Wednesday 1 October 2008

Sex, adolescents and the law

Adolescents have sex.

This impacts on their lives negatively in a number of ways - certainly under-age pregnancy is now a very serious matter for public policy concern and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the young is also worrying. It's obviously undesirable to have adults predating sexually on children. It's also highly undesirably that young people of either gender should be pressurised into sex before
they're emotionally ready.

But that's precisely the point.

Emotional readiness does not occur miraculously on your sixteenth (or, in Scandinavia,14th, or in the USA, 18th) birthday. It happens when it happens. I personally didn't have 'underage sex', but then I was a late developer - many people with whom I've discussed the matter did, and most of them think (as adults) that it was a good thing, the right thing for them.

Legislation - the criminalising of normal, innocent and tender sexual behaviour - is grotesquely wrong; a quite immoral step to take. Where two fifteen-year-olds have consenting sex in the context of a relationship however ephemeral, the limit of public policy concern should be, had they had appropriate education to help them make the decision, and did they have appropriate access to contraception. And if they did not, the failure - the 'crime' if you like - is not theirs but ours - society's - for not providing these things.

Personally I'd go further and argue that adolescent sexuality between partners not more than two years apart in age should not be criminalised. We do - and should - expect older people to be more responsible. But a relationship between a seventeen year old and a fifteen year old does not seem to me perverse, unnatural or worthy of criminalisation.

There are, of course, serious issues here around alcohol, consent, and peer pressure. Access to alcohol does seem to me a matter for public policy intervention and I fully support the Government's plans to raise the age at which it is legal to purchase alcohol. But peer pressure is not going to be resolved through legislation. No matter how draconian and intrusive we make the state, adolescents are still going to whisper among themselves about who's 'doing it', boast, exaggerate, or feel left out. Education can address this. Legislation can't.

I don't want ours to come to be seen as the killjoy party, or the party of the old against the young, the spiritual and political successors to the unlovely John Knox. Alcohol we must indeed deal with. But when you pile one thing on top of another, young people in Scotland are bound to come to the view that the SNP is hostile to them, and that is going to cost us votes. But, aside from that, we should not do this not because it is in our partisan interest not to do this, but because it would be immoral of us to do this.

This is not a matter for criminal law.

Saturday 23 August 2008

Medals, counting and chauvinism

The BBC has a predictable story this morning about whether Scotland will have its own team at the London Olympics. Which is a silly season story, a slow-news-day-story, a non story. First of all, it is quite possible that by 2012 Scotland will be irrevocably on the road to independence. We should have had a referendum before then, but even if the unionist parties block it we will have both Holyrood and Westminster elections before then, and it is entirely possible under present circumstances that the SNP will gain an absolute majority of Scottish seats in both.

In any of those cases, of course there will be a separate Scottish team at the London olympics. On the other hand, if Scotland fails to choose independence, of course there won't. It's as simple as that.

But there's a deeper, nastier chauvinism behind the story. The British media - the BBC inter alia, although they may not be the worst offenders - have been making a big deal about 'Team GB' coming fourth in the 'medal table' as if that somehow reflected credit on the second most obese nation in the world, the nation of lard arsed couch potatoes whose nearest approach to athleticism is the five-metre waddle from the double yellow line to the pizza counter.

Scotland shouldn't have its own team, runs the argument, because if it did 'Team GB' might not come fourth in the table.

But look at that medal table, and what do you see? You see big, populous countries at the top. If you adjust it by population, suddenly 'Team GB' is not fourth but twenty second. Russia was not third but thirty-sixth. The United States were not second but forty-fourth. China was not first but sixty-sixth.

If there is credit due to nations for their athletes' success, it goes to Dutch Antilles and Jamaica, with far and away the highest ratio of medals to population. The best performers among the European nations were Slovenia, Norway, Estonia and Latvia - all smaller than Scotland. And Australia - about whose relative 'failure' the BBC has been crowing - did substantially better than 'Team GB', at sixth. But do nations deserve credit, and if so why? These athletes are extraordinary individuals, and their successes are individual successes.

Let's stop to consider where the credit lies for Scotland's performance. I don't yet know - because it's not in all cases obvious which athletes are 'Scottish' - how well Scotland performed. But our outstanding athlete was Chris Hoy. Where did he develop his talent? Meadowbank Velodrome. What is Scotland doing to celebrate? Demolishing it. To say 'yes, but we're also building one in Glasgow' is no excuse. That a city the size of Edinburgh has nowhere for young cyclists to race in safety is quite simply a scandal.

So what's this about racing - and training - in safety? Jason McIntyre should have been another of Scotland's athletes competing for medals in Beijing, but he couldn't make it - because 'Team GB' couldn't give him a safe environment to train, because Britain's casualness about driving standards casually killed him. And while the team were out in Beijing, Davy McCall, who represented Northern Ireland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, was killed in exactly the same way. This is how Team GB supports our elite athletes: we kill them.

Our athletes have done extraordinary things. They deserve enormous credit. But they've by and large done extraordinary things in spite of, rather than because of, the support (or lack of it) we've given them. Politicians - of any party, even mine - who try to take credit for the achievements of Chris Hoy need also to take responsibility for the death of Jason McIntyre. Where are our next generation of elite cyclists going to come from, if we demolish the velodromes and treat the slaughter of cyclists by motorists as a peccadillo?

Yes, but how did Scotland do?

So, after the rant about how bad chauvinism is and how credit for the achievment rests with the individual rather than the nation, how did Scotland do? Well, one person won all our gold medals. Step forward Sir Chris - without you Scotland would have had a very thin haul. Without Meadowbank Velodrome, indeed, we wouldn't have had two thirds of our medals, because one of 'our' three silvers came from Ross Edgar. If Chris Hoy, rather than Jason McIntyre, had gone under the wheels of a careless motorist this spring, we'd have had no golds at all.

For the rest, Katherine Grainger brought us a rowing silver - but as part of a crew of four the rest of whom were not Scots. David Florence won a silver canoeing. And that's it; that's all, folks. Six medals, four in the velodrome, two on the water. Three gold, three silver. And, arguably, two which an independent Scotland would not have got, since one of Hoy's and Grainger's came in team events with non-Scots making up the bulk of the team.

So how does that compare? 'Team GB' scored 1 medal for every 1.3 million people - as against China's 1 medal for every 13 million people or Jamaica's one medal for every 250 thousand. Team GB scored one gold for every 3.21 million, as against China's one gold for every 26 million or Jamaica's one gold for every 450 thousand.

If you consider 'pure' Scottish medals only, leaving out Hoy's team sprint and Grainger's sculls, Scots athletes bring home one medal for every 1.28 million Scots - marginally better than Team GB - and one gold for every 2.55 million Scots, considerably better than Team GB. If you count all the Scottish athletes' medals, Scotland has one medal for every 850,000 people, and one gold for every 1.7 million.

Looking at medals score and bragging rights and all the chauvinist claptrap alone, Scotland has no reason not to fly our own flag at the next olympics. We do have the talent.

Sunday 17 August 2008

It's not cricket!

Look, lets stop fooling ourselves. The London and Edinburgh velodromes have both been sold off to developers - the London one, supposedly, to help pay for the Olympics. We have Chris Hoy because when he was developing in the sport there was a velodrome in Scotland for him to learn the ropes. Now there isn't - so where is the next Chris Hoy coming from?

There's someone else from Scotland who should have been winning medals for us at this Olympics. Jason McIntyre should have been doing for us in the man's time trial what Emma Pooley did so brilliantly in the women's. But Jason couldn't be there - because some careless motorist killed him while he was out training this spring (and was fined a derisory five hundred pounds in punishment).

Cycling doesn't have too much spent on it. Cycling doesn't have nearly enough spent on it. Every medium sized town has an Olympic size swimming pool. Every city has a running track. And we have one - count them, one - indoor velodrome in the whole country. In no other of our elite sports do we turn promising young athletes out onto the roads to battle it out with speeding motorists too busy with their mobile phones to pay attention to where they're going.

And yet half of all Britain's gold medals this year have come from cycling. Half. As many as all other sports put together. And there are more to come - Victoria Pendleton, Mark Cavendish and Shanaze Reade haven't even started yet.

So no - it isn't cricket. It isn't dull and tedious and arcane. It's epic and explosive and tactical and colourful and glorious. And we're good at it. So for heaven's sake get behind our cyclists and support them. Because if you think this is good, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Saturday 26 April 2008

The spread of knowledge in a large game world

part of the role of Dandelion, in The Witcher games,
is to provide the player with news
These days we have television, and news. But in a late bronze age world there are no broadcast media. News spreads by word of mouth. If non-player characters are to respond effectively to events in the world, knowledge has to spread.

How to model this?

Some non-player characters - doesn't need to be many - are news-spreaders. News-spreaders need to travel. They have to travel even when there are no player characters in the vicinity. But, they don't have to travel very often - once or twice every game day. When a news-spreader is in the immediate vicinity of another character, the pair may (with some degree of randomness) exchange news. There needs to be a hierarchy in the exchange of news, so that 'I-saw' events need to be more likely to be passed on than 'I-heard' events; there needs to be a counter which counts the number of times a knowledge item has been passed on, and also an age counter so that knowledge items are less likely to be passed on as they get older.

One obvious class of news-spreader is a merchant. Merchant agents can either shuttle mechanically between a fixed group of markets or else possibly respond intelligently to supply and demand. Provided that there is a mesh of merchant routes covering the markets of the game world, and that a useful subset of non-merchant characters are required to visit a market every few game days, this should give a reasonably realistic framework for news spreading.

What else? What things qualify as news items? I think at least the following:
  • Deaths of sentient characters, especially if violent
  • Commodity prices
  • Changes of rulers in cities
  • Marriages of sentient characters
  • Plot events, flagged as events by the game designer
Obviously, news is more valuable if the people involved are important or notorious: the significance of a story is probably the product of the significance of the people concerned.

So a news item becomes a tuple

(days-old nth-hand significance action (actors))

for example

(54 2 10 'killed '(fred joe))

meaning 'I spoke to a man who'd spoken to a man who said he saw notorious fred kill well-liked joe on 54 days ago'. Obviously, the non-player character must be able to construct a natural language sentence from the tuple when speaking within the hearing of a player character, but there's no need for a non-player character to produce a natural language sentence for another non-player character to parse; instead they can just exchange tuples.

But if we're exchanging knowledge between agents, then agents must have a means of representing knowledge. This knowledge is an association between subjects and sets of statement, such that when the agent learns the statement

(54 2 10 'killed '(fred joe))

it adds this statement (with the 2 incremented to 3) to the set of statements it knows about fred and also to the set of statements it knows about joe. It's possible that the receiving agent could then challenge for further statements about fred and/or joe, the automated equivalent of a 'who's joe?' question.

There could be feedback in this. Fred's and joe's significance scores could be incremented for each character to whom the statement is passed on, increasing the likeliness that fred, at least, would feature in more news stories in future. There needs also to be some means of managing how the non-player character's attitude to the subjects of the statement are affected. For example, If fred kills joe, and the character (say bill) receiving the news feels positively towards joe, then bill's attitude to fred should become sharply more hostile. If bill feels neutral about joe, then bill's attitude to fred should still become a bit more hostile, since killing people is on the whole a bad thing. But it bill feels very hostile towards joe, then bill's attitude to fred should become more friendly.

Obviously the rate of decay, and the degree of randomness, of the news-passing algorithm would need to be tuned, but this schema seems to me to describe a system with the following features:
  • Non-player characters can respond to questions about significant things which happen in the world - without it all having to be scripted
  • If you travel fast enough, you can keep ahead of your notoriety
  • Characters on major trade routes will know more about what is happening in the world than characters in backwaters
This seems to me a reasonably good model of news spread.

Scaling of the algorithm

Let's work around the idea that a 'game day' equates to about two hours of wall clock time. Let's work around the idea that there are of the order of fifty markets in the game world, and that for each market there are two or three merchants whose 'home base' it is.

Obviously non-player characters who are within the vicinity of a player character have to be 'awake', in order that the player can see them interacting with their world and can interact with them. Those characters have to be in working memory and have to be in the action polling loop in any case. So there's no extra cost to their gossiping away between each other - around the player there's a moving bubble of gossip, allowing each character the player interacts with to have a high probability of having some recent news.

But the merchants who aren't in the vicinity of a player don't have to be in working memory all the time. Each merchant simply requires to be 'woken up' - loaded into memory - once per game day, move a day's journey in one hop, and then, if arriving at an inn or at a market, wake and exchange news with one resident character - an innkeeper or a gossip. So the cost of this algorithm in a fifty-market game is at worst the cost of loading and unloading two non-player characters from memory every minute, and copying two or three statements from the knowledge set of one to the knowledge set of the other. If you're dynamically modifying significance scores, of course, you'd need to also load the characters about whom news was being passed on; but this still doesn't seem unduly onerous.

Obviously, if memory is not too constrained it may be possible to maintain all the merchants, all the innkeepers and all the characters currently being talked about in memory all the time, further reducing the cost.

Friday 4 April 2008

Worlds and Flats

Of Compartmented Worlds

Playing The Witcher has got me thinking again about an algorithm for rendering a world which I first thought of twenty-five years ago. Then, it was a hack for dealing with the fact that the computers of the day didn't have much memory or horsepower. Now, it's a hack for dealing with the fact that - when considered against the complexity of a world - the computers of today still don't have enough memory and horsepower. Mind you, today I'm contemplating photorealistic scenes, whereas then simple line and wash would have been good enough, but...

The algorithm for rendering I'll call 'flats'. But before we get to discussing flats, lets discuss worlds.
The world of The Witcher (and other games based on the Aurora engine) is composed of areas. One area is loaded into memory at a time; when the player reaches an area boundary, the area is unloaded in toto, and the next area loaded, also in toto. The result is a noticeable interruption in game play. There's also, normally, a noticeable visual disjunction at the boundary; the new area uses a different 'tileset', which is to say, set of bits of scenery. When you look across a boundary, the scenery often appears different from what you find when you cross the boundary and arrive at the other side.

Finally, you can only cross boundaries at specific gateway points. For example, Chapter Four of The Witcher takes place in a continuous rural space composed of three main areas: the lakeside, the village, and the fields. Between the lakeside and the other two regions there's a wooded escarpment, which provides some logical justification for the fact that there are actually only two places you can actually cross it - from the lake shore, either up the road to the village or else through a series of glades to the fields. But between the village and the fields there's no such logic. There are a pair of gateposts, and you must cross between those gateposts - but the landscape appears continuous, with no visible barrier. It's an artifact of the game engine.

So, how to deal with this?

My interest, let's be frank, is in story telling; and the nature of story telling is moderately constrained plots. In computer mediated story telling the reader/player can and should be able to explore the plot in his own way, make his own choices, take his own path through the environment, encounter the elements of the plot as he encounters them on that path, and it's the job of the story teller to make that engaging whatever path the reader takes. But if the reader chooses to ignore your hints and wander out of the area you've populated with plot altogether, there's two things you can do. One is put up physical barriers which stop him (although the silly field fences in Chapter One of The Witcher do /not/ count, as it's obvious that Geralt could simply hurdle them; they are just another artifact.

Of Finite and Infinite Worlds

But an infinite world is not required for the sort of stories I'm interested in; the sort of stories I'm interested in take place in, at best, regions of infinite worlds. Just because I don't choose to use all of it, of course, is not a reason that a world should not be infinite.

There are plenty of fractal mathematical equations which map an infinite three dimensional surface with landscape like features. If such an equation gives you land heights, then altitude, steepness and orientation will give you soil type and vegetation cover. There is no need to store a whole world in order to be able to reproduce it exactly when the player follows the same route through it for a second time; it is sufficient to start with the same seed. So a world need not take up vast amounts of disk space for pre-mapped scenery; scenery need only be mapped as it comes in sight. This is fundamentally the trick used by Elite to pack a large, reproducible universe into less than 32K of RAM, and it still works today.

Of River Systems

However, there are reasons to prefer that a world be pre-mapped, at least at coarse grain. One example of why is river systems. It's trivial that we render a river at the bottom of a valley, but it isn't trivial to compute how wide and deep that river should be. To calculate that we have to explore the extent of the watershed upstream of any given point, and sum the rainfall on it, which in turn is a factor of exposure to prevailing airflow and the proximity of ocean to windward. It's computable, but it's much more efficient to compute it once and cache the results, especially since for any given river system it's a recursive function.

Furthermore, rivers cause erosion, changing the landscape through which they pass, cutting gorges on steep slopes (especially if soft), building up flood-plains in flatter areas downstream. Some fractals are naturally extremely landscape-like, but it seems to me - better mathematicians might prove me wrong - to realistically render river systems requires some degree of post processing, and post processing which would be expensive to do repeatedly in realtime.

Of Human Settlement

Human settlement is a separate issue. Many years ago I wrote a program which modelled the spread of human settlement over a landscape.

Human settlement is not random. Human settlement follows rules and patterns. Pioneers settle in places which have a sufficient spread of resources to meet their year round needs; they settle near to easy routes from their parent settlement. Pastoralists need grazing land and water; they spread up river systems, but avoid marshy areas. They settle where there is open grazing, but often close to a forest edge for access to timber. Second wave settlers prefer to settle close to existing settlers, for mutual protection and help. Cereal growers join these settlements where the depth of soil is optimal for crops. As the settlement grows and pressure on land increases, the forest edge is cut back both for building material and to increase the available agricultural land. If a settlement fails, the forest may reclaim this land

Road networks develop. People travel between settlements by the easiest route - but the very fact a route is travelled makes it easier. A path gets cleared; later, people fill in boggy bits and bridge streams, to make their own passage easier or to encourage trade through their lands. Because as a road grows more important, so the settlements along it grow more important, and as the settlements along it grow more important so the roads between them grow more important. The road network, then, is a dynamic fractal which interacts with another dynamic fractal, the distribution of human settlement.
The program I wrote was a cellular automaton which modelled human settlement in only thirty states. It did a remarkably good job. Settlement would spread across a landscape; settlements in strategically beneficial areas would grow faster, develop temples and markets sooner, and thus become important foci of the roads system; other settlements would wax and wane, some falling into ruin; new waves of settlers might settle in slightly different areas.

More states would be better, give a richer, more subtle model, But this demonstrates that it's easy to design a program which will settle a landscape in a realistic way automatically. Once again, though I think it can be done more realistically if it is precomputed and cached rather than if it is generated from the landscape fractal.

In summary: yes, I think it's possible to have an infinite world which is satisfying and can be reproduced at will from a seed, but the stories I want to tell do not call for infinite worlds and if the world is finite I believe it can be made still more satisfyingly realistic by pre-computing and caching things like river systems, afforestation and settlement patterns. Either way, though, the world can be very large - much larger than the worlds of current near-photo-realistic games. The world of The Witcher, for example, is a few hundred hectares; I'm envisaging storing hundreds or thousands of square kilometres in similar data size and with a similar expenditure of artist's effort.

Rendering, and the Flats idea

Rendering a convincing distant view in computer-generated virtual environment is hard. There's an enormous amount of data in a distant view, and if the viewer is moving in real time it becomes computationally unaffordable, even on machines with a great deal of horsepower. Games typically work around this problem by either angling the camera downwards, or else rendering a high degree of atmospheric haze - it's always slightly foggy - so there is never a distant horizon.

Movies shot in studios often have wonderful, detailed backgrounds to their sets. Vistas of far mountains and great cities... of course, the far mountains and great cities don't exist in the set. They're painted on large canvases called 'flats'. The flats illusion depends on the camera not moving too much, because of parallax - nearer things should appear to move relative to further things, and on a flat they don't.

But. But.

For a player moving in a computer game the field of view is quite restricted - it's no more than thirty degrees, typically straight ahead as he moves. Parallax movements are less significant straight ahead. A single flat still isn't going to work, but in many animated films a system of multiple flats is used, with the nearer flat moved relative to the further flat to give an illusion of parallax. This can work very well.
Suppose one projects onto the world a hexagonal grid - it doesn't have to be hexagonal, but I think that is likely to work best - with a cell size of about 100 metres (the exact cell size depends a bit on the speed of movement of the player, for reasons which will become apparent). Cells are grouped into metacells of seven cells (if square, then metacells of nine cells). For each cell, there are six inner flats. Each inner flat consists of a rendering from the centre of the cell of everything more than one cell distant, but less than five cells distant, over a 60 degree arc of view.

For a given area of the world the distant view doesn't change very much. We don't, therefore, have to compute a set of outer flats for every cell, just for every metacell. The outer flats each consist of a rendering of the scenery more than one whole metacell away, from the centre of the metacell.
To render a scene, then, we first paint the outer flat for the metacell the player is in, in the direction the player is looking. Over that we paint the inner flat for the cell the player is in. Over that we render the actual objects in the adjacent cells which fall within the viewing area. Over that we render the objects in the current cell. Thus we only have to render in real time certainly no more objects than can already be rendered by systems which clip for distance either by angling the camera down or by using fog, and yet still manage a realistic distant view.

Rendering the Flats

OK, so when do the flats get rendered? After all, if you're going to pre-render six full colour full screen resolution flats for every hundred metre cell in the world, then either your data volume is going to get enormous or your world is going to get pretty constrained - which was just what we were trying to get away from. And if you're going to multiply that with flats rendered for every time of day and every weather condition - well, it's not feasible.

You cannot realistically pre-render the flats, in my opinion. Or if you can, you're going to have to give them so much real time post processing that you will lose the benefit. Pre-rendering the flats is not the idea. But if they are rendered in real time, where is the benefit...?

There's a middle way. Running straight forward at top speed a player crosses a hundred metre cell in about a minute, during which to give an illusion of continuous movement at least nine hundred full screen frames must have rendered. But the flats don't change in a minute. The flats don't change in five minutes. They don't need to. Even if rain clouds are sweeping across the landscape, it's OK for the distant view still to be sunny five minutes after the rain reaches you, or vice versa. If you can render a high proportion of the detail in a view only once every nine hundred frames, you've saved a lot of processing.

So there is a continuous background process running which renders flats. It does it all the time. It prioritises making sure that a flat exists for every direction the player may look in in the next minute - that is, every direction from the cells and metacells he's currently heading towards. Having done that, it renders flats for cells to either side which he might turn to. It maintains in memory a small stock of flats from recently visited cells, so that if the player turns back they don't have to be repainted in a hurry; and if a flat is more than about five minutes - 4,500 frames - old, it may repaint it to update time-of-day lighting or weather effects.

Obviously, quite a lot of the time the join between two adjacent flats will be in view. I don't see this as a problem. Just naturally, the rendering of the flats should essentially form segments of a hoop, so the join between two adjacent flats should not be perceptible.


Inevitably, there will be undesired artifacts of this system. Significantly, mobile objects - 'non-player characters', the avatars of other players, monsters and computer mediated creatures in the landscape - more than two cells away will not be visible. The flat is static, so it can't have moving characters on it. There may be some algorithmic way round this, since one hundred and fifty metres away is rather close for people to suddenly vanish; but it is not a problem I have a solution for.

Again, if the player is looking sideways as they cross a metacell boundary, there will be a jarring sudden shift in parallax. I acknowledge that and think it just can't be helped; that the benefits in terms of quality of view for given computer power, will render it acceptable.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

The Witcher: Story telling of a high order

This isn't, by any means, a final review of The Witcher. I've played it fairly intensely over three weeks, and am only into the fourth chapter. Which is great, because there is more to come.

But, what do I think of the show so far?

I'm extraordinarily impressed. I'll come back later to talking about it as a game, but I want to stand back and talk about it in comparison with other media. It's worth comparing it with Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, or - perhaps especially - with Eastwood's High Plains Drifter. It is story telling of the same order, but more than that it is story telling about the same issues; about worlds so tainted with violence and cruelty that all moral actors are tainted. Geralt, the hero whose role you play, is himself a tainted character, edgy, over-aggressive, harsh in judgment. And you will play him like that, no matter how much you want not to. But he's not an amoral character. He's trying to make the best choices he can in a murky and uncertain world.

Again - comparing to cinema, it's only by comparing this with cinema that you can do it justice - the scenery is gorgeous. The quality of the light at dawn and at sunset is just stunning. The trees are so lifelike that you can easily recognise each different species. The representation of a medieval European city, with all its grandeur and all its squalor, is extraordinary. You can almost smell it.

So what is not to like?

Somewhere in the production process a decision was taken that every word spoken by every character should be voice acted - and they are. The voice acting is extremely good (as a Scot, I enjoyed the gag that all the dwarves have Scots accents). It isn't just the significant characters who are voiced, either - people you pass in the street are having conversations with one another, and if you eavesdrop on those conversations you pick up valuable plot clues.

But the decision to voice all the characters has curious effects that aren't entirely good. As a player you expect these beautifully rendered, beautifully spoken characters to have a much richer conversational repertoire than they have. Indeed, I suspect that if the dialogue had been largely text, it would have been economic to provide much richer dialogue.

Most of the characters have been individually modelled - and many are individually motion captured. Old people move rheumatically, children skip, dwarves stomp, whores sway and drunks weave. And that makes the few cases where significant character models are reused (the naiad and the dryad, for example; the cannibal and the fisher king) stand out awkwardly.

Also, and more seriously, I suspect the game's creators have been poorly served by the English translation. Very often the English language dialogue seems anachronistic, over-modern.

Which brings me to the game's Polish roots. I think to fully understand this game and the books on which it is based you need an understanding of Polish history. Yes, it's a fantasy about elves and dwarves and magic. But it's very easy to read the Order of the Flaming Rose as being the Teutonic Order, and the elves and dwarves as the indiginous Prussians and Slavs; or equally, to see the Flaming Rose as being the Nazis (who, after all, consciously emulated the Teutonic Order) and the elves and dwarves as representing the Poles and the Jews. I don't know to what extent that is what the authors intend, but at some level this story is rooted in Poland's long history of genocidal war.

It benefits from that. Its creators understand what genocide means, about how hard it is to stand aside; about the scale and devastation that this sort of war brings. This is a deeply felt story, in a way in which little modern fantasy really is.

For the rest: combat? Yes, if all you want to do is hack and slash this game is not for you. The camera? Yes, sometimes the camera movement is disconcerting. Where in other game engines the game will happily remove walls and whole buildings if they get in the way of the camera, the Witcher's camera manouvers around buildings and trees and sometimes that movement is awkward. To be fair, there are alternative camera was modes available, but I didn't find the camera a problem.

The interactive video game is a young artform. I've been engaged in discussion recently about whether fantasy fiction can ever be literature - needless to say, I argue that it can. Can a video game be literature, or at least art of high quality? Experience the Witcher, and find out

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License