What I learned from The Ants

I’ve always loved ants.

This summer I finally read the canonical, impractically massive book about them, The Ants.

The Ants by Wilson and Hölldobler
The Ants by Wilson and Hölldobler

It’s changed the way I look at the world. Which is what happens whenever I dig deeply enough into pretty much any subject. For example, I never really noticed shadows in the real world until I had to create them by hand in virtual worlds. And now it’s like I’ve added a whole new color to the world around me. I want to make games that can do that.

Oddly enough, I think surreal games have a great shot at that because putting players into unfamiliar situations encourages them to think unfamiliar thoughts. Of course the challenge is making the experience familiar enough at some level that those new thoughts are actually relevant outside the game too.

I think ants are a good example of that mix: their orderly marches make them seem fascinatingly human, but their single-mindedness is terrifyingly inhuman. Here are a few of the more surprising, amusing and ghastly things I learned about ants:

Ants don’t play.

Male ants are born without mouths in some species because they don’t live long enough to need them.

Ants are as violent and nasty as people. Like us, they’re their own worst enemies. In addition to the constant fighting and raiding that goes on between colonies, some species have evolved to be particularly horrible to one another. Like the slavemaker ants who enslave members of other colonies. Or one species whose queen will sneak into a neighboring colony and start quietly cutting the head off the host queen. “When this is accomplished, sometimes only after many hours, [she] takes over as the sole reproductive, and the colony eventually comes to consist entirely of her offspring and herself.”

Self-sacrifice actually makes sense for an ant. This one is hard to wrap your head around. Most ants can’t reproduce (that’s the queen’s job). So whether or not an individual survives makes no difference to evolution, since that individual won’t be passing on their genes anyway. What’s important is that the COLONY survives. For us, personal survival is an overwhelming imperative. But for an ant, survival is just one of several options. Well, one of two, I guess.

They have some of the worst jobs imaginable. Take, for example, the honeypot caste. Their job is to store food for the colony like a living refrigerator. They wait back in the nest while workers stuff them with food. In some species they get so bloated they can’t even move.

They spend most of their life doing absolutely nothing. They don’t even sleep. They just… stand there. For close to 80% of their lives. If I try hard I can kind of picture being a cat and spending my life sleeping in another man’s chair. But I can’t imagine what it’d be like to just stand still most of your life. For an attempt at this see Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert.

They’re phenomenally stupid. With their beautifully simple set of behaviors ants can seem a lot like robots. Really stupid robots. For example, they recognize dead ants based on a chemical that corpses give off. But what happens if you spray the same chemical on an ant who’s still alive? “…they are picked up and carried, unprotesting, to the refuse pile. After being deposited, they clean themselves and return to the nest. If the cleaning was not thorough enough, they are sometimes mistaken a second or third time for corpses and taken back to the refuse piles.”

I mean it, unimaginably stupid. So here’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. Army ants travel in massive columns which advance by having worker ants rush out just beyond the advancing edge and then turn back in, to be replaced by another wave of workers just behind them. So far so good. But “when masses of workers are dumped onto a clean flat surface or are cut off from the rest of the colony by rain, they commence ‘circular milling.’ In this bizarre formation workers go forward and inward with the crowd but not outward in a centrifugal direction, so that the whole mass continues to circle round and round until all the ants are dead.”

Circular milling in army antsCircular milling in army ants
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I wrote an episode of Spaceballs: The Animated Series

Last year I wrote an episode of Spaceballs: The Animated Series. It’s premiering this Sunday, September 21st at 6 pm on the G4 cable channel.

The episode is, predictably enough, all about video games. It’s called “Grand Theft Starship” and it’s a loose parody of Grand Theft Auto — the heroes go inside the game and are attacked by a mob of game characters angry about players stealing their cars, killing their cops, etc.

The animation looks kinda cheap (surprise: it was!), but I think the script has some nice moments, especially if you’re into video games. Specifically I’d draw your attention to: the ridiculous boss fight, the death of Mario, and the insane game of Tetris.

Conceptually it’s easily the strangest thing I’ve ever written. It’s about people trapped inside a video game, who are themselves characters on an animated TV show, which was based on a movie, which was itself based on Star Wars. It’s probably not surprising that I had trouble sometimes getting the characters to feel, you know, real.

If anyone’s curious, I’ve also posted a few stories about the show’s unusual production process over at Cartoon Brew.

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Sound effects that feel like a performance

Bamboo strands were used to make fire crackling sounds for Bambi
Bamboo strands were used to make fire crackling sounds for Bambi

I went to a lecture on the evolution of sound effects in animation that’s got me thinking about what games can learn from how sound was created and used at places like Disney.

In the early days, all the sound for a film had to be performed at the same time. Music, effects, dialog, everything. The whole team got together in a room and recorded it start to finish, like a stage show.

In modern films, sound effects are often cut together from other sounds. To make a monster’s howl you might use a mix of, say, pitch-shifted breathing and a lion’s roar played backwards. But back then if you wanted an unusual sound you had to build yourself an instrument.

For example, to get the sound of rain they’d stick hundreds of nails in a barrel and fill it with Mexican peas. By turning the barrel at different speeds they could match whatever the intensity was of the rain on screen. For Tinker Bell the sound effect artist used a set of bells attached to his fingers, which he could “play” to create whatever sounds fairies make.

Because they had to be made in real time, the effects became a performance. Working with tactile props it was possible to create some amazingly subtle and interesting sounds that added life to what was happening on screen.

Animation and games have the same fundamental problem: they’re not real. Even if you can get the audience to ignore that fairies and space marines don’t actually exist, you’ve still got to make them believe in your fake little world (of pixels, drawings, etc). And that’s where sound effects can be a huge help. They’re a way to inject an authentically human presence into an otherwise coldly technical universe.

With sound effects that feel like a performance we can sense the human being that made them. Tinker Bell’s movement doesn’t feel like a set of bells, it feels like the actions of a living creature. Which is a good thing, because Tinker Bell herself doesn’t have any dialog in Peter Pan. And she doesn’t need any. We get enough of her personality just from the sounds she makes.

I wish games had more of that.

Instead, our sounds are often bland and rigidly mechanical. When a monster growls at me they sound exactly the same every time. Or at best, one of three growls plays at random. Sometimes that’s OK. I don’t need Mario to make a different sound every time he jumps. There, the sound is just a part of the game’s interface, a way of confirming the player’s action. But in most games that’s the only thing sound is used for. I think we should be asking sound to do more.

Some areas that come to mind:

  • More distinctive sounds and a wider emotional range for those sounds would help in creating memorable characters and environments. Wrex from Mass Effect is a good example — his absurdly deep voice and folksy tone create an unusual mix that’s threatening and comforting at the same time, like Wrex himself.
  • Gameplay based around sound feels like it’s been pretty much ignored (except, you know, Guitar Hero etc). For example, a game that asked you to pick a Terminator out of a crowd by listening for his metallic heartbeat would be a nice change of pace. Not only does it give you an excuse to create interesting sounds, it also gives players a reason to notice and appreciate them.

If I hear someone spray painting a wall and then come around a corner and see the wall, that feels a lot more convincing than if I actually watch the character spraying it, no matter how beautifully modeled and animated they are.

Plus, it’s cheaper!

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