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7 Video Games Based on Works of Art (or a John Hodgman Podcast)

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Video games often feature dumb premises: plumbers must save a princess from a dragon/turtle monster? What's going on there?! But what happens when video games are based on great works of literature, music, film, and theater -- does great art make a great game? Read on for some of our favorites.

1. The Great Gatsby: Based on a Book

Programmers Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith crafted an old-school Nintendo game based on The Great Gatsby, spending an entire year on their project. The game is playable online (or in an NES simulator), and is a traditional four-level NES platformer full of references to the iconic work of American literature. A promotional poster reads, in part:

It's the roaring 20s, and trouble's in store for Nick Carraway. It's hard to enjoy a party when you're being chased by wacky waiters, dizzy drinkers, and crazy dancers! Now you have to find Gatsby, the mysterious man you saw disappear on the hillside...or did he?

You play as Nick, throwing a boomerang hat at various enemies and picking up coins, drinks, and power-ups. The dizzy drinkers toss bottles at you, and the place is simply crawling with wacky waiters and flappers. "Only for Nintendo, Old Sport!"

You can play the game online. You may enjoy the manual as well -- watch out for Boxcar Bill! For the nerds in the crowd, the game is open source so you can adapt or improve it if you like. The game's creators have said that they considered making a Jane Eyre game next, but decided to open source their Gatsby NES code instead -- let some other coders take a crack at Eyre!

2. 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness: Based on a Song

John Cage's composition 4'33" ("four, thirty-three") is a minimalist musical work in which no audible musical notes are performed. It includes a detailed score, instructions for performance, and is routinely performed around the world.

Petri Purho created the game 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness for Windows. The game launches, starts a fullscreen black and white progress bar, and checks online to see if anyone else is "playing." If anyone else in the world is currently playing, or launches the game while you play, you "lose" and the game quits. You can only win if you pass four minutes and thirty-three seconds without anyone else attempting to play. It's a game in which multi-player interaction is crucial to the gameplay (indeed, is the gameplay) in much the same way as in 4'33", music and audience/performer dynamics are critical to the performance. The game also features "music" (4'33", naturally) by John Cage. Here's a screenshot:

433 Screenshot

Game designers also include Heather Kelley and Jonatan Söderström. (Yes, it took a three-person team to create this.) You can download the Windows game and learn a bit more about its creation on that page as well.

3. Twenty Lines: Based on a Movie

Twenty Lines screenshot

Twenty Lines is a surprisingly complex combination of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and Tetris, with some core Tetris gameplay mechanics changed. In the online game, you attempt to create the 2001 monolith using all-black tetrominoes, while viewing scenes and listening to music from the film. The game is maddeningly difficult (partly because the tetrominoes are initially tiny), and requires that you form 20 lines in order to complete the monolith. Emily Short wrote a detailed column about the game, including this bit:

Instead of trying to get rid of lines of blocks, you're now trying to build the black monolith. Completely filled lines sink to the bottom, exposing lines that still have holes in them. Problems rise to the top, so that they're easier to resolve. There are no hard sides to the game space, either: if a block sticks out past the borders of the monolith, the extra squares simply vanish.

Cinematic effects change the way the player perceives the game, as well. At first the monolith is distant from the player, placed in an alien environment, a bit difficult even to see clearly. The first lines of the game vanish into a hole in the ground, only half visible, and surrounded by gibbering primates.

Read the rest for an excellent critique of the game-as-art, or just start playing.

4. Which-Way Adventure: Based on a Series of Books

Which Way Adventure screenshot

Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Now they've been reimagined as an online video game (warning: not for kids). In J. Allen Henderson's game, your path through life ends in all sorts of bizarre corners (many of which involve, as pictured above, battling a manticore -- and we all know that doesn't end well). Much like the books, the game predictably ends pretty quickly, and you sometimes get caught in strange loops going from place to place. It's frequently violent, occasionally profane, and always bizarre. Try it...if you're over 18 and can handle the weirdness.

5. Waiting For Grodoudou: Based on a Play

Waiting for Godot screenshot

Based originally on Waiting for Godot (before a cease-and-desist letter from the Beckett estate caused a slight name change), Waiting For Grodoudou is a game of extreme inaction. It has tons of levels and even "boss battles," but all you can do is move your character back and forth on a blank field with a lonely tree to one side. As the game levels progress, a cloud slowly moves across the sky. Perhaps there's more to this game (there are rumors of a "surprise" at level 99), but I could only stomach five minutes of walking back and forth. And believe me, I love Beckett.

Created by Mike and Jeff Rosenthal, this is an Atari 2600-style masterpiece. Does Godot (sorry, Grodoudou) ever arrive? You'll just have to keep playing to find out. Mike Rosenthal said in an interview with The Rumpus: "The game is pretty difficult in a way, but rather than testing your reflexes, it tests your patience." Indeed. Play it here (requires download of a Unity plugin) or just check out this YouTube video for a taste of the, uh, gameplay. You might also enjoy this interview with Mike Rosenthal.

6. Hamlet: Based (Loosely) on a Play

Advertising "epic boss battles," "innovative puzzles," and "bizarre point-and-click adventuring," Hamlet is actually a fairly successful game for iPad, iPhone, and PC. It's not even remotely true to the original play, but it is a fun game in its own right, with high-quality cartoon art and some tricky (or frustrating, depending on your point of view) puzzles. The marketing material says: "Guide the man from the future as he embarks on a mind-bending mission to save Hamlet's girlfriend, Ophelia, from the clutches of the evil Claudius." Ahem: "O! what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!"

You can read a review here and there is a free "Lite" version available for iPhone and iPad.

7. George Plimpton's Video Falconry: Based on a Podcast

While a podcast may not be a great work of art, this one is so weirdly meta that it deserves a mention.

Journalist George Plimpton was (among many other things) a pitchman for the Intellivision game console. Author John Hodgman (a former pitchman for Apple) now stars in the Judge John Hodgman podcast, in which he gives a sort of TV-judge treatment to trivial disputes, delivering justice and jokes in equal measure. In episode 22 of the podcast, Hodgman made a brief joke about the (fictional) game George Plimpton's Video Falconry; the subject of that podcast episode was a dispute about the legitimacy of video game strategy guides.

After hearing this fleeting mention of the fictional Video Falconry game, programmer Tom Fulp actually created a ColecoVision-style game in Flash, along with faux promotional and historical videos. The game itself is challenging and funny, though the fake TV ad for it is probably the best bit:

You can play the game online, or learn more fake Plimpton history, if you dare.

What Did I Leave Out?

What's your favorite video game based on great art? Let us know in the comments. Or just share how awful Waiting For Grodoudou made you feel.

See also: “Twin Peaks” as an Atari Game.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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