Monday, March 31, 2008

Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations

Unpacking took up most of my spare time again. I was given a copy of the third Phoenix Wright game which I've been playing in snatches.

The Phoenix Wright games barely qualify as games. They're more like interactive novels, with that peculiarly Japanese fixation with dribbling text out a letter at a time. However, they are extremely well-written. You play a hapless defense attorney with a teenage spirit-medium sidekick who channels her dead older sister at crucial moments, and natters on about hamburgers and other wild tangents the rest of the time. All the characters are goofy and likable and the murder mysteries have outlandish twists. The legal system presented in the games is completely insane: defendants are guilty until proven innocent, and you have a strict three-day time limit in which to do so. Both prosecution and defense regularly pocket evidence from the crime scene in order to be able to produce it with maximum dramatic effect in court. The judge is credulous in the extreme; his opinions typically seesaw wildly over the course of the trials.

The first outing on the DS had an extra chapter written specifically for the DS, with various minigames that made use of its peripherals. For instance, you could dust for fingerprints, by tapping with the stylus to put down powder and then blowing into the microphone to clear it away. None of the subsequent Phoenix Wright games have done anything like this. I think I read somewhere that the series originated on PC in Japan and is being ported to the DS by installments. (The special DS-specific episode was also noticeably less well-written than any of the rest of the series.)

The third game is pretty consistent with my memories of the first two (barring the special episode). I'd recommend it to anyone who played and enjoyed the first two. If you're a newcomer you should be able to pick it up without problems; they do a good job of ramping you up on the mechanics of pocketing and presenting evidence. The tangled web of character relationships may take a bit longer for you to figure out, that's all.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Sorry; no update this week. There are still lots of boxes to unpack.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cake-baking weekend

This weekend was my wife's birthday. There was much partying, and I baked three cakes. The first was a sponge cake, to get warmed up. Then I made the intended real cake, an orange chiffon. However, I left out all seven egg yolks because I was being “helped” by my two-year-old while also simultaneously trying to keep the pacifier in my three-month-old. We baked it anyway and I went out for another dozen eggs and did another orange chiffon cake. I think I got that one down to the letter, but it fell out of its pan while it was cooling. (All these cakes are baked in a tube pan which you turn upside down and impale on a bottle during cooling so the cake doesn't compress.) I was glad we'd baked the yolk-less one; that was the one I decorated and presented. After serving up the final cake we tried out the yolk-less one. It was actually very good; just skewing toward angel food territory in its consistency. (It had ten egg whites in it.)

Chiffon cake is basically like a sponge cake but it's got oil in it which makes it softer and moister. It was invented in 1927 by a Californian guy who sold insurance and did catering on the side. He kept the recipe secret until he sold it to Betty Crocker in 1948. They published it as the “cake discovery of the century”.

Sponge cake, in turn, is like angel food cake but with some whole eggs instead of being egg whites only. Like angel food cake it has no additional fat. You separate all the eggs, beat the whites up into stiff peaks, and then fold them into the batter which contains the yolks. Mine turned out a little rubbery.

Here's a picture of the decorated cake from the day after:

It wasn't my best-looking cake effort. Chiffon cakes tend to have ugly surfaces because they're baked in an ungreased pan (to enable the cake to climb up the pan). They are such light cakes that a heavy frosting would really not fit (plus my constraint this year was a non-dairy cake). I dusted mine with powdered sugar to cover the blemishes and put a ring of daffodils and roses around the base.

Being able to separate eggs is key to making these kinds of cakes. Crack the egg in the middle. As you pull it apart, keep it tilted toward vertical so the yolk will fall to rest in one of the halves as the whites spill out. Then carefully transfer the whole yolk back and forth between the two halves of the shell a few times. This will allow the remaining whites to work themselves loose from the yolk and shells. Do this over an intermediate bowl and transfer yolks and whites to collection bowls if you are successful. It's important not to get even a hint of yolk in the whites.

I'm not really a baking expert; I just follow the recipes in Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible, and get advice from my wife, who is the real baking expert. The book is great, and the author's got a blog too.

What? No Programming?

Hopefully our regular scheduled programming will return next week. We are moving in the middle of this week so things have been slightly hectic.

A Moving Story

Speaking of moving, when we moved from Chicago to Seattle we had cleaned out the house and had a whole ton of liquor that we didn't feel like moving. I placed the bottles (some of them unopened, even!) in the top of the trash can in the back alley.

You know how raccoons will rip apart your trash if they think there might be something yummy inside? Well, it turns out homeless people will do the same thing, if they discover an unopened bottle of Stolichnaya in the top of the can.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like

It's actually stuff yuppies (or Trixies, or whatever else they're called these days) like, but it's dead-on for that. It stings because it's true!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Guard senses: suspicious mode

I've got guard sight adjusted in a way that seems reasonable. It does make play easier so I'll have to see whether it's worth keeping.

My goal was to try and soften the boundary between sneaking around unseen and being spotted (and chased) by the guards. At first I tried having two threshold distances for being spotted. At the far distance guards would become suspicious; at the near distance they would give chase.

This only gave warning that you were about to be spotted some of the time. If you walked around a corner within range of a guard you'd be spotted instantly.

My current version softens detection in time rather than distance. The first turn that a guard sees you he goes into a suspicious state. This causes him to say something like “What's that?” If he doesn't see you on the next two turns he'll return to patrolling. Otherwise he switches into his chase state.

You have a lot more leeway to maneuver with this system. So long as you have shadows nearby you can always duck back into them to escape detection. I'll need to implement a bunch of the rest of the game features before deciding whether it's too easy.

I've finally started on hearing as well. It's pretty much like sight except that guards can hear in all directions in all lighting. It's not great yet; I'll need to do a few experiments to figure out what works best.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Sinners in the hands of a tiny, angry god

I'm still working on guard senses. It's a fairly core element of the game so I'd like to get it nailed down. We're in survival mode with the baby, though (colic, nothing life-threatening) so I haven't gotten more than one or two hours done on it.

I tried plotting guard sight area:

Sight areas are only plotted for guards that you can see; otherwise you'd be able to see someone coming from around a corner. I haven't bothered to restrict the plots to the guards' forward-facing halfspaces (guards don't see behind themselves when they're moving). I also haven't adjusted the plot to show how the guards can see lit squares from farther away. Nevertheless I think I've done enough to decide not to pursue this further.

Unfortunately the fact that this is plotted only for visible guards makes the big sight areas blink in and out when a guard walks behind a pillar, for example. I think it really detracts from the mood, too. Obviously the red background is really glaring. I tried plotting enlarged ground dots instead but that was a bit too subtle.

The one thing that is similar to this which I think will work well is to have some guards carry flashlights. This would essentially be a cone-shaped, mobile light source so it would fit in well with the look of the rest.

The other thing I've been experimenting with is the use of the question mark. When guards see you I display them with an exclamation mark. I'd always imagined using the question mark to indicate a state where they were suspicious but not necessarily in full alert. The guards in Thief have a suspicious state similar to this; they will switch from their patrol mode to a slow search of the area where they saw or heard something. The idea is to soften the boundary between being unseen and seen, to give the player a chance to react. I've been trying to figure out what that state might be in my game.

In the shot above I have an experiment where if you are within a couple of squares of being spotted the guard will display a question mark. It doesn't affect his state in any other way. This sort of works but it doesn't feel all that great to me. I tried something else too but I can't remember what it was now.