GoT – analysis of episode 9

Alright, I’m about to jumpstart this blog again from its long hiatus, but before I post the first update on Whispers of a Machine, here’s a little write-up about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, just to get some writing done.

A layman’s thoughts about the Game of Thrones episode “Battle of the bastards”, with emphasis on the battle

I’m not a full fledged Game of Thrones aficionado – I haven’t even read the books, and my recollection of the events and characters in the show typically reach back some season or two – but I’d like to share my opinions anyway, because this is my blog and I can pretend to have interesting things to say if I want to.

Before I turn undeservingly critical, I’d like to point out that I think the action scenes in this episode, and especially the battles, were among the tightest, most intense and also most realistic depictions (dragons excluded) of medieval warfare I’ve ever seen, and I’m geeky enough to have seen a fair amount. BUT… there’s still some aspects of them that I’d like to bring into question.

But before we pick the battle apart, here are some more general conundrums.

  • Where do all men come from? And the follow-up question; surely there must be a huge surplus of women in Westeros?
    I’m asking this because whenever a king or a warlord, no matter how insignificant, decides to go to war, there’s always this enormous train of soldiers seen traversing the landscape. Since the show started (which is a matter of months judging by how some plot lines have unfolded, or many years judging by how some of the younger characters have aged) there’s been a number of huge battles, and they all seem to have ended in universal slaughter.
    When the Lannisters had troubles liberating their own queen mother from a bunch of monks, I assumed it was because their military resources were completely depleted, owing to all the battles they’d been force to fight, but only minutes after Jamie is tasked to retake Riverrun (which ended up being a completely irrelevant plot line), he appears before their gates (mysteriously fast, considering some characters take entire seasons to travel the same distance) with some 6-7 thousand men, as if they were picked up along the way like common groceries.
    Now, the curious circumstance that prompted my initial question is the seeming lack of cities. Apart from King’s Landing, all we see of Westerosi settlements are sporadic – and largely empty – castles and the odd hovel. Where the heck do all men come from? It’s almost like what we see in the show is the brief version of events that take place over hundreds of years, so that new generations of men can grow up and be enlisted by those untiring warmongers.
  • Where was Brienne? For being someone who’s sworn to protect and aid and constantly be in close proximity to Sansa, she was oddly absent during the most pivotal and potentially dangerous time thinkable. Was she still rowing about with Podrick?
  • Was that all we got from the Tully/Riverrun plot line? That was useless. I assumed Edmure was re-introduced so that he could do what his absurdly stubborn uncle couldn’t – take their men to Stark and help reclaim the north. Instead Blackfish died having achieved nothing, and Edmure agreed to be a prisoner forever after and kind of uselessly fade out of existence, and the show (again).

Okay, with those questions still unanswered, let’s move onto the battle of the bastards.

Oh, and I’ll make this a bullet list as well. I like bullet lists.

  • Why did both parties (Jon and Ramsay, i.e.) seek to provoke the other when they had absolutely no strategies to counter the other’s rushing in? Ok, that was complicated, let me explain. When they first meet to trade insults the day before the battle, as is customary, we understand that both attempt to provoke the other into doing something rash and foolhardy, only that Jon suck at talking smack – to the point that Sansa must intervene and deliver something even remotely scathing – whereas Ramsay excels at it.
    This provokation strategy peaks when Ramsay kills Rickon before Jon’s eyes, which prompts the latter to rush solitarily into the battle field, even though everyone, especially Sansa, has said repeatedly that they shouldn’t let themselves be provoked into rushing in foolhardily, lest they’ll surely fall into Ramsay’s traps. This in turn forces his cavalry to engage, even though everyone, especially Sansa, has said repeatedly that they shouldn’t etc etc.
  • While we’re at the subject of archery: This may be a bit too obvious a criticism, but why didn’t Rickon side-step even once, or better yet zigzag the whole way to Jon? Readers of the book will probably tell me that Ramsay is the best archer throughout the seven kingdoms or something, but that doesn’t matter; an arrow spends so long time in the air, skills cease to factor in when the target is moving unpredictably. Did Ramsay mind-control Rickon’s movements? Also, arrows rarely insta-kill like that, especially not over hundreds of yards, but hey, let’s not get too technical.
  • Related to the previous point: Why didn’t Ramsay shoot Jon while he was at it? That was rather strange. Did he suddenly run out of arrows?
    Actually, Ramsay’s reluctance to shoot at Jon is again shown inside the courtyard, when he opts to hit the giant with an umpteeth arrow instead of simply killing Jon. Jesus, Ramsay, Wun Wun was already drawing his last dying breaths, whereas Jon looked ever so fit and hungry for revenge. Set your priorities straight, dude!
  • Okay, back to the battlefield. Now, at this point I assumed that Ramsay had prepared all sorts of traps, maybe even the good ol’ soak-the-ground-in-flammable-liquid-and-ignite-with-firearrows-from-afar, but nope. Not even a pesky trip wire. He just deploys his own cavalry. WHY WAS IT IMPORTANT TO MAKE JON, OR THE CAVALRY FOR THAT MATTER, RUSH IN?
  • Why didn’t Ramsay use his pikemen instead of his own cavalry? Okay, this was a segue from the first point, but that point was getting wordy.
    Everyone who’s seen Braveheart knows that the best way to counter an oncoming cavalry is to wait and wait and wait and then wham! – pikes. And who happens to own the most disciplined and effective phalanx (I don’t actually know how many that is, so just play along) of pikemen Westeros has ever seen? That’s right, Ramsay does.
    Not only do the mounted warriors completely obliterate each other, which must be a severe economic setback even for a super villain, Ramsay adds to the mutual devastation by launching salvo upon salvo of arrows into the mix. That’s a weird way to waste your most expensive military unit. It’s one thing if Ramsay had treated a bunch of hired axe-weilding hillfolks in this fashion, but knights on horses? Ah well.
  • Where were the 60 warriors from bear island? I had anticipated a nice montage of warriors of various houses, sweeping past the especially bad-ass-looking, albeit few, elite… bear…looking… fighters that the mormont girl agreed to send. I guess they were simply nothing special.
  • Why did the wildlings and whoever of the regular forces that were still alive let themselves be surrounded by the pikemen? They looked so flabbergasted when the shield-bearers came shuffling in I personally thought they’d already surrendered, and were to be captured by the least cool units as a sort of insult.
    Note to wildlings – don’t let yourselves be surrounded. Pikes and shields are only useful together and in that exact fashion – picked apart and in close combat they’ll turn to awkwardly long sticks and lonely guys holding shields and no weapons.

Buuut… over all this was an awesome episode, no question about it.

Okay, this is when you can comment and tell me how I was wrong. Thanks for reading!

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The Ohlson homestead

truckhouse

I’m pretty sure that the next game will be 640×400, so I’m practising that kind of painting at the moment. It may not seem like much of a difference to work with that resolution instead of 320×200, but it’s actually very different (aside from the fact that it’s four times the canvas to fill…).

320×200 is still in the realm of pixel-based drawing, even if you’re not necessarily pixelating per see, and that means that you’re less “painting” and more positioning around pixels. Just drawing a non-straight line is a bit of a challenge in such low resolutions, because if you’re not careful with your anti-aliasing, the picture will be all blurry and ugly.

As soon as you move up a notch to 640×400, the eye won’t register single pixels anymore, so you have to apply different techniques. From then on, scaling up (to, say, 1280x or whatever) means basically just more canvas to fill, meaning that there’s a magic limit somewhere just above 320×200 where you actually start to “paint” your backgrounds.

One disadvantage is that everything is pretty much manual labour here, whereas in low-res you can use photo-parts and 3D models and a bit of everything, because the pixelated look will make sure it looks pretty uniform and pretty either way. In higher res, this is not an option – you can’t just fill an area with a texture you found somewhere, at least not and get away with it. You simply have to paint it yourself.

I’m fairly satisfied with the above piece, because I think I’ve found a balance between traditional realism and some sort of cartoonish simpleness. I definitely want the game to feel hand-painted, devoid of 3D models, computer generated filters and even custom brushes (there’s basically just one brush used up there) and for most of the process I didn’t even use layers. I think this will fit the retro sci/fi look I’m going for.

In hindsight, I guess I could have planned the picture so that more of the central object, the giant mine truck, got some highlights, to make it slightly more interesting to look at (the whole picture is a tad too dark and desaturated now, maybe), but I still like the low-key atmosphere.

The picture is still a bit rough and can certainly be more refined and detailed, but I’ll leave this one here.

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Concept art for nordic noir sci-fi

forestcity2

It is a few generations in the future. Humanity has had the chance to see the awakening of artificial super intelligence, but chose to pull the plug just in time, fearful of the consequences.

As a result, much of the infrastructure and technology of the modern world collapsed, as it was so dependant on computers and robotics. Larger cities were abandoned, and people formed self-sustaining tribes wherever possible. Societies are once again concerned with the preserving of energy and collecting of basic resources. Cyberspace and AI are but slowly fading memories, although relics of a much more advanced technology are ubiquitous.

Even though any technological research aimed at creating artificial intelligence has been banned by authorities world-wide, underground movements, almost cult-like, secretly struggle to again awake what they regard as the final true deity in a godless world.

Governmental agents work undercover to hunt down such rebels.

Officially on a routine mission to investigate a murder, you arrive in a nordic outpost to identify and expose what authorities believe is an operational rebel cell.

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TSP location collage

Here’s a collage of all the locations in The Samaritan Paradox. These make up almost all backgrounds; I’ve excluded cut scene backdrops, close-ups (maps, chess boards, riddles etc) and intro-outro screens etc. Also, many of the outdoor locations have day/night/evening versions that only got one version included.
It’s made in 50% size. Enjoy:

mergedcollage

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On words and meanings in TSP.

If anyone’s played TSP and is curious about certain references, I will save you some researching trouble in this blog entry.

On good and evil

Most references in the game are about the good vs evil dichotomy. Many real books mentioned, like The Dwarf, explore the evil aspect of the human nature, but there are also slightly more obscure clues and easter eggs hidden throughout the game.

The first dialogue in the game is between Magnus and Ord, and Magnus asks Ord if he’s searching the “perpetual overcast for cracks”, to which Ord replies, “well, that’s where the light gets in.” This is a reference to Leanord Cohen’s Anthem, and could be said to describe how the flaws in things or people (the cracks) can be the blessings (they let the light in).

In the newspaper in Ord’s appartment you can read the last part of an article that explains the Theodicy problem, which is pretty much what the game is about in large – how can there be evil in a world ruled by a benevolent God?

The secret password to the church cult is a passage from the book of Job, in the Bible. Job’s book is said to be the part most concerned with the notion of good and evil, or more precisely why God lets the righteous suffer.

Inside the church, there’s a “quote of the day”, saying “you worship what you don’t know; we worship what we do know”. This is from the section about the Samaritans in the book of John. referring to the game’s title.

Names

Other references and clues are not about the good/evil theme. Ord’s name is Swedish for “Word”. Both “Semita” and “Stig” mean “Path” in their respective languages (Latin and Swedish). Torgav and Jonatan mean roughly the same thing, if you consider that Tor is a Norse god (“Thor gave”). Jonathan means “given by Jehova”. Many other names in the book world have Norse origins which describe the characters and how they’re related.

…and a really obscure one

In the dragon’s cave, Freja and the dragon have the following exchange

(Semita) Maybe they like the pain?

(Freja) Nobody likes pain, or it wouldn’t be called pain.

This is a (very obscure) reference to the text that can auto-fill a document, “Lorem ipsum dolor, etc”. If translated, a passage within it (which isn’t just random text, by the way) may look similar to Freja’s response. If you paid attention, the game opens with a page full of the Lorem Ipsum text. This hint may reveal that Freja’s fairy tale is mostly a filler; just padding that Bergwall added before he revealed the shocking ending.

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All publicity’s good publicity?

It has come to my attention that cracked.com has included The Samaritan Paradox on a list of “The 5 most unreasonably difficult video game puzzles ever”. As a long-time reader and fan of Cracked, I’m naturally honoured by this inclusion.

There’s really nothing in the article that I object to – the passage in question can certainly be seen as illogical and unnecessarily difficult. My only defense is that I wanted some puzzles to be a bit more light-hearted and whimsical, as a majority of the puzzles up to that point had been rather dry – codes and riddles and such – and I simply wanted variation. How spare change can disappear in a couch is a bit of a trope, and the rest of the sequence just seemed like a nice comic relief.

Many puzzle sequences will probably look extra silly when you isolate them, and disregard the fact that events can happen parallel to eachother; in-game, the player may have already visited the pub in other business, and may have already discovered the coins, and even given them to the rocker.

All things considered, the game is in good company (look at previous articles on the same topic to find games like The Jongest Journey featured) so I’m not bummed at all 

On a related note, this month’s issue of PCGamer (Sweden) is featuring TSP in the “What are you playing right now”-section, written by one of their resident reviewers. There’s no score, but the overall tone is positive, with stiff voice-acting being their only real gripe. Read for yourself if your Swedish is up to par, otherwise user Snarky over at the AGS forum has provided an excellent translation of the text.

The magazine also lists the 30 best adventure games of all time, so it’s worth picking up if you’re in the neighborhood. Of Sweden.

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Heavy Rain – a dissection of the prologue

Last weekend I came down with a stubborn cold that my body has not yet successfully battled, and furthermore my better half is away in Stockholm this week, and all this has prompted me to indulge in some heavy video gaming. I’m terrible at playing games, which is sad because as a part-time (or at least sporadic) game designer I should do it much more. Imagine writing without reading books – it’s a ludicrous thought! Anyhow.

I’ve borrowed a PS3 from a friend (I borrowed an Xbox from another friend last year, but broke it by doing absolutely nothing (I was told that happens to Xbox), so I hope this time around I’ll be more lucky) and was recommended Heavy Rain. I was also recommended Dark Souls, but since I don’t enjoy dying all the time, Dark Souls wasn’t quite up my alley. I totally get the thing with Dark Souls, but I don’t have the skills or the time necessary, So Heavy Rain it is.

Gender roles in the Mars mansion
I do like the extremely meticulous way of controlling this game, and I also like the slow pace, and the way they make it feel like every little decision – like how quickly you shave your cheeks – matters. But I need to begin properly by discussing the plot. I haven’t still figured out if the opening chapter is meant to be ironic or something, because in terms of dramaturgy and symbolism, it strikes me as something my pupils would write up, oblivious as they are to over-explicit symbolism and today’s gender discourse.

For those of you who haven’t played it, the first chapter of Heavy Rain features useless husband/father Ethan Mars messing up being a husband/father to the point that his elder son gets run over by a car, due to pure parental neglect.

Maybe this family is simply intended to be portrayed as extremely stereotypical, but as a modern westerner I feel like a travesty of a man when I play Ethan. The parody is enhanced by me not being used to the controls, of course, but even accounting for that the plot and the dialogue are so shallow and clichéd it made me giggle.

So. Ethan’s wife arrives with the kids in the morning, and she has to prepare for a birthday party, because obviously she is in charge of making everything function at home, while Ethan is reduced to some kind of fumbling assistant, who spends most of his time struggling to navigate his own kitchen. Ethan can ask questions like ”can I help?” (although he can also decide not to give a damn and continue to aimlessly pick up random objects and inspect them) upon which she requests that he produce the china from a cupboard and try to avoid breaking it, as if he has cerebral palsy compounded by some kind of rare initiative-reducing disorder, and even this little pseudo-chore is hard to carry out without the wife shouting “careful, I told you not to break it!” because he puts them down too hard on the table. I feel less like a fully functioning adult and more like a beneficiary of some day activity centre, where the intellectually challenged are given rudimentary tasks in order to feel useful.

While his wife is busy preparing everything for the party, and the kids are playing nearby, Ethan can take the opportunity to feel her up from behind, resulting in her saying “I know what you’re thinking (sex, we have to assume), Ethan, but now is not the time”, because apparently Ethan couldn’t figure this out on his own. I don’t know what Ethan’s plans were here – to welcome the birthday party guests mid-intercourse? Either way, placing four plates on the table was enough of a task for Ethan, because he’s now free to very awkwardly play with the kids until food is ready.

Cut to the following day at a big shopping mall, and Ethan is again given a simple enough task – keep track of the oldest son, Jason, while his wife checks out a store. Even before we resume control of Ethan, he has disappeared in thoughts, and Jason has disappeared out of sight. Ethan walks around calling the boy’s name, only to find him standing in front of a clown, admiring the balloons. The father agrees to buy him one, but for some inexplicable reason he can’t handle producing the necessary cash without again losing sight of his – presumably autistic – son. It’s strange that Jason has survived this far in life, or that the parents haven’t invested in a proper leash, because I’ve never seen a child more determined to vanish without a trace. It’s like the father and the son are both equipped with same-pole magnets, physically unable to keep together.

This time Ethan is visible stressed; he runs when we steer him around the mall, and shouts desperately. He spots the same red balloon in the middle of a crowd, and as a spectator I know instantly that it’s a red herring, but Ethan doesn’t, so he wastes precious seconds on approaching and touching the wrong child.

For some reason, his son has run out of the mall, and is now standing across a busy street. When Ethan shows up, the boy – whom we have now concluded has no desire to live – runs straight out into the street and gets hit by a car.

The prologue ends, and now the idyllic garden scenery, formerly drenched in sunshine, is replaced with a grey street, with rain pouring down. Ah, the symbolism. See, it rains because they’re all sad now. Get it?

Being an interactive movie is hard
It’s fashionable for games these days to be like movies; heavy on drama, dialogue, and cutscenes, to the point that the game-playing aspects appear secondary to cinematic effects and story telling. I don’t mind this. The problem is that it’s hard enough to make a movie believable, and they have real actors. With 3D models, expressing strong feelings, dramatic interactions, conflicts – all of that is still super difficult and awkward. I don’t know if Ethan’s kids are thrilled or terrified when they meet their father, because their starring yet vacant eyes could reflect both. I don’t know why Ethan’s stiff face and immobile lips suddenly start rubbing against his wife’s equally expressionless facial parts, but from the dialogue and circumstances I can deduce they’re kissing.

There’s a famous concept in robotics referred to as “the uncanny valley”. It basically means that we have no problems relating to things if they’re either a) clearly not human, or 2) clearly human. It’s easy for us to accept that pure symbols, avatars or toys can express emotions and interact with each other, because we’ve all played pretend family with Lego figures in our childhood. The problem occurs when the characters have been made so lifelike they’re nearly human. Modern 3D graphics have reached a point where characters look almost real, but we’re still sure they’re not, because we have huge chunks of brains dedicated to recognising human faces, and our brains still know darn well when we’re looking at a real face or not.

I’m super sensitive to this myself, so I’d still much rather watch the pixelated characters in Police Quest engage in emotional dialogue than Ethan or any of his family members, because in Police Quest my imagination constructs all the facial expressions, all the body language and all the myriads subtle signs and signals that make up human communication, whereas in Heavy Rain the game aspires to do this for me, but fails.

Revisiting the controls, and wanting answers
While I said that I don’t mind the controls in the game, I still think something’s missing. Just to reiterate, if you haven’t played the game: In Heavy Rain, you control everything, even the most mundane, insignificant action, by moving around the game pad or pushing buttons. This is rather innovative and kind of fascinating, and establishes a rare intimacy between the player and the protagonists. But there’s still a question I need an answer to: Why?

The thing is that everything you do in Heavy Rain, you do clumsily, at least at first. You shave really slowly and inaccurately, you flush the toilet as if you just found out how it works, and you prepare the table as if you have no hand-eye coordination whatsoever. While the concept is revolutionary, I don’t understand the underlying reason. Are we supposed to feel like Ethan is a Parkinson patient undergoing rehabilitation? Is the purpose of the game to experience what it’s like to be motorically impaired?

In most computer games, we don’t reflect on this because the activities are usually new to us, like sword fighting. Most of us don’t know much about sword fighting apart from how difficult it must be to kill huge monsters with a sword. That’s why trial and error doesn’t bother us. Fighting monsters is hard. Shaving isn’t.

Well, I’ve only tried the prologue yet, so maybe I’ll get my answers. But so far, Heavy Rain has not impressed on me.

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