Monday, October 29, 2007

Movie review, game review

While I'm on the VR theme ...

The other day I went to see Nightmare Before Christmas 3D. With its stop-motion animation, the original Tim Burton production of Nightmare might seem the perfect choice for a 3D adaptation. In fact, the 3D "remastering" added surprisingly little. Some in my party found it downright disappointing, having hoped for more dramatic 3D effects (which, IMHO, would have spoiled it). The high point for me wasn't the 3D, or even getting another look at director Henry Selick's visual inventiveness, but realizing what a fine score Danny Elfman had produced.

Don't get me wrong. Nightmare is a classic whichever way you look at it. But when the most notable feature of a 3D movie is the score, something is at least a little out of whack.

My experience with other 3D shows is similar (except for the Tim Burton/Elfman angle). Polarizing glasses are a great improvement over the classic red-green (both have been around for a while), but overall 3D just doesn't add that much.

There's a pretty likely explanation for this: We don't actually see in 3D. We do make use of the extra information from having a slightly offset pair of images to work with, but in a pinch we can make do with one. The image we construct either way isn't a full 3D rendering, but more of a "2.5D" schematic in which we are mainly concerned with things like what's in front of what, which way and how fast things are moving, and roughly how big and how far away things are.

The eye, that is, the massively complex machinery behind the eyes, can be fooled in any number of ways because of the assumptions it makes to construct that internal image. For example, it can be convinced that a flat canvas with paint on it is a three-dimensional space, or that a series of images quickly projected on a screen is a collection of objects moving in space.

That first illusion -- that a painting is the scene it represents -- is the big step. The rest is just refinement. That's why they called them "moving pictures". In all cases, the realism comes not from the fidelity of the image we present, but what the brain fills in. Which leads me to the game review.

With the very big caveat that my serious compugaming days are many years behind me, my nod for most immersive VR experience goes to .... NetHack. Yep, that one you might have seen somewhere with the ASCII-art rectangles connected with lines of #'s and an @ and a (usually) faithful d battling their way along.

Later versions got a bit baroque for my taste. Your mileage may vary, but somewhere along the line was a nearly perfectly-balanced concoction. What made the experience rich was the way the consequences were all worked out. If you tried something, you got a result that made sense, but not always the one you expected or wanted.

For example, there was the wand of polymorph. In the predecessor game Rogue, you could use one in desperation to try to zap the monster attacking you into something less deadly (a decent try against a xorn or umber hulk, not so good against a bat). In NetHack, you could still do that, but you could also zap a pile of rocks and sometimes get gems. You could zap anything and unless there was a good reason, it would change. Sometimes for the better, often not.

Much of the fun came from identifying all the magic items you came across. Every once in a while you might find a scroll of identify, but mostly you just had to try stuff and hope for the best. What does this wand do? I'll just zap it at that wall ... The lightning bolt bounces ... the lightning bolt hits you ... you die ... OK, next time I'll try zapping it at an angle ... Now what does this potion do?

That's not to mention the various ways of looting shops, or surviving the nearly-unsurvivable, or discovering what seemingly useless items did (why would I want to make the monster I'm fighting invisible?) or trying things like reading a scroll while confused.

It appears NetHack is still being actively developed. You hear maniacal laughter in the distance ...

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