December 23, 2015

From the Studio and Below: Be A Good Mathematician

I don't think I've ever mentioned this in the context of the blog up until now, but I am, in fact, a musician - by which I mean I've recorded just under ten songs that have been listened to by almost as many people. As such, who could be better than me to give you kids tips on music and the recording thereof? This is the theme we will explore in this exciting new segment.

I am currently in the process of recording a new song by the name of Under the Wheels of Time - always an exciting prospect, and always a lot more frustrating than you would imagine it to be. If you've never been involved in recording music in some way, you have no idea how much effort goes into simple things like making a cymbal hit not sound like someone dropping a wet towel on the floor, or how satisfying it is when you actually manage to do it. I'll talk about mixing another time, though - this time I want to talk about just plain ol' playing the guitar.

The main guitar part I recorded today, a classical guitar riff, goes like this:

Music by Alon Lessel. All Rights Reserved.

It's a simple riff, with essentially the same melody repeated for different root notes - it could easily be split into a bass part and lead guitar part. I played it many times before on electric and acoustic guitars with no difficulty, but when I started recording Wheels, I decided it would sound better on a classical guitar. This is when I ran into a problem: the way I used to play the riff, when I had to fret the F note on the 6th string, I would just reach around the neck with my thumb (giggidy). Things is, at 164cm (that's almost 5'5'' for our USA readers), I'm not a very large person, if you ignore the X-Y plane, and with my classical guitar having a very thick neck, it was all but impossible to properly hold the string down with my thumb - especially when you consider that I need to keep my other fingers well-arched in order for the notes on the 2nd string to ring properly. The only alternative I could think of was to use my index finger for the note on the 6th string, but then the only way to play the C note on the 2nd string would be to barre the 1st fret after playing the B note, which doesn't pack nearly the same punch as regular finger-hammering.

This led to hours of frustration, in which I constantly tried two bad solutions to a simple problem and failed repeatedly to make them sound even passably good. That's when I had a revelation: I don't need to play the part differently - I just need to tune differently. I'm only playing the F note on the 6th string, so my problems would be solved if I could just hold that note in place during the entire part - which, in guitar terms, means tuning the string to an F, i.e., half a step higher than standard tuning. Once I did that, the only challenging part of playing the riff was that I had to shake my instinct of reaching for the 1st fret at the start of the 3rd bar.

This might seem like an embarrassingly simple observation, but there's an important lesson to take out of it. There's a common misconception that the more difficult something is to play, the better; that if you look for a way to make a part easier to play, you're either cheating or you're just just not a very good guitar player. That's not true at all. If it were, then everybody's favorite guitarist would be Michael Angelo Batio, that guy who can play two guitars really fast at the same time and has never made a single good piece of music in his entire life. Oh, don't worry - he'll be the subject of a future post.

Seriously, I dare you to watch this video the whole way through.

The truth is, the best sounding guitar parts are often the ones that are easiest to play. Of course, "easy" is a relative term - newcomers might not necessarily have such an easy time playing a Slash or Angus Young solo. When you break it down, though, there's nothing that technically profound about them. It's the composition and the little touches that make their playing so awe-inspiring. Eruption is a cool song to learn when you pick up your first Floyd Rose guitar, but when I wanna listen to some Van Halen, I'm much more likely to go for Hot For Teacher.

Music isn't the only example where that's true - in fact, I learned this lesson in a completely different context. I've got an M.Sc. in mathematics, but for a while there in high school, I was on the verge of failing math time and time again. That all changed when I got to the 11th grade, where I was assigned to a new math teacher called Galina (forgot her last name, but will change this if I ever find out what it was). Galina was a hi-tech refugee who decided to become a teacher rather than face unemployment, and she quickly became many a student's favorite teacher, myself included. While everyone else we knew at school hated their math teacher, we were so close to Galina that at the end of our senior year, she actually invited us to a party at her home, which is one of the few truly happy memories I have of high school.

Galina had a very simple attitude to mathematics: a good mathematician, she said, is a lazy mathematician. This doesn't mean that a mathematician should be some disinterested MATLAB programmer,* mind you - it means that rather than carrying out the same computations again and again, a good mathematician should seek to save up time whenever possible by recording the basics of a computation or some logical reasoning as a theorem. Rather than use the same reasoning each time to calculate the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle using the lengths of its sides, prove the Pythagorean theorem. "Lazy" here really just means "efficient" - repeating the same argument time and time again, while possibly a good way to impress people with how smart you are, does little to save time and facilitate the study of deeper facets of mathematics. As a former programmer, Galina probably saw this as the math version of avoiding code duplication, the cardinal sin of coding.

*And no hate for MATLAB, either - I'm a big fan!

This lesson doesn't translate directly to music, in which repetition is actually quite important. The periodicity of riffs and chord progressions against a changing melody, combined with the subtle differences in which the same parts are played in different iterations, is a major factor in our enjoyment of music. However, the same basic understanding is still relevant: whether in mathematics, programming or music, or anything else, really - simpler is usually better. Doing these simple things well, though - that's the main challenge we all face, and which we will discuss at length some other time.

Under the Wheels of Time will hopefully be released by next weekend, just in time for that Novy God. I already know who I'll be spending the night with - Solid Snake! So all you losers can just keep all your kissing and sexy times to yourselves. 

Thanks for reading, and in the meanwhile, listen to some of my other songs on SoundCloud.

Hello from the gutter,

December 17, 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - Not a hero, just an old killer

It's the pain you feel from a once-great franchise that isn't there anymore!

Of all the games due to come out this year, none filled me with as potent a mix of excitement and apprehension as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The first Metal Gear Solid may be my favorite game of all time, and Snake Eater is not far behind. Even Metal Gear Solid 2, easily the worst among the first four main MGS titles, is a great game in its own right.

The last few years, however, have not been so kind to the franchise. The last good Solid game was MGS4 in 2008, and even that had a trainwreck of a second ending which sullied the whole experience. Since then we've had Peace Walker, the "nice try" of the series, and Ground Zeroes, which was almost universally reviled due to it lasting just under two hours, having no plot and, scandalously for a Metal Gear game, no boss fights. The idea of combining these two games in an open-world setting, which nowadays usually means diluting the narrative in favor of a string of boring, rote sidequests, did not seem like one worth looking forward to.

Sadly, The Phantom Pain does not exceed expectations, nor does it fulfill its creators' stated intention of maturing the series. In its rush to distance itself from its predecessors, it forgot to forge an identity of its own. The result is a game that is not only bad at being Metal Gear Solid, but which also fails to be a particularly interesting version of anything else, driven down by a misguided desire to be edgy and an abundance of corporate greed.

Remember, this is a sneaking mission! Nah, just kidding

The Phantom Pain picks up Big Boss' story 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes, and it wastes no time getting into it. After the obligatory tutorial scene, you face gas-masked soldiers a la the first Half-Life, a floating, psychic, gas-masked child (there's a lot of gas masks in this game for some reason), and a man made of fire. There's fighting, sneaking, car crashes, a chase on horseback - so exciting! So much action! Man, I can't wait to see everything they've thought up for this game!

And then you sneak into a base to rescue a guy. Then you sneak into another base to kidnap a guy. Sneak into a base to get intel. Sneak into a base to maybe kidnap several guys. Maybe you find out that you can't rescue the guy you wanted to rescue. Maybe you thought you snuck into the base but ah, the big bad knew you were there all along, and know he has a speech prepared to read out to you. It's the same same thing repeated ad nauseam until the game finally decides to throw you a bone and show you a cutscene to break up the monotony. It gets even worse later in the game, when you are forced to literally repeat past missions to unlock further parts of the story.

But this repetition is not only bad for the player, as it also serves to expose The Phantom Pain's broken mechanics. The basics are the same as in Ground Zeroes: you can sneak past guards, or if you prefer, take them out silently, either before or after interrogating them. Non-lethal knockouts are possible, but recovering soldiers will alert their buddies to the fact that something is afoot. As usual for MGS, killing enemies is discouraged mostly through score penalties at the end of the mission, but non-lethal is the more enjoyable way to play the game. Another holdover from GZ is reflex mode, where upon being discovered, you enter what is essentially bullet time, giving you a chance to take out an opponent before he alerts the entire base to your presence. I find that it only serves to further dilute the stealth element of the game, but it's harmless enough, for a very simple reason: the stealth in this game is complete nonsense.

Initially, you might be tempted to be very slow and methodical, riding slowly on horseback, hiding from enemies by clinging to the opposite side of the horse (which, admittedly, is a cool mechanic), scanning the base for the best route in and slowly working your way through, memorizing the guards' patrol patterns as you go. The game can be quite challenging when played this way, especially if, like me, you play MGS without killing, knocking out or alerting anyone, and as such, you might find yourself repeating certain sections quite a few times. That's when you start looking for shortcuts, and upon doing that, you realize the enemies in this game are deaf, dumb and blind (dumb as in stupid - they can talk just fine).

In most cases, you can easily run all the way to a base's outer wall undetected. If you run right next to an enemy, they'll hear you, but otherwise, feel free to run around the desert in plain sight of the guards. The enemies' hearing problems get downright creative at times: I once managed to sneak into a prison cell past a guard, but then couldn't find an opening to sneak back out. Luckily, the game allows you to throw empty magazines to draw guards away from their positions. I meant to throw a magazine far past the guard to make him go investigate, but my angle was bad and the magazine instead hit the ceiling and fell down - prompting the guard to go up one floor, thinking that the noise came from up there. This was shortly after I managed to sneak past a guard who was 15 meters away from me - just under 50 feet - by crawling on the ground in broad daylight. Not that the guard didn't see anything: he looked, said "huh?", moved in to check closer, and then determined that he was just seeing things.

Luckily, stealth can be safely ignored, and often should be, seeing as its faults can work against you almost as often as they work for you. With your impressive arsenal of weapons, armed combat is a piece of cake. In fact, even without any weapons, you should be OK. I was once detected by four machine gun-toting soldiers who were quite far apart, and I managed to run up to each one and knock him out with my bare hands. A lot of people complain that MGS4 felt too much like a shooter, but I guarantee you that if you run up to a group of enemies with machine guns in that game, you're dead.

That wouldn't be so bad if TPP wasn't an especially mediocre and uninvolved take on the genre. By the penultimate story mission, you will find yourself marking your enemies with your uncanny ability to forever keep track of anyone you have ever seen, instructing your sniper companion to take down wave after wave of enemy tanks and even calling in full-blown airstrikes, wondering what happened to your Metal Gear Solid and why you're wasting your time on this vapid power fantasy when you could just go play Far Cry 3 or Black Ops II and have a much better time.

It's awesome when you get that puppy, though

Speaking of the companions, let me be very clear - they're awesome. Each companion in The Phantom Pain is not only immensely likable, but also useful in its own way. D-Horse is good for getting around quickly undetected, D-Walker is good for a speedy getaway with some serious firepower, and D-Dog - well, D-Dog is just the best. I love D-Dog. My best moments in TPP were spent petting D-Dog and looking at how beautifully rendered his fur is. Other than being cute, he can also detect enemies from some distance and distract them, making him the best way to keep the game enjoyable for those who, like me, insist on playing stealthily.

And then, there's the aforementioned sniper, Quiet. Once she's recruited, the game is basically over, because Quiet can take down an entire base before anyone knows what's up. In fact, she's almost a must if you want to take down one of the bosses non-lethally, and then your role reduces to running around to compensate for the time it takes her to reload. She's also one of the most egregious example of sexual objectification I can recall in any media, walking around in what is essentially a bikini, because - get this - she has to breathe through her skin. It's obviously nothing more than an excuse to have her walk around half-naked, never mind the fact that no one questions why, if she needs to have as much skin exposed as possible to breathe, she doesn't just shave her head. That wouldn't be considered all that sexy, I guess. It's a shame, because a more well-rounded and far less exploitative portrayal could have made her into a great character. Instead, we have moments of attempted drama constantly interrupted by childish attempts at titillation.

This is the conflict at the heart of The Phantom Pain's narrative issues, and while sexism is a large part of it, it is by no means its only manifestation. Putting aside the futility of trying to make a mature game in a series where we fight robot ninjas, giant mechs and photosynthetic old men, TPP's main problem is that it tries to act grown up while still retaining all of its childish prejudice. TPP confronts you with shocking image after shocking image, trying so hard to impress you with its po-faced, brooding facade, just to piss away what little atmosphere it managed to build up by having Quiet literally shove her butt in your face the very next moment.

It doesn't help that both the usually witty and likable Snake as well as the over the top, maniacal Ocelot barely say anything in this game, and what little they say is said with as little emotion as possible, because you know - maturity. Add that to the fact that both, along with Miller, affect the same low-end growling voice in all of the many, many useless codec conversations that they partake in, and you get a cast of characters that is not only impossible to like, but mostly hard to even tell apart, a problem that is compounded by the insane amount of datalogs, which contain most of the game's dialogue (and by the way, no, I don't consider datalogs to be plot).

One of the most cringe-worthy moments in the original Metal Gear Solid is when Snake asks Meryl how she managed to sneak a gun past some guards, and she answers that "women have more hiding places than men". When a similar comment is made during the ending of Ground Zeroes, the silly and stupid sexism of the past graduates to full-blown misogyny. There's nothing more juvenile than a child trying to prove its maturity to the world, and The Phantom Pain's hateful exploitation of women is but the final blow to the plot's credibility.

And of course, microtransactions

Not long after The Phantom Pain was released, we learned that an entire act is missing from the game, presumably due to considerations of development time and budget. Don't worry, though: the game does contain a multiplayer mode that absolutely no one asked for, complete with microtransactions that will allow you to build your base up faster and, in an amazingly shameless act, recover soldiers and equipment that enemies make off with - the closest thing to date to a game trying to squeeze protection money from its players.

The outright theft of a third of the game isn't even the worst effect of the multiplayer mode: it is the way the pretense of running a base interferes with the single-player campaign. It makes you grind to get certain types of equipment, wait around for said equipment to be developed, and in general forces upon you an overly-complicated and annoying base management system that stops the game dead at several points. By the time TPP was drawing to an end, I was hoping someone would destroy Mother Base again just so I could be liberated from this trite, aggravating micro-management.

Mired in myopic cynicism and utterly contemptuous of its fan base and legacy, The Phantom Pain feels like a game that knows all too well that it will never have a sequel. It may be popular now, and of course, I am more than happy for the people who enjoy it. However, I do not expect history to see it in quite as positive a light.

Score Calculation: In its own right, The Phantom Pain is a slightly above-average third-person open-world shooter, earning it a score of 6 for being a well-executed version of an extremely worn-out idea. However, with an entire act missing, it is in reality only two-thirds of a game, taking the score down to 4. It gets a point for having the best dog in any video game ever, but I'm gonna have to knock two points for its abuse of the Metal Gear Solid name and for Quiet's starting outfit, leaving us with

Final Score: 3

Verdict: Like Silent Hill 4, the fourth season of Community and the prequel trilogy before it, we sentence The Phantom Pain to be that part of the series that we skip over during marathons. Its name forever to follow the word "except" when mentioning one's love for the franchise during a discussion of favorite video games, TPP typifies what happens when talent fails to match ambition and natural evolution is substituted with caprice, all topped off with healthy dose of AAA-developer cynicism.