I’ve always appreciated the simple beauty of Zen gardens, mostly from afar as my natural instinct is to run directly to the perfectly groomed sand and mess it all up. That being whilst I may have kindled an interest in gardening recently (thanks to my wife giving me some chilli plants for Christmas) I have very little interest in creating one of these myself, even of the desktop variety. The video below however demonstrates a kind of Zen garden that I could very well see myself spending numerous hours, mostly because it’s driven by some simple, but incredibly cool, science.
On the surface it seems like a relatively simple mechanism of action, two steel balls roll their away across the sand and produce all sorts of patterns along the way. The reality of it is quite a bit more interesting however as, if you watch closely, you can see that the two steel balls’ motion is linked together around a single point of motion. This is because, as Core77’s post shows, there’s only a single arm underneath the table which most likely houses 2 independent magnets that are able to slide up and down its length. In all honesty this is far more impressive to me than how I would’ve approached the problem as it makes producing the complex patterns that much more challenging. If it was left to me I would’ve had a huge array of magnets underneath the surface, but that seems like cheating after seeing this.
I’m no stranger to game development, having dabbled in it when I was at University. It was by far my favourite course as whilst I had a decent amount of programming knowledge translating that into creating something playable seemed like a monumental step that required a whole lot of knowledge I simply did not have. This was long before the time when tools like Unity or GameMaker were considered viable and our lecturer made everything easy for us by providing a simple framework on top of DirectX, allowing us to create simple 2D games without having to learn the notoriously complicated API. Since then I’ve tried my hand at Unity several times over and whilst it seems like a programmer’s dream there’s always one place I come unstuck on: the art.
This isn’t exactly an unknown issue to me, all my university projects used sprites that were pilfered from various free game resource sites and anything extra was little more than primitive 3D objects whipped up in 3D Studio Max. For my current project however I had the bright idea to try and generate some terrain using one of those fancy bits of software that seem to make good looking landscapes without too much hassle. After wandering through a sea of options I found Bryce seemed to be the one to go for and, better yet, it had the ability to export all the mesh so I could import it directly into Unity without too many hassles. For the $20 asking price I figured it’d be worth it to get me going and hey, should I want to go full procedural down the line it’d be a good introduction into the things I’d need to consider.
Oh how naive I was back then…
Whilst Bryce is everything it claims to be (and the tutorials on using it are really quite good) I just couldn’t seem to get it to create the type of scenery I had in my head. This is entirely a user based problem, one that I’ve suffered with for a long time where the interconnects between my brain and the tools I’m using to create just don’t seem to be able to gel well enough to produce the results I’m looking for. Whilst I was able to generate a decent looking mesh and import it into Unity it was nothing like I wanted it to be and, after sinking a couple hours into it, I decided that it was best left to one side lest I uninstall everything in frustration.
Realistically though the problem was one of expectations where the disjoint between my abilities with a program I had never used before and my expectations of what I’d produce were completely out of alignment. After mulling it over for the past couple days I’ve come to realise that I had set the bar way too high for what I wanted to create and indeed creating such things at this stage of development is actually a distraction from the larger goals I’m trying to achieve. I’ve since settled on just making do with a flat plane for now (as that’s all I’ll really need for the foreseeable future) or, should I really want to put something pretty in there, I’ll just lift a 3D model from a game that’s close enough so I’ve got something to work with.
You’d think after churning through project after project I would’ve become adept at recognising when I was pursuing something that was antithetical to making actual progress but it seems even after so many years I still find myself making things far more difficult than they need to be. What I really need to do is focus on the parts where I can make good progress and, should I make enough in those areas, then look towards doing the parts that are outside my area of expertise. Of course the best solution would be to partner with a 3D artist, but I’d rather wait until I’ve got something substantial working before I try and sell someone else on my idea.
That is unless you’re one and you’ve got nothing better to do with your time 😉
The number of games that find success on one platform and then spread to others has trended upwards significantly over the past couple years. If I was to hazard a guess as to why this is I’d have to say that the tooling available is probably the primary reason as many of the games that make the transition are Xbox Live Arcade titles. For that we can thank the Microsoft XNA framework which does a lot of the heavy lifting for the developers meaning that the only thing holding back a cross platform release is reworking the UI/controls for a different platform. That’s still a challenge which is why you don’t see every single XBLA game instantly on the PC but even a modicum of success will usually mean a PC release not long after. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is one such title having found wild success late last year and then debuting on the PC this year.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (I’m going to abbreviate this to ITSP from now on) takes place in a far off galaxy in a solar system inhabited with a highly advanced race of aliens. Everything seems peachy until a tangled black mass rockets through their home system, eventually crashing into their sun. Instead of being instantly vaporized however it appears to take over the sun itself, forming a kind of Dyson Sphere around it. Then it launches several other replicants of itself at all the planets in the system that perform much the same function as the original asteroid did. You then take it upon yourself to rid your solar system of this menace, jumping in your hilariously stereotypical UFO and heading out with nothing much more than a scanner and a vendetta.
Right off the bat ITSP sets itself apart from all the other 2D puzzlers I’ve played recently by having some incredible cinematic direction. Whilst games like Unmechanical did the majority of their story telling through the game itself ITSP does quite a bit in some incredibly well directed cutscenes. Indeed the initial plot summary I gave you above all takes place within one such scene and everything about it, from the choice of artwork to the awesomely epic soundtrack, just made it feel like it was ripped directly from a high budget animated movie. That artistic style continues on throughout the game and it’s probably one of the most enjoyable things about ITSP.
ITSP brands itself as a “multi-directional shooter” however I feel like it’s far more appropriately classified as a 2D puzzler with shooter aspects. While you will spend a good amount of time firing at all the various enemies that will try to get you in all sorts of random ways the majority of your time will be spent solving some kind of puzzle. They’re not mutually exclusive things either as quite often you’ll be force to try and solve some kind of puzzle whilst under fire from all directions making what would be a simple encounter much more challenging. The two core game mechanics blend well together making for both exciting and challenging game play.
Initially you start off with just a few simple tools with which to complete your tasks. The first tool you’re given is a scanner which allows you to investigate objects in ITSP and then get a visual cue as to what you need to do in order to interact with it. This is extremely helpful as if you get stuck on at a particular stage you’re usually only a couple scans from working out what the intended solution is. Of course there are still some puzzles that are non-obvious even with those little clues but suffice to say that it serves well as a built in hint system that doesn’t feel like the answers are being handed to you on a plate.
As you progress on the tools you have at your disposal increase with every passing section leading to more and more complicated puzzles. In all I believe there were a grand total of 8 different tools at your disposal each of them with a unique ability that unlocks another section of the ITSP map. You’ll often find yourself flying past obstacles that you can scan but don’t yet have the tool to access it giving you a kind of foreboding as to what is to come later on.
The puzzles are, for the most part, quite well done as there’s a good balance between challenge and progression. Indeed if you’re struggling with a particular puzzle or boss fight then its usually because you’re not understanding the mechanics properly or you’re going about it in a really odd way. There are some challenges that are far less fun than others (I’m looking at you, rocket in a maze where you can’t hit the walls) but I didn’t often find myself stuck on a particular section for long which made the game feel a lot better paced than some other games in similar genres.
ITSP does have a few glitches that I believe are worth mentioning however. So to the developer’s credit they included a map that helps you navigate your way around ITSP, which is good. However should you go into said map whilst you’re holding something in the claw tool or holding a key down you will drop said object or that key you were holding down will stop working. It’s not game breaking but it is rather annoying when you’re in the later stages of the game where you’re required to drag an item along with you all the time and there’s not a lot of light so you have to keep checking your map to make sure you’re going in the right direction. Yes I know that you can use the power wheel thing to get a direction queue but that has the unfortunate side effect of changing whatever tool you had equipped at the time which can be deadly if you do it at the wrong time.
The physics are also a little wonky for some of the challenges, the most notable being the one above. Again it’s not game breaking but trying to get those damn crystals into the holes (or indeed anything that requires a little precision) is fraught with difficulties. ITSP does have a rudimentary snap-to system which works for something but not others and the crystals in the ice stage appear to be one of the things it doesn’t work for. It might make sense when you’re using a controller however I don’t know anyone who’s played this on the Xbox so I’m not completely sure of that.
The boss fights are equal parts fun and challenging with each of the bosses being unique in their own weird way. The one above was probably the most challenging boss fight of the lot as one mistake or slip up could easily see your ship ruined long before you had enough time to react. They were a very good way to break up the relative monotony of flying around, solving puzzles and looking for hidden stashes and it’s something that a lot of similar games forego because they simply can’t be worked in well. ITSP however does a very good job with them and they were definitely my favourite combat challenge.
ITSP’s story is a simple affair when taken on face value and really I’m not sure if there’s much more depth intended by the developers. Sure there are many themes that you could say are explored (invasion, uprising, etc.) however since there’s no real backstory or explanation behind the vast majority of things that happen within ITSP I can’t say that I was playing it for the plot. Thankfully it doesn’t matter that much as the game play and cinematic quality of ITSP carries it without the need for an in depth storyline.
ITSP was one of those unexpected gems that I came across by chance when I was in a hurried state looking for the next week’s game review. It’s cinematic cut scenes are a joy to watch, it’s game play is fun and varied and there are only a few issues that detract from it overall. Its short length also make for a good Sunday afternoon distraction that doesn’t drag on unnecessarily. If you’re a fan of 2D puzzlers or shooters or just enjoy a well crafted game then I can’t recommend ITSP enough as it really is just damn good fun.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $14.99 and 800 Microsoft points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 3.6 hours of total game time.
3D is one of those technologies that I’m both endlessly infatuated and frustrated with. Just over a year ago I saw Avatar in 3D and for me it was the first movie ever to use the technology in a way that wasn’t gimmicky but served as a tool to enable creative expression. Cameron’s work on getting the technology to the point where he could use it as such was something to be commended but what unfortunately followed was a long stream of movies jumping on the 3D bandwagon, hoping that it would be their ticket to Avatar like success. Since then I’ve only bothered to see one other movie in 3D (Tron: Legacy) as not one other movie demonstrated their use of 3D as anything other than following the fad and utterly failing to understand the art that is 3D.
Last year was the debut of consumer level 3D devices with the initial forays being the usual TVs and 3D enabled media players. Soon afterwards we began to see the introduction of some 3D capable cameras allowing the home user to create their very own 3D movies. Industry support for the format was way ahead of the curve with media sharing sites like YouTube allowing users to view 3D clips and video editing software supporting the format long before it hit the consumer level. We even had Nintendo announce that their next generation portable would be called the 3DS and boast a glasses free 3D screen at the top. Truly 3D had hit the mainstream as anyone and everyone jumped to get in on the latest technology craze.
Indeed the 3D trend has become so pervasive that even today as I strolled through some of my RSS reader backlog I came across not one, but two articles relating to upcoming 3D products. The first is set to be the world’s first 3D smartphone, the LG Optimus 3D. It boasts both a 3D capable camera and glasses free 3D screen along with the usual smartphone specs we’ve come to expect from high end Android devices. The second was that NVIDIA’s current roadmap shows that they’re planning to develop part of their Tegra line (for tablets) with built in 3D technology. Looking over all these products I can’t help but feel that there’s really little point to having 3D on consumer devices, especially portable ones like smartphones.
3D in cinemas makes quite a lot of sense, it’s another tool in the director’s kit to express themselves when creating their movie experience. On a handset or tablet you’re not really there to be immersed in something, you’re usually consuming small bits of information for short periods. Adding 3D into that experience really doesn’t enhance the experience at all, in fact I’d dare say that it would detract from it thanks to the depth of field placing objects in a virtual space that in reality is behind the hand that’s holding it. There is the possibility that 3D will enable a new kind of user interface that’s far more intuitive to the regular user than what’s currently available but I fail to see how the addition of depth of field to a hand held device will manage to accomplish that.
I could just be romanticising 3D technology as something best left to the creative types but if the current fad is anything to go by 3D is unfortunately more often misused as a cheap play to bilk consumers for a “better” experience. Sure some of the technology improvements of the recent past can trace their roots back to 3D (hello cheap 120Hz LCD screens) but for the most part 3D is just used as an excuse to charge more for the same experience. I’ve yet to see any convincing figures on how 3D products are doing out in the market but anecdotally it’s failed to gain traction amongst those who I know. Who knows maybe the LG Optimus 3D will turn out to be something really groovy but as far as I can tell now it’s simply yet another gimmick phone that’s attempting to cash in on the current industry obsession with 3D, just like every other 3D consumer product out there.
I can still remember my first 3D experience in a cinema, it was almost a decade ago now when I was in Tokyo Disneyland. My then only recently acquainted friend and I were in deep teenage angst about our current predicament having exhausted most of fun out of the place in a few hours, with our stay not scheduled to end any time soon. Having heard about this 3D show called Honey, I Shrunk the Audience! (don’t judge me) I dragged him along to try and past at least some of the time we had remaining. The show itself was quite a spectacle with the floor being able to move around and many other real world effects to augment the 3D. The actual movie itself was pretty dull and the 3D effect, whilst impressive at the time, really didn’t do a lot for the movie. My memory may have been sullied by the fact I wasn’t feeling too good that day but it was several years before I went out of my way to encounter 3D again.
My mind was changed when I saw James Cameron’s Avatar. Whilst I had troubles with the gear at the cinema it still didn’t detract from the experience. There were a few obvious “we’re doing this to remind the audience that they’re watching 3D” but for the most part the effect enhanced the story and greatly increased the immersion I felt. After seeing the movie I became somewhat obsessed with the technology behind such a feat, researching the different methods and finding out just how such a movie was made. I went as far to say that our next TV purchased had to be 3D, because really anyone serious about cinema would have to have it.
I think I underestimated just how wrong the world could get 3D. Just like the initial buzz that surrounded 3D movies that came out almost a decade ago nearly every recent major theatrical release has had the option of being viewed in 3D. Worse even are some films that have restarted filming just to start using 3D, wasting months of effort. I can kind of understand when it’s a completely CGI film and the 3D option is just another day or two of rendering time (well, probably more than that) although the effect is debatable as most 3D films tend to have a flat focus. The fact is that whilst 3D has been around for a while filming for it is still in the realms of “black art” and very few have mastered the technique.
Cameron managed to do quite well in Avatar as his dedication to bringing 3D into the mainstream had given him extensive experience in using the technology. Two of his mostly unknown documentaries were shot using 3D many years before Avatar graced the silver screen. Many of the directors who are now scrambling to use 3D for their movies have no such experience and as such the results have been quite underwhelming. The fact is that since regular cinema has been around for well over a century many of the nuts and bolts of it have been worked out. 3D on the other hand poses a whole new set of challenges to overcome and getting the basics right is still mostly art.
Sure there’s still an element of art to regular cinema as well (note I’m not talking about the plot or anything that both 3D and regular cinema share) but with such a rich history to draw on it’s a far simpler task to create a certain feel with traditional cinematography than with 3D. Notably whilst you still have depth of field in regular cinema when venturing into 3D it becomes a whole different ball game as you’re manipulating the end user’s DOF rather than just the camera’s. Additionally the use of things that jump out of the screen, whilst a cute reminder that we’re watching 3D, can easily serve to break audiences out of the movie. With 3D being so young all these variables that haven’t got a well defined sweet spot can easily swing a decent movie to a 3D disaster, something which I’m sure we’re all familiar with.
Until the industry learns that 3D is a tool with which to enhance story telling and not just something that “has to be done” we’ll continue to see films that incorporate the technology just because they feel they have to. Hopefully the 3D fad won’t last much longer and it will then be left to the experts to define and curate their art which will flow on to future works. Whilst I haven’t changed my mind about getting a 3D TV (it seems I won’t really have a choice soon anyway) I more than likely won’t be buying 3D media for quite some time. Not until the industry and technology matures at least.