Category: technology

Cloud Computing – The influence of nature in computer games

It’s been an extremely rainy weekend. Apparently in Sweden, people have been advised to stay indoors, due to the high velocity winds and torrential flooding that can occur in these conditions. Here in southern Finland, we experienced relatively mild weather, yet still more rain in one day than has been received in the last few months. The European athletic championships begin this week, and a lot of youth groups are being sponsored to take part in a variety of small competitions. When the rain calmed down, and the sun began to break through the clouds, this sudden burst of athletic inspiration drove me to go for a walk.

Notice how the clouds are layered, creating a three-dimensional perception of depth

You notice a lot of things when you walk in the aftermath of a storm. The most particular thing that caught my attention was the clouds. Not their shape, or their size, nor their names that we should all remember from high school geography, yet don’t. But the speed they were travelling at. Or more particularly, the apparent difference in speed between various clouds. I say apparent, because in reality, the clouds could have been moving at the same speed. Yet due to differences in distance, the eye perceives the closer clouds to be moving faster, and the further clouds to be moving more slowly.

The clouds appeared to be structured as a three-dimensional layer. Immediately I was reminded of the 1980’s and early 1990’s era of parallax scrolling, or as I like to call it, the original cloud computing. I will not get into a technical description of parallax scrolling, simply because there is not one method of achieving its effect; differences between computer system architecture in the 1980’s meant that even the same game being ported to two different systems may have required a change in coding simply to apply the parallax scrolling. However, the general idea is that two-dimensional game can look three-dimensional simply by having the background move at a different speed than the foreground. Take Super Mario Brothers for example. The original game (8-bit, NES) did not have parallax scrolling. If you watch the game in action, notice how the clouds in the background simply move back or forward at the same speed as the foreground. There is no perception of depth, and so simply a two-dimensional experience.

Now take a look at Super Mario World, released on the SNES (16-bit). Even in the opening sequence, you can immediately see the difference. Although still a two-dimensional game, the background features such as the clouds are moving at a slower speed than the foreground objects. This parallax scrolling now gives the world of Mario a three-dimensional twist.

This effect has been used in a countless number of games (as well as in television animations since the 1940’s). From the humble beginnings in a game called Moon Patrol (1982), to famous 16-bit era games such as the Sonic series. In fact, even today, this technique is being used, albeit more often on websites rather than in games. Take a look at this New Zealand tourism website, using parallax scrolling to achieve a 3D illusion http://www.newzealand.com/us/.

From my example of the clouds, it is obvious that parallax scrolling exists in nature, and as clouds are one of the more common background images used in games in a parallax capacity, I think it is safe to assume that the natural 3D formations of cloud layers have been an influence on the development of three-dimensional game programming techniques.

“Dark Forest”, the most memorable level in a game from my childhood

There are many examples throughout gaming history that highlight the importance of nature; how it can be used as a technique to create atmospheric environments for the gamer to manipulate. I remember distinctly a game I used to play when I was a child. It was released on a variety of platforms, the definitive version perhaps being on the Acorn Archimedes. In Twinworld, you play the role of a  young man travelling on an adventure through a variety of lands, growing older, and fighting monsters on the way. All in all, a standard adventure game (if you read my previous article on interactive fiction, you will know where adventure games originated!), with a few interesting perks. One of these was the atmosphere. Unlike many other platformer games of this era, such as the Mario series, Twinworld was set in a fantasy but realistic world. There were no random floating boxes, no pipes to jump down, no unexplainable moving platforms. Instead, there were caves, trees, wild birds from the trees who would attack you. It was the nature in this game that makes it memorable for me. Any time I enter a forest today, I am reminded of the years I spent exploring the “dark forest” in Twinworld.

The huge achievements in graphical technology in the last few years has resulted in a lot of visually spectacular games. One prime example would be the latest in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim. As with the previous games in this series, there are two styles of gameplay. One is to complete the main quest, and as many side-quests as possible, and the second is to explore the world, and effectively live in it as a fantasy character. In Morrowind for example, I spent a great deal of time collecting various plants from around the land, with the objective of bringing them to my home laboratory and using any alchemy “recipes” I could find in various books I came across, create a variety of potions. A fun concept, extremely well designed, and at the roots of it, completely derived from our natural environment. Skyrim in particular has a following of gamers who simply want to produce the greatest graphics possible with their computer systems, and explore this fake, but convincingly natural world. For example, here is a video entitled “Skyrim Beauty”, simply produced to demonstrate the countryside of this imaginary land.

There are many other aspects of nature that have found their place in computer game culture, far too many to go into here. From the  concept of sunrise and sunset dictating times and schedules (more advanced text adventure games featured time, the Elder Scrolls series features prominent sunsets resulting in the populations going to sleep), to audio effects being directly recorded from the outdoors to provide a convincing atmosphere in what would otherwise be an unconvincing world.

Without our experiences of the outdoors, and our observations of the natural world around us, technology today, especially in the world of computer games, would be vastly different. While the term “cloud computing” is now used to describe the idea of hosting data remotely, let us remember the real clouds, for it is they who have helped create the virtual worlds we love.

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Interactive Fiction in the 21st Century

“You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.”

Zork (1980), one of the more famous and influential Infocom titles

The famous opening line of Adventure, also known as Colossal Cave Adventure or ADVENT. In other words, the very first adventure game of all time; the reason the “adventure” genre is so-called. Programmed by Will Crowther in 1975, Adventure set a new standard for video games. At a time when the video game arcade was entering its golden age with new developments such as Space Invaders being released, Adventure, programmed for the PDP-11 microcomputer, aimed to change the quick-to-play action based arcade image of games into a more immersive, literary experience. Games based on this new style of programming, such as Zork, began to appear in the early 80’s by the dozen, with the new emergence of affordable personal home computers. The home gaming market was born, and Interactive fiction was the driving force behind programmers attempting to outdo one-another and create even larger adventure titles.

Of course, anyone with a basic knowledge of computer game history knows what happened next. As home computers became more powerful, graphics took over as the main attribute looked for by gamers. Adventure games still existed, but as evident by the hugely successful Ultima titles, the most popular of these games consisted of a lot of graphics and minimal textual descriptions. The successful interactive fiction companies, such as Zork creators Infocom, were bought by larger companies (Infocom was bought by Activision), and production of the text adventure genre ceased by the late 1980’s.

The death of interactive fiction? Not quite.

To the outside world, the interactive fiction genre ended once computer game consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System began to dominate the market. Especially in 1990, when the 16-bit era of consoles took off, interactive fiction was seen as a dead art. “Twisty little passages, all alike” became a thing of the past. Now was the time for Sonic and Mario to battle it out, the console wars had begun. However – there was still some light left in the flame of the text adventure genre. Unknown to most gamers, a usenet group, rec.arts.int-fiction, had been established in 1987. Here, enthusiasts of the genre could share their love for the dying adventure game. Through a combination of reverse engineering Infocom’s Z-Machine Virtual Machine, allowing Infocom’s 80’s titles to be played on modern computer systems, and also the creation of TADS, a programming language designed for amateur coders to create their own works of interaction fiction, the genre retained a cult following of home coders and gamers. In 1993, another language, Inform, was created, further increasing the accessibility of easy coding for adventuring enthusiasts. It is due to the users of this usenet group, that interactive fiction survived, and is in fact alive and kicking today in 2012.

One obvious issue that can arise amongst amateur game developers is that due to repeated usage of the same engine to create the games, and as languages such as Inform and TADS had limited parsers (part of the engine that understands typed commands), similarities between new titles would become all too common, and so game quality would appear to decrease. To solve this problem, alongside continuous development of tools to create the games, as well as ever increasingly complex parsers capable of handling all sorts of vocabulary and grammatical issues, a series of competitions were established. Hyped and popularised through the newsgroups, and the emergence of the World Wide Web, these competitions ensured a constant stream of high quality, innovative titles. The “super bowl” of these competitions is known as IFComp, and has been held every year since 1995.

A lot has changed in the world of Interactive Fiction. The somewhat clichéd dungeon crawling adventures have long since vanished (however it does appear that this year there are a few modern 1980’s style dungeon crawlers being released, albeit not text adventures), being replaced with renowned literary works of art. With competitions tailoring for short adventures, as well as some specifically for longer, novel length titles, there is something for everyone. For the last seventeen years, users of the rec.arts.int-fiction have been submitting games to these competitions. Quality,  immersion, and innovation have always been the top priorities for many developers. From highly detailed crime stories, to light-hearted humor, the interactive fiction genre is still going strong. Sure, it may not have much commercial success, but in the eyes of interactive fiction fans, the gaming experience is the top priority, not the revenue.

There are many resources you can go to to discover great new games. For short adventures, the competition entries at http://ifcomp.org/ would be a good place to start. The Interactive Fiction Database (http://ifdb.tads.org/) is described as a game catalogue and recommendation engine. My personal favourite resource is the IF Archive (http://www.ifarchive.org/) which contains a huge amount of downloadable games, including competition winners since 1995.

Some examples of 21st Century interactive fiction games are as follows.

Blue Lacuna

“Waves. Dreams move beneath you, blind colossi revolving through unknowable patterns, but they do not break the surface, not yet or any more. You float in void outside them, cold, memoryless. Not true. You are a Wayfarer, and will always remember that. But uneasiness rises within you. Lost, for strange moments you can not even remember if you are woman or man.”

Blue Lacuna is allegedly the largest piece of interactive fiction ever released. In the 2009 XYZZY awards, it won in practically every category. Unlike many interactive fiction games, Blue Lacuna is not simply a glorified puzzle with a variety of possible paths, but a true work of fiction, where you, the player, can genuinely shape the story. Vivid descriptions of the island of Lacuna are as great as you will ever see in a text-based game.  It is a true work of art, with the ability to change a users perspective of gaming. You can try the game online at the official website, and it is free to download for both Windows and Mac http://www.lacunastory.com/

Lost Pig

“Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget. Boss say Grunk go find pig, bring it back. Him say, if Grunk not bring back pig, not bring back Grunk either. Grunk like working at pig farm, so now Grunk need find pig.”

Winner of the 2007 IFComp, Lost Pig is a charming title that gives a short, light, humorous experience, yet is absolutely brilliantly designed and very well written. The great thing about Lost Pig is the shear amount of actions you can perform. The programmer has included so many bizarre options, that no matter what you may want to do, there is probably a response to it in this game. The attention to detail is fantastic, and is a perfect example of how interactive fiction can be a fun experience, far from the traditional repetitive exploring days. http://www.grunk.org/lostpig/

Varicella

“For if this letter you’ve just received is correct, just such a disease has claimed the life of the King. This leaves the principality in the hands of his son, Prince Charles. Prince Charles is five years old. Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself.”

Ok, technically not from the 21st Century, but August 1999 – close enough! Varicella can be seen as a dark comedy, and is cited as perhaps one of the deepest but most disturbing works of interactive fiction yet. You play the role of Palace Minister at the Italian Palazzo del Piemonte. Your character, Primo Varicella is described very convincingly in the opening prologue, and immediately becomes a believable person. A self-obsessed picky man, playing as Primo can be quite a challenge, when actions you would like to take are rejected by him, being said to be “unseemly”. You are a vile, back-stabbing man, and you are expected to act this way through your actions. A difficult but extremely well designed game, it will leave you feeling as though you experienced a genuine, yet bizarre, part of history. Playable online here

Make it good

“Word is: if you don’t crack this one, you’re out of a job.”

A classic detective-noir style storyline, Make it Good was a 2009 XYZZY winner. Playing the role of a drunk, corrupt detective, Make it Good places you in a world similar to previous crime stories released in this genre. The difference here however is the ingenious programming, resulting in characters who have immense knowledge of what is going on around them, meaning there is a huge importance on what you do, and when you do it. The great story will result in you chasing a lot of red herrings, and ensure replayability to solve this mystery. It is playable online using the Parchment interpreter, at iplayif.

Want some meth? The underworld of the Internet

Imagine a world where everybody is truly anonymous. A place where money cannot be traced back to its owner, but is simply a digital currency fluctuating in value every day. A land where the law is a thing of the past; simply an idea that cannot penetrate the security around the fortress. Weaponry, drugs, and confidential information is traded without a single anonymous blink of an eye. Welcome to the Deep Web, the underworld of the Internet.

In the year 2000, a “Distributed, Decentralised Information Storage and Retrieval System” was created by an Irish student, Ian Clarke. This became known as Freenet, which today is one of the most popular methods of anonymous file sharing and communication. The purpose of Freenet is simple: allow people to share and access data online without being detected. Something that may seem normal to many of us, but considering that fact that even the Freenet website is blocked in China, anonymous access to information is a privilege sought for by many but only available to some.

One of the basic ideas of anonymous networks is that information is available to people who have knowledge it exists, yet is not indexed in the mainstream public search engines such as Google. It is estimated that search engines such as Google currently index less that 0.5% of total amount of web pages available. Other estimations compute that  the amount of data that is online is 500 times greater than that which is available through the public search engines. Of course, this can be explained by many things. Take a look at modern websites, the most popular being of the social networking genre. Private profiles and a public increase in privacy settings would technically mean that there is a lot of data not available to the public.

But what about that data which is available to the public. Web pages that are intended for the public to read, yet are designed to be as truly hidden and anonymous as possible? The onion network is a network of TOR (The Onion Router) hidden services, websites that are only reachable via the TOR network. TOR basically acts in such a way that your computer will connect through a wide variety of worldwide nodes, with no communication between them, allowing anonymous access to the World Wide Web. Not only does using TOR allow you access the “surface web” anonymously, but it also allows access to the “Deep Web”, the vast variety of websites not indexed by search engines.

Exploring the Deep Web is like living in a dystopian world, a real life version of The Matrix. It is an unpredictable realm of the Internet, with no centralised stucture or standards. Web pages look like they have been lifted straight from the 1990’s, using minimal dynamic content and mainly basic HTML. But it is here that thousands of people every day are taking part in illicit activities, safe in the knowledge that they will most likely never be caught due to the extreme anonymity provided to them through the TOR network, out of reach of most police forces. What started as an innocent project to provide anonymous Internet access has evolved into something much more sinister. Want to hire a hitman? He is on special offer today.

Premium cocaine for sale, 100% delivery rate, advanced stealth packaging

Take the popular Silk Road Marketplace for example. This is one of the Deep Web’s more popular versions of Ebay… except here, people bid for drugs. Fancy some cocaine delivered from Germany to any country in the world, with guaranteed delivery and a 100% success rate due to advanced stealth packaging techniques? No problem. Practically everything on sale in this marketplace is genuine. Many underground stores use an escrow system, and so the seller will not receive any money until the buyer releases it from the escrow after receipt of the goods and confirmation that it is indeed the genuine product. The price of 1 gram of cocaine? In this listing I looked at today, it was being sold for just over 18 bitcoins. You won’t see any pricing in dollars or pounds in the Deep Web marketplaces. Money is always traceable. Bitcoins however can be traded anonymously through networks such as Freenet or through TOR, and allow transactions to be an easy and safe process.

Want to buy a machine gun? Only 300 bitcoins

The value of a bitcoin? It depends. Today it is worth over $6. After Silk Road was exposed in the US Congress, the value of it rose dramatically in response to the increase in site visitor traffic. Of course, Silk Road still continues to provide an anonymous platform for drug dealers to sell their goods, even though Congress has asked the DEA to shut it down. As you may have assumed by now, it is not so easy for the DEA to shut down a site that is virtually impossible to trace. In this instance, to “take down” a website such as Silk Road, an old-style bust is the only reasonable option. Tracing electronically just does not work, and so undercover officers selling and purchasing drugs online to try and capture the people who use “clumsy” non-anonymous methods are the only tactics that seem to work.

This is exactly what happened to The Farmer’s Market. The Farmers Market was another marketplace dealing in narcotics such as LSD, also operating through the TOR network. Yet in April 2012, it was busted by the DEA. The BBC reports (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-17738207) that the arrests “should send a clear message to organisations that are using technology to conduct criminal activity that the DEA and our law enforcement partners will track them down and bring them to justice”. However, this is not necessarily true. In fact, if you research the Farmer’s Market bust in more detail, you will find their anonymity in TOR did not fail. It was carelessness by various users between the years of 2007 and 2009, when they used an “anonymous” email service called Hushmail, and accepted Western Union and Paypal payments, that led to this sting operation.

The idea behind websites operating through the TOR network is brilliant. Non-censored information and a whistle-blowers paradise. However, the reality of the Deep Web today is that the vast majority of users are simply curious to see what they can find, yet the majority of what they find is non-useful or illegal. A world where people can browse anonymously is available to us right now, but until those who have valuable information make use of it, it will continue to be a haven for “undesirable content” in the minds of the public.