Thursday, September 2, 2010
For the record, no that sadly wasn’t Christopher Walken’s voice in Haiku Quest. I had thought this would be obvious, but it says a lot about the internet that for a time it was regarded as fact. For a full explanation on how Haiku Quest came to be, read on! (heading image from Zen Albatross on Motherboard)
My motivation for creating Haiku Quest was mainly to give people the experience of the haiku minigames from Boku no Natsuyasumi 3 in English. As several pointed out it’s actually very similar to the insult sword-fighting in Monkey Island, though I personally didn’t make this connection at the time. I also wanted to experiment with QB64’s sound playing options, and I really wanted to have an entry on TIGSource, since I love the website and the whole indie community. As I’ve said before, I regard myself as the Ed Wood of indie games development, and getting people to take notice of anything I make is nigh on impossible. But my haiku RPG idea had just enough merit, and was just within my abilities, to actually appear worthwhile.
My initial idea was a grand multi-screen RPG, where verses of haiku could be acquired for doing tasks and could be used like equipment. Haiku are meant to be seasonal, so imagine sticking winter verses on your armour to keep cool when fighting a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe boss battles could take the form of haiku stand-offs similar to the rap battles in 8 Mile, and you’d absorb the haiku verses of defeated poets, to then find and take on more powerful haiku poets. Stuff like that. It was within my abilities if I could set up an array to handle all the verse combinations, but I knew I’d get bored before completion. So I scaled it down to 4 screens, and replicated the BnN3 minigame exactly, except I used 5 poems and it used 10.
In the end I decided rather to create a proof of concept game, something you could finish in 10 minutes, but which might encourage other indie game makers to do something similar. I also went with ASCII in the end since despite creating an animated sprite, the amount of work needed to create perfect collision detection was rather daunting, since I’d need to cater from the start X and Y points, and the ending X and Y points for not only the main character, but anything he touched. So 8 variables, as opposed to only 4 axis positions with ASCII.
Of course my decision to claim that the legendary Christopher Walken had lent his voice to the game ignited some internet rage – though it serves you all right, since most sites didn’t even take the time to check the WAV files before posting a news story. 1UP actually had the best, and most intelligent coverage of this, and I’ll be discussing all of these in a moment. But first, a list of all the places I found that spoke about this:
Colony of Gamers
One of the biggest surprises regarding the game is how many people posted online saying they didn’t know how to play it. I have a great dislike for long-winded tutorials, and I thought that the basic mechanics of the game would be fool-proof in their simplicity. There are 4 screens, only 2 which contain anything. You visit Haiku Man, he recites a poem and asks you to grade him (your grade to a degree affects what grade he gives your lower level poems), and then all that’s left is visiting the village.
The daylight meter at the bottom continuously goes down, and I thought it would be obvious that if the inn keeper says it’s too early for bed, you need the bar to be a little smaller. It needs to be around 20 pixels long I think, and it decreases 1 pixel with each step. So when the inn-keeper boots you out, I made sure that even if the bar was at 21 (the lowest it would go without letting you sleep), you’d still have enough time to walk AGAIN from the village entrance to the inn without it reaching sunset – by which time it would OK to sleep. Calculated design that was, people. Also, the more expensive sleeping option is redundant. A lot of games feature utterly redundant options, and this is my homage to them. Stay in the cheap room!
After sleeping the bar refills and you need to spend the rest of your money increasing your supplies bar. I decided that in so many RPGs, winning came down to having enough gold to buy the most health restore items, plus the best equipment and weapons. No one intentionally buys anything less than the best they can afford, so I streamlined it. Imagine a thousand useless variations on items and equipment, and assume that based on your current money, you will always buy the best you can afford. So your bar fills up, representing armour integrity, health potion numbers, HP and so on. I was reminded that in Final Fantasy 7, the majority of boss battles came down to how many Mega Elixirs I had, since this restored the entire party. The only tricky bosses were the Ultima Weapon bosses, which were my favourite, since they required genuine strategy to clock, involving complex things like W-Materia and clever use of material in dual weapon slots, plus the need for underwater material so you could breath, and instant-revive set-ups for when the entire party was wiped out. Most other battles though, like most RPGs, came down to buying the best sword before a big boss, and buying as many restore items as you could. Then it was a case of hitting attack or magic until it died, while regularly using said items.
Also, I thought it rather clever that the game’s only NPC (assuming Haiku Man is the game’s only boss) says only “...” to you. That well known JRPG cliche of the ellipses, which says and does nothing other than waste time. But actually, Ojisan is extremely important. If you enter town and it’s too early sleep, rather than run left or right, he acts as a wall you can run into to decrease the daylight bar more quickly. In short: he exists purely to waste/pass time. How many times did you play Shenmue and wish there was a quick way to make the time pass? Deadly Premonition had the clever idea of cigarettes, where smoking would cause time to pass. Ojisan falls into this category.
STEALING AND MUSASHI’S WIFE
I had to laugh at how several people online claimed the game was unfinished. A guy on Reddit said: “A lot of the game is not even really implemented or just put in to look like there is more when there isn't like menu options that aren't selectable.” He was referring to Musashi’s inn where there’s the option to “sleep with Musashi’s wife” but the cursor won’t go there, and in Takashi’s store there’s the option to steal from Takashi, but again you can’t select it/
This wasn’t really an attempt to make it seem like the game contained more – it was a kind of post-modern, abstract dig at all those jerkoff Western developers who are claiming JRPGs aren’t really RPGs, because you haven’t got the freedom to kill anyone, or rob from anyone, or do totally pointless shit like decide what your character looks like. For these narrow-minded idiots, the lack of freedom do irrelevant things means JRPGs don’t deserve to be called RPGs. I disagree. It is a crazy idea for games to allow total freedom outside the context of what they are. I think it was EDGE magazine that once complained about Metal Gear Solid, that while Snake had a packet of cigarettes, it was unrealistic that he couldn’t kill himself by smoking the entire pack at once. How absurd is that? So with all this in my mind, I added 2 options which no one can ever select. I suppose if this were a Bethesda game, you could kill the storeowner and steal all his goods, or if it were Fable you could sleep with whoever you choose.
Actually, the stealing the from the store bit reminded of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the GB, where you could steal the bow, which was a seminal moment in gaming for me. Since the only penalty was your name changing to THIEF and you losing a life. Which was a small price to pay for saying 980 rupees. But yeah, the inaccessible menu options are part of this game’s modus operandi – messing with your mind.
This bullet point, along with the claim of a massive overworld, should have sent bells ringing that most of this was satirical. I had recently completed Dragon Knight 3 (aka Knights of Xentar) for DOS, and what I liked most about it was that all the battles were automatic. Random battles in almost all RPGs fall to you repeatedly hitting attack or magic, over and over, and if you’re lucky the bosses prove more challenging. But Knights of Xentar streamlined this, resulting in automatic damage to yourself and enemies, with your only input being occasionally hitting the items button to give a health potion. It was great, since what is the point of going through the motions of your standard JRPG battle? It also reminded me of Earthbound, where after getting to a high level, touching an enemy results in their instant defeat. People have compared it to Roguelikes, but I have never, in my life, played a Roguelike. So I can’t comment on this. Mainly it was inspired by Knights of Xentar.
Speaking of battles, my idea was for a very avante guarde art style, with the game entirely in black and white. And then I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the monster names were in colour? No one has commented on the fact that you inhabit a world where the only source of colour is its monsters – the things which kill you. I also chose names which would sound foreign, rather than crap like orc and elf. Wyvern is common in Europe, but babayaga (witch) isn’t, and neither is gorbunok (a flying horse from Russian legend).
I wrote these first. As an accomplished writer, and author, I could probably write some decent haiku. I quite like the Game Over haiku I did, even though they lacked any kind of seasonal theme or “cutting word” at the end. Regardless, I decided to make my job easier, and make this appeal to game geeks, but basing them entirely on games. First I wrote the 5 perfect haiku (each inspired by a certain classic series), and then I tweaked them so that the different verses would work when you mixed them up.
The small ship flies / A huge enemy approaches / Smell of dead fish
Street Fighter or Streets of Rage:
Two men in the street / Ancient bare knuckle technique / Fierce burning is felt
In and out, again, again / Glade of green pipes stretching forth / Princess in a castle
From the sky they fall / Moulding the body’s position / Conformists vanish
In a box hiding / Rigid serpent in warm places / Father’s legacy
I’m a little disappointed that David Wolinsky of 1UP, despite “getting” the game better than anyone else, assumed the haiku were all filthy and about masturbation. The Mario themed one makes sense, since he goes in and out of green pipes which stretch to the horizon. And the reason? Princess in a castle. The Rigid Serpent verse is obviously “Solid Snake”, and the fact that most of his games are in a hot climate (MG, MG2SS, Snake’s Revenge, Ghost Babel, MGS3, MGS4, Portable Ops, etc). Dead fish? Come on, that has to be the aquatically themed Darius. And as for fierce burning, that’s obviously a hadoken from Street Fighter.
The only really abstract one I’m disappointed with in hindsight, is the Tetris one. I always picture Tetris as a metaphor for communist Russia. They fall from the sky represents the blocks, but moulding the body’s position is me thinking of George Orwell’s 1984, and how the state moulded you inside the Ministry of Truth, which eerily mirrors what the communists did to dissenters. Conformists vanish means that once you conformed, you vanished from the Ministry of Truth and room 101 – in effect let free. And in Tetris, if you conform to a single clean line, you also vanish. I imagine people are the blocks being moulded by the state, and as they form the imposed ideal, they are allowed to leave.
There are 3 columns of 5 verses, allowing for 125 poem combinations. Only 5 will give you a red haiku diamond to complete the game, and about 30 other specific combinations will net you above 70 points. The rest are likely to be nonsense poems which only allow for a maximum of 65 points, depending on what scores you gave Haiku Man and a few other factors.
THE ENDING and SECRET
Someone described this as the prank of a 7th grader doing his first coding project. I like to think of the ending as being as cool as the ending in Monkey Island 2. And based on how people fell for my Walken hoax, I’m sure one or two probably got a little frightened seeing the ending. Just push enter 5 times to quit. With the above perfect haiku answers, you can see it for yourself.
As for the secret, if you go to the upper right screen, right into the corner, you’ll get a special message showing the names of the Haiku Gods. The first 3 are actually game names/characters backwards, which I had hoped would give a clue as to deciphering the poems: Darius, Street Fighting, and Jump Man. The last 2 are Dave Hayter, voice actor in the MGS games, and Alexei Pajitnov, the guy behind Tetris. In hindsight, putting a clue in a such an out of the way place made it rather redundant.
I coded it up in about 10 hours over two days, and then posted a couple of topics on a forum asking for “sexy voices” – I wanted a silky smooth leading male and female voice for the game. Something which sounded fantastic, to elevate it from a proof of concept game to something with artistic merit. Hal Binderman and Topher Florence I actually knew from some podcasts I participated in, so I contacted them directly and they graciously agreed, without knowing how deranged my plans would become.
And then.... nothing. No female leads. Those I contacted directly declined, and only a couple showed a slight interest before promptly ignoring further forum messages. Perhaps the quite obviously sexual innuendos put them off. After about 3-4 days I was sitting on a nearly complete project and then thought, in my quintessentially Cockney lilt, bugger this for a lark. I’d waited long enough and wanted it out there. So I’d have to use my own voice I realised. So, against my initial plans, I’d have to use an all-male cast. And my voice isn’t actually Cockney, that would have been cool. In reality it’s a horrid, screechy blend of Afrikaans, British and East European. Well, with no other options, maybe I could milk the comedy angle and make the game sound awful on purpose.
Then I watched Larry King, sometime last week probably, and he was interviewing a comedian who spoke about Christopher Walken. The comedian said that some everyone in comedy can do a Walken impression, and that Walken loves to DANCE. He’s also one of my all-time favourite actors. I mean, the guy is incredibly skilled, charismatic, funny or frightening depending on the role, with an incredible voice/persona, not to mention everyone who works with him says what a great guy he is personally. I have bought and watched mediocre films for no other reason than because Walken was in it. In fact I think Walken should have his own radio show, or podcast, just Walken, talking for an hour, about whatever the hell he wants. No set agendas or script, just Walken, discussing his thoughts.
I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Walken - who is deservedly regarded as legendary.
I decided if I was forced to act in my own game, I’d try to salvage it by doing a Walken impression. Except my impression was terrible. But what was I going to do after 4 days of waiting and not even a cursory interest? So, with nothing to lose, I decided I’d say I got the real Walken to do it. Many have commented on how he loves acting and won’t turn down something he finds interesting – so it was certainly within the realm of possibility. I even tried to look for his agent’s contact details, but couldn’t find any.
My belief was people would download the 4.5mb file, instantly realise it wasn’t Walken, and chuckle to themselves at how ridiculous my attempted impression was. If Conan O’Brian can have Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions, with the moving lips, and people realise it’s fake, they’d sure as hell realise this was a lie. And this, ladies and gentleman, is why I’m not even remotely sorry for what I did. I have absolutely no shame regarding such a half-arsed hoax. Maybe, if I’d gone to the effort and got one of the many skilled people on youtube who do Walken impressions, and created a genuinely convincing set-up, I might feel guilty. But this was the equivalent of doing a doodle in MS paint and calling it a Da Vinci. Maybe I’d fool you until you actually saw it, but after that it should be obvious. And yet, incredibly, people continued to believe, and several who obviously wanted it to be real, argued why it must be.
This fiasco did reveal something very interesting about the internet though.
No one who initially reported on it even downloaded it, since the WAV files are right there to be listened to. WAVs A1-C5 were those meant to be Walken’s and it’s quite clear they’re a (very bad) impersonation. Even if you couldn’t load it on your Mac computers, you could listen to the WAVs. This was partly GameSetWatch’s fault, who reported on it first and wrote the story in a way that made you think it had to be true and that they'd checked this. And they fooled a lot of people who later quoted them as a source.
The best write up was David Wolinsky’s on 1UP, and I’m naming him not only because his was the most intelligent reporting on this, but because he has a Polish surname and there can never be too many of us Poles taking the internet limelight. As he wrote:
[...] a new freeware game with its claim that Christopher Walken, that cowbell-loving star of stage and screen, took “five minutes” to record voice acting for it on someone’s laptop. If you’re gullible enough to believe that, then you’re going to hate Haiku Quest.
Or if you choose to believe the lie, then you’ll appreciate the short JRPG-inspired game’s charm.
I think he missed out a word, and meant to say either “you’re NOT gullible enough” or in the next paragraph “choose NOT to believe the lie”, since at the moment each sentence basically says the same thing. But regardless, he’s right on the money. If you realised it was obviously a joke on my part, I’d hope you’d enjoy it for what it is: a 5 minute diversion which should make you think, “hey, this is kinda neat. It’s a great concept for a more fleshed out RPG.”
That’s all I wanted, really.
If I had any regrets (and I don’t) it’s that the main website of HG101 might receive some negativity because of this. Let the record show that I am only a contributor. Articles on the main site are checked by Kurt before going live, whereas with the blog I have total unchecked freedom to run amok should I choose.
Several people, some of whom I know and respect, have said they come to HG101 for serious article. And yes, the main site is a place for serious examination, but the blog should be seen as more light-hearted and fun. All I did was, at worst, waste 5 minutes of your life. And it was fun while it lasted, because my utter disbelief at how the internet ran with this made me laugh like a drain for hours.
I suppose this stunt detracted from whatever genuine merit the game originally had, and made people dislike it as a result, but I'm not really concerned since this was never going to make a huge splash. At least this has made Google searching for results even easier.
Haiku Quest was a 100% calculated and planned project, and up until the 3-4 days that I waited with no interest from anyone wanting to do the female voices, was not going to involve the Walken spoof. I didn’t do it to upset people, I did it out of frustration because no one got back to me and I needed this finished, and to amuse myself. And to quote Joey in that chocolate eating scene: I’m not even sorry!