Saturday, April 06, 2002

You'd think that by now the City of Angels soundtrack would be old. But it's not. Favorite song right now? "What You Don't Know About Women" - sure it's a girls' duet, but what do I care about that? I can still sing it, can't I? Sure can. Singing is fun.

Even when it shouldn't be. Yesterday I was in the recording studio until about 0300, along with a bunch of other Tmony folks, recording solos and harmonies. Funny thing about recording - there's rarely any gratification after you're done. I suppose that film actors must experience a similar thing: you finish the shoot and then you go home. When you're performing people applaud you and you can see, right in front of you, the reason you do it. No such thing in a studio. Despite this I had a really good time yesterday. For one thing, if I may be permitted to say so, I sounded really good. And I sounded even better with the Wizard's harmony over my solo ... we just sound good together.

So of course it's always nice to do work that you're honestly proud of, and it felt good to sing a solo and feel like I was actually singing a song. Not that I don't enjoy singing bass background; after all, the whole reason that I joined an a cappella group was to sing bass background. But anyway, more importantly I enjoyed yesterday because everybody else sounded really good. That pleases me for a number of reasons, one of which is that it sort of restored my will to do this project. It was restoring to hear that we can make good-sounding music, and not just music that'll have to do because we're running out of time and money.

Speaking of music, I'm taking Intro to Music Theory this quarter. I don't really want to - it's scary and early in the morning (0900 MWF) and I really don't want to compose music. I'm told that it won't be hard, and I suppose that's probably true. It doesn't mean I'll enjoy taking the class. However, I feel like I should improve my music theory for the following reasons.

1). it's desirable to be a Renaissance man
2). there's no guarantee Simba will return to Testimony next year, which would mean that bass section leadership would devolve upon me
3). practically everybody I know up here has more music theory than I do and I'm tired of feeling totally out of the informational loop.

In short, I'm shaming myself into taking a class that I don't want to take. I'm letting myself do that because I'm trusting in the principle that what I want to do has only a passing acquaintance with what I ought to do. Of course, of the three reasons above only one is truly valid. 1). is true, but I would argue that there's no point in becoming a Renaissance man if I don't want to be. 3). is just plain stupid, and if I'm going to choose to let my insecurities get the best of me then I have no cause to complain. 2). has some merit to it, but it's only a "what if." Which leaves me admitting that even if my basic principle is sound (which I'm not sure I believe), only one third of my reasons for taking this class are reasons I would actually defend. Which in turn suggests that I shouldn't take this class because I don't want to. But I'm going to press ahead and see if my attitude changes. I can always drop it in a few weeks if it doesn't, or else just dislike the class in return for gaining some useful knowledge.

On a happier note, I met with Eliani and Archimedes to discuss the holes in the Phoenix Earth storyline, and I am quite satisfied with what we came up with. I think the crew will find their session in the Phoenix Earth Explainotron quite satisfactory as well. I'm looking forward to that. And of course I'm definitely looking forward to the last Terratopia session, and to my own ride in the Terratopia and Atlantis Explainotrons.

I don't actually know precisely how many people read this, but I've noticed a marked increase in Stanford people showing interest in Phoenix Earth lately. People wishing me well on the sessions, and asking me how it's going, and helping me work stuff out, and even asking if there's any way they can help. I don't know if that's because they've been reading this and they know how important Phoenix Earth is to me, or because they've just picked it up based on how much time I've been spending on it. And I don't know if they're asking about it because it's just that cool (which might be true but is a little hard for me to believe) or because they just love me and they've figured out that this is a good way of letting me know that. I don't really care, mind you, since all of those possibilities boil down to something good. But I just thought I'd let anybody who happens to be reading this that I've got good friends up here, and let those friends know that I appreciate what they're doing.

Finally, I think I'm going to go post a little review about Empire Earth here in case you care to hear me talk about computer games. EE has been taking up plenty of my time lately (though that's about to change) and I just finished my first multiplayer game of it with Wedge. I've saved this till the end so if you don't care about my thoughts on this matter you can stop reading now. I've got some thoughts about I Kissed Dating Goodbye, too, but I'm going to hold off on those for a bit.

EE runs into the same problem that all RTS games face: what exactly do the absurdly small numbers of men in the scenario represent? The problem here is more acute than normal because of the game's historical theme - I mean, are we supposed to imagine that the Battle of Agincourt was fought with seventy-one men on the English side? I don't think so. There are basically two ways of dealing with this problem. One is the method taken by games like Gettysburg! and Lords of the Realm: each man-shaped icon on the screen represents a great number of men, so even if there are only six men on your screen it's understood that there are, say, two hundred and forty involved in the engagement. The other method is that adopted by WarCraft III: simply say yes, these engagements take place between very small numbers of men.

That isn't really an option for EE, of course, but the game doesn't ever actually say which method it's adopted. I've decided to assume it adopts the former method, since the rest of the game is absurdly scaled; on some maps your men can walk across Greece in about two minutes. Which lends some legitimacy to the multiple-men theory.

I mention that because what really interests me about EE is that it tries to find a halfway point between the traditional run-into-the-middle-of-the-map-and-bash-away "tactics" of RTS games like those made by Blizzard (which are fine games, but they don't even try to depict realistic combat) and those RTS games which really do do a pretty good job of depicting a tactical situation, like the ones that Sid Meier makes. EE has the familiar base-building and resource-gathering elements that have been standard in RTS games ever since Westwood's Dune 2 and a healthy sci-fi/fantasy element, but it's also got a greater-than-normal historicity in its tactics.

The way EE achieves this is by what it calls "unit relationships:" every epoch of history in the game (there are 14) has a number of different unit types based on method of combat. Each type of unit is best countered by one or more other types of units, and is in turn particularly effective against one or more unit types. Unit relationships are the governing principle of combat in Empire Earth, which is much more satisfying (at least in a historically-themed game) than the fairly arbitrary nuances that govern combat in a game like StarCraft. In addition, there are a total of seven discrete sets of unit relationships, which means there are essentially seven sets of tactics to master.

I approve of the whole principle behind here - it's something as old as Broderbund's Ancient Art of War, and I'm glad to see it return to gaming. I have two complaints about the system. One is that as good a job as they've done identifying the fundamental types of units in each of the epochs they're treating, in some cases their treatment is too simplistic. Second, sometimes they've simply miscategorized units.

The case of the first unit relationship dynamic will illustrate both points nicely. All the way up to the Middle Ages, combat is governed by the rock-paper-scissors relationship of shock weapons-arrow weapons-piercing weapons. "Shock" weapons are swords and maces - weapons designed to be used up close and personal - the weapon of choice against bow weapons, but not something that works well against another melee weapon with greater reach. "Piercing" weapons are spears and javelins, impaling weapons that are supposed to be used at a distance - fine against shock weapons, but making the user cumbersome and therefore an easy target for archers. And archers work well against heavily armored spearmen but are vulnerable to fast-moving troops armed with close-range weapons.

At first glance that all seems well enough, but it breaks down when you try to apply it to actual historical unit types. Consider the case of the gladius-wielding Roman legionary versus a Greek hoplite. Granted that particular match-up almost never happened, but in EE it can happen quite frequently. EE basically assumes that everybody is an expert with his weapon - and if that were true I'd agree that a spear is a good defense against a short sword; I assume there's a reason that half a dozen martial arts schools call the spear the "king of weapons." But of course for most of European history spears have not been wielded by martial artists, and the experience of legionaries against Hellenistic phalangites strongly suggests that the a legionary and a hoplite would be reasonably well-matched, with edge to the legionary. Not so in EE; the hoplite will win every time.

Another example of lack of nuance: the idea that arrows are good weapons against heavily armored soldiers. Sure that's true in some cases - a crossbow or longbow are perfectly good ways of punching through plate armor. But a self short bow - or even a short composite bow - is totally inadequate for such a task. So why is a man armed with a self short bow going to kill an armored knight or hoplite?

And then there's the question of just what exactly is what. Hoplites were definitely shock troops; the idea of fighting at a distance was as antithetical to the hoplite as it was to the legionary. They were comparably armored and fought in comparable ways - so why is a legionary classified "shock" while a hoplite is classified "pierce?" Once you get out of antiquity the system works well enough - long bows are great against knights or squares of pikemen; swordsmen are next to helpless against a bristling row of pikes. But they really needed a separate dynamic for antiquity. Their later dynamics look pretty good to me but I haven't played them much, so I'll let you know once I do.

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