Wet and Wild
I haven’t talked about water for a while, because you know, I thought it was kind of done. The Beta was available, and folks could go see it and judge for themselves. What more was there to say? Well, I loaded up a new campaign build the other day and BAM! Or should I say, SPLOSH! There it was, yet another layer of filigreed awesome. This time it was cube-mapped reflections on the flatter water surfaces and improved lighting.
The specific instance I am referring to is a slow-moving, wide stream on an early level of the game. Now, reflection adds this really convincing highlight, mostly based on the sun’s position, and it’s going to be difficult to describe accurately. So let’s rely on your own experiences. Ever been walking in the woods, and seen the sun come filtering through the trees onto a pond or a river? Notice how it picks up a really bright, yet mellow golden glare, amongst the shadows of the trees? Well now we have that effect in the game – and it’s based on the global illumination HDR model, so it looks different depending on what location you’re in. Sometimes it’s just a highlight picked up on ripples, and sometimes it’s blazingly bright against a gloomy backdrop.
The cool thing about this effect is how well it stands up to close examination. There’s a muddy puddle in the same level, that uses the same technique. Walk up to it, zoom in and the puddle remains murky and semi-opaque. Get to the stream further up and zoom in, and the water’s as clear as crystal. The reflection and lighting and shadow are all still in the game, but as in real life, looking straight down yields different visual results. Ahma love water. Did I mention that?
The only thing that can make me look up from water, is god-rays. Which s a generic term for the kind of bars or rays of light you see coming down through clouds or other canopies. We have them too now, and the way they pick up particulates in the air has me giddy with graphic-whore glee.
Luke certainly seemed impressed by the few bits of Marty’s music, and the themes I heard ranged from thrilling to tear-jerking. But Marty also shared some of the actual technique he’s applying this time around – an extension of techniques he’s used and pioneered in previous Halo games (and of course we’ve talked about it a bunch before). Marty describes it as glue.
“These little pieces of music hold the levels together, and let me bring music in and out depending on the situation in the game,” he says.
To demonstrate, he plays a low, ominous piece, basically bassy strings combining to give a feeling of unease. “I know exactly what key this is in, so if something big happens in the level, I can pull in this on top,” and at the press of a button, Marty layers in a female, choral voice – a harbinger of some dread.
“And it doesn’t have to be a key,” he continues. “I can do this with percussion too.” And of course, we hear an exciting tattoo which is then joined by a titanic, wall-melting pounding sound – a real LFE tester. “This could indicate the arrival of some big opponent,” he says.
The beauty of all this glue of Marty’s is that he can place it between the larger, more elaborately orchestrated pieces, in areas where he can’t be sure what action is going to occur. That means that if you try a speed run, for example – the music will adapt and conform to what you’re doing, as well what we know is going to happen (a cinematic interlude, or a large, scary encounter, for example) and it’s something game composers have had to deal with forever.
Another technique Marty uses is looping – logical sounding places to loop music so that it doesn’t become repetitive or clunky. That way if you craaaawl your way through a level, you won’t get tired of the soundtrack – and the music technology is adaptive enough to ensure you’re not necessarily hearing one tune per level anyway. Marty’s glue folders are prodigious – stacks and stacks of them – all perfectly attuned to the rest of the soundtrack’s thematic elements. The transition between planned, orchestrated major piece, and glue, should be unnoticeable – I sat in the studio as Marty pressed the buttons and I still couldn’t tell where the transitions literally happened – thanks to the way they automatically mix and layer.
As for my impressions of the music itself, it’s no secret I am a big fan of the Halo soundtracks of yore, and this is going to be the best one yet. The introduction of brand new pieces, the evolution of franchise favorites and the sheer inventiveness and scale of this soundtrack are going to make it a big deal. Hopefully he’s going to make it available on CD and download at or near the launch of the game. I’ll buy one (actually I won’t, I will grab a free one off his desk, so that was a lie, a second ago.)!
Now I haven’t heard the entire thing – Marty played a limited selection, but it was fun to try and guess which piece went with which level. We used to have placeholder music from Halo 2 in the debug builds of Halo 3 – the designers would basically pick pieces they thought matched the mood of their levels, but the maestro has composed the new soundtrack with moments, levels and characters specifically in mind, and like a movie, it doesn’t really feel right until everything’s in place.
That’s a fact made more noticeable in recent weeks – the placeholder music had been torn out as part of Marty’s master plan. The silent levels are amazingly fun, but lordy, music adds a lot. Drama, emotion, excitement – even in a game. And the way it maps to mission and cinematic dialog is something that’s going to give us so much visceral oomph, it’s not even funny.
Speaking of music, my homeslice and fellow 80s hairband aficionado, Tommy Tallarico, sent me a reminder that the Video Games Live concert series is kicking off its summer season. There is literally no better way to spend a summer evening than jamming out at a concert to the Halo theme – one of many classic video game soundtracks featured in the live orchestra series. It sounds nerdy as hell, and of course it is, but it’s also amazingly cool. If one of ‘em is near you, then check it out. You’ll be glad you did. Here’s the details.
Come experience the music of Halo LIVE at Video Games Live this summer!
Dallas, Washington D.C, Houston, Detroit, Louisville, Los Angeles, Europe, South America, Canada and Others
TOUR DATES HERE
Video Games Live is an immersive concert event featuring music from the biggest video games of all time. Top orchestras and choirs around the world perform along with exclusive video footage and music arrangements, synchronized lighting, solo performers, electronic percussion, live action and unique interactive segments to create an explosive one-of-a-kind entertainment experience.
Special events surround the show, including a pre- and post-show festival. Guests will enjoy interactive game demos, a costume contest, game competitions and the very popular meet-and-greet with top game composers and designers.
Luke and Joe Tung are excellent, confident Halo 3 players. So confident, in fact, that they bet a steak dinner that they could beat me and Joe Staten by 20 points in a game of Double Team Slayer. 20 points! We don’t have to win, we just have to not lose by 20 points. In theory, we could score 31 points (the game will be played to 50 kills) and then simply drop our controllers in the toilet. We’ll let you know what the result is. No date has been set for this challenge.
And speaking of Luke, he owned me 15-8 today in a practice (although I owned him and about six other folks from around the office earlier on Jub Jub) and he spoke to Chris Butcher today, and assembled this reportage:
By now, Beta players and other members of the Halo Nation are intimately familiar with the limited glimpse they got of our Saved Films feature. Just this morning, technical lead Chris Butcher swung by the writer’s group beaming about something that was going to “make us a dollar,” and told us we should come check it out.
You may remember the last time we went and saw stuff near Butcher’s workstation, at engineer Adrian Perez’ desk, actually:
“I also saw a new effect that right now is in a loading screen between levels, but may end up in some other place. And it’s AWESOME. Not the world’s most technically challenging thing, but just a cool, moody graphical interlude that really sets the tone and mystery inherent in Halo 3. Props I think, to Adrian Perez, but I am sure I will be corrected if I’m wrong. Again, just a cool, thematic almost screen-savery effect, but a lovely one that fits in beautifully with our UI scheme.”
This was awesome in an entirely different way.
On one of Butcher’s monitors is a frozen snippet of a real-multiplayer combat scenario that unfolded on Valhalla. One player is about to lunge with the sword, and another player is combating that series of events with the Brute shot (Bulltrue!). During the lunge animation, a blast from the Brute Shot cancels the animation, but the player momentum persists and multiplies, launching the lunging player from the center of Valhalla, near the Spartan laser, all the way back to the foot of Waterfall Base.
Butcher rewinds the film, shifts the camera angle, pausing for just a second to watch the Valhalla sun reflect off of a particularly astonishing armor permutation and then runs the combat scenario again, this time in slow motion. Yep, sure enough that Spartan is erroneously being ejected from the center mound in Valhalla all the way back the waterfall base – and this isn’t a Havok physics issue, this is a bug with the Halo melee physics and it’s just one of an anthill worth of bugs on Butcher’s plate.
Where do you even begin to fix something like this? In the days of yore there’d probably be a bug hunt, luring creatures out into the open with honey and then rewriting lines of code to squash them, and in some ways these things haven’t changed. In other ways, they definitely have. See, Saved Films is more than just a system of re-watching cool moments from Halo 3, the films themselves are collections of data files that give us critical information and in cases like Butcher’s, that critical information can solve problems. And in the case of bug testing and fixing they recreate instances that we can then plumb and explore to see what is going on.
Cross referencing the Bug on some super secret internal site on his PC, Butcher has detailed information in front of him in the form of a screenshot, date and time, and sarcastic comments from the tester that filed it. Tied to this page and the subsequent filed bug is the saved film of the incident. Now, via magic, wonderment and technology, Butcher can push a button and have an internal server download the Saved Film along with the exact build of the game that it came from, and watch the madness unfold on one of the television monitors at his desk.
Now, Butcher connects to the Xbox, watches as the source code is automatically synched with the saved film and BAM, he can begin to check the code line by line, watching what happens as the Spartan lunges fruitlessly towards his opponent, and find the bug. This is just one way the great flyswatter cleaning up Halo 3’s porch gets swung ‘round these parts.
Auralgasm or Luke’s Tears and Yelps from Listening to Halo 3’s Music
Like a sixth grader with hands and mouth pressed against a school bus in the dead of winter, breathing and frosting up the glass, I spend a good 13-17 minutes each day desperately pressed against the door to Marty’s sonic cathedral, breathing and getting my fingerprints all over the door in an effort to A. hear something coming from inside his office, or B. get invited in to hear music from Halo 3.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Halo 3’s audio in the beta and you got a snippet of a ‘door sound’ from a level somewhere in Halo 3. Back then I got to hear some atmospherics, hints and melodies that Marty had been working on. After breathing all over his door this week for the 7th day in a row, he let me in, sat me down and exploded my ears.
“Let’s say you wanted something to be spooky,” Marty says, and on cue music starts. It feels haunting, but not in that “ooh it’s a Theremin” way – there’s no Theremin. Marty stopped the music and put on something completely different, more anthem-like, bigger, more orchestral. Then he turned that off, starting the first tune again.
Somehow, through artistry and with a little help from ye olde technologie, the first song fades, blends and explodes into the second one. “See, there’d I’d use the first bit to set the mood, and maybe at a more elaborate set piece, a key showpiece, I’d use an alt to transition into the second piece.”
“Like when [deleted LOL]?”
Continuing to demonstrate the power of his nearly fully operational sonic battle station, Marty fires up a familiar tune and cranks it. It’s immediately recognizable and then with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks another similarly recognizable tune enters the mix. These two tunes are locked in ferocious sonic combat in the battlefield was my now-melted cranium.