Thursday, 20 May 2021

Endlessly Variable Plucking

Let's fire up the modular synthesiser again, and chase away a rainy day.

The track at the top of this article was performed with the Odyssey pictured above (it played the strings in the background) and Mutable Instruments' Plaits, which is in the middle of the top row of the modular case. Plaits has a clever guitar-string simulator that resembles 2HP's Pluck, but with more modulation options.

Not pictured is a Mac Mini, a bunch of effects, a MOTU 828 audio interface, and an old copy of Logic Express 9. And a pair of Arturia Beatsteps, which I used to sequence the notes. The Beatstep is a simple 16-step pattern sequencer that has a mixture of CV/Gate and MIDI outputs:

I could have plugged them directly into my synthesiser, but instead I fed them both into a Doepfer A-166 Logic Module:

How does a logic module work? Have a look at this fancy table:

That's what the internet looked like when I was young. It's what computer games looked like when I was young. But, still. Logic gates.

If two triggers coincide the logic module spits out a trigger from the AND output. Alternatively if there are triggers in pattern one or pattern two, the logic module spits out a trigger from the OR output.

It dawns on me that the A-166 doesn't have a NOT gate. It has a XOR gate instead, which is an acronym for "eXclusive OR". AND and OR and NOT aren't acronyms, by the way. They're words. I wrote them in capitals to emphasise them. Not because they're acronyms.

XOR gates differ from OR gates in that they only generate a pulse if either one or the other input is active, but not both. In the diagram above it would generate a pulse at step 2, for example, but not steps 1 or 4.

Why bother with a logic gate? If the result of combining pattern one with pattern two is pattern three, why not just play pattern three in the first place? Logic gates are useful for modulating a sequence with a second sequence. In the case of the song at the top of the page the note pitches are generated with one Beatstep, but the notes are triggered by a separate, random pattern from the second Beatstep, fed through the logic gate. The result is a guitar melody that runs through the same set of notes, but with endlessly variable plucking. And because the two sequences were running out of sync, there are occasional note bends where the steps didn't align.

The second element of the track is a typical space reverb pad, which I generated by feeding my Odyssey through a mixture of a Strymon El Capistan delay pedal and a big reverb plug-in. This tune has a similar idea, but with a chunky bassline:

Will the weather improve? No, according to the weather report it will not.

Saturday, 15 May 2021


I pride myself on staying up-to-the-minute, so in honour of President Nixon's recent trip to China let's have a look at Gris (2018), a platform game for almost every modern gaming system except, curiously, the Xbox. As of this writing it's out on budget. I played it on the PlayStation 4.

Is Gris the time, the place, the motion? Is it the way we are feeling? Does it have a groove? Does it have a meaning? Does it give me chills? Are they multiplying? Does it make me lose control? Is it electrifying? Read on, dear reader, and be thankful that all of the Grease references are in the first two paragraphs because otherwise I would have had to weave them into the body text and it would have taken ages and you wouldn't be reading this until June.

What is Gris? It's a platform game with lovely music. It attracted good-but-not-great reviews when it came out and went on to sell over a million copies, which is impressive for a low-key art game without much marketing behind it. The reviewers compared it to Journey, but it actually has much more in common with the 2014 platformer Ori and the Blind Forest. They have similar mechanics and progression, and in both games you are menaced by a bird, although in Gris the bird is a manifestation of self-doubt whereas in Ori the bird is, from what I remember, an actual bird:

Ori and the Blind Forest - it resembles a Roger Dean painting.

Gris owes something to Aubrey Beardsley, but it does have floating rocks, which was a Roger Dean thing as well.

One thing that separates the two games is the difficulty level. Ori looks cute, but underneath the pleasant exterior it's surprisingly hard, almost sadistic. Last year's Ori and the Will of the Wisps is apparently even more difficult. On a personal level I enjoyed Blind Forest but it was a frustrating experience. Periods of platforming brilliance alternated with frustrating wall-jumping puzzles that just left me feeling drained and annoyed when I finished them instead of happy.

I grew up with Jet Set Willy and Head Over Heels, so I'm used to frustrating gameplay. I didn't enjoy it in the 1980s and I don't enjoy it now. I played those games because there was nothing better, although Head Over Heels was more sophisticated than most. In my opinion the designers of Ori should have made the main story easier and reserved the really hard jumps for secrets, but what do I know? It sold millions and lots of people enjoyed it.

In contrast Gris is mellow. You can't die, and there are only two or three head-scratching puzzles and difficult jumps. The absolute worst that can happen is that you mess up a jump and have to retrace your steps a little bit. The developers wanted to make a mood piece, introspective and sad, although surprisingly there is an actual game underneath the lovely graphics.

Gris tells the tale of a young girl - her name is Spanish for "grey" - who is trying to cope with an unspecified personal loss, strongly suggested to be the death of her mother. At first she can only walk slowly through a landscape of broken statuary, but over the course of the game she learns how to jump, swim, sing, and turn herself into a solid weight. Not necessarily in that order. There's no dialogue, there are no subtitles, there's no story in a conventional sense, just a pervasive sense of loss and fragility.

She also makes friends with a cute little stone cube who eats apples. He jumps when you jump, and there are a couple of puzzles where you have to synchronise your actions in order to proceed:

The game has a simple hub design albeit that you can only replay maps after you've finished the main story. In each level you have to find a couple of sparkling stars that form a constellation; optionally you can hunt for memory fragments that unlock a special cutscene at the end. During the platforming sequences Gris only has a few powers, but the game mixes things up so that it never gets boring. In particular there's a late-game section in which Gris has to carefully leap out of some water blocks without crossing a gravitational line that gets particularly tricky.

Multiplayer? No. The PlayStation 4 version runs at 1920x1080 but the PC version runs at any arbitrarily high resolution. Ultra-widescreen support requires editing a .dll with a hex editor but is otherwise unproblematic.

Gris has some flaws. On the positive side I was pleasantly surprised that it's an actual game rather than an interactive music video. Based on the trailers I was expecting Gris to be an elaborate Flash animation in which you walked to the right and occasionally slid down some hills while the sun rises in the background - the most obvious nod to Journey - but it's a proper hub-based multi-level platform game. It could have gone on longer and I wouldn't have minded. It's more of a game than e.g. Far: Lone Sails and far more of a game than visual demos such as Proteus or Linger in Shadows. It even has a certain amount of reply value, if you want to collect all the memories.

On the negative side Gris has a habit of introducing some interesting ideas and then quickly abandoning them. The section with the little forest guy could have gone on longer, but almost immediately after solving a couple of puzzles he runs off and the game never repeats the experiment. A section with platforms that appear and disappear as you jump only amounts to a couple of screens and isn't complex enough to be challenging because the platforms never go out of sync, so once you work out the route you can't fail. The game launched at around £15.99; any more would have been too ambitious for something so slight. Perhaps the team didn't want to overstay their welcome.

Of note the game is only available digitally. It takes up around 4gb of hard drive space. There were short-run physical editions by Special Reserve (Nintendo Switch, with an artbook) and Limited Run Games (PS4), but they have long since sold out.

Other problems? If you're really old you might remember Amiga Power and its dislike of slippy-slidey ice worlds, because they were a cliché of 1990s platform game design. Slippy-slidey ice worlds, and power-ups that reversed your controls. Gris is guilty on both counts. Technically it has a scrabbly-wabbly desert world scoured by irresistible winds, but the end result is much the same. On the other hand the scrabbly-wabbly desert world is just one short sequence and the antigravity section only reverses your controls vertically, so it's not onerous.

Good stuff? The music is excellent. It's lighter and less symphonic than for example Journey, with a hazy, melancholic air. The hub level in particular would be a fantastic audiovisual screensaver if you were spending a week binging on tranquilisers. Parts of the music reminded me of Hiroshi Yoshimura's Nine Post Cards but with lusher orchestration. And on a visual level the game is of course striking, with a stark, clean style that gradually fades from grey to multi-colours.

It also occasionally put me in mind of 8-bit platform games. The following screen in particular made me think of Mikro-Gen's Frost-Byte:

It has been a long time since I thought of Mikro-Gen. The ZX Spectrum was popular in Spain so, who knows, perhaps the developers really did intend for parts of the game to pay homage to Starquake et al.

Of course a good game is more than just a bunch of sounds and graphics. For all its faults as a game Far: Lone Sails stood out because it had a mood and told a story. Gris is like that. After learning how to jump and fly Gris seems to be on the mend, but she is menaced by a giant bird - and then a giant eel - which is presumably a manifestation of her depression. I don't want to spoil the ending but she does eventually overcome this, although the grand finale is bitter-sweet. I felt sad at the end and wished Gris luck for her struggles in the future.

The ending unlocks a gallery of concept art plus some unused musical tracks.

Some people will probably detest the twee graphic style, the pretty music, the prissy art design and inoffensive theme etc, but on the whole I'm impressed with not just Gris but the art game movement in general; it must have been tempting to churn out cynical imitations of Journey but the likes of Bound and What Remains of Edith Finch are clever and surprisingly iconoclastic. Gris straddles an odd half-way ground, both an art piece and a decent albeit simplistic platform game, although it's more of the latter than the former.

Nomada Studios was formed purely to develop Gris, and to date it's their only product. There's no world on a sequel. My hunch is that they're in an awkward position; they can't repeat Gris' storyline, so a sequel would have to be a fully-fledged 8-12-hour game along the lines of Will of the Wisps, but that would require a much higher budget and a longer development cycle, and realistically what kind of market is there for Gris 2?

Still, I'm digressing. I finished Gris in three brief sittings over three days but at £5.98 I didn't feel shortchanged as the music is excellent and the ending is sad. It runs on a potato and it's worth it purely as an illustrated music video with a surprisingly decent platform game underneath it.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

MRE Menu 5: Chicken Chunks

There stands before you a blog post. It's a review of MRE Menu 5: Chicken Chunks, White, Cooked. Let's see what it says. The first four sentences have been erased by the elements, but the fifth sentence is easily legible. What does it say? "What does it say?" is what it says. The fifth sentence is "what does it say", and the eighth sentence is "I apologise".

I apologise. I was originally going to write this post in the style of a postmodern novel such as If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, but midway through the first paragraph I gave up because I'm not Latin American enough to do it convincingly.

The good thing about this decision is that you, dear reader, you continue to exist. You aren't a fictional construct, you're actually you. By rewinding time back to the age of modernism I've saved you from non-existence.

I wrote this post way in advance of publication, in this case December 2019. For the rest of my trip to Hong Kong I covered the Kowloon Walled City Park here, the site of the former Kai Tak airport here, the flight (and the food) here, and Shenzhen's Window of the World theme park here. I didn't spent enough time in Hong Kong to write about Hong Kong itself.

Hong Kong was in fact the reason I started trying out MREs. My plan was to do a lot of hiking, but I formulated that plan in the cold moist air of England in March. Hong Kong in October is much hotter and the air is like a warm blanket. My plan did not survive contact with the enemy, so I went off to the airport park at Kai Tak and had a picnic instead.

For the benefit of new readers an MRE is a "meal, ready to eat" developed for the US military. They were fielded in the early 1980s and have been refined ever since. Each MRE is a single meal, and not for example a 24-hour ration pack. Despite a poor early reputation I have the impression that modern MREs are generally thought of as okay, although they tend to be salty and doughy, and would be monotonous after a while because the main meals have a similar taste.

MREs are designed to remain edible after sitting on a shelf for five years, perhaps longer if refrigerated. YouTube MRE celebrity Steve1989 has eaten preserved MREs from the early 1980s with no ill-effects, although as I write these words it has been a while since he uploaded any videos, so perhaps I speak too soon.

MREs aren't specifically intended as long-duration survival food or even for that matter hiking or outdoorsmanship, because they're too heavy and bulky. The US military also has a freeze-dried "meal, cold weather" (MCW) that's intended for Arctic environments and would be more suitable for hiking.

It is, apparently, a giant shipping radar, and the hoop is just a design element. Kai Tak's redevelopment has taken much longer than expected, and it's interesting to compare the final design with these early concepts, which had the dome cutting a hole through the arch.

I've written about Kai Tak's cruise terminal park before. Kai Tak's runway was built on a strip of land reclaimed from Hong Kong's bay, but the airport closed in 1998, and now it's a cruise liner terminal with a small park at the very tip. The park is just a patch of grass without much shade. The cruise liner terminal apparently offloads hundreds of thousands of passengers a year but when I was there it was deserted.

The park itself is awkward to reach. It's in an "MTR desert" where there aren't any tube stations - a local station is under construction, scheduled to open in 2020 - so I took a bus from Kowloon Tong that went on a scenic tour of eastern Kowloon before reaching the terminal. Apparently cruise liner passengers are put on dedicated shuttle buses.

On the positive side there aren't many places in Hong Kong where you can sit down and rest your feet without being trampled or hit by a car, so the park has that going for it.

Menu 5 is essentially just cooked chicken with some tortillas, but to compensate you get lots of accessories. In addition to the chicken there's hot sauce, cheese spread, a blue drink, a chewy First Strike bar, a lemonade drink (instead of coffee), recovery trail mix, and Reese's Pieces.

As I sat alone on a bench a few hundred yards from a construction site munching on shelf-stable processed chicken I wondered where my life had gone wrong. It strikes me that the courses of our lives are set before birth and that's all there is. There isn't enough time to move up a tier and make it stick. The best you can do is give your children a boost, but one peculiarity of the modern age is that the older generation has actively destroyed the future of its children. From the point of view of the older generation of today children are a drain on resources rather than an investment. Their attitude makes sense on a rational level, because there is only the present, but the result is a surplus generation.

Older people were taught from an early age that they should marry and have children, but in middle age it dawned on them that there was no point. Death is the end, and what happens to the world after that is of no consequence, so what reason is there to pour resources into an investment that will only pay off when it is too late? That is why the surplus generation exists. We are all mistakes born of cultural inertia.

I can understand the thought processes of the older generation, but that doesn't mean I forgive them. Things will be far worse when I am old. I do not however have any plans to make things worse for the next generation, albeit that I'm not in a position to do so.

The hot sauce packet is unusually large - it's not so much an accompaniment as an integral part of the meal.

Why did I pick Menu 5? It's one of two MREs that are supposed to be eaten cold, so it doesn't have a flameless ration heater. I didn't have to strip it down before taking it on an airliner. British Airways' hazardous luggage guidelines implicitly allow the carriage of heaters in MREs, but why take that chance? The other flameless-less MRE is Menu 21: Tuna, which didn't impress me.

Menu 5 was however much better. It is, as mentioned, essentially just cooked chicken, but in the heat of Hong Kong it was nice to eat something moist, and the mixture of accessories was more interesting than the relatively bland load-out of the pizza MRE I wrote about last month. Let's try out the blue drink first:

It's apparently grape, with "natural and artificial flavor", but it tasted like one of those sugary ion-replacing smart water drinks. It's not bad, far better than the lemonade, perfectly drinkable. Let's dive into the main meal:

As before the tortillas have a great yeasty smell straight from the packet, but they taste sugary and brittle - if you're a British reader imagine a scone, crushed into the shape of a tortilla.

The chicken is mid-way in quality between canned cooked chicken and fresh cooked chicken. It has no real taste, but there was a lot of it. I made up two tortillas with chicken and the cheese spread, which tastes like compressed Mini Cheddars. This still left me with half of the chicken and all of the hot sauce. I didn't put it on the tortillas because it would have dribbled everywhere, so instead I just put everything into the bag along with the chicken and stirred it up:

Have you ever seen videos of hip replacement surgery? The resulting mess tasted much nicer than it looked, in fact it was excellent post-pub hangover food.

Menu 5's big problem from a civilian point of view is that it's easy to emulate or even surpass it with readily-available ingredients. However if you're a US serviceperson and someone else has hogged the MRE pizza you don't have to feel bad about having the chicken.

Let's wash it down with the lemonade drink:

Hang on, there's a chap. Exercising. I didn't notice him when I was drinking the drink.

Twenty fluid ounces is roughly half a litre, so as you can see I didn't use enough water. Even accounting for the extra sugaryness it was pretty poor. There was a lemonade drink in the Lithuanian MRE I reviewed earlier in the year, and that was bad as well, so perhaps lemonade just doesn't work in powdered form.

Let's wash the lemonade down with some nuts:

Or not. The nuts are just nuts. Plain unsalted nuts. Probably nutritious but in thirty-degree heat I didn't want to eat dry food, so I scattered the nuts about so that the birds might have them. This probably violated a bunch of local laws and may have led to an environmental crisis, for which I apologise. Of note my MRE was a 2018 menu. Apparently the 2019 version of Menu 5 replaces the nuts with teriyaki beef sticks, a fair exchange.

What else? I also saved the Reese's Pieces for later. They were Reese's Pieces, no better or worse than civilian Reese's Pieces. I also saved the First Strike bar. Here's a picture of another First Strike bar:

It's odd. Imagine a cereal bar mixed with sugary plastic. It's actually a lot nicer than it looks, but it's very dense and again not suited to hot weather environments. Given that the US army has spent most of the last half-century fighting in hot weather environments that might explain why MREs are not universally beloved. If only there was a way to put a cold beer in an MRE and keep it cold.

And that was MRE Menu 5: Chicken Chunks. It's okay. From a civilian perspective you could duplicate it with some cooked chicken, a dash of hot sauce, a couple of tortillas and some actual cheese. As actual outdoors food it was a lot more palatable than MRE pizza. The biggest problem really is anonymity, because it's hard to feel anything for cooked chicken, the end.