Archive for January, 2011

UltraStar: .Txt Files in More Depth

Posted in UltraStar on January 27, 2011 by kokairu

Please note: my UltraStar guides now have their own dedicated website on UltraGuide.net. An updated version of this article can be found here

By now I think I’ve covered the main ins and outs of UltraStar, so guides from hereon are more likely to be bonus materials.

Whilst I’ve talked about the primary aspects of .txt files, it may be of interest to some people to understand exactly what the finer details of the files mean. They’re actually very straightforward files and aren’t difficult to get your head round. This is one of the many things that make the game work; I guess it encourages people to create songs for the game. Sadly, I won’t be able to produce an extensive guide on how to do this. I’ve made a handful of .txt files using the MIDI conversion tool within UltraStar itself, and I will talk about this at some point. However, this method does have its flaws and I think it is falling out of popularity with the more ‘professional’ song makers out there.

So, as I’ve mentioned before, each song file starts with a series of #tags. Those highlighted in red are necessary for gameplay. Those highlighted in green are not necessary.

#TITLE: Title of the song
#ARTIST: Artist behind the song
#MP3: The name of the MP3 being used for this song. Must have a .mp3 extension included here
#GAP: The amount of time, in milliseconds, before the lyrics start. This allows for any instrumental (or other type of) introduction to the song. It is important to note the number of the first note below. If it is not 0 (which is rare) then the #GAP will be less straightforward. If the lyrics aren’t set to start until 8 beats into the song, but the singing starts straight away, then the #GAP may need to be set to a negative number, to force the lyrics to start early.
#BPM: Beats per minute. This signifies the rate at which the text should display. Put simply, fast songs have a higher BPM, slow songs have a lower BPM. To complicate it slightly, the BPM can be upped for slower songs as long as more beats are added in the main body of the song below. If the BPM of a song is high then it generally means a good, smooth .txt file with more attention to subtle changes in tone. But if that means nothing to you, then you don’t need to worry about this tag. If it is a good .txt file, then it won’t need changing.
#GENRE: The genre of the song. As UltraStar has a ‘sort by genre’ option, it’s a useful tag to use. That, and the search option uses the word(s) in the #GENRE tag when you’re on the song selection screen, so you can automatically find all ‘rock’ songs, for example, if you use this tag.
#EDITION: Typically refers to the SingStar edition, if applicable, that the .txt file is taken from. For organisational purposes, it’s good to leave this tag in.
#COVER: Typically the single/album art appropriate for the song, to be displayed on the song selection screen. This is not necessary but it does brighten up the look of the game (and makes certain songs identifiable when not selected). This must be in .jpg format and the .jpg extension must be displayed here.
#VIDEO: The name of the video file used for this song. Must have the file extension included out of the many types of video file that UltraStar accepts.
#BACKGROUND: If you don’t have a video file, then you may prefer to have a background image displayed instead of a plain background or visualization. This must be in .jpg format and should have the .jpg extension attached. If the song is set to have a #VIDEO file and is linked in properly, then this tag is disregarded. If the .txt is set to have a #VIDEO but the video is not linked in properly for whatever reason, then the game will automatically display the background image.
#RELATIVE: This is an unusual tag that I will talk about later. It is simply set to YES or NO. If it is set to YES, then it specifies a particular format of .txt file that functions in a different way to a typical .txt file. If the tag is absent, or is set to NO, then the .txt file functions as the others do. It is essential for this tag to be applied on a relative .txt file (these are rare. If you find one on USDB then the tag will be readily applied anyway).

When the tags finish, then the main data for displaying the lyrics and notes, at the appropriate times and for the appropriate lengths of time, begins. That is, unless the song is a duet song, which I touched on briefly in my last entry. If it is a duet, then the file should start with P1, with P2 appearing somewhere in the middle.

As you will see, the .txt is sort of divided into 5 columns from hereon, with spaces separating each one. Take the first line of the .txt below, for example. The first column is :, the second is 0, the third is 2, the fourth is 12, and the fifth is Tee. Each row of .txt applies to a different syllable or note. Multiple syllables should not be included on the same line; in the example below, “Teenage” takes up two separate lines. The exception to the rule is when the note is a freestyle one, because no points are available then anyway.

Sometimes people do add more than one syllable to a line, but it technically shouldn’t be done and means that the .txt is imperfect. It’s not really possible to sing two syllables without breaking up the note. There are some exceptions, though, as you’ll see below: where it reads ‘family’ below, it is set to 2 syllables, rather than 3. This is because Mika sings ‘fam-lee,’ rather than ‘fam-il-ee.’

: 0 2 12 Tee
: 2 2 12 nage
: 6 6 12 dreams
– 12
: 12 2 9 in
: 14 2 7 a
: 16 3 12 tee
: 20 3 12 nage
: 24 4 16 cir
: 28 3 14 cus
– 32
: 32 2 16 Run
: 34 1 16 ning
: 36 2 16 a
: 38 4 17 round
– 42
: 42 2 16 like
: 44 2 14 ~
: 46 2 12 a
: 48 2 12 clown
: 50 2 14 ~
: 52 4 16 on
: 56 3 11 pur
: 60 3 12 pose
– 64
: 64 1 12 Who
: 66 2 12 gives
: 68 2 9 a
: 70 4 12 damn
– 74
: 74 2 9 a
: 76 2 12 bout
: 78 2 9 the
: 80 1 12 fa
: 82 1 12 mily
: 84 4 12 you
: 88 4 16 come
: 92 3 14 from?
– 96
: 96 1 16 No
: 98 2 16 gi
: 100 2 16 ving
: 102 4 17 up
– 106
: 106 2 16 when
: 108 2 14 you’re
: 110 1 12 ~
: 112 2 12 young
: 114 2 14 and
: 116 4 16 you
: 120 4 11 want
: 124 3 12 some

The first column

This can be one of 4 things: :, *, F, or -. Here’s a rundown of what they mean…

: Regular note
* Golden note
F Freestyle syllable
– Line break (separates lyrics into suitable lines).
Line breaks are different to other types of row, in that they consist of a hyphen ( – ) and either one or two numbers. If it contains one number, it determines the beat at which the previous line will disappear. For example, in the first line of the song above, the ‘Teenage dreams’ line disappears as soon as it’s been sung, on beat 12. If the line break contains 2 numbers, the first number determines when the first line disappears, and the second determines when the next line will appear. There is no example of this type of line above, as it’s a fast moving song with no proper breaks from singing – line breaks containing two numbers are generally for songs with a large instrumental break in them. Two numbers aren’t at all necessary, however, as the game automatically puts the next line up when it is approaching – it’s only if you want to control when it happens that you need to worry about the ‘second’ number.

So, effectively, the first column states the nature of the note, or if it’s a line break. It’s pretty straightforward.

The second column

This specifies the number of beats into the song at which point this syllable appears. The higher the BPM, the sooner the beat will appear. This isn’t something you can really adjust without an image representation of the notes, but it’s the way that the game understands it.

The third column

This states the number of beats that the note goes on for. The longer the note, the larger the number. Technically, the length of the note in question should finish before the next beat starts. ‘Tee,’ for example, in the first line of the example, goes on for exactly 2 beats, and the ‘nage’ syllable picks up on beat 2, immediately after ‘Tee’ finishes. If they overlap, then scoring full points for the song is rendered impossible, as you can’t sing 2 notes at the same time, even if they only overlap fleetingly.

The fourth column

This contains a number code for the pitch of the syllable. Unfortunately, I don’t have a list of which numbers correspond to which notes, though I believe that ‘0’ is C1, so I guess you work either up or down from there (negative numbers are accepted).

The fifth column

Contains the text to be sung at that very syllable. As I’ve touched on, this should specifically refer to one portion of text for any words that are over 1 syllable long. In many cases, singers extend the syllable that they sing to show off their vocal range, and as you may have noticed, the standard format to represent this is to use ‘~’ to show that you are extending the syllable to a different pitch. In the example above, ‘you’re’ would normally be a single syllable, but Mika sings that first part and drops his voice slightly towards the end, so it will read as ‘you’re~’ on the game itself.

One of the most important things to bear in mind with this column is that UltraStar will automatically join the words together. You therefore need to include spaces at the end of each word, but do not include spaces for syllables in the beginning or middle of a word.

So, in the first example, if no spaces were included after each word, the song would read like this in-game:

Teenagedreams
Inateenagecircus
Runningaround
Like~aclown~onpurpose

If you copy and paste the text in the first example, you will see that spaces appear at the appropriate points to stop this from happening, such as after ‘age,’ and ‘ing.’ Spaces are not necessary just before line breaks, but you can still use them.

Conversely, if you put a space after every syllable, it would read like this:

Tee nage dreams
In a tee nage cir cus
Run ning a round
Like ~ a clown ~ on pur pose
Perhaps this error isn’t quite as bad as the first one, but it should still be avoided as it looks… stupid. Remember only to include spaces at the end of a word, not at the end of a syllable.

Finally, it is very important to include ‘E’ at the end of the song, to tell the game when it finishes, or it will not work:

: 1602 2 12 We
: 1605 2 12 are
: 1608 2 12 not
– 1611
: 1611 2 12 what
: 1614 3 12 you
: 1618 2 12 think
: 1621 2 12 we
: 1624 3 12 are
– 1628
: 1628 1 12 We
: 1630 2 12 are
* 1632 5 12 gol
* 1638 3 12 den
– 1642
: 1642 2 12 We
: 1645 2 12 are
* 1648 5 12 gol
* 1654 9 12 den
E

Do not include anything after the E, such as an extra line break, or the song may crash the game. Also, avoid putting a line break just before the E – this can confuse the game, too.

Relative .txt Files

As I mentioned earlier, .txt files with a #RELATIVE:YES tag included are of a different nature to normal .txt files. To be perfectly honest, I hate them. If they contain errors, they’re difficult to track down and fix. However, given how different they are to normal ones, it wouldn’t be as extensive a guide if I overlooked them.

#ARTIST:Beyonce
#TITLE:Crazy In Love
#MP3:Beyonce – Crazy In Love.mp3
#BPM:198,4
#GAP:15500
#VIDEO:Beyonce feat. Jay-Z – Crazy In Love [VD#0,0].mpg
#RELATIVE:YES
: 0 2 62 Uh
: 4 4 57 oh
: 8 2 62 uh
: 12 3 57 oh
– 15 16
: 0 2 62 Uh
: 2 2 57 oh
: 6 2 57 oh
: 8 2 58 no
: 10 2 57 no
– 14 16
: 0 2 62 Uh
: 4 4 57 oh
: 8 2 62 uh
: 12 3 57 oh
– 15 16
: 0 2 62 Uh
: 2 2 57 oh
: 6 2 57 oh
: 8 2 58 no
: 10 2 57 no

As you’ll see, each line in the song counts from 0, rather from the very start of the song. These types of files are fewer and far between now, but there are still odds ones that you may come across.

I think I’ve covered the various aspects of .txt files now – most of it, of course, you’ll never have to understand, though it may be useful to know a little more about them for troubleshooting purposes, and if you fancy making your own songs, this will serve as a good starting point. Like I said, I can’t help much there, but I will do an entry soon sharing what I do know about song creation that may help to get you going.

Glee was good, then it went shit

Posted in TV with tags on January 11, 2011 by kokairu

I think Glee is often seen as a Marmite programme. As someone who very much enjoyed it when it was first aired on E4 this time last year, I think I’ve been lumbered with the label as a lover of the show. You could be forgiven for thinking that, since I obsessively watched those first 13 episodes and listened to the soundtrack non-stop. It was so fresh and inviting, amusing, had a clear idea of where it wanted to go, and I never found it predictable. It did a wonderful job of parodying the clichés of after-school specials whilst rarely falling into the same trap. The episodes were all well themed and the storylines taking place all inter-weaved at the right points. I didn’t continue to watch at E4 pace – I was so hooked, I downloaded the remaining episodes.

As you can well imagine, I was excited about the continuation of series 1 (episodes 14-26). The first two episodes were quite promising. Suddenly, a lot of new storylines sprung up out of nowhere, but in my opinion, they were necessary. So many things had been wrapped up in episode 13, on the basis that the series may not have been renewed and so needed a suitable ‘finishing place’ should the worst happen: Will and Emma finally embraced their feelings for one another, Finn found out he wasn’t the father of Quinn’s baby, Rachel and Finn were in the position to pursue a relationship, Sue was suspended for all of her misdeeds, Will found out that his wife was not pregnant after all, and New Directions came first place in Sectionals. Thus, the series needed to unleash some new ideas to continue – the only ongoing one being Quinn’s pregnancy. To me, it didn’t really matter if the storylines were launched quickly… as long as they continued at a smooth pace afterwards. In episode 14, Rachel and Finn were together, then they weren’t, then Rachel started up a romance with that lad from Vocal Adrenaline (and was heavily criticised by fellow Glee Club members for doing so), Will and Emma tried and failed at a relationship, Will canoodled with the coach from Vocal Adrenaline, and Sue was reinstated after blackmailing the principal. It was a lot to take in, but they needed something to work with.

The Madonna episode followed, and I was still hooked. I don’t like Madonna much, but the performances were some of the best of the series, and though the ‘artist-themed’ episodes would quickly become tiresome, it wasn’t a bad idea as a one-off. Everything followed on nicely from the 14th episode, though it wasn’t without its problems. As much as Glee gets away with unexpected twists, I couldn’t help but feel that it was getting to the stage of less trope subversion and more in the way of last minute, half-arsed, convenient changes to the story. Jesse moved schools very suddenly, Artie is a dick to Tina for no reason, Emma quickly decided she should sleep with Will despite being deeply afraid in the last episode, Finn lost his virginity to Santana for no reason, and Rachel’s build-up to losing hers came from out of nowhere and wasn’t picked up since. Primarily, the fact that Sue was obsessed with Madonna made little sense given her usual prudish attitude, and paved the way for the programme’s later habit of changing any given character’s personality to suit whatever ridiculous storyline was being cooked up.

At episode 16, it was near impossible to ignore the cracks that had started to appear in the show’s format. The Kurt/Finn storyline was decent, but it launched from out of nowhere. The Mercedes storyline was one massive cliché that definitely would not have been seen in its initial run of 13 episodes. Her line at the beginning of the episode is a perfect two fingers up to this sort of plotline: when Kurt assures her that she shouldn’t feel embarrassed about her body, she confidently says that she is just afraid of ‘showing too much flesh and causing a sex riot.’ But after saying that, the story slumps to the age-old plot about female body issues. Quinn has her first foreground moment of the second run of episodes so far (despite being featured prominently before), and she patronises the fuck out of Mercedes by highlighting the idea that someone that big needs to be told they’re beautiful. And the episode actually ends with Mercedes singing ‘Beautiful’ in front of the entire school… no comment.

Episode 17, ‘Bad Reputation,’ for me, showed how the programme was using the right tools from the first run of episodes and implementing them badly. Yes, the episode was given a theme under which all its storylines would fall, but it felt very forced. At the end of the episode, they attempt to make it believable that Will’s sudden reputation as a man-whore is somehow on a par with becoming pregnant as a young and frightened schoolgirl. This is supposed to be a heart-warming and touching moment within the pair, but it’s a truly terrible idea. What’s more, their use of Sue as a convenient plot device to get Emma to find out about Will’s flings with Shelby and April is just plain lazy writing. She just happens to know about it, and they don’t need to explain why or how except vaguely suggest that she’s obsessively spying on him. The show tries to pass this off as quirky and humorous rather than dragging out the secrecy of Will’s misdeeds, which is fine, but I can’t help but feel like there was very little planning taking place to sustain a decent plotline across the 13 later episodes. It felt made up as it went along: Rachel is suddenly upset about not having a mother, her mother is revealed (‘Dream On’ is the single worst episode of Glee in my opinion), Rachel and her mother are united and then go her separate ways in two consecutive episodes. Jesse suddenly turns on Rachel and goes back to Vocal Adrenaline for no reason. Quinn’s pregnancy is shoved into the background, despite everything from her financial difficulties to her parents’ reaction playing a massive part in the first run of episodes; we are only offhandedly told where she is even residing.

The season finale was admittedly rather good; I particularly liked the mashed-up Bohemian Rhapsody/birth scene. The fact that Sue voted for New Directions was a nice twist without being completely unbelievable (they’d actually given her a motive to do so), plus the fact that the group actually placed last was very unexpected. It was just the means to which it got there that bothered me. Fine, we needed to include a bit of Shelby’s back story to have it make sense that she would end up adopting Quinn’s baby, but we’ve still not seen enough of her to care that much. Quinn’s background status made the birth feel very unimportant. All in all, I felt like I’d had to invest more in watching the show (cringing, frustration, etc) than I actually got out of it.

I watched two episodes of season 2 and, after seeing no sign of improvement, officially bowed out. The same problems were reinstated in the first episode: far too much was going on and the story and characters leapt about at their own convenience. Then came the God awful Britney episode, and I’d seen enough. From the overexcited, understated yet amusing reaction to the ‘Push it’ assembly performance in series 1, the audience got into an actual sex riot over a simple performance of Toxic. It was absolutely dire, and the majority of the songs were just video re-enactments. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

So what went wrong? I think the show’s popularity was its own downfall. After the first 13 episodes, the things that went down well and the things that didn’t go down well had been vividly highlighted. Sue Sylvester was the star, and upping the character’s screen time did her no favours. The more obsessed she seemed with bringing Glee Club down, the less she was perceived as powerful and vindictive, and by the end of it, just plain pathetic. The songs were a very big part of Glee originally, but they had previously been used sparingly. Naturally, they were popular, and so more were crammed into the episodes when they just weren’t needed. Characters that were previously background material yet provided some great quirks here and there were brought to the foreground: Brittany, I’m looking in your direction.

Given the above (long) rant, I’m never really sure whether to stick up for Glee or not. I do believe that many people who criticise it have never really watched it properly: saying that it’s High School Musical in TV form, for example. But based on the majority of the episodes, I can’t say with any confidence that I think it is a good show. I am, quite simply, disappointed that it had to go downhill so quickly when it could’ve been so easily avoided. I just feel no need to make the effort to watch a programme that is putting in no effort to entertain me.

The Pokéwalker: On Reflection

Posted in Pokémon on January 7, 2011 by kokairu

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and a happy new year. Well, the start of the new year is never happy… Christmas is over and being in the midst of winter usually means illness and general melancholy. Plus everything just seems to go wrong this time of year, for me anyway.

I hope you’re dealing with the horrible new year effectively, and have things to look forward to when the weather starts to pick up.

One thing I managed to achieve over Christmas was finally unlocking the last route on my Pokéwalker: Quiet Cave. The Pokéwalker is a simple yet amusing device: a pedometer that synchronises with the Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver games, and, put simply, generates bigger and better rewards the more steps that you do. It certainly motivated me to walk more – every time I had to drag myself anywhere there was always some consolation that my physical efforts would contribute more towards my game. The number of steps taken generates a revenue known as watts, which enable you to find items on the device (3 watts) or catch pokemon (10 watts), which can later be sent to your game. The items and pokemon available depend on the ‘route’ that you’ve selected to go on – this is determined when you send a pokemon to the Pokéwalker. Routes can be unlocked by gaining a certain number of watts (this starts off at something small and winds up being 20,000 watts between the penultimate and final routes). With 20 steps needing to be taken to gain a single watt, it’s a lot of effort. I was walking 2 miles a day with the Pokéwalker since early April, and finally unlocked the last route on 29th December! Naturally, the final route contains the best rewards: rare pokemon Feebas and Spiritomb. Very difficult to obtain in-game, so I deliberately abstained from trying to catch them until this point. Once Feebas has received enough massages, it will evolve into Milotic and I will complete my non-event Pokédex on Soul Silver!

Overall, this was an ingenious idea on Game Freak’s part. Not only did it make me want to buy the game (the Pokéwalker will only work with a genuine cartridge, as it sends and receives information via an infrared slot on the cartridge itself), it sort of made me feel like I was still playing it while I was out and about getting exercise. Sad, I know, but like I said before, it was fantastic motivation to take as many steps as possible. Not that I never took shortcuts – the vibrations on my car worked nicely in tricking the pedometer into thinking I was taking steps, as did sitting it next to the fan in the hot weather (I found this one out by accident!). But I can say that most of my achievement was accomplished the old fashioned and intended way.

This meta element of Pokémon is something that, I think, a lot of game manufacturers could take into account. Yes, the contrast between the hard core exerciser and the computer game-playing couch potato is not quite as vivid as it once was, what with motion technology being applied to the major consoles now. However, in my experience at least, those games only have novelty value. The fact that the whole game revolves around exercise can put a lot of people off, too. I’ve spoken to an alarming number of people that bought a Wii Fit only to play it a handful of times and then abandon it in that handy place underneath the TV cabinet. It’s a fantastic idea, don’t get me wrong, but I found that the more entertaining activities on it were the ones that involved balance rather than actually burning calories and getting fit. Put simply, most gamers want to chill out when they play games, not exercise.

Pokémon, for those of you that haven’t played it, is a game full of rewarding activities and one that you can never really finish. There are so many reinforcing aspects of the game, from the satisfying noise that’s made from landing a super effective move on the opponent to the amount the non-player characters admire you as you make your way through the story. It always draws me back in for these very reasons, and I get the impression that other RPGs have the same effect on people: World of Warcraft, for instance. I haven’t played this game myself (it’s not that I have a life, I just don’t want to have even less of one than I do now), but it seems to fall under the same category. There is no end to the game, and as your character gets stronger by defeating opponents, the rewards come thick and fast. To introduce something similar to these types of game could work incredibly well – after gaining 10000,0000 watts, for example, players could obtain the Sword of a Thousand Truths. If a pedometer that was sensitive to faster strides and uphill walking/running was applied (the Pokéwalker, sadly, did not have this feature), then not only would addicts perhaps feel the need to get a bit of exercise, then they might actually feel better about being dragged away from the computer for a day out. Worth a try, maybe?