Breaking Eggs And Making Omelettes

Topics On Multimedia Technology and Reverse Engineering


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Translating Return To Ringworld

August 16th, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

As indicated in my previous post, the Translator has expressed interest in applying his hobby towards another DOS adventure game from the mid 1990s: Return to Ringworld (henceforth R2RW) by Tsunami Media. This represents significantly more work than the previous outing, Phantasmagoria.


Return to Ringworld Title Screen
Return to Ringworld Title Screen

I have been largely successful thus far in crafting translation tools. I have pushed the fruits of these labors to a Github repository named improved-spoon (named using Github’s random name generator because I wanted something more interesting than ‘game-hacking-tools’).

Further, I have recorded everything I have learned about the game’s resource format (named RLB) at the XentaxWiki.

New Challenges
The previous project mostly involved scribbling subtitle text on an endless series of video files by leveraging a separate software library which took care of rendering fonts. In contrast, R2RW has at least 30k words of English text contained in various blocks which require translation. Further, the game encodes its own fonts (9 of them) which stubbornly refuse to be useful for rendering text in nearly any other language.

Thus, the immediate 2 challenges are:
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Approaches To Modifying Game Resource Files

August 15th, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

I have been assisting The Translator in the translation of another mid-1990s adventure game. This one isn’t quite as multimedia-heavy as the last title, and the challenges are a bit different. I wanted to compose this post in order to describe my thought process and mental model in approaching this problem. Hopefully, this will help some others understand my approach since what I’m doing here often appears as magic to some of my correspondents.

High Level Model
At the highest level, it is valuable to understand the code and the data at play. The code is the game’s engine and the data refers to the collection of resources that comprise the game’s graphics, sound, text, and other assets.


High-level game engine model
Simplistic high-level game engine model

Ideally, we want to change the data in such a way that the original game engine adopts it as its own because it has the same format as the original data. It is very undesirable to have to modify the binary engine executable in any way.

Modifying The Game Data Directly
How to modify the data? If we modify the text strings for the sake of language translation, one approach might be to search for strings within the game data files and change them directly. This model assumes that the text strings are stored in a plain, uncompressed format. Some games might store these strings in a text format which can be easily edited with any text editor. Other games will store them as binary data.
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Subtitling Sierra RBT Files

June 1st, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

This is part 2 of the adventure started in my Subtitling Sierra VMD Files post. After I completed the VMD subtitling, The Translator discovered a wealth of animation files in a format called RBT (this apparently stands for “Robot” but I think “Ribbit” format could be more fun). What are we going to do? We had come so far by solving the VMD subtitling problem for Phantasmagoria. It would be a shame if the effort ground to a halt due to this.

Fortunately, the folks behind the ScummVM project already figured out enough of the format to be able to decode the RBT files in Phantasmagoria.

In the end, I was successful in creating a completely standalone tool that can take a Robot file and a subtitle file and create a new Robot file with subtitles. The source code is here (subtitle-rbt.c). Here’s what the final result looks like:


Spanish refrigerator
“What’s in the refrigerator?” I should note at this juncture that I am not sure if this particular Robot file even has sound or dialogue since I was conducting these experiments on a computer with non-working audio.

The RBT Format
I have created a new MultimediaWiki page describing the Robot Animation format based on the ScummVM source code. I have not worked with a format quite like this before. These are paletted animations which consist of a sequence of independent frames that are designed to be overlaid on top of static background. Because of these characteristics, each frame encodes its own unique dimensions and origin coordinate within the frame. While the Phantasmagoria VMD files are usually 288×144 (which are usually double-sized for the benefit of a 640×400 Super VGA canvas), these frames are meant to be plotted on a game field that was roughly 576×288 (288×144 doublesized).
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Subtitling Sierra VMD Files

May 31st, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

I was contacted by a game translation hobbyist from Spain (henceforth known as The Translator). He had set his sights on Sierra’s 7-CD Phantasmagoria. This mammoth game was driven by a lot of FMV files and animations that have speech. These require language translation in the form of video subtitling. He’s lucky that he found possibly the one person on the whole internet who has just the right combination of skill, time, and interest to pull this off. And why would I care about helping? I guess I share a certain camaraderie with game hackers. Don’t act so surprised. You know what kind of stuff I like to work on.

The FMV format used in this game is VMD, which makes an appearance in numerous Sierra titles. FFmpeg already supports decoding this format. FFmpeg also supports subtitling video. So, ideally, all that’s necessary to support this goal is to add a muxer for the VMD format which can encode raw video and audio, which the format supports. Implement video compression as extra credit.

The pipeline that I envisioned looks like this:


VMD Subtitling Process

VMD Subtitling Process


“Trivial!” I surmised. I just never learn, do I?

The Plan
So here’s my initial pitch, outlining the work I estimated that I would need to do towards the stated goal:

  1. Create a new file muxer that produces a syntactically valid VMD file with bogus video and audio data. Make sure it works with both FFmpeg’s playback system as well as the proper Phantasmagoria engine.
  2. Create a new video encoder that essentially operates in pass-through mode while correctly building a palette.
  3. Create a new basic encoder for the video frames.

A big unknown for me was exactly how subtitle handling operates in FFmpeg. Thanks to this project, I now know. I was concerned because I was pretty sure that font rendering entails anti-aliasing which bodes poorly for keeping the palette count under 256 unique colors.

Computer Science Puzzle
When pondering how to process the palette, I was excited for the opportunity to exercise actual computer science. FFmpeg converts frames from paletted frames to full RGB frames. Then it needs to convert them back to paletted frames. I had a vague recollection of solving this problem once before when I was experimenting with a new paletted video codec. I seem to recall that I did the palette conversion in a very naive manner. I just used a static 256-element array and processed each RGB pixel of the frame, seeing if the value already occurred in the table (O(n) lookup) and adding it otherwise.
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