Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

December 4th, 2017 9:46 AM
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I subscribe to only two monthly magazines, one of which is Game Informer. While it's not my only source for video game news, I enjoy its in-depth features on game development, previews of upcoming titles, and reviews of games I might never play.

One of those games is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, a first-person shooter and the eighth in the Wolfenstein series, released just this past October. The game follows protagonist William "B.J." Blazkowicz, introduced in 1992 in the series' original first-person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, as he sets about to free an alternate-history modern America of its Nazi rule.

I haven't played any Wolfenstein games since that 1992 title, but I was struck by this passage in Game Informer's review of the latest game:

The New Colossus does not shy away from tough themes but, on the contrary, aggressively pursues them. The 14-hour campaign tackles racism, being complicit in cruelty, executions, child abuse, despair, patricide, the holocaust, white supremacy, and terrorism. While these themes are dark, the game handles them well, giving a proper amount of drama and emotional depth to each while also refusing to offer easy answers to the questions that plague the characters’ hearts. However, this parade of tragedy is never too much to bear, because the game takes the time to throw in wacky humor, like when machines are zapping Nazis into a fine red goop while Set Roth explains to B.J. just how broken his body is. You also see heartfelt moments of romance and friendship among the crew; amongst all the murder and sorrow, The New Colossus makes room for love and hope. Where these brands of tragedy and comedy might mix as well as water and oil in other games, here they are necessary parts to making this experience work as a cohesive whole.

My first reaction was to be impressed that the game had such a strong narrative. I'm a big fan of narrative-driven games, from Life Is Strange to Gone Home, and while first-person shooters often have story, they're hardly the reason gamers play them. But it seems developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks have nonetheless taken Wolfenstein's plot seriously. For the first time in 25 years, I find myself wanting to play a Wolfenstein game.

My second reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of the juxtaposition of such a strong narrative with incredibly violent gameplay. The New Colossus is rated 'M' by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for reasons that include plot and narrative but which focus primarily on the action: "Combat is frenetic, with realistic gunfire, explosions, screams of pain, and large blood-splatter effects. Some weapons allow players to blow off enemies' heads or cut off their limbs; cutscenes sometimes show decapitations and/or acts of disembowelment." It is no doubt this gratuitous violence, not the "heartfelt moments of romance and friendship", that will attract most gamers.

My third reaction was disbelief at how far the Wolfenstein franchise has come. Although it may have achieved mainstream popularity with its 3D incarnation in 1992, the series was founded in 1981 by Silas Warner's Castle Wolfenstein, a 2D, top-down stealth game. Did Warner ever expect that his humble program would evolve to "make room for love and hope"? Would he see any of his genetic code embedded in this descendant? What would he think of The New Colossus?

It's impossible to say: the first and latest Wolfenstein games are so far removed from each other at this point as to share only a name and general anti-Nazi theme, such that Warner may see only a passing resemblance. But as a gamer, I'm heartened that the Apple II has made possible such a prominent, highly anticipated, and well-received entry in the modern gaming landscape. Whether or not most gamers realize it, our lineage persists.

The music of Silas Warner, part deux

October 27th, 2014 1:57 PM
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Three years ago, I published music by the late Silas Warner, creator of MUSE Software's Castle Wolfenstein. By taking obscure NoteWorthy files and converting them to the more accessible MP3 format, I hoped to not only preserve Warner's legacy, but expose a side of him that hadn't gained him fame, but of which he was doubtless proud.

Since then, blog reader Andrew Monti generously volunteered to contribute to that effort. He emailed me to say:

Wonderful site! I didn't realize that [Silas Warner] was a musician as well. I knew you did what you could to extract the audio from NoteWorthy, but the built-in sound on the NoteWorthy player is painful! I managed to convert the original NoteWorthy file to Logic, where I used the Steinway Grand Hall piano sample kit. I also cleaned-up the tempo and applied a few other changes, and voila – a new, better-sounding stereo mix of this lovely piece.

Monti's modifications raise some philosophical issues: how did Warner intend for his music to be heard? If NoteWorthy's inbuilt sound is awful, is that how he heard it when he wrote it? If so, does adapting it to other formats or sample kits distort the artist's intention? This is the same question at the root of how emulators play sound. Few emulators manifest the original software's audio as it was intended to be heard, instead settling for a best approximation. Do Monti's improvements similarly reinterpret the past — or is using today's tools to enable Warner to overcome the limitations of his era? Are these edits any different from my previous release of the songs in MP3, a format that didn't exist in Warner's time?

Such questions are not for me to answer, and in this case where the original files are still available, any answer isn't likely to be particularly weighty. Monti's MP3s do not replace the ones I previously published, so I offer the updated ones at the bottom of this post, which Monti produced via these steps:

  1. Find someone with a 'real' copy of NoteWorthy. In this case, my PC-based producer friend Keith fit the bill.
  2. From within NoteWorthy, export the file as MIDI.
  3. In Logic, import the MIDI file.
  4. Unfortunately, not all MIDI parameters made the trip; I had to manually set the tempo and time signatures at the appropriate parts in the score based on the original NoteWorthy file. There were also a few obvious 'spurious' notes that had to be reigned in after the conversion. These were mostly between the tempo transitions.
  5. I applied a stereo mix to the track based on Logic's Steinway Grand software keyboard based on what the performer would hear (high frequencies in the right ear, etc.).
  6. Lastly, I exported the track as a WAV file and compressed it though a high-quality Steinberg MP3 encoder.

The result is a new rendition of "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)", by Silas Warner:

and "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation":

For that latter piece, Monti acknowledges that "string sections are tough without either special software or inordinate amounts of time in Logic to map the instruments to legato, pizzicato, bowing direction and speed, etc. when required… Personally, I don't think it's much better than the built-in MIDI sounds in NoteWorthy, but I may just be picky."

I'll let listeners decide how these songs should be heard.

Battle of the 'bots

February 9th, 2012 1:45 PM
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As I've discussed in Open Apple but not previously on Apple II Bits, you absolutely must check out Jimmy Maher's blog, The Digital Antiquarian. His exhaustive, academic, focused writings on the Apple II and aspects of its history and games (specifically what he refers to a "ludic narratives") are fun and informative reads worth making the time for.

His travels through Apple's history have most recently taken him to the works of Silas Warner, best known for the seminal stealth game Castle Wolfenstein but also developer of RobotWar, published by MUSE Software in 1981. True to its PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) origins, the game served as an instructional tool for teaching programming, challenging users to create routines that describe the behavior of a combative robot. As Maher describes:

You don’t get to design your robot in the physical sense; each is identical in size, in the damage it can absorb, in acceleration and braking, and in having a single rotable radar dish it can use to “see” and a single rotatable gun it can use to shoot. The programming language you work with is extremely primitive even by the standard of BASIC, with just a bare few commands. Actual operation of the robot is accomplished by reading from and writing to a handful of registers. That can seem an odd way to program today — it took me a while to wrap my mind around it again after spending recent months up to my eyebrows in Java — but in 1981, when much microcomputer programming involved PEEKing and POKEing memory locations and hardware registers directly, it probably felt more immediately familiar.

Two to five players would then enter their routines into an arena, and may the strongest robot win!

Terminator T-800 vs Robocop

Inspired by the RobotWar competitions Computer Gaming World once hosted, Maher is looking to resurrect these epic duels with a contest of his own. One cool feature not possible at the time of RobotWar's debut: Maher will do a screencast of each battle and upload the video recording, so that players can not just know the outcome but watch how it came to be. Contestants can tweak their winning 'bots between battles, evolving them to face ever stiffer competition. Grand prizes await the mightiest mech.

This sounds like great fun, in the tradition of HackFest and RetroChallenge. I applaud Maher for actively supporting and even expanding the Apple II community, and I encourage anyone reading this to consider entering the contest.

One shall stand… and one shall fall!

The music of Silas Warner

October 24th, 2011 1:05 PM
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Apple II users are, almost by definition, a talented lot. We take rudimentary materials and turn them into tools of wonderful self-expression, producing works of art that are beautiful technically, visually, and aurally. This artistic value often carries over into other media as well, though we rarely have the opportunity to share that side of our lives with other Apple II users — save the rare scenario where Stan Marks pulls out his guitar at KansasFest to sing about growing up on the Mississippi delta, or the Shepherds happen to be in Boston the same weekend I'm performing in Kiss Me, Kate.

It was with some surprise that I recently stumbled across historical evidence of a renowned Apple II user's musical talent. The late Silas Warner, best known as the creator of the classic Apple II game Castle Wolfenstein, was also "a published author and talented musician and composer in the classical European style", says Wikipedia. No links to his published writings are provided, but a pair of his musical works is available for download: the original composition "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)"; and Warner's arrangement of "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation".

Although I was eager to experience this side of the programmer, I was stymied by the files being available only in NWC format, used by the musical composition software NoteWorthy. I had neither the commercial product nor a Windows environment in which to try its free player, and my quest for alternatives or converters proved fruitless.

Finally, classifying this as an Apple II project, I turned to my fellow techies for help. Kelvin Sherlock was the first to respond: "I found this python script which can convert [NoteWorthy files] to lilypond format (lilypond is used for generating music scores but it can also generate MIDI files). Sadly, lilypond complains about a handful of errors in the converted file."

Andy Molloy then spoke up with a less technical but more effective workflow which he has generously outlined here:

  1. Download and install the free Noteworthy Composer Viewer for Windows.
  2. Run the Viewer, click File > Open and select the NWC file. Don't press play until you have Audacity ready to go.
  3. Download and install the free Audacity 1.3.13 beta for Windows.
  4. Download the LAME MP3 encoder plugin for Audacity and follow the instructions for installation. This will let you export an Audacity recording as an MP3.
  5. Run Audacity and follow the instructions to configure it to capture streaming audio. Since I was running Windows 7, I also had to first follow the Control Panel instructions.
  6. On the Audacity Device ToolBar, I set the Output Device drop down box to 'Digital Output' and the Input Device box to 'Stereo Mix'.
  7. Push the record button in Audacity, and switch back to Noteworthy Composer Viewer and push the play button.
  8. As the piece plays, you should see Audacity start to record the track.
  9. When Noteworthy finishes playing, press the stop button in Audacity.
  10. Save the MP3 in Audacity by clicking File > Export and change the 'Save As Type' to MP3.

Andy has provided the output of his efforts for embedding here. Published in a widely accessible format for perhaps the first time ever, it is an honor to present Silas Warner's "Variations on Sonata in A by Mozart (K.331)":

and "The Heavens are Telling, from The Creation":

Rest in peace, Silas Warner. It's a pleasure to hear your notes again.

UPDATE (27-Oct-14): Alternative versions of these songs are now available, courtesy Andrew Monti.

Castle Wolfenstein painting for auction

February 14th, 2011 10:38 AM
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Growing up with the Apple II, I enjoyed the computer more as a games machine than anything else. Sure, punching numbers into Visicalc or writing short stories in Apple Writer can be fun, but not so captivating to a five-year-old's imagination as Choplifter or Lode Runner.

One game that made an impression like no other was Castle Wolfenstein. Eleven years before its 3D successor, this Apple II game was spouting synthesized German at players as they made their way through a Nazi stronghold. I would wake up Saturday mornings before the rest of my family to play this game, and to have the pre-dawn silence suddenly broken by a stormtrooper bursting into the room and screaming at me was nerve-wracking. Castle Wolfenstein and Silent Hill are the only games that have made me so scared, I wanted to turn off the system. It's a powerful legacy for its late creator, Silas Warner, to have left.

Now, a piece of that history is up for auction. The box art for Castle Wolfenstein was based on an original painting which is currently listed on eBay. Here are the details:

Castle Wolfenstein paintingThis is the original painting by John D. Benson used as the cover for Muse Software’s 1981 game “Castle Wolfenstein” – the game that inspired id Software’s “Castle Wolfenstein 3D”! Castle Wolfenstein is the first in the genre of stealth-based computer games. Created by Muse software, it was available on the Apple II, DOS, Atari 8-bit family and the Commodore 64.

[The piece is for sale by Walter Costinak, who] was an incredibly successful video-game web designer, having created sites for id Software, Activision, Ritual Entertainment and many more. About nine years ago he bought this painting on eBay for his personal collection from someone who had acquired all the art from Muse's assets.

The original artist has contact me to let me know the painting is done with Alkyd Oils, not watercolor.

The dimensions of the piece (including matte and frame) are 27 1/4 inches by 23 1/4 inches. Also included are the original C64 manual and game disk (NOTE: disk slipcover is *not* original, and I don’t know if the disk still works).

Proudly show off the retro gaming geek that you are and hang this is your home, office, boardroom, or subterranean lair! Good luck on your bidding, schweinhund!

Although the artwork itself may not be a masterpiece, its historical value is at least that of its current bid, which at the time of this writing hasn't increased from $305 in the last 48 hours. I'll be watching this auction with more than a passing interest. Best of luck to all bidders!

(Hat tip to Andy Chalk)