, and get a list of completions (some irrelevant, and some clearly meant as red herrings) on the right. It’s a good UI scheme: the search function on my DirecTV DVR and Apple TV works exactly this way. And so it’s strange that some subsequent versions of Jeopardy! have back-slid from this sensible approach.

But that was 1995. The CD-i was a 16 MHz machine with 1 MB of RAM. Our phones and consoles are hundreds of times more powerful today. So why in the name of Moore’s Law can nobody release this game in a format that allows the player who rings in to simply speak their answer into a microphone? If the current versions can match partial D-pad answers to plausible completions, and if dictation products can transcribe speech with a high level of accuracy, why can’t these things be combined to take the transcribed speech and match it against the answer set? Sure, it’s harder than that, but we have lots of smart people and lots of CPU cycles.

The Wii version of Jeopardy apparently does use the optional Wii microphone, but reviews point out that in this mode, the answers are multiple choice, which completely changes the nature of the game by taking away the risk and wonder of free response, which is the whole point of the game.

Maybe the smart people who write Kinect games will figure this out, since they seem to be among the most able and willing to advance gaming right now. If they do, I hope they learn one other lesson from the CD-i version: write out the used questions to permanent storage and don’t use those questions again. A single game of Jeopardy uses up 60 questions, so if you start with a database of 2,000 questions, getting repeats after a few games is highly likely unless you’re smart enough to code defensively.

Anyways, getting back to audio…

Code Geass

Lelouch, a young outcast prince of Brittania, possesses two great powers. One of them is “geass”, the absolute ability to compel any person to do whatever he commands…

So begins the prologue to episode 9 of Code Geass, an entirely over-the-top action anime show whose best and worst moments are often one and the same.

The anti-hero is given this ability, “geass”, by which he’s able to use a sort of magical instant hypnosis to force anyone to do his bidding. For example, when he’s running around his school carrying the mask of his alter ego, Zero, and is encountered by students who recognize what they’ve seen, he can say “forget what you’ve just seen” and they do. The limit on this ability is that it can only ever be used once on a given individual.

Now imagine you had an RPG or sneak-em-up action style video game that gave you this ability, via your microphone, to give orders. Cornered by a guard, you could hit the “geass” button and say aloud “return to your post” or even “kill yourself” and have the NPC do exactly that. Now imagine designers getting clever with this ability: you solve a puzzle by telling an enemy who has a key you need “give me the key”. But maybe that leaves you on the wrong side of the level, or sets off an alarm, so instead you need to tell him “unlock this door from the other side”. But maybe you need to have him do two things for you, and you can only use the ability once on him, so, hmmm…

Again, surely a big technical challenge, and not unlike the old Infocom games in needing to parse natural language in a way that won’t seem utterly dense, but now with the added challenge of needing to pick the command out of an audio stream. But big challenges are what make this industry interesting.

Interactive Musicals

True story, and a long one. Back in college, my friend Mike Stemmle wrote his own adventure games, rich in comic book references and Stanford Band in-jokes, using a Mac and an application called World Builder. This ended up leading to him getting a job at LucasArts, back when they were cool and didn’t just whore out Star Wars all day. As part of that process, they called me for a reference on him, and that led to my interviewing there too. I obviously didn’t end up working there, but in interviewing there on two occasions, I distinctly remember two interesting conversations.

The first is when I was talking with Kelly Flock, who headed up the group then (and later got prominent enough at Sony to merit thrashing from Penny Arcade, so that’s saying something…), and he had an interview question about plans they had at that point for doing an Indiana Jones adventure that involved a quest for the philosopher’s stone. My response was that I thought quest stories were usually boring as hell because the object of the quest was usually abstract, unsatisfying, and sometimes an utter macguffin anyways, which meant that the success or failure of the story depended on what happened along the way, what happened in spite of the putative purpose of the quest. Given the premise of getting the philosopher’s stone, I said that the player should actually be able to get it halfway through the game, literally adding it to their inventory, and to use it to solve some puzzle (e.g., to use its power of transmutation to create an item needed to get out of a locked room or something), and perhaps then to lose it again. Not that this was particularly creative of me: using the quest object directly is exactly what happens in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy uses the grail to cure his father’s gunshot wounds. But hell, if there was ever a time to steal-don’t-borrow from the greats, this was it.

The other thing that came up in this interview was a concept I had for something called an “interactive musical”. Mike and I had both been writers for Stanford’s Big Game Gaieties student musical, and we always had theatre on the brain. Somehow, it seemed like there was a way to capture the opportunities and the importance of the theatre, and make a player directly experience that. But we didn’t know how to do it then, and over the years we’d occasionally come back to it and say “was this ever something that could work?”

And then today, reading that book on music games, I think I finally figured it out. It’s a simple equation:

Visual Novel + Karaoke Revolution = Interactive Musical

In other words, an interactive musical is a VN where you sing the branch points.

Visualize Karaoke Revolution, or SingStar, or Rock Band for a moment. The pitch and words you’re supposed to sing are on the screen. Well, what if sometimes there was more than one set of words on the screen that fit the music? And you could pick whichever one suited the way you wanted to play the character, just the way you can pick the key lines of dialogue in a VN? And whatever you picked changed the direction of the story? You could woo the girl or tell her off. Your “I Want” song could be heartfelt yearning or bitter disillusionment. You couldn’t have infinitely many options, just enough to make for some different paths through the story, as in VNs.

There are details to work out, like how you know the tune in advance without spoiling the novelty of picking your branch in the moment (I have some ideas about this). And obviously the whole story needs to be something interesting enough to want to play into, since singing demands a real mental and emotional commitment from the player. High school drama nerds notwithstanding, it’s tough to get people to let loose and break into song. This is why karaoke bars sell beer, after all.

This wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea… the rest of you are welcome to keep playing Call Of Duty MCMXVII. But if you’re like us theatre geeks, the idea of becoming your character is ever so irresistible. It’s peculiar, but I think in the right hands, the experience could be extraordinary.

So there you have it, three new uses for the microphone: game show free-responses, magical hypnosis of NPCs, and singing for your story. Even if these never pan out, let’s hope more game makers start doing creative things with audio capture. It’s not just there for in-game chat.

Nostalgical Vanity Tour

I’m packing for the move in a week, dealing with boxes of papers in the storage room that haven’t been opened since the last move, a pretty good hint they need to at least be considered for the dump.

Above is a betacam tape of one of my Headline News shows from 1997, looks like a day when I was producing a full live hour, with this half directed by Bruce Daniel (who still works there, and whose wife is a good friend of Kelly’s). I think I kept a couple of these tapes just in case I needed them for pursuing another producing job, though the rigid format of Headlines back in that day meant that one producer’s show really ought to look pretty much like anyone else’s, so there really wouldn’t have been much value showing anyone this tape, short of pointing to the back of my head in the control room on the show-opening Camera One zoom and saying “see, that’s me!”

One thing about the format is that different producers still had flexibility within the format to pick their packages (with the guidance of a supervising producer) and fill out their 13-minute news block however they saw fit. We had one associate producer (which is what I was) who, when he did live hours, tried to give the audience something different by using cold opens, or effecting through some VOs with a “in this half hour”, or stuff like that.

I rarely did that, but what I often tried to do was to get more new stories into the system by digging through the wires (especially state wires, features, business, and Reuters’ “odd” wire) and, if I didn’t have enough writers to take on extra work beyond the necessary updates, I’d just write it myself. There was a full-blown producer named Alicia who also did this. We thought it was good for the Headlines ecosystem as a whole, because the new stories could be duped into later shows, so there’d be more variety in the next 23.5 hours. But in retrospect, the downside of this approach is that were writing from the wires instead of writing to available video, and usually ended up only having a box right for our new read. So on the one hand, we had new content in a textual sense, but were we really creating new “television”? My older self argues against my younger self on this one: today, I think I would have used the time to look through the feeds and see if I could find some good unused video, even if the story wasn’t as good.

So, also in the boxes of vanity, I found this little embarrassment:

Yep, I tried to write a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine spec script. Not that I was alone. Trek was the only show that regularly accepted spec scripts from unagented writers. To wit:

As they point out, 99.9% of spec scripts are sent packing with a “thank you very much”, though a few writers were able to break through this way, and it’s to Paramount’s credit that they were so open to new writers, and to their fan base, in this way.

I didn’t submit this script, in fact, because I knew then that it was bad (and can’t bring myself to read it today). I had about two acts plotted out and started writing, which ended up pretty much how you’d expect: somewhere in the middle of Act IV, I was just throwing words on paper, not knowing what the fuck I was doing or where I was going. In fact, the only reason I don’t trash all remaining copies of this (for fear of my children finding it in my effects 30 or 40 years from now), is the fact that I also found some notes where I was radically re-breaking the story for a thoroughly overhauled second draft:

A rewrite might not have made it good, but it would certainly have made it better.

Before drifting into CNN, I think I ended up writing maybe four total spec scripts. Clearly not enough, and it was not something I did often enough for the process to get easier. Maybe you have to write 10 scripts before you write a good one, but if you don’t truly think the first 9 can be any good, how the heck do you turn them out?

I’ve felt this in an accelerated way with iPhone work since getting the SDK earlier this year. My first couple were tentative, confused, and sometimes appealed for Java analogies that weren’t there. Two things that helped were trying to do some ambitious work early on (my still-broken web radio client) rather than just “screwing around” with the SDK, but then getting into a groove of creating a number of projects and getting familiar with the process of creating an XCode project and being increasingly purposeful with where I wanted to take the code.

Writing an application and writing a screenplay have certain strange similarities. Aside from having to start with an empty “new document” window and needing to bring life to the void, there’s also a sensation that when things are set up right, they just run themselves. In code, those are methods, delegates, and program states. In writing, it’s character and situation (indeed, plot is sometimes defined as character plus situation… define both of them well enough and your story writes itself).

As for my spec scripts, they fell by the wayside while I worked at Headlines. I tried to write a Home Improvement spec to keep the Hollywood screenwriter dream alive, but aside from having some gags and a general premise, I could never get the feel for the straight sitcom. My two half-way decent specs are animation (a spec for Animaniacs which got a nice read from WB and a copy of a real script from the show, sort of a gentle “do it more like this”), and an off-the-wall sitcom pilot we did in grad school called Public Access, which was a finalist in a couple of competitions, but not a winner. It still has some of my favorite gags, the recurring show-within-a-shows like “Can You Fit A Hamster Through A Funnel?” and “Show Dyslexia The”.

Had I taken my chances in LA rather than playing it safe at CNN, I might have taken the next step beyond these scripts, but then again, I might also have crashed and burned and wasted even more time. Guess we’ll never know… short of finding a way to an alternate universe where things played out that way. Which, I think, is what my DS9 was about.

Flash! (No, not the plugin)

Over the weekend, I took the kids to see Speed Racer. We only made it through an hour — Keagan was repeatedly stage-diving into his seat and I worried we were annoying other patrons — and his fidgetiness speaks to the fact that the movie is too damn talky. I mean, we’re talking about the usual “evil corporations” plot, in this case trying to use the protagonist to fix races. It shouldn’t take that long to get across. But moreover, it’s another one of those “talk, don’t show” mistakes that you’d expect people like the Wachowskis not to make. Think back to the first act of The Matrix, how you were lured in by sequences like Neo in his cubicle getting a package, which contains a cell phone, which rings as soon as he touches it, and on the other end is Morpheus, telling Neo things about the police raid on his office as they’re happening, things that nobody on the other end of the phone call could possibly know… and with each exchange between the two, you’re thinking “what the hell is going on here?” Where the heck was that skillful story-telling in Speed Racer (or, for that matter, the second and third Matrix movies)?

That said, the visuals and the action and the sense of fun in the movie are underrated by the critics. Quinn is still saying “go Speed Racer go!” a couple times a day for no particular reason.

Roger Ebert’s review takes an unnecessary side-track into the minimal merits of the original anime series, apparently casting aspersions that it and other anime of the time were of a lower quality than other contemporary series. Having grown up at the time, I don’t buy it. I’ll take the low sheet count in the original Speed Racer for the sake of unconventional story elements, like the irony that Speed doesn’t know that his rival Racer X is actually his long-lost brother. To the Japanese, this has a bittersweet flavor that American TV in the 70’s, cartoons or otherwise, was incapable of. By comparison, I distinctly remember Batman and Robin having a chat on Super Friends… and by “chat” I mean that their lips and only their lips were moving, for two damn minutes… about why they couldn’t scale an eight-foot chain-link fence. By comparison, Speed Racer had cars frickin’ exploding in the opening credits.

Over on Anime News Network, Zac Bertschy points out what may be the most remarkable trait of the film: “it’s clear they’ve managed to perfectly emulate the unironic, impossibly sincere and simplistic storytelling of the original show.”

And that’s the element that makes it perfect for kids, and pisses off people who think too much about this kind of thing. There’s a wonderful quote I saw once — ah, thank you Google for finding it again for me — that Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play. Yet after a certain point, we resist this natural desire to treat our fun seriously. A sci-fi or fantasy film cannot take itself too seriously, the critics insist. I’ve never seen this position played better than it was by Mike Wallace, in an interview with Rod Serling, on the eve of the premiere of The Twilight Zone. The video’s on YouTube, with the critical question split right between parts 1 and 2, with Wallace following up a question about self-censorship versus doing meaningful work in the half-hour format by asking Serling, with absolute seriousness, “but you’re not going to be able to are you? You’ve given up on writing anything of importance for television.”

For what it’s worth, I consider The Twilight Zone to be the best TV show of all time, but that certainly wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. Sci-fi was Captain Video and Commander Cody… silly trifles for children. The idea then, and today, of fantastic elements being taken seriously still rubs people the wrong way. Write about poor people in the South, or lonely drifters in diners, and you deserve seriousness. Write about wars in the stars or mobile suits and you’d better have your tongue in your cheek. Or go camp. Or better yet, become a complete parody of yourself.

Yet how often does this approach actually work? Tongue-in-cheek rarely works — a Princess Bride is a once-in-a-generation thing — and usually the subtext that gets through to the audience is the voice of the producers saying “you’re a fucking idiot to be watching this shit.”

I think that’s what pisses people off about a lot of cultish entertainment: it dares to take itself seriously.

Perfect example of what not to do: Sci-Fi’s recent Flash Gordon series. Stuck with a license that the producers apparently had no belief whatsoever in, they changed so many of the details as to end up with a bad season of Sliders (and that’s saying something). Yet, knowing that what most people remember of the property is the gawdawful 1980 Dino Di Laurentis movie, they aimed for camp. Unsurprisngly, the intelligent viewers who came for the intense drama and dark political metaphors of the new Battlestar Galactica had no need for camp nonsense.

Much better was the 1979 animated TV series, which I recently picked up when Right Stuf had a sale on BCI titles. Looking at it today, it’s clearly the most faithful adaptation of the 1930’s newspaper comic strip, and despite numerous flaws, it’s clearly a labor of love on the part of its producers. The series has a number of fascinating stories behind it, not the least of which is that it started as a live-action movie which proved unaffordable to Filmation, which sold the live-action rights to Di Laurentis, in exchange for more money to make an animated version. The movie was shelved and re-cut into the first four episodes of the Saturday morning series, finally airing as The Greatest Adventure of All, shown only once, in 1982, in the middle of the night on NBC during a week off for Saturday Night Live. It’s practically the stuff of legend, by cleverly starting the story with Flash as a resistance fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII, discovering that Hitler’s getting weapons from another world, which eventually leads him to adventures on the planet Mongo. Someone dumped their VHS recording to YouTube, but it wasn’t licensed for the DVD box. Oops.

The DVD does describe some awfully clever tricks on the part of the usually-pedestrian Filmation to achieve visual effects way beyond the norm for 1979. They took models, painted black with white lines, ran them on wires while shooting on high-contrast film, then inverted the image to get black lines, skipping the pencil and xerography steps and being ready for painting. You can see the results, along with a hell of a lot of rotoscoping, in the opening credits.

Clearly, this project was a labor of love, and it shows. The first four episodes, cut down from the movie, are all you need to watch, as the rest of the first season really doesn’t go anywhere, and the second is dragged down by wretched changes requested by NBC, such as saddling the show with a cute mascot-type character. It’s also a sign of the times that NBC hated the show’s serial nature, as it prevented them from rerunning more popular episodes more frequently — remember, this was a Saturday morning cartoon, meaning they generally made 13 a year and re-ran them four times a year already.

The problem with a serial story at that time was that they didn’t have the creative freedom — or the faith in their audience — to have the story make permanent changes. They couldn’t alter the basic premise of the show, kill off main characters, or even have anyone learn a lesson important enough to matter the next week. Or, most importantly, end. It may have been good work at its time, and underappreciated then and now, but it pales to contemporary work from overseas. After all, in 1979, Doctor Who was in its salad days with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, wryly explaining to Romana atop the Eiffel Tower (in “City of Death”) that in the vintages of years, 1979 is “more of a table wine.” Blake’s 7 was putting the “anti” in “anti- Star Trek” with a fine, polished cynicism. And anime saw its biggest franchise launch in the form of Mobile Suit Gundam. Scenes like the famous Ghiren’s “Hail Zeon” speech, in which we see the reactions of a number of characters to a neo-fascist using his brother’s funeral as rallying cry to war, show a complexity, a nerve, and a desire for relevance that American television was nowhere close to in 1979.

After all, in that year, US prime time had the robot dog and “Hardy Boys in space” drivel that was the original Battlestar Galactica.

See how much better things can be when you take your premise seriously? And it only took us 30 years to catch up.