30 December 2010

First Attempt

I thought it would be funny to show off my very earliest attempt at making a Sonic engine in Game Maker, so here's the link.

Now you can laugh at all the glitches and mistakes I made 5 years ago! I know, it's a poor way to tide folks over until the new shiny version is released.

23 December 2010


As promised...

This, my friends, is why I should concentrate on programming. =P


I can't believe it's been a whole year since I made the first one of these!

In honour of its anniversary I'm going to post one today and tomorrow, so be sure to come back for the second helping. =)

18 December 2010

Afterthoughts on the SFR article

If you're subscribed to Game Informer or follow the Sonic news around the 'Net, you've probably already heard that Sonic Fan Remix has been covered in the magazine.

The article takes the form of a short interview with Pelikan and me. It's the first time I've ever really been interviewed (let alone in print, though that means increasingly little in today's digital age), so I'm understandably chuffed; but I'm also excited that SFR is getting the added publicity... just in case there's any stragglers in the Sonic community who haven't heard of it yet.

The interview was conducted by email, so I gave my answers as thoughtfully as I could and sent them along, hoping that the editors at GI could whip them into something manageable for their article. Of course, they did a great job. Understandably a few tweaks were made, and some content was cut that would have been repetitious or wouldn't have flowed with the rest of the article.

However, for anyone who's interested in the dirty underbelly, here's what was cut:

(isn't having a personal blog great?)

"One of the most striking elements of Sonic Fan Remix is the fact that it’s visually superior to the Sega-made Sonic 4. How was a team of two able to make a better looking game than a major game studio?"

First, I don't think it's fair to say it's visually superior. While I certainly prefer the look of SFR, I know quite a few folks who don't. Artistic beauty is very subjective. Second, it's not even two people, it's one - I had nothing to do with the visuals. And I'm as mystified as anyone else how Pelikan is able to make such gorgeous graphics. It's like some kind of crazy superpower!

Understandably, the part about how it's not really that fair to compare the graphical styles was dropped, because Pelikan already put it better. But I'm sort of sad that the bit showing my admiration for Pelikan's skills was omitted - I'm honestly in awe of his abilities. I know he works freelance in the game industry, which means he's a professional, but his work would be impressive even for a team of artists. It is like a superpower.

To actually answer the question, though - speaking for myself - I think that SFR succeeds where Sonic 4 fails because it's more surprising. There are so many details that you're just not expecting to see, and that's what makes it so exciting.

You'll notice here that the first part was removed. The loss of those three crucial words "speaking for myself" changes the tone of the whole quote. I'm actually trying to describe why SFR delights me more than Sonic 4 did, but the final GI article makes it look like I'm expansively claiming Sonic 4 to be objectively worse. (They embiggened my nuts. =P) But one can't really blame them for trying to stir up controversy, because controversy is interesting. Also, I am responsible for phrasing it in such a provoking way.

I stand by what I said about being surprising, though. Just like the single word of advice "consent" has extraordinary mileage when it comes to questions of sex, when it comes to game design, "surprise" is the word.

Take Sonic 3, for example. Sonic gets punched in the face, the island gets set on fire, and then you get carpet bombed. And that's just the first zone.

Well, here's looking forward to a cover feature when SFR is a complete, surprising whole. =)

09 December 2010

Baww Green Eyes!

When "Project Needlemouse" was revealed to be Sonic 4, and the first trailer was shown, it immediately became clear that Sega wasn't going to use Sonic's classic design. This was disappointing to many fans, and not just because the hype had promised a return to classic form. It also hurt because it had a ring of finality to it - if Sega didn't bring back classic Sonic for Sonic 4, they're probably never going to do it.

This perceived betrayal caused what's called a "shitstorm" by indelicate people. I did my bit with this post, angrily complaining about Sonic's modern design. Of course, to any backlash there is always another backlash, and people began to complain about the complainers: "It's just his design! It's not a very important detail! Just shut up!" And so, the "Baww Green Eyes!" meme was born. (I like to think that my post is at least partly responsible, but I'd probably be over-inflating its impact.)

When it comes to any argument - for example, "Black Eyes VS Green Eyes" - I can respect the two opposite views. Those arguing for one design over the other are both passionately defending something that matters. It's the third group, those who say "shut up!" that I can't stand. Telling someone that their argument doesn't matter and that they should desist is doubly toothless: first, it's antagonistic - it opposes their viewpoint and will be seen as just as disagreeable as their opponents; second, unlike their opponents, it contributes nothing to the argument.

This is why I dislike the "Baww Green Eyes!" meme so much. It seeks to delegitimise an entire conversation, a conversation that I feel is worth having. Suddenly any discussion of Sonic's design and its strengths and weaknesses can be hijacked by any fool who brays "Baww Green Eyes!" like it's the most brilliant possible rejoinder. "This subject doesn't matter! You're all whiny bitches!"

If it's such a minor detail that it truly doesn't matter, then why does this third group of "shut-uppers" seem to care so much? If they aren't interested in the details of Sonic's design, why don't they leave the discussion altogether? They aren't contributing anything, and by their own admission they wouldn't care whatever the outcome.

Argue for black eyes. Argue for green eyes. (Or peach/blue eyelids, or short/long spines, etc). But don't say it doesn't matter at all.

I've been accused of nerdrage and bitching enough to know that it stings. I'll probably be accused once more, because of this post. God knows I'm painfully aware of how pathetic it sounds to talk about Sonic's eye-colour as though the future of mankind depends on it. But I will not have it said that it doesn't matter, for a very good reason. That mentality dismisses the work of talented people to whom it very much does matter - the game designers themselves.

You may be a layperson who only plays the games, and to you the details are just that - details. Many of them you won't remember, or ever be consciously aware of. But the developers and designers sweat blood to get these details right, so there actually is a quarter of the world wherein Sonic's design does supremely matter - in the mind and the workplace of his designers.

Do you really think that Naoto Ohshima or Yuji Uekawa just slapped their Sonic designs together with an "anything goes" attitude? "It doesn't matter what our character looks like. He'll be appealing anyway, because he can jump!"

Because I'm interested in designing Sonic games myself, these details are of interest and importance to me. This doesn't make me a whiner - it just means I'm not a passive player in the Sonic experience. Being invested doesn't make me any weirder than the people who took care to create Sonic in the first place. No one would dare think to fault them for caring about their own designs, upon which their careers may even hinge. Obsession isn't automatically a bad thing.

Methinks I doth protest too much. Perhaps it's time I make a stab at outlining why I dislike the green eyes on Sonic. It's not a knee-jerk hatred of "Modern Sonic" (though rest assured I do hate the design), it's got a rational basis. As such, I could be argued out of my position if this basis were shown to be silly.

There are two major reasons why they don't work. First, it's a bad colour choice. Sonic's red, white, and blue design is iconic, partly inspired by the emblematic flags of the UK and US.

The reason why these colours work is because they are complementary. If you introduce another colour from a wildly different band of the spectrum, things go terribly wrong. That's why you'll often see American flags with gold tassels or edging, but never anything like this:

Simply, having all of the primary colours present in the same scheme looks totally wrong. This is why Sonic's peach muzzle and tummy, or golden shoe buckle, look alright. They share the "red" aspect of the scheme, and don't conflict. The minute green is introduced, though, it all goes wrong.

You may say, "yes, but it's such a small amount of green, nothing like the treasonous vandalism you visited upon those flags." You'd be right, of course (also, the eyes are very far away from the red of the shoes, mitigating the conflict somewhat) - but the eyes are the part of the design you're supposed to be drawn to. They're the most important part; they aren't described as "windows to the soul" for nothing. Everything else can change, but if the eyes don't look right, the whole picture is ruined. For example:

These are not faces.

A minor change, in the grand scheme of things, but an enormous change in the character of the "face".

So, would changing the colour of Sonic's eyes help matters? If I'm complaining about the green, would I be happy with blue or cyan? Well, let's find out:

A small improvement; less violence is done to the colour scheme, certainly. But I find I still don't like it. So what is my complaint with the "green eyes" if not the "green" part? Let's take a look at my favourite picture of classic Sonic:

Sonic doesn't just have black (or very dark brown) eyes, but there is an obvious "shine" to them. The little white circle does wonders. Without it, he looks like this:

There's a reason why, in anime and manga, characters are often depicted without a shine in their eyes to make them look dead or mind-controlled. There's an eerie lifelessness to it. So Sonic has shiny eyes in all his classic forms:

CD Sonic goes really far. Practically the top half of each pupil is white!

But it's not just the shine or lack thereof that makes the eyes, it's the position. If we move the shine to the dead centre of Sonic's pupils, he starts to look weird:


It makes him look less like he's looking at you, and connecting with you, and more like he's just a drawing. It's a subtle detail, but for designers, it's details like these that make or break a design.

The trouble is, the way they shade Sonic's eyes these days, with the green iris, the shine ends up being almost dead centre in his pupil. Examples:

If this looks familiar, it's because Mario has been doing it forever:

Sonic's has Mario's eyes! And overall shading style, to boot. (What was Sega thinking, if you can't beat 'em join 'em?)

So it's not so much that Sonic has green eyes as it is that he has green irises that force his pupil to be much smaller, putting the shine closer to centre. If the eye, both pupil and iris, were treated as a single unit with one large shine, I think it'd be improved a lot:

To be fair, many of the more recent renderings of Modern Sonic are gravitating toward looking like this, and I think that's helping him look better. But they need to do it consciously and consistently to bring back his "cute" look.

Klonoa has had irises for years and still looks cute and appealing because the artists did just that:

To close, I'll also give props to Sonic Battle's bold design, which looks great despite the green:

I think Sega should take a hint from Sonic Battle and use flagrantly different designs for their games more often. The plain vanilla "Modern Sonic" has been with us for over a decade and we could do with some artistic licence. Hey, if Disney can make a dark, intelligent platformer about Mickey Mouse (a Mickey Mouse that reverts to his classic design, no less) to critical acclaim, so can Sega do with Sonic.

07 December 2010

Wright is Wrong

Some folks get their jollies by watching competitive sports. Not me, though - I insist on being weird. When I want to watch a competition where one side gets soundly beaten, I watch debates. The latest of these was between Sam Harris and Robert Wright. (Watch it on YouTube.)

Now, both Harris and Wright are technically atheists, but they disagree on the details. Wright agrees with Harris that religion is wrong, but parts ways with him when it comes to religion being bad. It's Wright's contention that religion is always neutral in any situation, neither bad nor good. He claims that the bad that Harris would attribute to religion is actually caused by other factors: cultural, political, socioeconomic, etc. He even goes so far as to characterise the the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a "land dispute".

This isn't the first time Wright has argued for this position. I've seen him do it once before with Christopher Hitchens. It seems to be his "shtick". He even admits when challenged that the question of religion's neutrality is a hard one to answer; that he hasn't done enough research or gathered enough evidence to be firm in his conclusion; and that it's his "intuition" about it. This is starting to sound more and more like an a priori assumption to me. It's amazing the wriggling he'll do to defend it, as well. In the debate with Harris, Richard Dawkins happened to be in attendance. During the Q&A, he asked Wright (in so many words) whether the conflict in Northern Ireland would exist without the artificial religious labels that continue to fuel it. Wright's prevaricating answer suggested that the conflict grew out of an imbalance in the two groups' access to power. This didn't go a long way to answering Dawkins' question - the concept of being two distinct groups would never have existed in the first place if not for theological differences - but whatever.

Basically, any time someone gives an example of an evil in the world that is ostensibly caused by religion, Wright will dutifully trot out a rationalisation that conveniently absolves religion. As he's not religious himself, one wonders why he bothers - but one can uncharitably speculate. When Harris asked him why he's against criticising Islam, but not against criticising the comparable (and quasi-religious) situation in North Korea, he said "Well, what are they gonna do?" Perhaps Wright is being hypocritical. He's okay with stepping on an ant hill, but not knocking on a bee hive.

Anyway, it's not my intent to figure out why Wright argues for the neutrality of religion. It's my intent to refute it. You'd think Sam Harris could have done so amply in the debate, but he seemed a little off his game (though Sam Harris on a bad day is still a force to be reckoned with). Unfortunately, the conversation turned to Islam more often than not, and much time was wasted with Harris reiterating its dangers. "There's a reason why we're not all lying awake at night worrying about the Amish," he said, making a great point in his great quotable style. But he said nothing that began to cut through Wright's argument and kill it at its root.

Wright's clung-to position that "religion is always neutral" is twofold: when an example of an evil of religion is brought up that he can't quickly dismiss, he'll move the goalpost, shifting the meaning of neutral to mean that while religion actually can inspire bad after all, it also inspires enough good that it's on balance neutral again. Once more, of course, he says this is difficult to measure and that he doesn't have any concrete foundation for his claim. (One wonders, then, why he makes the debate circuit arguing such a shaky claim.)

Both claims of neutrality, however, are easily and quickly dismissed. It's a shame Harris didn't do so, because maybe we'd be spared further flogging of the idea by Wright in the future. Anyway, I'll tackle them.

First claim of religious neutrality: "Religion never inspires bad things, people do bad things anyway and use religion to defend them. Take religion away and they'll just justify the bad things with something else, such as bastardised science."

This seems like you could dismiss it easily by finding something bad that a holy book tells people to do, and find an example of people doing it. For example: Not treating gays equally. That's a foul thing to do, and it's caused by religion, right?

Well, it may or may not be (though I'd say that in most cases, yes, it is), but Wright's rejoinder would probably be something like, "Yes, but there are lots of religious people - even ones who follow the very same holy book - who don't do it. Therefore, the bigots are practising homophobia because of their culture or some other reason, and simply using "God's word" to justify their behaviour."

That's a pretty sneaky response, and it can send one reeling just long enough for the subject to be changed. And it works with pretty much any minority group.

Except one.

Atheists. Pray tell, without religion, how there could possibly be such a phenomenon as discrimination against atheists? This is at least evil that can't be explained away as due to "socioeconomic factors" and completely hamstrings the argument that religion itself generates no evil.

Second claim of religious neutrality: "Okay, you might have got me there. Maybe religion causes that. But it causes enough good to make up for it in the end!"

This second claim is so facile that one wonders who couldn't shred it, but here goes. Doing good after doing bad doesn't make one good, or even neutral. The guilt of having done bad remains. For example, if I murdered someone, and then donated one of my kidneys or lungs to save someone else, would I be "neutral"? No, I'd still be in gaol for having murdered someone! At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, Wright's claim is tantamount to saying that the Nazis were on balance neutral because, hey! they rebuilt Germany's economy while they were at it.

Unless I've grossly mischaracterised Wright's position, it's pretty clear that it's pathetically easy to take apart. Fortunately for him Harris was fixated on Islam for so much of the talk; because if the light of reason had fully shone on his silly notions, they would have been embarrassingly revealed as unclothed in logic or consideration.