dream job
I think I can confidently say this game is a legit masterpiece separate from my own nostalgia for it

there's a lot of absolutely phenomenal design work that I'll be yelling about

but also like... oof, nostalgia levels absolutely off the charts here lol
the thing is like... I was 17 in 2005, so right at this moment of like not a kid anymore but definitely not an adult, starting to like... *become* the person I would eventually grow into

and uh WOW do this game's themes just BLAST their way through a person's brain at that phase
and like it hit everyone I knew in the same way at the same time. yall remember deviantart in 2006??

individual and collective consciousnesses just utterly *suffused* with impossibly skinny trench coats and giant zippers and galaxy-brain existentialist revelations
like hi we're all teens on the internet just sort of trying on identities and performing them through art and xanga posts; here's a game with everyone swapping minds and bodies and bodies without minds and where do thoughts reside and who will remember me and holy shit two boys??
also the combat system rules
I love how you're just like utterly confused by everything going on and trying to figure out who these characters are, and then Roxas gets the keyblade and IMMEDIATELY jumps into Sora's goofy combat pose
also there is SO much dank lore going on in this section that makes zero sense at the time lol

the keyblade appears with this weird data effect, presumably because DiZ just like... spawned it on him so he could deal with the Nobody
also this is the third time I've played this game and the first time I've understood this line lol

the Nobodies are trying to take Roxas back to Org XIII, but they can't distinguish digitized Roxas from Data of Photos OF Roxas because everything's Data in Data Twilight Town
I know KH's whole reputation in 2020 is "insanely complicated lore" but IMO it's actually really fun and works well in KH2

It's totally out of hand now that there's like 15 games, but KH1 was v straightforward so 2 going "EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW WAS A LIE" actually owned
the fixation on memories shared in photographs and "the end of summer vacation" as metaphor for the end of adolescence itself and the subsequent changes in relationships aaaaa
please look at this skateboard

please look at the UI for this skateboard
so a thing I adore about Square, even to this day, is that somehow they have basically infinite money and some of the highest-level art talent in the industry, but just absolutely no concept of restraint or self-control whatsoever

nobody at this company knows what a producer is
like FFVII doesn't have "art direction", it has "every single asset created by 100 incredibly talented artists learning 3D modeling in two years, thrown into a giant pile"

they did learn art direction later but absolutely never learned "how do we make the artists stop"
when this works you get an insanely high-effort masterpiece like KH2

when it doesn't work you get FFXV, which is missing the entire second half of its plot but has a wildly sophisticated in-world AI photographer and like 120 of the most spectacular 3D models of food ever created
both of these outcomes rule
so like back to KH2

that skateboard?

you can ride the skateboard, you can grind ledges, you can do MULTIPLE tricks, and it serves *literally no purpose except to be rad*

like a whole custom movement system with a whole set of animations, for one throwaway asset in the prologue
there are a bunch of minigames at the beginning whose explicit purpose in the plot is to waste time

one of them is hanging posters

they could just cut, or hide it with particles, BUT NO

roxas pulls out a poster, *in his actual hand*, does a sick spin jump and SLAPS it on there
look at the particle effect where it hits the wall; it's just a starburst and a ring but it's so subtle and punchy and aaaa

and like the slowdown/anticipation in the hangtime before his hand connects

it is COMPLETELY UNJUSTIFIABLE for this to be this good

i love it so much
anyway this is where I point out that there are SEVENTY animators credited on this game
Twilight Princess and Kingdom Hearts II are two of my favoritest games ever and they both make the same bizarre error of confusing "twilight" with "sunset"
twilight is specifically the brief period AFTER sunset where the sun is gone but everything's still lit a dim blue/purple from sunlight scattered by the atmosphere

it's not orange

look this is important okay
odd rendering thing in this game that's always fascinated me:
Any "foreground" geometry leaves these really nice-looking dark halos on the sky, almost like weird AO

It seems related to how bloom works but I'm p sure it's a deliberate stylistic effect rather than an artifact...
I can think of a handful of ways this COULD be done, but no real way to find out for sure

I guess I could conceivably run the game in PCSX2 and hook up RenderDoc, but that would probably say more about how PCSX2 works it than how it was accomplished on actual hardware...
I love how everyone's faces can switch between textured eyes/mouths with flipbook animation and fully modeled/rigged features depending on the shot

AFAIK most of Square's PS2 games do this and it's a really neat trick


kingdom hearts dot png
I thought these were flipbooks and then I stared at them for way too long and I'm like 90% sure they're literally just scrolling UVs along wavy or spiral-shaped ribbons of geometry, and then scaling/rotating the geo

essentially still particles but with v carefully-shaped meshes
kingdom of hearts
honestly "Kingdom Hearts" is WAY up there on the list of "incredibly good English titles that no native English speaker would ever think of"

(#1 on this list is of course From Software, a grammatic landmine of a name which detonates any sentence that attempts to include it)
huh I still don't actually know what game Seifer and his crew are from
is... is this supposed to stand for TwiLight ToWn
Really neat forced perspective on the background here

the ground's only like a few meters away but little tiny trees and color shifts and thin clouds make it look like we're on top of a huge cliff

the train tracks are like, right over there, but the columns seem monolithic
literally me rn
honestly even knowing the plot ahead of time, this whole first act sets up a REALLY powerful mood. Roxas's whole arc of just trying to spend time with his friends and getting so isolated and confused by the simulation breaking down around him, finally turning to anger at Axel/DiZ
it perfectly aligns with the player's feelings at this point, where you have no idea what's going on or who any of these characters are, and nobody explains anything, and there's all these weird pointless quests and you're just like WHERE'S SORA I THOUGHT THIS WAS KINGDOM HEARTS

gameplay-wise you're confused and annoyed

plot-wise Roxas is disoriented and pissed off

You're doing essentially KH1 combat at level 3: you move slow, attack slower, have no dodge and no distance-closers, it's just generally stodgy and frustrating:
and then this dude who's been messing with your head the whole time shows up again and Roxas pulls TWO KEYBLADES OUT OF NOWHERE AND NOW COMBAT LOOKS LIKE THIS
the whole preceding 2+ hours of confusion and tedium turn out to have been setting up this moment, where Roxas basically does a limit break and unlocks Kingdom Hearts Combat
and it's accomplished through this incredible fusion of writing and scenario design and combat design and Game Feel

in terms of videogames as pure spectacle/adolescent power fantasy it's one of the hypest moments I've ever seen
This also demonstrates the secret sauce of KH combat design (and ties into the whole "seventy animators" thing): Leveling Up doesn't just make numbers bigger, YOUR ACTUAL MOVES GET COOLER
You move faster, swing wider, and start getting more and more acrobatic attacks built into your combos. You still BASICALLY just mash X, but the stuff that happens when you hit X gets more and more elaborate until you're just wasting swarms of mooks while flying all over the map
you could LITERALLY fly by the end of the first game, and after a brief disempowerment at the beginning to establish contrast, KH2 keeps pushing so much further you'd think it was a Trigger anime or something
It's the only RPG I know of that takes the "ever-increasing power levels" concept that's always a part of the genre, and makes it DIRECTLY tangible both through its aesthetics and actual combat system
(also you need seventy animators to pull it off, which makes my no-budget indie heart sink lol)
oh right there are disney characters in this
the disney stuff in the first game made sense because the whole pitch was "what if we somehow made a really good RPG out of an absurd fanfic AU" and like the weird juxtaposition of franchises was part of the point
but then for 2 they were just like... okay we're making a wild-ass shounen anime about existentialism and Feelings but wait whoops we are contractually obligated to include Donald Duck in every cutscene
remember when the pitch for Versus XIII was the kingdom hearts team basically making a KH game without disney and then they spent nine years making 3D models of croquettes
sora's outfit from the first game being way too small is such a great detail
yoooo that weird dark halo effect I was mentioning? They're legit using it as some kind of wild fake AO trick aaaaa
Here's some video; you can clearly see the darkening effect around the doors and those half-moon pedestals, and occasionally the characters. It only applies to geometry that overlaps the walls, specifically. There's no darkening around e.g. Sora's feet
It *seems* to be a part of however they're implementing bloom; the halo radius is the same as the bloom radius, and everything I've seen these halos on ALSO always glows (see: the glowy stars on the walls in this case)
Originally I thought it was just skydomes but it seems like they can tag any arbitrary geometry to give it this effect. It gets all soft and bloomy, and any opaque geo that draws in front of it gets a dark halo (regardless of depth, notably; it's not *actually* SSAO)
alright screw it

practicing social distancing by ripping my KHII DVD to an iso so I can run it in PCSX2 so I can hook it up to RenderDoc so I can figure out how they're drawing bloom
wow turns out if you skip all the cutscenes and run the emulator at 400FPS you can get through the first 45 minutes of tutorials in like 30 seconds
renderdoc captured.... one draw call that just spits out a textured quad that already has the entire game drawn on it

okay giving up :(

can't figure out how to make renderdoc actually capture useful things. If anyone's gotten renderdoc working with pcsx2 hmu I guess lol
this game's font has a custom ligature for XIII
ever see a VFX sequence so good you dedicate literally the rest of your life to the craft of game development because uhh hi
also shoutouts to the sound design in that sequence. The whole game has this really distinctive treble-heavy bell-like crystalline sound running through everything. UI sound effects, combat impacts, etc all have a really consistent audio aesthetic across the board
Also interestingly, it's much more pronounced in KH but these sorts of ringing bell/chime timbres are present in most of square's audio work from the PS2 era, particularly for UI effects. IMO roughly from FFX to XIII there was very much a distinct "final fantasy sound"
This has always struck me as interesting because I can't really think of other cases where a particular studio has developed a signature audio style like that? Studios have distinctive game-design choices and art direction, but rarely for audio apart from music...
I'm not an audio guy so maybe there are good examples I've just never noticed...

only other example I can think of offhand is probably the Myst series (Woody Thunks: The Videogame)
intense PS1 Kiosk Demo Disc energy on the gummi ship menu tbh
The Gummi Ship Respector has Logged On
well this explains literally everything
why is auron in ancient greek hell
Oh yeah you know that Videogame Thing where characters just like walk to specific locations and then play a generic Gesturing Animation while speaking?

KHII... mostly doesn't do this
Just about every voiced line has completely bespoke animation, and usually custom facial animation (with lip-sync redone for english!)

The cutscenes in this game are full-on animated movies, like they wanted to make a realtime pixar film on a PS2
This means even relatively minor scenes have room for neat character acting or physical comedy. Characters TOUCH EACH OTHER!
Nobody can afford this! If you're doing "every cutscene is a fully-animated performance" in 2020 it's AAA photorealism facial capture, not ten hours of hand-animated pixar faces
hell, characters *hand objects to each other*

remember how much effort Death Stranding spent to avoid ever having to show that lol

anyway square is bonkers and put seventy animators on a PS2 project in 2003
(I should note that they DO still do the canned-animation puppeteering thing for text-only dialogue. There's just not a whole lot of that, and it's usually restricted to short, informative stuff like telling you a door unlocked or whatever. Anything emotional is voiced/animated)
I'm like four hours into this game and my save file says 15:33 because I keep leaving it paused to edit video captures and tweet about it lol
I love how like half of Organization XIII aren't actually particularly evil and are just like... 9-to-5 villains. Like their job is villainy, but their job sucks and they hate it
more good vfx
re: earlier comments about combat design

so all you really do is mash X most of the time, but leveling up makes X do ever more exciting things

Just got an ability so that when I push X and there isn't an enemy in range, it just rockets me across the stage into the nearest dude
As you level up and gain more abilities like this, combat slowly transitions from "walk up to an enemy and hit them until they die" into "wade into a swarm of like 30 enemies and just BLAST your way all over the screen, pinballing from one to the next while everything explodes"
This description of KH combat from a Tim Rogers piece in 2009 has honestly remained near the forefront of my mind for the past decade
Also: Every combat ability needs to be equipped, and consumes Ability Points. Even basics like blocking must be equipped, and leveling up increases your AP so you equip more stuff. Character builds are thus accomplished by fitting different sets of Abilities under the AP cap
If this sounds familiar it's because it's literally the chip system from Nier Automata.

This is because Nier Automata is in fact the real Kingdom Hearts III

Here is a thread detailing how absolutely correct I am about this:
scenario designer: "Okay so this door is locked until after combat"

vfx artist, levitating: FEAR NOT
Cuphead (2017)
still laughing that The Rules of Time Travel are an incredibly overwrought and prescriptive section of KH lore, except for the Steamboat Willie level which is canonically somehow a different kind of time travel that doesn't count
lol no thanks
hypothetically maybe Wisdom Form isn't worthless if you don't pick the sword at the beginning?

but like what kind of complete weirdo doesn't pick the sword at the beginning
they do the scene where Orlando Bloom threatens to kill himself, but apparently showing him holding the gun to his head would've been too much for an E-10+ rating, so we got.... this lmao
rail-shooter boss design is my passion
with the amount of time I'm putting into the gummi ship levels maybe I should just stop and go play that Panzer Dragoon remake instead

speaking of 2000s deviantart I still think about this comic a lot 

also happens to be extremely Me Irl at the moment
I did place some engines and a cockpit vaguely in the general vicinity of guns but the ship budget is like 85% consumed by four guns
lmao I did some googling and apparently the most optimal gummi ship is a giant ring made of power boosters and guns

apparently hit detection uses the actual ship geo, and the enemies aim at the origin, so if you build The Donut Ship they just shoot through the hole in the middle
now this is podracing
yall the skateboard in post-Roxas Twilight Town has a DIFFERENT 2000s tribal pattern and UI
alright we're starting to get to the good stuff

the idea that the Nobodies don't possess hearts but recreate emotions from a reflexive memory OF emotions... leading immediately to the question "does that distinction actually matter, or even mean anything at all"
somehow this type of thing is just, like, perfectly shaped to just lodge itself in my brain forever

I read some Camus for an intro philosophy class around the same time and also Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and it was just full-on teen galaxy brain for a while there lol
this is of course one of many reasons why I also love Nier Automata so much
YOOOO there IS a minigame that uses the skateboard tricks!

I had to play the game three times to even find this!

It's just a random unmarked NPC that you might happen to talk to in the middle of a bunch of plot stuff
aaaaa this is so good
I get why we don't but maan I wish we had more games with this level of facial animation
Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020)
on a related note, 2009 was a really good year for youtube shitposts
when the lore dump finally drops
it is a good day for Tifa Content
kingdom hearts dot png
tfw renderdoc sometimes captures the game and sometimes doesn't for no discernable reason
thanks to @Sharlock93 for the discovery that running it as Administrator raises it from "never works" to "arbitrarily works like 15% of the time I guess"
so yeah remember I was talking about the weird/pretty dark halos in the game's bloom effect? Think I got it figured out
So I'd figured out earlier that bloom isn't applied globally; the level artists can choose whether any given surface contributes to bloom or not. Often it's just the skybox, but it can be any surface they want

for example: the brown walls in this room
An aspect that confused me a lot is that sufficiently bright lights DO bleed over top of the foreground. Meaning, the dark halo can be seemingly overwhelmed by bright-enough bloom

for example, the sun bleeding over Roxas's pant leg in this image
So here's how it works:

Bloom is done just before the UI, after everything else in the scene has been drawn

so first it just draws the whole scene, including transparent and additive materials (note how dark the sky appears)
The whole screen is then copied to a half-res buffer, using stencil test (I think) to black out everything that isn't "bloomable" (here, everything besides the skybox)

I don't know 100% if it's stencil based (PCSX2 didn't actually enable stencil), but the effect is the same
This masked copy is then blurred, and then additively blended over top of the original image

that's it; that's the whole effect

doesn't even do any thresholding or anything; it's literally just masking out the Bloom Zones, then blurring and adding them over top
So it turns out the reason this looks great is mostly down to the artists. It's not a global effect with a brightness threshold, like later LDR bloom implementations; it's based on tagging specific geometry to contribute, and authoring textures accordingly
i.e. the skybox is intentionally v dark, because the artists know it's going to get additively blended over top of itself, dramatically increasing its brightness

so instead of blown-out X Box Three Sixty bloom, it's carefully controlled to just give a nice softness to the scene
The dark halos, then, obviously just come from the fact that everything besides the sky is BLACK, so when blurred you can see the original much darker sky color bleeding through around the edges
But what about the thing where the sun and other bright objects DON'T have dark halos, and actually bleed over the foreground?

Turns it's not bloom at all lol; the sun glow's literally just a big additive flare particle drawn on top, BEFORE the bloom effect is rendered
Me, shader dev in 2020: *brainstorming absurdly complex techniques for LDR emissive bloom*

Environment artist in 2004: "I will place a big additive flare particle on each light in this scene, because it looks good and we've been doing that since like the N64"
An interesting side effect of this technique is that none of the rad glowy particle-based VFX can actually make use of bloom

alpha and additive geo don't write to the stencil buffer (or whatever the PS2's equivalent of stencil was), so they mostly can't control their own bloom
Whether a particle effect gets bloomed or not simply depends on whether it happens to draw ON TOP of geo that has already set the stencil bit for bloom

In this case, only the one blue particle that overlaps the sky gets bloomed:
This even goes for big huge hero effects

Was wondering if they'd employ opaque geo in VFX specifically to enable bloom on certain parts, but nope. Just the bits that happen to overlap the existing bloom geo gets bloomed
no fancy tech stuff required, just Good Art

also this game taught me my #1 VFX rule, which is to always spawn a big black blob behind anything additive so it has something to contrast against
also there's SOOO much beautiful movement going on there that isn't visible in a single-frame capture

I love how the jagged Nobody lines shift between black and white so they're always guaranteed to contrast against whatever's behind them
Another cool thing while I've got renderdoc hooked up: How'd they do gaussian blur on a PS2?

It didn't have programmable shaders, so you couldn't just sum multiple texture samples

It COULD render to texture though, and it had really sophisticated fixed-function texture blending
So they copy the blur mask to a half-res target, as mentioned above. They then copy that to ANOTHER buffer, and draw it back over the original, offset by a few texels, and ALSO slightly stretched on both axes
It then iterates: The result of that offset blend is copied out and blended back over itself, with the offset vector rotated a bit and UV stretching modified slightly

After 12 passes, the result is a nice, smooth, wide-radius blur

(hopefully twitter doesn't ruin this too badly)
I don't know if the exact offset and stretch values are some super-clever approximation of a real gaussian kernel, or if they just played around with the values until they got a nice soft result with no obvious sampling artifacts, but it sure looks great
"Copying and redrawing the entire screen overtop of itself 12 times per frame sounds insanely inefficient"

ah, but remember, this is a PlayStation 2

also who knows; they could be doing some sick-ass bare-metal hyper-optimized hardware tricks to make it fast; renderdoc hooked up to an emulator won't actually tell us anything about how this was implemented on real hardware, beyond "what geo draws to what targets in what states"
anyway back to actually playing KHII
so a thing that rules about this game: it's the only JRPG I know of that completely acknowledges how absurdly OP the protagonist is

part of it's in the gameplay, i.e. earlier tweets about how combat becomes More Awesome as you level up
but it's also deeply written into the plot and characters. Sora KNOWS he's absurdly overpowered. He already HAD his Hero's Journey bildungsroman and saved all worlds in the first game, and now he's literally just trying to locate his best friend so they can go home and chill
So while he's still, like, the world's nicest dude, when the villains start showing up he goes into this snarky self-confident asshole mode because he KNOWS Boss Battles are things that he always wins

this culminates in an All-Time Top Videogame Moment, where a *literal army* marches on a city full of his friends

Sora's immediately just like LET'S GO and then the game turns into dynasty warriors while you SINGLEHANDEDLY DESTROY AN ENTIRE ARMY
it rules so hard
you know the JRPG trope where like four basic mooks appear in a cutscene and the heroes are like "oh noes we're surrounded"?

that happened a lot in the first game and I kinda feel like this was a deliberate subversion of that lol
this fight happens around the halfway point in the game, and you DO eventually meet villains who actually pose a real threat, but by that point the game has done such a great job of characterizing sora's shounen-ass power levels that fighting those dudes feels incredibly dramatic
I do think this was very intentionally designed into the game too. Nomura was working on Advent Children at the same time, and in interviews he talked about AC asking "what does Level 99 combat *actually look like*"

so like this stuff was def in a lot of ppl's minds at square
yeah also this

I didn't grab video of the fight itself but the execution is extremely smart
I'm not even sure where the transition from billboard to 3D happens; as far as I can tell there really ARE one thousand enemies on that field, just v careful LoDs

the handful of 3D ones are the only guys with full AI, but your big AoE attacks can easily take out like 50+ at once
shoutouts to this Microsoft GS Wavetable-ass rendition of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme that Yoko Shimomura clearly found in giant zip file downloaded from the "free assets" pinned topic on an RPGMaker 2000 invisionfree forum
whenever the Organization XIII guys are sneaking around causing problems they use this ridiculous looney tunes run animation

it's so good
Winnie the Pooh and the Purgatorial Minigame Dimension of Torment
it's great how after like 14 games and multiple entire villain plots revolving around it, it's still entirely unclear what Kingdom Hearts actually is or does
like even the first game was incredibly vague about what "kingdom hearts" is supposed to be, and then they had to spend multiple games trying to tweak/retcon their way around the fact that the ending of KH1 makes literally zero sense lol
- kingdom hearts is a big door
- villain thinks opening it will fill him with The Power of Darkness
- sora says no kingdom hearts is Light
- villain opens kingdom hearts, gets owned by light
- the end

EXCEPT hold on it's literally just a door, there's just some stuff back there
- okay uhhhhhh hold on that door wasn't Kingdom Hearts, it was the Door to Darkness
- ansem is just a huge dumbass who thought a big door was kingdom hearts, somehow
- by opening The Door To Darkness, he got blasted by.... light
- mickey mouse's shirt came off
- okay okay we can make this work hold on
- kingdom hearts is somewhere else, who cares whatever
- dunno what's with ansem and the big door but boy he sure was wrong about it being kingdom hearts
- okay: ansem got owned to death by how wrong he was
- yes okay this works
- technically this means sora didn't actually do anything but whatever, everything fits except for one final detail
- we need to senran kagura mickey mouse
re: the absolutely staggering quantity of animation work in this game

the lion king level turns sora into a lion, which means remaking hIS ENTIRE COMBAT MOVESET FOR A QUADRUPED RIG
hell just running down a mental list of the number of allied or playable characters that have full sets of combat animations, IN ADDITION to all the regular enemies/bosses:

- sora
- donald
- goofy
- lion sora
- bird donald
- turtle goofy
- wisdom sora
- anti sora
- mickey mouse
- roxas (some shared with sora)
- riku
- mulan
- beast
- auron
- jack skellington
- jack sparrow
- aladdin
- simba
- tron
- seifer
- vivi
- squall
- cloud
- tifa
- yuffie
- a bunch of summons I've never used
- probably more I'm forgetting
according to the internet there are also 99 enemy types and 49 bosses

in addition to their regular combat moveset, every enemy has at least one Reaction Command, i.e. unique QTE animation that involves both the enemy and sora
full on pixar-ass facial animation with localized lip sync for this lion

her ears are rigged

how did this game get made
I mean the answer to "how did this get made" is of course always "brutal exploitation of labor" but like.... even then the results aren't usually THIS elaborate
it was honestly wild playing the FFVII remake in the middle of this thread and realizing most of the character animation is actually a big step DOWN from KHII

like obviously the cutscenes with bespoke facial animation are all great, but it has FAR fewer of them
most of the dialogue in FF7R is the usual puppetry thing where a character just faces a scripted target and plays Gesture X and VoiceClip Y

which is *fine*, to be clear. Most games do that; it works well and saves dev resources. It's just crazy that KHII usually DOESN'T
lmao this is such a great detail

Nala thinks Simba is dead, because like, The Plot of The Lion King, and then Sora's like "oh that dude? he was a summon in the last game; he's fine"
more pretty forced-perspective environment work
also just gonna RT this instead of making the same joke
lmao I was like how on earth did they actually get james earl jones for this

apparently it's just recordings from the original movie
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