Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Metal Gear Solid: a Fan's Retrospective

Ok internet crazy news, I have managed to score a press pass for Thursday and Friday of the Eurogamer Expo; one of the biggest gaming expos this side of the Pacific. As a result I've decided to spend the month leading up to it doing some gaming posts because cool kids love gaming.
Gamers are Badical dude! 
With this in mind I'd like to talk about a series of games which is currently celebrating it's 25th anniversary. That series is Metal Gear (or more specifically Metal Gear Solid). Like many people from my generation I played the original Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation when I was barely into my teens. My dad was a touring sound engineer at the time and had just finished a month long tour with Howard Jones. He had spent a lot of time wasting hours on the road playing Wipeout with various band and crew members so upon returning home he decided he wanted to keep on playing and bought a Sony PlayStation under the guise of buying me it as a gift (back in the 90s normal adults didn't play computer games, they were for kids). To balance things out he also bought my sister a cat. That cat is still very much alive and kicking, the PlayStation sadly is not. It was the first console I had ever owned and I was super excited when he took me to Electronics Boutique to go and pick it up. He decided to go for a bundle that came with two controllers, a memory card and two games, Dad got Wipeout and told me I could pick the other one. I was momentarily paralysed with excitement. Up until this point my gaming life had largely consisted of watching my friend John play Mega Man X - A game we would later 100% complete in one sitting as older teenagers, taking it in turns to eat and catch a few hours of sleep - and the occasional arcade outing on holidays to France. Now I was not only about to own a cutting edge gaming console but also get to pick a game. After much deliberation I came across a game with the words "YOU ARE SNAKE, A GOVERNMENT AGENT ON A MISSION TO REGAIN CONTROL OF A SECRET NUCLEAR WEAPONS BASE FROM TERRORIST HANDS..." emblazoned across the back. It also featured in game 3D screen shots of what appeared to be a robot ninja and a man taking on a tank alone. It also apparently featured animated blood, gore and violence as well as mature sexual themes. To my partially formed nerdy teenage mind it appeared to be the most bad ass thing since the X men. I picked it and so began a love affair that has lasted to this day.
Unfortunately the above arrow and circle were not included


At this point Metal Gear Solid is an undisputed classic of early generation gaming. It has also somehow survived the ravages of time which is more testament to its genius than anything else. As a young nerdy teenage boy it also delivered everything I wanted it to whilst still being ground breaking and narratively complex. Metal Gear Solid was the first time I had ever seen a cut scene or for that matter, characters talk to each other for longer than a few minutes but it never seemed to become dry or bogged down by the weight of its own story (an issue with many of the later titles). The gameplay was fun, the soundtrack was immersive and the boss fights were well paced and climactic.

Thinking about it the main thing that defines Metal Gear Solid and the series over all for me is the way it simultaneously appeals to the inner child whilst being driven by a deeper more adult story. Metal Gear Solid 1 for example is a story about two brothers bred by the military as weapons without their biological father's consent who will ultimately have to kill each other because they happen to be on two sides in a war their dad devoted his life to preventing and failed. While other games would drown you in sorrow by endlessly focusing on the WAR IS HELL aspect of this story Hideo Kojima throws in a BADASS WALKING TANK WITH A RAIL GUN:
Although the core stories of all 4 Metal Gear Solid games are arcane and quite depressing they are told with such a sense of anarchic joy that the sting of sadness gets lost under Kojima's bold brush strokes leaving only a residual tang of melancholy which only enhances the game's narrative flavour.

Metal Gear Solid was also the first game for me that turned shoot the dudes into only shoot the dudes sometimes, a step that made run and gun gameplay a much more satisfying and strategic 'sneak and shoot' affair. This play style has stayed with me throughout my gaming years to the point where my skyrim character is a stealth archer; I'm shooting at dragons with a bow and arrow in a world where people can shoot fireballs out of their hands and shout people off cliffs because of MGS1. Why? Because it's cooler that's why.

Sons of Liberty: Raiden Against the Machine

So first things first let me get this straight. I don't really like Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty. Raiden as a main character doesn't really do anything for me. It is however filled with themes of rising above your origins and escaping the establishment also it's hard not to enjoy storming a giant underwater base with Solid Snake so I can forgive its many faults; it's still a very solid game. During it's final act it also asks an important question. Why are you enjoying this? You're killing men in their droves! The blurred line between the entertainment derived from role-playing as an elite stealth operative and just wanting to vicariously shoot people in the face is often examined in MGS games but only in Sons of Liberty does the game stop and directly ask you why you are still playing. It's a bold move you have to respect. Even if Raiden is only one giant robot short of an Evangelion character.

Snake Eater: Doing it for the Kids... Like a Boss

MGS3: Snake Eater is hands down my favorite of the franchise. Its fun without being too silly, full of great areas, perfectly realised (and often wonderfully silly) characters and as a prequel it is without peer or equal. Here more than in any other MGS Kojima combines the ridiculous and the real, the harrowing and the hilarious, the Bourne and the Bond. All of the amazing boss battles (e.g. The End), spectacle (e.g the Shagohod chase) and pacing (the ladder climb) paled into insignificance for me when compared to one thing. It seems like MGS3 is the first game in which Hideo decided to stop the roller-coaster ride of fun so we have to deal with something. That something is The Boss. All of Snake Eater's wacky aping of James Bond only serves to display it's ending in even more stark contrast. 
War really is hell
I remember completing the game and weeping uncontrolably. I was back home on summer break from university at the time and my mum came in to see what I was crying about. all I could manage was 
"the Boss *sob* died as a traitor *sob* to save *sob* her son *sob* ANDHEHADTOKILLHERBECAUSEHEDIDNTKNOWWWWWWW" 
To this day she can't work out what caused that partcular episode. The final fight with The Boss and the subsequent epilogue is one of the most emotive sequences in any video game ever. Well... Maybe.

Guns of the Patriots: Maybe the World is Better Without Snakes

I have a confession to make: I played MGS4: Guns of the Patriots for the first time a few months ago. My girlfriend (also a big MGS fan) made me sit down and play it over a weekend and I loved it. It's probably the most ambitious of all the Metal Gears; Kojima and his team created an entire near future world and its amazingly well put together. It also feels like the most real of the franchise because all the patented craziness we've come to know and love can be explained away by nanomachines.
well... most of it
Getting to see the end of Snake and his constant duel with Liquid/Ocelot as a fan of the series was amazing (especially going back to Shadow Moses) and I loved every second but I have one issue with Guns of the Patriots: it seemed to have a lot less game in it than the others. The crushing weight of exposition in MGS4 makes the original seem like an article about science in the Sun: brief and simple. Don't get me wrong everything about it was amazing - the microwave corridor for example beats the end of MGS3 hands down - but it seemed that Kojima wanted to make a movie, not just a game and it threatened to leave me behind at points. It's obvious he made it for the fans however and its rare that a game corp has enough confidence in a title that they let anyone do that so I guess we should be grateful.

So What am I Trying to Say

Metal Gear Solid 1-4 are not just games, they are examples of an art form that I think defines our generation. Their continuous dedication to fun without sacrificing narrative or character elevate them above all other gaming franchises. When I am old and grey I will tell my grandchildren about A man I once knew called Solid Snake and his dad Big Boss and their adventures. Call of Duty has nothing on that.

Stay Crunchy Internet

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Prop Making 101: Cosplay Prop Making for Beginners Part 2

Welcome back to my two part series of posts on cosplay prop making! Last week we covered planning and making props using a prop katana as an example. This week we'll look at a few more construction tips and go into spraying and finishing.

Foam is Your Friend

We left the katana project with the basic build finished on the blade but there is one major part of the sword left to finish: the hilt. The main challenge here is that the hilt and pommel of a sword is usually curved at the edges and while plasticard and doubled up dowel are strong they are not flexible. It is at this point we must call on another trusty friend of the prop maker: craft foam. Craft foam is a medium to high density flexible foam that comes in a variety of colours, usually as A4 sheets. You can find it at basically any arts and craft store, often brand named as funky foam or something similar. The main reasons I use craft foam are its flexibility, thickness and affordabilty. You can also cut it very easily with a stanley knife or scissors.

Craft foam works best when layered with plasticard (via the use of hot glue) as it forms a durable, solid multilayered compound which is strong and light:
Above we see this effect on the cross piece that connects the katana grip to the blade. All 7 layers have been cut from the same template and although there is some deviation this step is followed by hot gluing a strip of plasticard to each exposed side of the layers to hide the messiness.

Craft foam also helps plasticard bend. When dealing with a part of a prop where a curved edge is required it is best to use lower thickness plasticard; preferably 0.5mm or less as it is more flexible. As foam is much more flexible than styrene sheet and holds hot glue very well it forms the perfect basis for curved parts of a prop:
This picture shows what will become the pommel of the katana (notice the crosspiece out of focus in the background. The hilt itself is made from cut up sections of electrical trunking flanked by pieces of dowel and taped together at either end:
The foam has been stuck to this core piece via the gradual application of hot glue. It was stuck in place at the centre of the trunking then more drawn out lines of glue were added as the core was rolled along a flat surface, forcing each line of glue into a uniform layer. This curved layer of foam then formed the base to which 0.5 mm thick plasticard can be stuck. You are probably now asking "why not just leave the foam without going to all the trouble of adding the plasticard?" It's a valid question and it has a valid answer; foam does not hold paint well at all and it has very little structural strength. Never paint directly onto foam. It will just rub off, even if you prime it. If your foam is the right color to begin with however - as was the case with the grip of the katana - there is no need for the addition of a layer plasticard. It was however added to the bottom of the grip to seal and hide the messy end shown above.

Mind the Gap

Once all of the structural parts of your prop are done all thats left to do before painting is filling in any gaps that may have opened during construction as parts of it flexed or pulled apart in odd ways. Usually these are small and won't threaten the structural integrity of the piece but they do look a bit rubbish if left unfilled. To deal with these we use modelling putty. It goes by many names; kneadite, green stuff, white stuff, grey stuff etc. It's essentially a form of epoxy putty that comes in two different coloured components (often blue and yellow) that when mixed form a shapeable putty that sticks to anything dry and gradually solidifies over about 12 hours. You can buy it at basically any model store (games workshop included if you like paying stupid amounts of money for very little) and it's great for filling gaps. Just mix it up, spread it into any gap with a wetted finger or the edge of your hobby knife:
Then leave it over night and sand the area with fine or very fine grade sand paper:
At this point you're almost ready to paint the prop, just make sure there are no stringy bits of hot glue left on it that will ruin the finish; you may even want to give the whole thing a sand with fine grade sandpaper to remove debris and prepare the surface for paint.

Spray and Pray

Once all your gaps are filled it's time for spraying! Always remember to undercoat your prop with a black or grey primer before any other colours go on (I personally use Games Workshop chaos black spray but thats possibly because I used to work for the company and old habits die hard) then go nuts with whatever spray you want to use. Just remember that your not trying to paint the whole thing in one go, some spray paints (especially enamel metalics) work best if applied in thin layers with 30min to 1 hour of drying between coats. Also when using masking tape always cover whatever your protecting completely in masking. Spray paint gets everywhere.

If you need to stencil anything I reccomend using decal paper; essentially an entire sheet of sticky back plastic that you can draw on. Its easy to get hold of and is great because you can use your original templates to mark out an exact replica of the prop-face you are stencilling onto:
here we see the original templates of the katana, the sprayed blade and the decal paper that will be used to mask off the blade when the final light sliver spray layer is added. Here's the finished effect:

Closing Thoughts

Phew! We're done! the prop is finished, sprayed and ready to take to a convention! Or is it. Remeber to make sure you can't actually hurt someone with your prop before you take it to a con or it's probably just going to get taken off you. Smooth off and blunt any sharp edges or points and make it as light weight as possible. We don't want anyone getting hurt especially yourself. Mixing alcohol and samurai swords may sound fun,  but someones probably going to loose an arm.

Also one last tip. Remember that everyone will think your props look cooler than you think they are, while all you may see are the flaws and inaccuracies that occurred while you were rushing to finish things all everyone else will see is a bad ass costume. You've had to be in contact with the thing for hours of blood sweat and tears; everyone else will see it for 5 minutes tops. So don't worry about things not being good enough. Go out and make cool things!

Stay Crunchy Internet

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Prop Making 101: Cosplay Prop Making for Beginners Part 1

First of all apologies for the lack of posting last week, I've been feverishly making props for Amecon 2012 which I attended this weekend just gone. Needless to say it was ace and I had a great time. I also ran a small event which to my surprise saw massive attendance with what appeared to be over 100 people turning up (I was later informed it was closer to 70). I'd like to thank everyone who came to see me say things and make bad jokes for about an hour. What follows is an expanded version of my presentation including links to where I source my material and some extra hints and tips for anyone who's wanted to make cool stuff before but didn't know where to start.

I've been making costume props for between 4 and 5 years now because its fun, larger and more craft based than fiddly little models and the ladies love it (one of these statements may or may not be true). I always feel more like I'm actually making something with props than I do with Warhammer or ridiculously pricy Japanese fighting robot kits and it is this distinctly pleasurable sensation that keeps me coming back to the hobby. Here are some of the more recent fruits of my labour:

As you can see I've made a few  bits and pieces over the years; I've made my fair share of mistakes, burned, cut, sanded and drilled myself more times than I can count (I would not for example recommend impaling your finger with a hobby drill, it hurts alot) and spent many a sleepless night desperately trying to finish off things that I've left to late. I have learned from these experiences and intend to help you avoid them.

Tools of the Trade

Here are the tools I most frequently use when making props:

  1. A Stanley knife for cutting craft materials.
  2. A hot glue gun for sticking things together. It's important to note that hot glue is very hot and will burn you. Remember often less is more and excess glue can cause tiny spider web strands to form on and around your prop which are a total pain.
  3. An engineer's rule for measuring and a number of other things. These are indespensable as they are accurate, strong and hot glue does not stick to them very well. This meanst that you can use your rule to spread out hot glue without risking burns.
  4. A mechanical pencil with 0.5 or 0.7mm diameter graphite leads. These are great because pencil rubs off easily to remove mistakes and they have a set lead width unlike standard sharpened pencils which assures consistant accuracy.

Having a Plan

One of the most important parts of making props is planning, never before has the old adage "measure twice cut once" been more apt than here. If you want to research a particular character's weapon it's worth trying to find out if it's based on an actual piece of period weaponry. Wikipedia is great for this kind of thing. Also search websites like Cosplay Island and see if you can crib some notes off of people who may have tried to make that particular prop before. The Gibson Les Paul pictured above is based on a cutting guide I printed off the internet after googling around for literally 10 minutes.

Another great source of inspiration for prop measurements is action figures. If you can get your hands on a reasonably well scaled figure version of the character you want to cosplay there is a simple trick you can use to work out all the measurements you need for your prop. All you have to do is divide your height by the height of the action figure (both in cm) and that gives you a scaling ratio. You can then multiply the dimentions of any prop that comes with said figure by that ratio to scale it up to your size. For example for the cosplay to the right I based the gun and the breasplate design on scaled up versions of the action figure to the left with moderate success.

If no action figures or easily printable templates are forthcoming fear not! Just grab a pen and some scrap paper and scribble out some rough sketches/ diagrams of the item you want to make and try to build up in your head how it's going to fit together. How will you strengthen it? where might it flex? which parts of it might need extra support. These aren't meant to be detailed schematics so just let loose and get some rough measurements down.

Template: Response

The next stage on from roughly sketching out/ drawing your prop is scaling it up as a rough draft. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is using templates made out of thin cardboard, about the same thickness as a birthday card. You can buy this in sheets online but I have always made mine out of old cereal boxes, dividers on the inside of packaging and just about anything else I can get my hands on. Once again these templates are intended to help you get an idea for how your prop is going to fit together. Card is cheap and easy to find so its easy to go though plenty of revisions.

Use your sketches, an engineer's rule and a mechanical pencil to sketch a rough 2D version of all or part of your prop then cut it out. You can even attach various parts together with tape to make a full 3D draft of the piece. Don't expect to get things right first time; template drafting is supposed to be a gradual, creative process and making mistakes are all part of the development of your prop.

Making it

So now you've got templates made for all the parts of your prop and your ready to make it. For example lets say your making a samurai sword like I did last week. you know roughly what it looks like from the anime:
You've researched it and discovered that Katanas are always at least 60cm long and that the blade should extend into the hilt to balance and strengthen it. You've also seen that the blade you want to make (based on one of Mifune's from Soul Eater) is only slightly curved. You've also made 4 templates, one of which is just the right curvature. All you need is a strong but light construction material. The best thing to use for straight, flat props like swords and guns is Styrene sheet  (AKA plasticard) which I buy from Station Road Baseboards, a UK based company which usually delivers very fast. 1mm to 0.7mm thick is what I tend to use unless it needs to bend around something.

Start by bluetacking your template to the plasticard and drawing around it, if your template is too long for the plastic just tape two pieces together:
 then carefully cut around the outline with your stanley knife:
these two pieces make up the two halves of your sword (this approach works well for any single edged blade). The line drawn down them indicates where the cutting edge of the blade starts. Now we need some 0.6cm dowel which you can buy from any high street DIY store. The dowel is used to form a backbone for the sword. It's too flexible as a single rod but the magic of physics results in a massive increase in strength and sturdyness once two dowels are taped together by wrapping them in selotape. Now hot glue the dowel backbone close to the back of the blade (but not right on its back edge)
You'll notice that the backbone is not one continuous piece of doubled up dowel and it does not extend to the tip of the plasticard, this helps it conform to the curve of the blade and allows it to form a sharp looking tip. The blade is also gaffer taped together along the first 15cm to prevent the two halves from connecting unevenly. Now score but don't cut along the second line on the outside of the blade. This will allow the plasticard to flex where the cutting edge starts, creating a realistic looking diagonal that gradually sweeps into the point.
once scored, simply wrap the unglued side of the blade around onto the dowel and (once you're sure both sides line up) glue it in place along the backbone. Then to seal the cutting edge of the blade apply hot glue liberally on the inside of the sword and spread it along one side edge where the two diagonal pieces meet with the flat end of your engineer's rule in sections; holding the outside of the blade till you feel it cool as you go. Finally glue the tips of the sections together and back the blade with a thin strip of plasticard; you can use a 0.8cm strip and cut off the excess from the pointy end using your stanley knife.

So that covers making the blade. Next week we'll go into making the hilt,cover some finishing tips and talk about spray painting and decal paper. Also: how to make your props convention safe.

Stay Crunchy Internet

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Bastion: Building a Better World

A couple of weeks ago an event occurred that is usually very hard on my wallet; the steam summer sale. Often Steam sales result in me spending the same amount I would on one game for that same game and a bunch of others I will never play... as a result of last Christmas for example I now own all the Midway games which I'm told are historically accurate naval combat simulators. None of which I will ever install, let alone play. This year however I managed to avoid the summer sale largely because I have been horrifically busy with Amecon looming on the horizon (which I am running an event at, more on that in a few weeks). I did however pick up one game. That game was the Indy game Bastion.
And you thought your commute was bad
I have played a few Indy games over the last few years; Braid, Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Osmos the list goes on. And I've always had one major gripe with most of them, they're all a bit pretentious. Braid had moments of genius but it's central theme was so cryptic that it appeared to have been made just to prove the creator was more intelligent and deep than you, Super Meat Boy was a tribute to old skool platformers in which challenge far outweighed any sense of achievement and Limbo played out like a particularly nihilistic Swedish film student's wet dream. All of them had moments of true artistic genius and were obviously very high concept but they lacked one crucial thing: fun. Don't get me wrong they had entertaining sections but these were largely lost in a sea of heavy handed symbolism and overwrought subtext. It was like playing my teenage poetry.
Me in early 2008, first year of university, Pink Floyd and North by North-West on my dorm room wall. Trilby on my head.  This has not gone well.
I am pleased to say that Bastion was a complete breath of fresh air. I realise I'm a bit late to this party (it's now over a year since it was released on XBLA) but seriously, you have to play it if you haven't yet. Without spoiling too much about the plot Bastion is a post apocalyptic action RPG played from a top down view in which you play a young man with a shadowy past known only as "the Kid" who may end up saving what's left of humanity. If you think we're just retreading the blasted wastes of the first two Fallout games however think again.

Picking up the Pieces

Visually Bastion borrows more from the Disgaea series than fallout and it is beautiful. The world ending event (known only as "the Calamity") that starts the game's narrative launched the parts of the world it didn't destroy into the sky and the Kid possesses a magical emblem which draws in parts of those shattered lands as you progress.
This means the game world literally builds itself around you; dead ends become new paths and impassable chasms become bridges as you approach them. You literally put the pieces of your broken world back together as you move around, no side quests or back tracking, just your presence. It's very satisfying.

Your Weapon is Choice

Gameplay wise Bastion is simple but endlessly varied. You unlock new weapons as you progress though the game. These include a fast slashing machete, a blunderbuss, dueling pistols, a spear, a bow, a sledge hammer, a flame thrower and many more. Each weapon has a special move you can take with you on your missions to various levels allowing you to mix and match to find the combination that suits you best. There are also various unlockable tonics that augment the Kid and give him extra passive abilities in combat.
Many people will find themselves settling into a specific two weapon and special move combination mid way through the game allowing you to play Bastion your way. The weapons and tonics are well balanced as well and most enemies can be beaten using clever application of any weapon you choose so no back tracking to the hub world to rub a specific item on a specific monster so you can progress.

An Oral History, An Aural World 

One of the things that impressed me most about bastion is the way it tells it's story. From beginning to end your journey through the game is narrated by a character called Rucks. As in literally narrated; Rucks praises your choice in weapons, urges you on when times are tough and helps you find your way if you are lost. He also feeds you small snippets of information as you rebuild the world hinting at how things got so bad. This may seem like it would get annoying but it's done so well that you come to love him as if he was actually there fighting alongside you. Also he sounds like a prospector from the old west which makes the game feel like the post apocalyptic tale Mark Twain never got round to writing.
Have I ever told ya a tall tail I heard about a kid named Huck Fin?
On that subject the music of Bastion is also a masterpiece of sound design; somewhere between ambient electronica and good old boy western folk it hits all the right notes at all the right moments. Also specific characters have specific musical cues and songs attributed to them which have hidden meanings that become clearer the more you learn about them.

Bastion: An Individual Amongst Indy Games

Bastion stands proud of it's Indy game compatriots largely due to the relaxed way that it tells its story and the use of simple mechanisms to create a compelling game world that speaks for itself. It tells an honest, somewhat depressing but ultimately hopeful story in a simple, honest way. Visually it's beautiful, gameplay wise it's balanced, varied and fun and its characters are realistic, relateable and compelling. Why are you still reading this? You should be playing it!

Stay Crunchy Internet