The Flamekeblog

Something that's kind of interesting to me - I initially poured scorn on the concept of Apple's iPad. I couldn't see a good use case for me when they were new. It's now nearly a decade on and frankly... that hasn't changed.

Our household contains several tablets that we've acquired through various means and they're just sort of, well, useless to me. We sometimes use one to interface with our recording equipment for podcasts but that role is equally served by any phone with a headphone socket.

I suppose the general point being that with some technologies I think they're brilliant for me and for others not so much. Some win me over, most don't.

The world has embraced tablet computing and I'm no luddite. I'm just still not convinced. This may be because I'm part of the internet's 1%. I create content. Lots of content. Tablets aren't really conducive to that.

I currently create both images and video, program, and write. Those kinds of tasks don't really gel with a keyboard-less device, I suppose. It does make think of the phrase "I'm a lurker, not a writer" which is apparently a popular motif for underwear. How odd.

This isn't a condemnation of tablets, it's just a little introspection.

I've been playing the Battlefield series of games for a while now on a variety of platforms. I enjoyed the hell out of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 on Windows, had a fairly okay time with Battlefield 3 on Windows, then dived into Battlefield 4 on Xbox 360, and now I'm onto Battlefield 1 on Xbox One X.

It's essentially mandatory at this stage to mention that Bad Company 2 is really the pinnacle of the series. That. Make that. It was an amazing game and still looks lovely today. It also had mechanics that I really enjoyed, weapons that fitted a variety of playstyles, and an expansion pack set in Vietnam.

You can view my stats for my time with Bad Company 2 here. My favoured weapons were the M1 Garand, the Type 88 LMG. Interestingly one can see it's early in my Battlefield career as my cumulative Kill/Death ratio is only 0.82 after 263 hours.

What tends to happen is that I suck most heartily for quite a while. Then I find some weapons that fit my tastes, get a feel for the maps, figure out the game mechanics, and then get (fairly) good.

For some context, here's a little table:
Bad Company 20.82263 hours
Battlefield 30.9949 hours
Battlefield 41.36247 hours
Battlefield 11.2347 hours

It's taken next to no time at all to get a positive kill/death ratio in Battlefield 1 as I'm just better at these kinds of games these days. I may not be a spritely twenty something but my reactions are plenty quick (and frankly reaction time isn't the limiting factor!).

It's only tabulating the data that has me noticing a trend. I'm writing this post because although I'm now good at BF1, I'm just sort of... done with it. I was similarly done with BF3 and it's rather impressive how close the total playtimes are. Huh.

However I wanted to provide a bit of info first to thoroughly support the notion that I've put the effort in to get to know the game. One could view these hour counts as wasted time too but I don't play these games as a hobby. They're part of actively relaxing. Trying to be productive every waking hour just results in my brain feeling like it's disintegrating. Being that it's me I try to min/max my relaxation too and so blog posts like this result.

A further bit of context - I watch a lot of Forgotten Weapons and have done for some time (Jenny interviewed Ian for her podcast last year!). I'm interested in a variety of firearms, often for their place in history. "Last ditch" weapons are a particular favourite, for example.

Coming to Battlefield 1 I had a rough idea of what to expect. What caught me off guard and still annoys me is the degree of silliness. These games have four classes whose roles vary a bit game by game. There's usually a machine gunny role, a sniper role, and an assault rifle role. Other stuff gets shuffled around but broad strokes here.

World War 1 is the setting for Battlefield 1. Assault rifles effectively weren't invented until the late stages of World War Two. Hmm.

Well we've got light machine guns, they were a thing. Ish. Sure, whatever, if you like. Similarly snipers were very much a thing. My grandfather passed the third cigarette on to his children, for example (Yep, my grandfather was a Victorian - he was born in the late 1890s).

Submachine guns then. What about them?

Basically they weren't starting to see use until 1918. Even then we're not talking vast quantities. Between 5,000 and 10,000 MP18s were issued, for example. It's a mainstay of Battlefield 1. Everyone's packing one. Well, everyone that hasn't unlocked the bloody Hellriegel, of course.

The Hellriegel might as well be fictional. Do you know how many were built?


All we have are some photos of the damned thing.

But if you're playing BF1 you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the main weapon of World War 1. Both in multiplayer and campaign it's everywhere.

Similarly there's various self-loading rifles in the game for the medic class. They're mostly ridiculously obscure things as far as I can tell. No, 200 rifles do not count. In a war as big as that I cannot have that handwaved. Sorry, no.

German tanks. In the game they're all over the place. In reality there were 20. By comparison there were 150 British tanks.

Yeah, sorry, knowing that the chances of a German tank appearing were that minimal makes it very difficult to not feel like the entire game is written by morons. It isn't. They made choices that made sense for their expected player base. It was created to make money after all.

That said it's very difficult to take the game seriously when you're in the Sinai desert and find a German tank has teleported there from France. Sorry, no.

Having seen footage of the sequel, Battlefield V, I'm concerned that they're pulling similar dumb bullshit (24 Flettner Fl 282s were built, DICE. Helicopters didn't feature prominently in World War fucking Two).

I enjoy the odd obscure weapon (such as the inclusion of the damned Kolibri pistol in Battlefield 1!) but they should be fun references, not the main armaments. Once you take it too far the fourth wall breaks and the whole backdrop of the game goes with it.

Woefully esoteric

21 February 2019

Perhaps I'm odd like this but I hate Chekhov's Gun and the writing style it encourages. Cut away everything from a plot or scene until only the bare bones remains results in something substantially more lifeless.

Chekhov wrote about "promises made" to the audience and honestly - no.

Maybe it's because we now live in a world with much greater exposure to stories in a variety of mediums but things like this ruin the mystique of the plot for me. It's like watching a TV show with a "previously on" segment. They're essentially telling the audience which obscure details mattered from previous episodes - thanks for that.

I can give an example from Vatta's War (by Elizabeth Moon). There's a scene in the ship's mess where characters have a conversation about a pen knife with a hidden blade. It never comes up again - even when it might have helped save one of the character's lives.

My takeaway from this wasn't "but there was an implied promise that it'd reappear" (*cough* Chekhov) it was "these characters are having a realistic conversation and it's helping me invest in them emotionally". Of course one can argue that by doing this the knife is still serving a purpose and it is but not in the setup->payoff way that Chekhov's talking about.

My favourite thing about Mad Max: Fury Road is the worldbuilding. There's barely any expositional explanation of what's happening unless it makes sense (e.g. Nux being told what's happening outside because he's receiving a blood transfusion). We're expected to piece it together as we go along - just like real life. It's up to us to figure out which bits are important and which aren't and for me that really helps bring a setting to life.

It's something I really appreciate in slightly older films - every moment isn't crammed with content. There's space to breathe and the editing isn't as tight. I enjoy the modern style too but it's very different and conforms more to Chekhov's way of doing things.

Of course it's entirely possible to overdo this and never get on with the plot but that's where an editor should be getting involved!

I'm surprised I haven't written about Dave Morris' gamebook "Heart of Ice" before. I mean, I have, but I would have thought in the decade plus that I've been blogging here I would have covered it.

Growing up from about age seven we would leave south Wales during the nicest time of year and migrate to the north of England where the weather could be best described as "Autumnal" and the terrain "open" (read: barren). It was part of a contract to supply hunting falcons - they needed to be supplied trained during that period. I was dragged along because I was a child and couldn't be abandoned to enjoy the summer. On the plus side this is probably why I still revel in warm weather!

One of the highlights (as this was pre-internet access) was the local library. It wasn't amazing but it was substantially better than the one we had in Carmarthen even though it was smaller. Having revisited that library in the mid 2000s I'm still not sure what large sections of it were for.

Anyway the Haltwhistle library had a promotional standee thingy containing books. I seem to recall it showed a gorgeously printed snake creature but that could just be a false memory. In it were a series of choose-your-own-adventure style books. I'd encountered the format previously having been introduced to the Fighting Fantasy series by a friend. The relatively complex dice mechanics and similar didn't really work for me though and so I tended to read them more for the story than anything else.

I borrowed all the books from the standee at various points but the one I kept coming back to was, unsurprisingly, Heart of Ice. It had a clear slip cover on it and I loved it. I borrowed it every summer and desperately wanted my own copy. My mother tried to track one down (she'd often visit book shops and pick books she thought I might like to encourage me to read - a success but possibly the reason I'm crap at picking books for myself) to no avail.

Years later I emailed Dave Morris and he provided both a PDF and somewhere to buy a reprint. I later contacted him about developing a game based on the book. It would have been an open source game done through a small group I was involved with but whilst I received permission things never got started on that project.

Time passed.

Then last year I thought "I'm working on my own Twine/Sugarcube game - why not take a break and port the original book? How hard can it be?"

You might think the answer would be "much harder than expected" but it wasn't. In programming terms the game is relatively simple. There's no randomness, for example. The thing that took a while was importing every passage (400+) as well as scanning and processing the artwork. As mentioned in a previous post I really don't like my Twine games to be a collection of files. If at all possible I want them self-contained and for this game that meant being clever with the choice of compression. Conveniently (the book cover and map aside) all the artwork is in black and white. Literally. There are no shades of grey whatsoever. This meant I was able to use a very limited colour palette to produce high resolution versions of the images. That matters because have you looked at a modern phone or tablet?

I wanted this stuff to look sharp! The art is gorgeous and it'd be such a shame to only have some blurry JPEGs when something better would be possible with some effort. This did mean scanning in all the artwork myself though but what the hell, why not?

Amusingly because of the way Blogger works it will look fairly muddy but trust me, in the game the illustrations look great.

I also upscaled some additional artwork where appropriate from the original artist, Russ Nicholson. You can see some of it here. Quite an iconic style and the reprinted book I mentioned earlier contained at least one extra piece so in it went too!

Something that wasn't in the original book was sound - it wasn't powered by Ultraword™after all.

If I had the right gear and unlimited time I would have liked to create soundscapes for every location but unfortunately that wasn't an option. Many players may not hear the game's sounds though so I thought it might well be wasted effort regardless. I instead included a few sounds for usability:

  • Should you be unfortunate enough to die you'll be subjected to the howling wind over snowy plains.
  • Reloading a barysal gun is surprisingly uncommon and so there's a cue for that too.
  • Being unable to purchase something due to lack of funds also has a little tone.
  • There's also a sound for opening the map. The illustration on the inside cover of the original book always felt it was lacking some sort of noise so I had to figure something out!
Finally I implemented some custom fonts to convey when certain types of character speak (usually mechanical voices - I wanted Gilgamesh to be particularly unpleasant to read. Yes, that font choice was deliberate.).

I did some bug testing (not enough as it turns out - is there such a thing as "enough bug testing"?) and then contacted Dave Morris. Better late than never, eh?

If you follow Dave's blog you'll already have seen this but it became his Christmas present to fans!

You can play the game here: 

The URL isn't very nice, I know, but I don't want to finalise things until I'm fairly confident it won't need to be changed again. Oh and saving the web page should get you everything as it's self-contained.

Right, I'm going to go turn the heating on!

I'm still paying Fallout 4. Whilst I'm enjoying it I'd quite like to reach the end because once I'm done I don't plan on ever playing through it again. Not in a bad way - I just can't see my future self sinking this much time into a single game.

I don't like ridiculously short games but equally if a game is over a certain length it's almost an immediate non-starter - assuming I know the approximate length of the game going in of course.

This has lead me to wish that Bethesda could do several things with a future Fallout game. I don't think there's any chance of them doing these things and that's pretty much why I'm writing about them. Furthermore as a player I only think I know what I want. Customers often say they want one thing but then purchasing patterns don't actually support that and I suspect the same would be true here. I'd like some of the following tried though!

1. A smaller game world.

As much fun as a sprawling game world is it's still too small. Y'see when it comes to worlds Bethesda doesn't make them to scale. Most developers don't. Reality is big and that's not actually all that fun to traverse. Add to that the task of detailing everywhere being immense and we're at a situation where it's either a matter of procedural generation (hard to do right) or lots of hours of work for a small army of developers (ruinously expensive and also hard).

Modern incarnations of the Gamebryo engine can at least handle tens of NPCs so the place doesn't feel quite as empty but the idea of an in-game location being a "city" is still painfully jarring. It works fine for a "settlement" but no, that's not a city. That's not even a town.

As with many things creativity is often spurred on by limitations. I wish Bethesda would embrace their limitations and try to tell a compelling and reactive story within those rather than aiming for something beyond the scope of what they can realistically realise.

2. A more reactive game world.

I'm making my way through Fallout 4's story but before I really got started I took the time to build a network of well-populated settlements. I dragged many of them kicking and screaming into civilisation. By that I mean I'd take over a settlement with people living in pathetic shacks that would in no way be suitable for the climate they live in. I'd define a perimeter to be defended and build with concrete. Proper structures that could be defended. Solid concrete walls thick enough to provide a barrier against the radiation storms that often blow in from the south west. Lighting. Water. Food.

This sort of thing is very rarely commented on in the game's story though. It's not programmed to react to my exploits most of the time. When I encountered the character of Deacon I was incredibly pleased that he was on my side on the basis of my exploits. He knew that I'd done things and should be allied with as soon as possible.

Similarly I enjoyed having the option to tell a journalist:
"You're all living in rusty shacks, killing each other, and my God, the smell..."
I'm trying to roleplay as my character and whilst she's generally a force for good I also try to remember that she's a pre-war lawyer. She is intelligent, incisive, and doesn't take any bullshit. Sometimes she will ask questions she knows the answers to in order to see what the other party thinks about the matter.

So upon being presented with Bethesda's idea of what 200 years after a nuclear war looks like I would expect her to think "Really? This is the best you could do?"

Note that this contrasts with what 200 years after the war looks like in Black Isle's Fallout universe. There they've realised that they can, in fact, build... new structures. Mind blowing.

The general point being that most of the time my character doesn't seem to be recognised by the game world. It is unaffected by her and she is unaffected by it. Companions will comment on an area but she remains silent. It's pretty immersion breaking.

Scale it down and make it react more. If I do remarkable things or establish trade networks that's a big deal. It's a big deal because everyone else seems to mostly be sitting around sulking rather than getting their shit together.

3. Stop being scared to create.

There's the headquarters of a toy company. They're a Bethesda creation (and their toy, Giddyup Buttercup is too). Well done. On a terminal one can read about possible future models of the toy that would have tie-in branding. Which companies are named? Nuka cola, Vault-Tec, and Rob-co.

Wow. Yes, obviously. Such natural fits and certainly not chosen because barely any other notable named companies exist within the canon. Would it have killed them to create some plausible tie-ins?

Similarly many of the enemies that exist in the Bethesda Fallout games have at best a very flimsy justification for being there. The same is true for various drugs found in the games. Psycho, for example, is a military drug:
A unique delivery system filled with strange and unknown chemicals of probably military origin. It is supposed to increase the combat potential of a soldier.
But of course you find it all over the place in Bethesda's games because why not?
The drug "Jet" was invented during the events of Fallout 2. You can have its creator join your party.

Fuck it though, let's ignore that and have it spread across America rather than California. We could invent a similar drug and call it something else but we didn't buy the Fallout IP not to use it.

Yeah, it's dumb, it's lazy, and it takes me out of the moment. If you need something in the game check if it already exists and could plausibly be found there. If it isn't plausible create something else to fit the bill.

In general I want a tighter experience that feels less like a load of addictive game mechanics strung together and more like a roleplaying environment. Not much point in creating a roleplaying game if the player's actions don't really matter.

I've been playing Fallout 4. I used to refer to Fallout 3 as "Bethesda's Fallout" but at this point there have been more Bethesda Fallout games than there were Black Isle Fallout games.

I'm not planning to rehash what I've said about Fallout 3 here as my opinion on that applies just as much to Fallout 4. The only thing I'm currently irked about is the vaults.

When I played Fallout 2 the discovery that the vaults were shady was disturbing. It was a brilliant revelation. These days it's such common knowledge that it's not even addressed in-game. My character, "the sole survivor", doesn't even question it. In fact she has the option to say that Vault-Tec is "evil". Arguably she'd be right but based on what?

That is to say I've encountered their work in previous games - she hasn't. She was put in a vault and frozen. It kept her safe from the apocalypse, pretty much as advertised. Nothing particularly shady happened to her aside from being cryogenically preserved - she wasn't part of any behavioural experiments or anything like that. The fate of her husband and infant son were nothing to do with Vault-Tec as far as she knows either.

So when playing the Fallout 4 DLC why does she just unquestionably assume that experimenting on people is something Vault-Tec do? Why does the overseer just blurt this out?

It's dumb and pretty much Bethesda's Fallout to a T.

Perhaps it'll turn out to be a daft set of decisions but I'm going to risk being smug in advance. Hold my text editor, lads.

I'm working on a game. As with most things of this nature it started off as something small and got wildly out of control. It's written in Sugarcube and TWINE - that is to say it's a text-based adventure played in a browser and distributed either as just an HTML file or as an archive with resources.

Personally I'm not a fan of having to package up a load of resources. Not a fan. Also when I started work on it (and perhaps still now) images that were outside the dev environment wouldn't be displayed in the preview functionality.

I opted instead to embed the files as Base64 strings. Basically taking the file data and turning it into text that a browser is happy to decode. I use this method to embed images, sounds, and text.

Of course the immediate reaction from various people I asked when implementing this was "That's probably a bad idea" and comments about bloating a browser and the like. Doing this willy-nilly would absolutely risk that but this is me we're talking about. At this stage I'm old compared to lots of the young folks creating games. I grew up in the age of dial-up, tiny hard disks, and similar limitations. If there's one thing I know it's about compressing files!

The images I'm using are mostly run through Geometrize before being resized and squashed into tiny JPGs. They're also used sparingly. I think there's two images of that kind in the game so far.

The others are PNG-8 files with very limited colour counts to keep their file sizes as low as possible without becoming hideous.

Similarly there's sound in my game. I considered using Opus for audio but Safari doesn't currently support it natively. Everyone else has got their shit together (even Microsoft's Edge browser supports it, for gods' sakes) but that's a fairly big chunk of users and the saving isn't that great. I mean, percentage wise it's excellent - about a 30% reduction in filesize - but that's not really worth the trade off when that's 3592 bytes vs. 5184 bytes. That's the largest sound file in the game.

The largest image is much larger but that's because it's a struggle to compress images with transparency in this day and age because it would seem different vendors can't agree so we're still stuck using JPEG and PNG. As a result in order to actually be supported I've got an image that weighs in at 123 KB.

Fonts are where things get properly heavy

  • 21 KB - Trash Hand Regular
  • 63 KB - Patrick Hand SC
  • 27 KB - Black Biro
  • 21 KB - Rokkitt
132 KB. Ouch. Still - worth it.

So how big is the game? Currently it's 1404 KB. It'd fit on a floppy disk. Here's the breakdown:

  • 9 KB of sound
  • 132 KB of fonts
  • 163 KB of images
  • 1099 KB of text
I think it'll be fine this way.