Tag: PC Gaming

Xboxin', Part 1

Welp, couldn't think of an entry to write this evening, and I got to thinking -- my brother just got an Xbox (rather like I did), and I was meaning to recommend some games to him. So hey, howzabout a blog post about my favorite Xbox games.

(Actually, I've mostly played the PC versions of these. Because, again -- just got the Xbox.)

Mass Effect -- I haven't played 3 yet, but the first two games are, straight up, my favorite games of the current hardware generation. It's the guys who made Knights of the Old Republic, but it's a new science fiction setting they've cooked up. Humans have begun exploring space and are treated as second-class citizens by the Galactic Council; your character is the first human to be selected for an elite special-ops position. Of course, as these things go, you uncover a threat to all of galactic civilization.

The first game's a not-quite-perfect hybrid of third-person shooter and RPG; it's got a wonky inventory system but is pretty great aside from that. The second game streamlines out all the crap and is more of a pure shooter; on the whole I'd say it's a better game but the first has the better story. I haven't played the third yet; from what I've read it's pretty good but the ending is so bad the company actually released a new ending at fans' insistence.

Batman: Arkham Asylum -- When this game came out it got the Guinness Record for the best-reviewed game of all time. It's easy to see why. It's got a script by Paul Dini and stars Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. The gameplay is just perfect, and the enemy AI is a great touch; a lot of the fighting is focused on the idea of sneaking around and slowly picking off thugs one-by-one. (You can even hang upside-down from a gargoyle, wait until a guy walks underneath you, and drop down and tie him up.) As you take thugs out the remaining ones get more and more agitated and have different reactions; some start firing randomly into the air, others start traveling in pairs -- the AI's not exactly brilliant but it's a really nice touch. And that's before the game even starts messing with your expectations, playing with what you expect out of the world of Batman and even the mechanics of the game itself.

The sequel, Arkham City, is supposed to be pretty fantastic too, but I haven't gotten around to that one yet.


Guess that'll do for a start. Other stuff for later: Dragon Age, The Witcher 2, Sonic Generations, Sonic CD. And, hell, Ghostbusters. Because it may be mediocre as a game, but as a Ghostbusters sequel, it's pretty great.

PC Gamer's Dilemma

Well, I finally got me an Xbox 360.

It was free. My fiancée got a new computer with one of those student "comes with a free Xbox" deals.

Here's the thing: I've got a pretty solid gaming rig. And another pretty solid media rig. So I haven't felt much need for Xboxin' up to this point.

The advantages and drawbacks of PC gaming are pretty well-documented. A PC can support crazy high-end hardware, but while the games are cheaper the gear is more expensive and fiddly and there's a whole lot that can go wrong.

Me, I'm something like a niche of a niche of a niche of a niche -- I run Linux on a Mac Pro as my primary OS and keep Windows around for gaming.

This is pretty cool when it works. But here's the thing: even a good Apple makes for a pretty crummy gaming system.

Last year I bought a pretty high-end Nvidia card. ATI has better Mac support, but I've had nothing but headaches trying to get ATI cards working with Linux. Nvidia's always run smoother for me -- galling considering their total lack of cooperation with Linux and the open-source community, but true.

But it's not an officially-supported card. It works under OSX (as of 10.7.3) but it's not entirely reliable under Windows -- when it gets taxed too heavily, I get a bluescreen.

It happened a few times when I played through Witcher 2, but, perversely, it's given me more trouble on Mass Effect 2 -- a game I had no trouble playing through with all the settings maxed out on a lower-end (but officially-Apple-supported) ATI card.

I thought it might be a heating problem but it occurs, consistently, even when I crank up all my system fans with third-party software.

The game worked fine up until Omega, and then started BSoDing randomly. I managed to recruit Garrus in-between crashes, but by the time it came around to Mordin's quest I couldn't get past loading the corridor.

I could just try some other missions, but seriously, you want me to put off getting Mordin? Hell no.

I've found, from searching, that this appears to be a fairly common problem with ME2, even among people not running eccentric hardware configurations such as mine. And I've found a few suggested fixes, but none have worked for me.

I've tried running the game under WINE on both OSX and Ubuntu. Under OSX it plods (I suspect my helper card may be to blame; maybe I'll try disabling it to make sure my higher-end card is the only one the system's putting a load on); under Ubuntu it runs fine up until the menu screen but then doesn't respond to mouse clicks or keystrokes (other than system stuff like Alt-Tab or Alt-F4). I haven't turned up any other reports of this same problem, so I can't find a fix -- maybe one of these days I'll try a full clean install and see if it still does it. Nuke my WINE settings too if I have to. (Or maybe I could set it up on my fiancée's new computer...)

Needless to say, I haven't tried Mass Effect 3 yet.

And that's before we get into all the DRM bullshit plaguing the PC platform.

Never played Batman: Arkham Asylum, largely because of the SecuROM/GFWL/Steamworks Katamari of Sucktitude. Similarly, I gave Dragon Age 2 a miss once I heard reports of people unable to authenticate their legally-purchased games because they'd been banned from BioWare's forums for saying mean things about EA. (Which obviously totally disproves that EA deserves to be called names.)

It's a great damn time to be a PC gamer for a lot of reasons -- a huge indie scene supported by the likes of Steam and the Humble Indie Bundle, with both pushing more gaming on OSX and even Linux -- but it's a lousy time for other reasons.

Anyway. Now I've got an Xbox. All else being equal, I still prefer to play games on the PC, but for cases where the Xbox has less restrictive DRM (like Arkham Asylum) or titles that aren't available on PC (like Red Dead Redemption) or just shit I can get for under five bucks (like a used copy of Gears of War I just picked up), well, it's kinda cool to have one.


Playing: Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Final Fantasy 7, Fourteen Years Later

The thing that surprised me most, on a replay of FF7 after lo these many years was, you know, it's actually pretty good. Not the best game ever, not even the best Final Fantasy -- hell, not even the best Final Fantasy released in a six-month period --, but pretty good.

It's easy to scoff at it in hindsight, probably because it's not nearly as good as some people claim it is. And frankly I'm embarrassed by my own youthful enthusiasm for it. But, truth be told, it's a good game. And it's not really logically consistent to love 6 and hate 7, because 7 is so clearly a refinement of 6. Amnesiac hero reluctantly joins underground organization fighting an evil, technocratic Empire that is extracting the spirits of a dead, magical race into glowing stones to use for its own nefarious purposes? Yeah, that sounds pretty familiar. The leader of the Empire is killed by a psychopath who is the product of one of its magical infusion experiments gone wrong, and who then becomes the Big Bad? Check. The key to saving the world is a mysterious girl who escaped from the empire's lab and turns out to be the daughter of a human and one of the aforementioned magical race? Mhm. Even the environments and the music are awfully familiar.

Which I suppose in itself could be taken as a knock against FF7 -- it hits a lot of the same beats as its predecessor. But this is Final Fantasy we're talking about. It's not like FF6 was fresh and new -- if you squint, the above plot summary isn't too far off from FF4's, either. And truth be told, 7 does some things better than 6.

It's easy to lose sight of in a flashy, forty-hour game, but, at least in places, FF7 shows a remarkable economy of storytelling. Take President Shinra -- for the first act of the game, he's the presumptive villain, and he makes a hell of an impression. But in truth he only appears in two scenes, I can count his lines of dialogue on my hands, and then he's promptly killed, offscreen, by a character you've never seen and have only heard of in rumors.

That's a pretty far cry from Kefka and Gestahl, really. Kefka is clearly the game's villain from the get-go, and you know sooner or later he's going to take out the Emperor. As for Gestahl, he doesn't get a lot of development but he's in a few scenes and you get a decent sense of who he is.

With Shinra, by contrast, you get a sense of who he is with very minimal information. It's quite well done. And then he's killed just a few hours in, by somebody who hasn't even been introduced yet. That's a shock -- and the presentation, the darkened halls filled with blood, is pretty unexpected too.

The key difference between Shinra and Gestahl -- and the key difference between their respective empires, and arguably between the settings of the two games -- is that Gestahl is an actual head of state, while Shinra is a CEO. The Mayor of Midgar only briefly appears in the game, and makes it very clear that he's a powerless figurehead. The man who runs the reactors rules the world. Forget the motorcycles, that's the most modern thing about FF7.

Shinra's also utterly ruthless and calculating. He wipes out an entire slum and blames it on the terrorists who have been sabotaging his reactors.

(It does fall apart a bit in the Corel flashback. Barrett convinces the people of his town to sell out to Shinra -- and then Shinra burns down the town anyway? I really have no idea how that serves the plot at all. It's not even there to fill the "hero's hometown gets burned down" box on JRPG Bingo, because by that point in the game Sephiroth's already burned Nibelheim, in a different flashback.)

Rufus makes an interesting contrast to his father. For all his initial talk about ruling by fear, his death is a contrast to his father's: the elder Shinra dies after destroying Sector 7; the younger dies saving Midgar. He doesn't have to be there; he could have evacuated, and he chose not to. His deeds redeem him, even if he's still not a very nice person -- and even if Midgar ends up destroyed anyway.

But probably the best example of FF7's skill in economical storytelling is the destruction of Sector 7 and the deaths of Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. Sure, they're the requisite Star Wars-named fodder characters (Romanized correctly here for the first time!), and no, they don't have that much screentime, but you grow to like them in that short time. You learn just enough about their hopes and their doubts -- Wedge's guilt over the civilian casualties, Jessie's nervousness about her forged ID cards -- to feel for them. And Wedge is a legitimately fantastic example of a character whose personality is communicated visually, through his model and his body language. Which of course starts to bleed into my previous post and the observation that simple, iconic images can convey a whole lot to an audience.

There's a point where the uniqueness of gaming comes into the Sector 7 collapse, too. Sure, killing a bunch of poor people and blaming it on the hero is stock Bond Villain stuff, but this is different: the first opportunity you get to do a little bit of free exploration is Sector 7. You wander around, you meet people, you slowly get introduced to the world of the game there. It's not that the villagers have gotten too much more complicated since welcoming you to Coneria and warning you that the Fire Fiend will burn everything up, but they have little stories and personalities -- hell, the building designs have more character than the people, but the bottom line is that you get a feel for Sector 7 that you don't get for most fodder locations. (Contrast with FF6: Kefka's murder of the population of Doma establishes him as a very bad man, but you're not emotionally invested in Doma or in anyone there except Cyan and his family.) In short, a couple of lines of dialogue, some atmospheric design, and the proper placement in a game's narrative and presentation can really make a minor location stand out.

Oh, and the steel beam through the playground is as subtle as a chainsaw to the face, but it's definitely a memorable image.

And while the game can get awfully overbearing in places, it has some deep themes that are presented without being harped on. Of course the whole thing revolves around Japan's complex relationship with nuclear power -- something thrown into stark relief as I replayed it a few months ago when the Fukushima meltdown was in the news -- and it makes Barrett's team the ostensible heroes, but there are shades of gray there. Barrett is well-meaning, and perhaps the character with the purest motives in the game (leave a better world for the little girl he's adopted) -- but he's also a revenge-obsessed terrorist who gets a lot of people killed, most of them innocent and some of them his own team. And he's easily the most sanctimonious character in the game -- he rants constantly about saving the planet from the monsters who are sucking its lifeblood to generate power, and the game respects our intelligence enough not to point out the irony that he's a former coal miner.

Interface

It's not just the story that feels like an update of FF6; the actual gameplay is really quite similar too. Materia's not so far off from Espers -- the main difference is that it makes the characters even more interchangeable -- and the game is similarly unbalanced. It's still trivial to produce a party that will take the last boss out in a round or two; the game ups his stats a bit if you're at level 98 or 99, but it doesn't really make for a challenge.

There are challenges, of course, for advanced characters -- Huge Materia and the Weapons -- and in this sense, the game is better-rounded than FF6. The biggest problem is that, for the most part, they suck. On my latest play-through, I probably spent about ten hours grinding on Magic Pots and Movers, and for what? Spammy, unsatisfying battles with the Weapons, and a bunch of Master Materia I didn't need.

Seriously, if I ever try to beat Ruby and Emerald on a future playthrough, or get any Master Materia (with the possible exception of yellow), just give me a quick smack in the back of the head. It's stupid and it's a waste of time. And the Arena's not much better.

...but back to the interface. If you don't bother with all the side crap, it's pretty neat! And while weapons and armor have been simplified way down from 6, they complement the Materia system nicely. Do you optimize for equipment stats, for number of Materia slots, for number of linked Materia slots, or Materia growth?

And the Blue Materia are pretty neat too. Added Effect/Hades was always a favorite, and Phoenix/Final Attack is clever if overkill.

Where FF7 runs into its biggest gameplay problems is in simply interacting with the world. It's an early 3D game, and it's obvious that the team was still trying to figure out how to realize the Final Fantasy rules in that context.

This is most apparent in the field. There is a stunning variety of detailed backgrounds in the game. The trouble is that they're low-resolution, low-color prerenders, and much of the time it's difficult to figure out simple things like where you can walk and where you can't.

Image: Train yard
Can anybody tell me where the fuck I'm supposed to go on this screen?

There's a toggle you can use to show points of interest, but it's not very useful.

And battle's not much better. In classic Final Fantasy style, it consists of your party in one line and the enemy party in another line, but, for the first time, the characters actually move across the screen when they attack each other -- and the devs thought it would be a good idea to compensate for that by adding movement tracking to the battle interface.

They were wrong.

Say I'm trying to attack a monster, and it moves across the screen while I'm trying to point at it. Well, suddenly it's not where it was a second ago, and I have to move the pointer around to get to it. And probably wind up pointing at my own party somewhere in the process. Or, the reverse -- I'm trying to heal or buff one of my party members, and she jumps across the screen. (Actually it's a pain in the ass to target your own party members even when they're standing still, because the game can't seem to decide whether they're arranged left-right or up-down.)

All of which is just needlessly complicated, seemed-like-a-good-idea naivete. Changing the graphical presentation should not have actually changed the controls! FF7's battle interface is functionally identical to the previous six games'; it should play exactly the same even though it looks different. So that monster's not actually standing in his spot when I point at it? It doesn't matter; if I point at where he was standing a half-second ago it should still target him!

Music

The music in this one is just superb; it's legitimately one of the best original soundtracks in gaming history. Can you remember the first time you heard the boss theme? I can.

If I have one complaint, it's that you can pretty clearly hear Uematsu recycling the same themes at this point in the series -- Aeris's theme sounds a lot like Celes's theme, and they both bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Fanfare for the Common Man.

On the other hand, it's hard to fault Uematsu for retreading musical themes when the game retreads so many story themes -- you can't really blame him for making the Mako Plant sound like Vector when it looks so damn much like Vector too.

Ultimately, I can't take too many points off Uematsu for experimenting with the same riffs throughout the years. Charting his career through the series, it's the story of a guy learning his craft and learning new tools as they develop -- in his chiptune days, he was a programmer as much as a composer. The very first thing you hear in the very first 16-bit Final Fantasy is an extended version of the Prelude theme from the preceding three games. The first thing you hear in 7 is that theme again, this time with harp and vocals.

The move to the PS1 hardware had almost as profound an effect on the audio of the Final Fantasy series as the video. It allowed Uematsu a wide-open world to compose in MIDI, and, in a couple of cases, to use Redbook audio as well. FF6 had already involved some long, complex pieces that went on quite awhile before looping back to the start (Terra's overworld theme being the best example), but 7 had many more. And with instrument samples, the MIDI sounded less artificial than the chiptunes of yore.

The Love Triangle

The biggest problem with the Cloud/Aeris/Tifa triangle is that it's a case of two Bettys and no Veronica. (For you kids out there, you can substitute "Betty and Veronica" with "Edward and Jacob". Probably. I don't know; I couldn't even make it all the way through Steve's summary of Twilight. And it was hilarious.)

Tifa and Aeris are too much alike. At a glance, you expect the obvious trope: the scantily-clad, well-endowed one is the sassy, liberated one, while the conservatively-dressed one is a shy girl-nextdoor type. And at first, the game seems set to go down that path -- after all, you meet Aeris in a church and Tifa in a bar. Then, it takes an interesting turn suggesting that maybe they're about to subvert the trope and reverse the roles, as Tifa turns out to be literally the girl nextdoor and Aeris fearlessly guides you through the slums where she's grown up. But that potential twist never really pays off, and ultimately Tifa and Aeris are both the shy girl nextdoor. There's not a whole lot that distinguishes them from one another, and ultimately the competition between them never really feels like there's anything at stake in it.

Of course, once Aeris gets shish kebabed the triangle is resolved while simultaneously finally achieving a real dichotomy -- Cloud never makes a choice between the two women, the choice is made for him, and the rivalry for the audience's affection is no longer between two sweet girl-nextdoor types but, instead, between the angelic figure who died tragically and the girl who survives, stands by Cloud through his breakdown, and literally follows him to the ends of the earth. That is an interesting contrast, and it's most likely why people still care about Tifa and Aeris all these years later.

And of course there's also the rudimentary romance subquest that served to define them throughout RPG's to come. You can't seriously tell me that any of BioWare's romances are substantially more complex or nuanced than choosing your date for the Gold Saucer. Hell, it's even got a same-sex option!

The Translation

My God.

I played the PC version on my recent playthrough, and the most infamous errors ("This guy are sick", "Off course!/No, way!") were fixed, but there was still a "creek in the floor", and I'm pretty sure I saw "shit" spelled with an apostrophe. And the first boss fight still begins with Cloud instructing you to "Attack while it's tail's up!" -- less notable for the misplaced apostrophe than the omission of the rather nontrivial word "Don't", pretty much guaranteeing everyone playing the game for the first time would die twenty minutes in.

There's an absolutely fantastic peek behind the curtain in The Rise of Squaresoft Localization, an article by Wesley Fenlon at 1up. To wit: the massive script of FF7 was translated by one guy, who had little or no access to the original team, had no "series bible" of common Final Fantasy names and words, and had to hack the whole thing into a foreign character set. Considering that, he did a pretty good job -- I mean, we're still talking about the damn thing, aren't we?

But on the whole it was a big step down from Ted Woolsey's FF6 translation. Sure, that one has its detractors, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. It's got mistakes ("Vicks and Wedge"), truncations ("Fenix Down", "Carbunkl"), and plenty of 1990's-era-Nintendo censorship, but not only does it exceed 7 in its adherence to the basic rules of English spelling and grammar, it's also a lot more fun.

I suspect that FF7 is more like the American FF2 writ large in that people enjoyed it because the deeper themes of its story shone through the lousy script that conveyed them.

Right Time

I think the defining characteristic of FF7 is that it is spectacularly adolescent.

That's not entirely a bad thing -- in fact, it was adolescent in a time when its medium and its audience were adolescent too. It was big, it was operatic, it was bombastic; it was obsessed with its own appearance; it treated its shallow, superficial philosophy as if it were really deep and thought-provoking; it featured awkward cursing and a busty girl nextdoor and in the end it wasn't nearly as damn important as it seemed at the time. In other words, it's pretty damn obvious where its appeal to its target audience came from.

Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images

I closed Part One of my Final Fantasy 7 retrospective by saying that the Phoenix Rejuvenation Project, a mod designed to replace all the super-deformed field character models in the game with more detailed and realistically-proportioned ones, was the product of a lot of hard work by a lot of talented people...but just a bad idea on principle. The reason I believe this comes down to one essential point:

Final Fantasy 7 is ridiculous.

Now, the game has a huge fanbase, most of which was captivated by its epic story, cinematic atmosphere, and shocking moments. And I think that, given those elements, people tend to forget exactly how damn silly it is.

Here's an example. You're following Sephiroth -- the man who left a trail of blood and bodies ending in a dead President, a man who burned the heroes' village to the ground -- and his trail leads to...an amusement park. After you get your fortune told by a talking stuffed cat, and optionally ride the roller coaster and play an arcade game about the mating habits of Moogles, you find another trail of blood and bodies, these cut down by machine-gun fire. It's briefly implied that your colleague Barrett is the killer, but it turns out it's actually his best friend Dyne. Dyne's gone off the deep end and just wants to burn everything down; when he hears his daughter is still alive and Barrett's adopted her, he threatens to kill her and Barrett has to kill him first.

And then you go race a Chocobo.

Seriously. That is not an exaggeration. At all. The delay between Barrett having to gun down his best friend in order to protect his daughter and Cloud becoming a jockey in a race between giant pastel-colored birds is approximately thirty seconds.

The tone of FF7 shifts so often and so wildly that if you think too hard about it your brain will get whiplash. Do I even need to get into Wall Market and Don Corneo's Mansion? Do I ever want to see a realistically-proportioned Don Corneo thrusting his hips at me? (Actually, I looked for one from the Rejuvenation Project to inflict upon you, my audience, and couldn't find one. Maybe they don't want to see it any more than we do.)

And I can't stress this enough: one of your party members is a talking stuffed cat.

Final Fantasy games, at least since the 16-bit era, are a delicate balancing act of the serious and the silly, and 7 is probably the one that shows that contrast most clearly. And key to its balancing act is its use of exaggerated, iconic character models.

In the essential Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explores the power of simple, iconic images:

Image: Understanding Comics
Image: Understanding Comics

It doesn't just apply to comics, of course; it works for any form of cartooning. Similarly, a few years back some dumbass critic wrote a review of Monster House where he loudly proclaimed that it was the most important animated film of all time, and summarily dismissed the entire history of animation on the grounds that, prior to performance capture, cartoons couldn't truly convey emotion. I'm convinced he was just trolling, but Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew tore him a new one across multiple blog posts, including one with this side-by-side comparison:

Image: Monster House vs. Bugs Bunny

One's got a dead-eyed Uncanny Valley face, and the other one is Bugs goddamn Bunny. Bugs is an enduring icon who is recognized the world over and has remained popular for over 70 years, whereas Monster House...well, did you even remember what Monster House was when I mentioned it?

The point is, in cartooning, you take essential elements and exaggerate them. FF7's chibis do that: little bodies, big heads, and exaggerated movements in a story that is itself bigger-than-life. The Phoenix Rejuvenation Project injects more realistically-proportioned figures into those same exaggerated movements and bigger-than-life story, and the result is a pretty clear clash:

Image: Comparison of Barrett waving his arms, original vs. Rejuvenation
Image: Comparison of Barrett shaking his fist, original vs. Rejuvenation

FF7's field models lack even the basic facial emotions of FF6; each character has only one unchanging facial expression, and emotions are conveyed through exaggerated movement. In the Phoenix Rejuvenation Project, that doesn't change -- and it's a lot easier to accept a static facial expression when it's just a couple of lines and dots than when it's more fully formed, easier to accept ridiculous arm-waving from a squat little Playmobil man than one who's more reasonably proportioned.

And even if they could somehow take all that out, give the characters emote animations that fit their new models, you'd still have the Honeybee Inn, Sephiroth tossing people around like ragdolls in Nibelheim, Yuffie leaping across the screen, and, oh yeah, a talking stuffed cat. There are large swaths of the game that simply cannot be made to fit this art style.

I'm not opposed to overhauling FF7's field graphics by any means -- but Team Avalanche has the right idea: keep them chibi, just make them smoother and more detailed chibis.

Of course, even that approach is fraught with peril; FF9 tried it and we got a leading lady who doesn't look like a detailed chibi so much as, well, a dwarf.

Image: Final Fantasy 9's Princess Garnet


Next time: An attempt at a thorough critical analysis of Final Fantasy 7, what it did right and what it did wrong. Combat! Love triangles! Japanese nuclear anxiety! Recurring themes, both literary and musical! Keep goin'? Off course!

And in the meantime, don't forget to join the discussion currently raging at Brontoforumus!

Final Fantasy 7 PC Mods

I'm not altogether sure when I first stumbled across the Final Fantasy 7 modding community. It's not surprising that it exists -- it is, after all, a popular game with a huge fan following -- but it is perhaps surprising that there are some really high-quality improvements to the game out there. High enough that I got the itch to replay the game for the first time in about a decade.

I'll talk about the experience of replaying it at 28 later. (tl;dr: it's not as good as 15-year-old Thad thought, but it's better than 18-year-old Thad thought.) For now, I'll stick with the technical.

Now, there are advantages to simply emulating the PlayStation version -- the ability to save anywhere is a biggie, and emulator-level texture smoothing is nice too. But I decided to go with the PC version because, again, it's the mods that drew me in. The major hub of mod development is the qhimm forums. And here are a few I've been using, ranked in order of importance.

The Essential

First, you'll need to get the game. Try eBay.

Then, you'll need to patch it to version 1.02.

And there's one mod that is absolutely necessary to get Final Fantasy 7 PC to run at all on a post-Win98 computer: Aali's Custom Graphics Driver. At the time of this writing it's at version 0.7.10b, but it's under active development. Make sure you jump to the end of the thread and grab the latest version; the link in the first post is version 0.1a from March 2009.

Setting it up is a simple process and described in the post that links it. You need to run both ff7config.exe and ff7.exe with full Administrator privileges, and I found that the graphics looked washed-out until I set compress_textures = no in the ff7_opengl.cfg file. It's probably a good idea to go through the troubleshooting thread if you have any other issues with it.

The Pretty Great

FMV Updates -- the PC versions of the FMV cutscenes look, inexplicably, even worse than the PlayStation versions. Modder DLPB has taken the PS1 versions and given them frame-by-frame upscaling and cleanup. The end result is, as he put it, a polished turd -- it's still kind of a mess but it's a damn sight better than what you get out of the box. Keep in mind that, after installing, you'll need to edit the videopath setting in your Windows registry.

Avalanche's Graphical Overhaul: Gorgeous but not quite finished.Team Avalanche's Graphical Overhaul (the thread links the GUI Update as well, but I'll get to that a little lower down). Many of the models in FF7 -- such as the characters, monsters, and treasure chests -- are untextured polygons. That means they upscale without loss of quality, and actually hold up pretty well even though they're not as smooth as what we're used to in this day and age. The polygons with 2D textures on top of them, on the other hand -- like, say, the world map -- look quite a lot the worse for wear upscaled to a modern resolution. The Avalanche World Map Patch adds hi-res textures, in both 720p-and-down and 1080p-and-up flavors, and it looks goddamn gorgeous. It's currently an 0.9, which means it's not quite there yet -- now and again you'll see a low-res stripe on a hi-res mountain, as in the image to your right -- but it's close, and it's well worth installing in its mostly-complete state. (YMMV on which components you want to install -- I don't use the alternate avatars or the replacement Barrett model.)

FF7Music: Okay, so the FF7 soundtrack sounds not-very-good coming out of Windows's default MIDI sequencer. It's bundled with its own Yamaha sequencer, but it's incompatible with modern versions of Windows. It's possible -- and perhaps more elegant -- to tweak your soundfont with Timidity, but FF7Music gives you the flexibility to set whatever tracks you want. The installer I linked includes the PS1 version of the music, and also a resequenced version by a guy going by the handle finalfantim -- it's not a remix as it's the exact same MIDI tracks, but he's resequenced them using high-quality instruments and, while it's a matter of taste, I find that they sound better in nearly all cases. (Except the guitar on his version of the Cosmo Canyon theme; I don't care for that and use the PS1 version.) Of course, there's also the option of customizing it with music of your choice -- I've always hated the FF7 version of the Victory Fanfare, so I've swapped it out for a nice Minibosses version instead. And if you want to edit music files so they loop properly, there's a tutorial for that, too.

(The biggest drawback for me? While the thread says FF7Music works in Wine, I've found it doesn't work very well on my system -- it'll play a track or two, the opening, maybe the overworld theme when I load my game, but it stops after a few track changes. So if I want to enjoy the benefits of FF7Music, I have to reboot to Windows proper. YMMV, though; if you want to try using it under Wine, maybe you'll have better luck than I did.)

(I should add, though, that in my experience every single other mod I list here works great under Wine.)

Haven't Decided What I Think of These Yet

Team Avalanche's GUI Overhaul -- I linked this same thread up above to praise the Graphical Overhaul, but the GUI update is a separate mod. And as the header implies, I'm not sure if I like it or not. It's added a font that looks more like the one in the PS1 version of the game, but I'm not sure it looks as good as the default Windows font; there are some spacing issues I don't care for. And it actually supercedes some of the additions in the Graphical Overhaul -- for example, the GO includes a rather nice set of color item icons by a guy named romeo14, but the custom GUI will ignore them in favor of its own grayscale versions. And while it works fine on one of the two computers I installed it on, it somehow managed to hose my installation on the other, leaving it so that the game crashes as soon as I load a menu -- and it must have overwritten a setting somewhere, because it happens even if I disable the mod.

Project Blackfan -- Okay, so we've covered overworld graphics. This is a huge attempt to replace all the field graphics. Modder yarLson is extracting every single background image and running it through a Photoshop filter. The result -- well, the biggest problem is that they're all PNGs because that's the only format Aali's driver supports; highest-quality JPEGs would have looked just as good and taken up a fraction of the space. As for how they look, that's a matter of personal perspective; all graphics filters inevitably come down to whether you prefer your upscaled lo-res images to be pixellated or blurry. These are blurry. For my money, they work absolutely wonderfully on natural environments that look like photographs (like the rocky areas in the North Crater) but aren't as good on the technological sets (like the Highwind). It's worth checking out to see what you think; since the files sit in the mods\[modpath]\field directory, they're trivial to remove if you don't like them.

Millenia's custom weapons for Cloud -- from what I've seen these look great; however, the new swords appear to have finally shattered my Cloud's fragile psyche and convinced him to join Cobra.

Image: Cloud's messed-up jaw

Keep an Eye on These

Retranslation -- this could go either way. It's sure to be more competent than the game's official translation, but it's too early to tell whether it will be any fun. Fan translations of Final Fantasy 4 and 5 back in the 1990's were fun and vastly superior to Square's initial attempts at English scripts for those games, but the fan translation of 6 met a more lukewarm reception; I'm part of the group that thinks it sucks all the charm out of Woolsey's (admittedly compromised) version. Now, this 7 fan translation could end up like 4 and 5, or it could end up like 6 -- and given that the focus seems to be on debating whether the Turks should be named Reno and Elena or Leno and Yrena, I'm sadly inclined to fear the latter. But hey, at least they know how to spell mithril.

Menu overhaul -- this is actually included in the Retranslation mod, so don't install both. (Actually, at the time of this writing neither one of them has a demo available to install at all, but...you know, keep it in mind once they're updated.) At any rate, it changes the menu font and alignment, apparently to something more closely resembling Final Fantasy 9's version. It was initially designed to accommodate the longer names of items, spells, and summons in the retranslation, but I foresee it improving aesthetics and possibly even gameplay for the existing version of the game as well.

FL's Battle Scene/World Map Enhancement -- I've covered projects to improve the world map and the field maps; this one is for the battle scenes. (And also the 2D bits of the world map, like the skyline with Meteor, though I couldn't get that bit to work -- maybe it's incompatible with Team Avalanche's world map version?) It's still early days, but it's looking good.

Project Bombing Mission -- Team Avalanche's project to replace all graphics -- battle and field, background and character -- in the opening section of the game.

Q-Gears -- an attempt to rewrite the FF7 engine from scratch. It's the equivalent of Exult, the open-source engine for Ultima 7; it would use the FF7 resource files but would provide its own executable. If this project is finished, it has potentially huge ramifications; it would mean multiplatform support for FF7 and, potentially, other PS1-era Square games like 8, 9, and Xenogears. It could make all of them easier to mod, as well as open up opportunities for people to develop their own games based on the engine.

Haven't Tried

Kranmer's Trainer -- I griped earlier about FF7 PC's lack of save-anywhere functionality. Well, nobody's grafted save states onto the thing, but this trainer purports to do the next best thing: enables the "Save" and "PHS" options any time you open the menu. I say "purports" because AVG flags the binary as a Trojan and refuses to run it, so I haven't actually tried it; I believe it's a false positive but fair warning, use it at your own risk.

AnyCD -- purportedly this removes the need to change discs/mounted disc images. It's not a nodisc crack, as you'll still need at least one game disc (or image) to play, but if it works that's two disc images you don't need to store on your hard drive. Three if you include the installation CD.

Zerox's Tifa model -- I haven't tried any replacement character models because it would be distracting to have a detailed character standing in-between two PS1-vintage ones; maybe I'll replay the game when there are high-detail models for every character. But this one looks good from the screenshots!

Not Actually a Mod

Can't really think of a better place to put this. While FF7 PC has joystick support, I couldn't get it to recognize my Rumblepad 2. I rigged up keyboard emulation using Logitech's Gaming Software. I mapped the buttons to the appropriate keys to match the PS1 button config, and additionally set up the left stick for movement and the right stick for camera rotation. (I also set it up so pushing in the left stick works as a second Run button, but it doesn't work very well.) You can import my settings or, if you don't have a Logitech controller or just don't like my settings for some reason, try rolling your own using finalfantasy7pc.com's game controls page as reference. (If you are using Logitech's Gaming Software, remember to check the inexplicably-named "FPS Style Movement" box or diagonals won't work on the D-pad. Because FPS, apparently, is the only genre where you hit two directional buttons to make a diagonal.)

Not My Cuppa

APZ Cloud -- this one's been pulled from the qhimm forums since the designer swiped the textures from somewhere else; he's working on a new version now. The existing APZ Cloud is a popular mod but I don't really like the look of it -- but YMMV. I preferred his Kingdom Hearts model, but he never released it for download; the qhimm forums have a strict policy against ripping models from other games.

Phoenix Rejuvenation Project -- an incredibly ambitious project to replace every single "chibi" field character with a more detailed, more realistically-proportioned version. I have a great deal of respect for the talent and work that's gone into the project, but I think it's a bad idea from the get-go; I'm all for more detailed models but the field models should stay chibi. In fact, I intend to devote my entire next post to the subject. Be here.


If you would rather be somewhere else, do feel free to discuss this post and general FF7age over at Brontoforumus.

Also, I finally fixed the horribly outdated worstforumsever.com link at the top of the sidebar. Just in time for my background check!

Form and Function

A few weeks back, I rented Hellboy: Sword of Storms. It was a neat little movie, and adhered pretty well to the the comics' folklore vibe. The highlight was a sequence adapting Heads.

And it occurred to me, you know, the best Hellboy stories are 8-page adaptations of folk tales, in which Hellboy himself plays only a minor role. Similarly, wouldn't it be great to see some 10-minute Hellboy animated shorts?

It's a real pity that both 8-page comic stories and 10-minute animated shorts have fallen by the wayside. DC, at least, seems interested in bringing them back: they've been doing 8-page "secondary features" in some of their popular titles, and next week's animated Crisis on Two Earths will also include a 10-minute Spectre short. Which is the perfect length for a Spectre story.

And of course all this has me thinking, Why 22 pages? Why 22 minutes? Why 6-issue arcs? Stories should take all the time they need; no more and no less.

Which isn't to say that rigid parameters can't foster creativity. The BioWare Writing Contest I participated in a few years back had some very tight guidelines -- only so many characters, only one location allowed, and that location has to be a pretty tiny square. But in a way, that stimulated creativity. Sometimes, you need parameters.

Douglas Adams is a favorite example. His best Hitchhiker's Guide work was written for radio, with a rigid three-act structure and length requirement for each episode, with the requisite pacing those things entail. Those episodes were adapted as the first two books of the Trilogy. The third, Life, the Universe and Everything, was adapted from an unused Doctor Who pitch, so it was conceived around a predefined structure as well. The last two books, where Adams took a more freestyle approach, tended to flail a bit; they were adapted by Dirk Maggs for radio a few years back and, for my money, worked much better with his judicious editing.

(The awesomeness of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul does not fit my narrative as, to the best of my knowledge, it wasn't adapted from a radio or TV format. The first Dirk book was, though.)

There are plenty of writers who could benefit from tighter restrictions. Will Eisner put as much plot in a 7-page Spirit story as Brian Michael Bendis does in a 132-page Avengers arc. Sometimes I like longer, decompressed stories that spend more time on the scenery and the atmosphere. But there should still be a place for those weird little Hellboy stories.

I recently read Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Its pacing and form were noticeably different from the typical Fables books, because of its format: it was written as a graphic novel, rather than simply collecting 6 issues of a serial comic.

(A tangent on nomenclature: I absolutely despise the term graphic novel as it is commonly used, ie as a synonym for "comic book" used by people who think they're too cool for Spider-Man. However, it is a useful term when used in its original sense, ie a comic written in long form instead of being serialized in stapled, 22-page, monthly increments.)

Of course, 1001 Nights isn't a graphic novel so much as a graphic short story collection -- far from being a longform Fables story that takes its time, it's a series of stories which are shorter and tighter than a typical issue of Fables. So actually, it's more along the lines of those 8-page Hellboy stories I've been yammering about.

More in the "paced like a novel" vein would be DC's upcoming Earth One books. While it is obvious that these stories need to be published, as nobody has retold Superman's origin story in over three weeks, it's going to be interesting seeing them told with a little more breathing room, without the overwhelming, breakneck pace of Superman: Secret Origin.

I kid, but you know, the nice thing about constantly retelling Superman's origin is that now the Siegel heirs get a cut.

At any rate, once the rehashes are done, it would be quite nice to see DC tell some new stories with these characters in this format -- stories as long or as short as they need to be, at whatever pace suits the piece, without having to speed toward a cliffhanger every 22 pages.

V for Vendetta is actually a decent example -- yes, it was serialized, but its chapters don't fit into a consistent, forced length or pace. And while some of the chapters were climactic action sequences of V stabbing people a lot, others had him simply soliloquizing about anarchy.

(And funnily enough, the guy writing Earth One: Superman is J Michael Straczynski, the same guy whose The Brave and the Bold is currently the best 22-page superhero book that actually tells 22-page stories -- but whose run on Thor was decompressed, organic, and even meandering. Which is not a criticism, as I loved his Thor; it's just a statement that the man can write very well in different formats.)

If the world is a just and beautiful place, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a template for the future of television. It manages the rather neat trick of adhering to a rigid structure that also just happens to be noticeably different from the traditional structure of a TV show: three 13-minute acts, each itself featuring a beginning, a middle, an end, and four songs. It's similar to, but distinct from, the standard three-act structure and 44-minute length of an American TV show.

Even The Daily Show -- God, not a week goes by anymore but one of the interviews goes over. Which is swell, but the way this is handled online is completely boneheaded: if you go to Full Episodes on thedailyshow.com, or view an episode on Hulu, you get the broadcast episode, which shows the truncated interview, followed by an admonition to check out the website, followed by Moment of Zen and credits. I can see this as an unfortunate requirement for broadcast, but guys, Internet videos can be more than 22 minutes. Why in the hell do I have to click through to a different page on the site (or, if I'm watching from Hulu, a different site entirely) to watch the rest of the interview? It's viewer-unfriendly, especially if you use your PC as a media center hooked up to your TV. Cut the full interview into the damn episode. Add an extra commercial in the middle if you have to. (It would be swell if you didn't show the exact same commercial at every single break, but that's a separate presumably-silly-and-useless "rant".)

At least they've wised up a little and started showing just the first part of the interview in the broadcast episode and then showing the rest in the "Full Interview" link on the website. It used to be they'd show a chopped-up version of the interview in the broadcast episode, meaning that instead of the Full Interview link picking up where the show left off, it had five minutes' worth of the same content spread out across it.

You know, it seems like the youngest of the major media is also the one with the least rigid requirements for length. Video games can be anything from a three-second WarioWare microgame to a persistent world that players sink years into. People may grouse a bit that Portal or Arkham Asylum is too short, but it doesn't prevent them from being highly-regarded, bestselling titles.

Which is, of course, not to say that longer games don't have to function under tight restrictions. They're often very high-budget affairs with a hell of a lot of people involved (as Dragon Age tries to forcibly remind you with its absurdly slow credits crawl) -- programmers, writers, artists, and so on. The Mass Effect games have voiced player dialogue and let the player choose Shepard's sex, which means every single one of those lines has to be recorded twice. (And frankly that doesn't seem like enough variety -- I have a Samuel L Jackson lookalike who says "aboot".)

And those restrictions are probably why every dialogue choice in ME is broken up into a predictable paragon/neutral/renegade choice. That kind of very-unsubtle delineation is exactly the sort of thing western RPG developers have been trying to get out of (as in both The Witcher and Dragon Age), but in the context of ME it works quite well -- I've even tried my hand at writing in a three-choices, no-hubs dialogue style and it works very organically. (For the ludicrous amount of dialogue in Dragon Age, there were places I could see the seams showing -- spots where I'd have three dialogue options and, as soon as the NPC spoke, knew that all three led to that exact same response. But that's probably a lot harder to notice if you've never written a dialogue tree yourself, and it's certainly an artform in and of itself, giving a response that works equally well for three different questions. I can only think of one occasion in the dozens of hours of Dragon Age where a writer screwed up and had a question hub that began with an NPC answering a specific question in a way that didn't make any sense if the dialogue looped back.)

And of course it's the medium that allows this kind of longform storytelling. Game length is no longer restricted by the arcade environment. Which is, of course, not to say that short-play games don't get made anymore -- Street Fighter 4 is a high-budget, "hardcore gamer" example, but Nintendo's entire business is built around games a casual player can pick up and play for ten minutes at a time. Ditto every Flash game on the Web, and most games on the iPhone.

And, indeed, Internet delivery is going to liberate other media from their restrictions. Eventually, we're bound to see shows like The Daily Show just run more than 22 minutes if they have to, and, God willing, we'll see more offbeat stuff like Dr. Horrible. The Web's given us comics as diverse as Achewood, Dr. McNinja, Templar, Arizona, and FreakAngels, and cartoons from Adventure Time to Homestar Runner to Charlie the Unicorn to Gotham Girls to the complete version of Turtles Forever. It's also allowed MST3K to continue in the form of the downloadable RiffTrax and the direct-order Cinematic Titanic.

Variety is the spice of life. I love comics -- and yeah, that includes mainstream superhero comics. But I'm sick of all of them having the exact same structure. Fortunately, I think we're on the edge of an age of experimentation.

Or another damn market crash. It is an odd-numbered decade now, after all.

Hi!

Noticed my interview's gone up on BioWare's site, so I figured that I should probably post something here other than my rather rude previous entry.

So, once again, welcome to my site, anyone who's here as a result of BioWare's writing contest; glad to have you and hope you enjoy it.

Incidentally, that interview appears to have reprinted my responses verbatim -- even my little tangent about that poetry professor I had -- and I also dig the new screenshot they took for it (though the PC looks a bit too much like Timothy). Kudos to BioWare.

Edit, 4:16 PM: Actually, they cut my closing comment, something to the effect of "Now if only Aurora were available for Linux." There may be more missing; I'll check later when I have my original E-Mail in front of me.

Now, just in case I've accidentally made a good first impression, read on to see yesterday's post!

The Contest, Again/Still

Looks like I made the winners' circle in the BioWare contest. #3 in the community votes.

Thanks to everyone who voted, and anybody who's found my site through the contest, welcome, and I hope you enjoy my ranting about MapQuest. (Incidentally, dexonline.com has not actually fixed its Mapquest system, and still routinely directs me to Kansas.)

Updated Features to put my mod at the top, and to add my current Pyoko avatar.

(...Ack, damn daylight savings time. We don't do that crap in Arizona. Am I really going to have to change my blog settings twice a year? Laaaaaaaame.)

(I sure hope nobody's got an RSS reader open right now. I've edited this entry about a half-dozen times in ten minutes. And I personally hate when people do that shit.)

The Contest

Looks like the BioWare voting should just about be wrapped up.

Thanks to everyone who voted.

We'll see how this turns out; I have a good feeling. They're going to announce the winners on Wednesday.


Playing: Dragon Quest 8, Final Fantasy 4, Super Mario World

Reading: The Catcher in the Rye, which I am given to understand is turning me into a serial killer or an assassin or something. I saw it in a Mel Gibson movie.

Moving

As previously noted, my New Year's resolutions were: get a real job, get a car, and move out of my grandparents' house. Well, I have a car and an apartment now, and my job seems realer every day (although if you want to help me get a job writing games in Canada, by all means, be my guest).

It was a fun weekend, and many thanks to Brad and Ben for helping haul and build furniture. The place is still a warren of cardboard boxes and plastic tubs, and this afternoon is looking like it will be another spent between building shelves and putting things on them, but the place is looking more and more like home every day. After a few calls to Cox I've finally got cable TV and Internet working, though I'm still trying to figure out how to get wireless running under Linux. In the meantime, it's a good thing I brought a long ethernet cable.

Apartment is nice, though the previous occupants had a cat who, as cats tend to do, made a mess of it. Got new carpeting, though, and I think everything's in pretty good shape, though you can still smell cat pee in the bathroom closet. This is one of the many reasons I'm a dog person.

(As I have recently been informed that I shouldn't be using my blog as a forum for presumably silly and useless "rants", I should probably note that cats have a right to pee all over everything if they want to and I have no right to complain unless I'm willing to breed a competing cat which does not stink up an apartment. ...Now, on the subject of that thread, I hate to be my own cheerleader, but honestly I think it's turned into a classic example of me helping a bad arguer make himself look stupid. What're the odds that when I poke my head back in Eric makes some potshot at me for not posting for a few days, and then immediately turns around and defends his refusal to respond to all my points by claiming to have better things to do? ...I really should finish my How to Argue Like a Complete Fuckwit guide, as this guy is a textbook example of the people I'm making fun of in it, but that's a presumably silly and useless "rant" for another day.)

Good to be on this side of town now, though; a 30-minute bike ride to work beats the hell out of a 45-minute drive. (One of the many nice things about riding my bike to work is it eliminates the need for a morning cup of coffee; I can get all the way to lunch before I need my caffeine fix. ...For those who didn't know, I gave up my precious Mountain Dew in favor of black coffee last summer. I miss the Dew, but I'm sure coffee's not nearly as bad for me.) Costco's right up the road for all my bulk-buying needs, and there's a Fry's Electronics not too far off in case I get hit in the head and decide I want to pay $100 for a DVI-to-HDMI cable. (Fucking Monster.) Also, as previously noted, this particular Fry's has an ass-ugly Aztec motif, complete with fake palm trees which seem to serve no other purpose but being in your fucking way when you're trying to walk past people.

I have also finally caved and gotten a cell phone, which has made me about as happy as I expected. Nothing like losing your signal twice while trying to talk to the cable guy. Also, I can't access my voice mail; I get a "number is unavailable" error every single time I try.

But aside from these minor annoyances, the new place is great. It's roomy, it has new carpet, and I can wander around without pants if I damn-well feel like it.