Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.
Proper Buzzer Technique
Earlier this week, Sam Barsanti wrote about some of the problems with the latest video game version of Jeopardy!. Down in the comments, NakedSnake put out a call for readers’ Jeopardy! stories. The thread was soon visited by a few contestants, who talked about bathroom breaks, the consequences for revealing the results of your episode before it airs, and the wise words of the show’s “contestant wranglers.” Joining in on a conversation about the specifics of the show’s buzzer and proper buzzer technique, Arthur Chu, a current Jeopardy! champion, had this to say about showdown between Ken Jennings and IBM’s Watson computer, a John Henry-esque battle mentioned in Sam’s article:
One thing that made this a little more “fair” was that Watson was programmed not to buzz until it actually knew the answer, which meant that if it spent any additional time “thinking,” it was possible for a human to beat it (especially if the human is using the hammer-continuously-on-the-button-to-beat-the-lockout strategy). Humans, on the other hand, can and often do buzz without having any idea what the answer is, and then use the awkward pause after Alex calls on them to try to figure it out.
If you actually watch the games the humans do manage to beat Watson to the buzzer sometimes, whether by being supernaturally quick and accurate or because Watson, like many computers, sometimes got weirdly hung up “thinking” about something that wasn't too hard for a human.
As I understand it, the question of how you could possibly make the game fair for a computer that can “buzz in” with superhuman speed was of major concern to the Jeopardy! producers. They insisted for this reason that Watson not be electronically connected to the signaling system but instead be given a real, physical buzzer and a mechanical "thumb" to click the button with, to simulate a human buzzing situation as closely as possible.
Peter Malamud Smith brought us a piece about the litany of fan-made Mega Man games that have filled the void left by Capcom’s neglect of the series. Peter mentioned that while these efforts should be lauded, they also serve to remind players of the nuances that made the original Mega Man title pillars of classic gaming. For PaganPoet, however, they were a sign that maybe the special kind of difficulty in those old games doesn’t hold up:
I know I run the risk of blasphemy here, but I honestly don't have the patience for Mega Man-style games anymore. Consider the Yellow Devil from the very first game. There's a boss at the end of a punishingly difficult level that actually requires you to memorize the order in which its body parts fly across the room to avoid them. No rhyme, no reason, just memorization and trial and error.
That kind of thing could fly in the ’80s and early ’90s, because that's just the way games were back then, and we accepted that. But now? Forget that. I expect creativity in the way a game challenges me. Even games like Rayman Origins and Super Meat Boy that seem to always be lauded for their “old-school difficulty” have tight controls, and your deaths always feel like they truly were your fault.
Commenting about the way modern games have deemphasized rote memorization, DL drew a pretty hefty music metaphor for the difference between new and old:
What’s interesting is most games express a player’s ability to input a list of commands in sequence, much like piano playing (which is also pressing buttons in a timed sequence). One way to determine how much memorization is required is to watch gameplay videos and look for variety in technique and expression.
Some games, like Mega Man, are more like Johann Sebastian Bach's Inventions; they are often complex and require extreme mastery to even sound recognizable. Those that play it masterfully still express personality in the piece, but those differences are only noticeable to a familiar ear.
Other games, like the Mario games, are more akin to Beethoven's renowned “Ode To Joy.” The fact that someone noodling around on a piano can pick up much of the basic melody in a few minutes means it has room for both novice and expert play and expression (despite how horrible the novice appears to the expert). It always becomes more enjoyable as one’s skill improves, yet anyone can appear to be skillful (or just enjoy it) at even a basic level of competence, and everyone can at least be part of the conversation.
For the grand return of the Gameological Q&A, we wanted to hear about the pieces of in-game pop culture that you would like to see brought into the real world. Girard mentioned wanting to visit the bizarre roadside attractions of Sam And Max Hit The Road, which prompted Mr. Martini to grace us with this gem:
The Midwest has an impressive number of surreal roadside attractions that would feel right at home in an irreverent Lucasarts/Telltale game. Among others, there is an enormous Jolly Green Giant Statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota and the deeply unsettling Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
We came across both while passing through on a road trip. I had just gotten back from overseas and developed an infection under my big toenail that became rather crippling during the car ride. My awareness was augmented by the pain medication, and seeing the Jolly Green Giant was an unexpected delight. We had no idea it was there, so the tremendous, dead-eyed face rising over the horizon was wonderfully surreal.
The Corn Palace was equally surreal, but not in a good way. From what I could gather as we drove past its inexplicable onion dome exterior (which is made mostly of corn), the Corn Palace is a poorly funded museum extolling the virtues of corn. Filled with pain medication, I entered the palace and hobbled through a field of placid faced aryan children, only to be greeted by this monster.
The monster was very concerned by the state of my foot and wanted to take me to a “first-aid area.” I graciously declined, but the monster insisted. My adventure game training told me that the only way I was going to get out of this was to find a way to drug the monster and steal the mascot uniform. My fiancée indicated that walking out the exit door was also an option. She was right.
That does it for another week in Gameological. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!