Review – TouchRetouch photo editing software

If the amount of people snapping away on their smartphones in public is anything to go by, then we all love photographs.

Who can resist the one-time opportunity to capture a chilly morning’s fresh frost or the burning beauty of a summer sunset? But what if tragedy strikes and while you’re pressing the shutter button a young man, overcome with the beauty of the dying sun, strips naked and catapults himself, tackle a-wavering, into the moment? All is lost…well, not quite.

Photo image editors are plentiful on the Mac, with Photoshop being so famous now that it’s actually used as a verb. But if the monumental cost of the Adobe suite puts you off (as it should) then there are more affordable offerings available. iPhoto comes free with any new Mac of course, and it can do a good job of touching up your holiday snaps, but if you want to delve a little deeper then something like TouchRetouch might be worth training your lens upon.

At £6.99 on the App store, TouchRetouch is hardly a risk, but for the money you do get a decent amount of power which you can use to remove unwanted objects from photos as well as sprucing up the colours and light balance.  It’s not Photoshop by a long way, but then with the price being less than a tenner you already knew that.

The main features of TouchRetouch are based around tidying up images that, but for a blemish or stray pedestrian, would be great shots. To remove items you click on the Retouch button at the top of the screen and then highlight the offender. In many cases the software does a good vanishing act, with only larger items that are more prominent to the eye really being easily noticeable. For finer work there is the Clone option, which copies an area of the image onto the part you highlight with the mouse. Both functions are good, but they do require a little work to make images look realistic. Delicate work is also quite fiddly, with the Clone feature being awkward at times, and try as I might I simply couldn’t get hair to look natural without spending a great deal of time on it – even then it was somewhat obvious that I’d been tampering.

Little touches can be quite effective though. Here’s an image my daughter took of me at my desk. Notice the writers paunch?

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So, in my vain efforts to look less fat I employed the TouchRetouch features and fashioned this adonis…

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You can almost feel the six-pack ripple can’t you?

Removing people from the background is also reasonably easy to achieve with a little patience.

Here’s a group shot of the family while at an Ice Hockey match. Notice the interlopers in the background?

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Now with a few quick strokes (which only took about five minutes) they’re gone!

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TouchRetouch is a cool little piece of software that can get you on the road to photo editing without a huge learning curve or sizeable investment. It can be somewhat of a blunt instrument at times, but as you can see with a little effort you can get pleasing results quite quickly. The app is available of a range of platforms (check here for more details) and is certainly worth a look.

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Games need to find a new boss

The young woman I had been controlling for considerable hours, onto whose body I had etched the painful reminder of our time together, was now in a fight for her life. The ground shifted beneath her feet and she was beset by the advancing frames of men who had terrible things on their minds. This…would be interesting.

No, I’m not describing my weekly ’50 Shades of Grey’ re-enactment society meeting. The girl in question is a willing participant who goes by the name of Lara Croft, and the situation takes place in the final moments of the new Tomb Raider game.

Being an old codger I remember when the first Lara appeared. At the time it was unusual to play as a woman character, but strategically placed camera angles that ogled Lara’s various curvy areas helped convince many a young lad that this could have its advantages. The fact that the games were excellent puzzle based adventures didn’t hurt either. Over time though the games grew less interesting, really there’s only so many times you can drag large blocks around dusty caves, and Lara’s once domineering presence diminished and faded into legend. Until now.

The 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise is a resounding success, transforming the tired format into an action shooter with more brains than many of its contemporaries. There’s also a strong story element that follows Lara’s first adventure in which she leaves behind the innocent, young, history obsessed girl and becomes a homicidal maniac with superhuman upper body strength. Yes, that classic old story.

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Apart from the slow paced, quick-time event heavy, first forty minutes the game barrels along with plenty of enemies to fight, flaming arrows to be loosed, and of course the occasional puzzle to solve. Controlling Lara as she leaps from cliffs on to death slides is exciting and nowhere near as frustrating as the older games, which would punish you if you strayed a pixel to the left or right. The combat is hugely satisfying as well, something that was never said about a Tomb Raider game before.

So all in all a tremendous success? Well, yes, but sadly there remains a proverbial fly in the metaphorical ointment. The big boss.

Since the early days of gaming there has been a design convention that determines the finale of any game must involve defeating a larger than life character with apparently only one weakness. The idea is to give the gamer a  sense of overcoming the forces of evil by taking part in a monumental battle, one that shall decide the fate of whichever world they occupy at the time. In reality it means that gamers have to wait for the big monster to attack, then they dodge out of the way, repeatedly shoot /kick/ proclaim harsh accusations at the aggressor’s exposed back, then repeat the process again – usually for several boringly predictable minutes. One additional factor will be the introduction of other, smaller enemies to fight at set junctures, which allows the monster to recover – thus prolonging the agony.

Tomb Raider, after so much fun and challenging gameplay throughout, bows to this convention, leaving the ending bereft of the emotions it deserved. Of course it isn’t alone. Great games such as Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum devolve in similar ways at the crucial moments, but the fact that it’s a newer game with the foreknowledge if these mistakes makes the failure all the more disappointing.

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I suppose my main issue with big boss battles is the way they remind you incessantly of the fact that you are playing a game. The previous freedoms you had to plot routes through maps, tackle your enemies with whatever weapons you choose, and explore different ways of interacting with the environment, are all set aside so that you can dodge, fire, run, doge, fire, run, etc. until you pass the requisite, arbitrary point where the monster falls. In most cases you can’t even climb, hide, or make a run for it as the arena has been sealed with invisible doors. Is this really the best that game designers can come up with? Thirty years ago I was doing the exact same thing on my ZX Spectrum…and it was annoying then.

Tomb Raider is a great game, and one that you should play if you enjoy action, storytelling, and hurling yourself off tall buildings. It’s just a shame that the designers are still robbing the dead bodies of games that should have been left to rot in peace many years ago…

Living in the Past with… The 7th Guest

My name is Martyn Darkly and I’m a gamer.

It’s been over thirty years since my first frantic battle on a Binatone version of Pong and I’m still addicted to the wondrous world of computer games. Along the way I’ve been, among others, a barbarian warrior, heroic space adventurer, confused visitor to a haunted town, a hobbit, a professional athlete, Arthur Dent, Bruce Lee, Paul McCartney, and a monster that felt an uncontrollable desire to engage in winter sports. You can see the attraction.

Throughout this journey there have been certain games that stood out more than others. Either they were the most fun, the most challenging, the weirdest, or just technically amazing. In a new series entitled ‘Living in the Past…’ I intend to revisit some of these classics and try to divine what made them special and the stories behind their creation. To begin with we must travel back to the early nineties, where Rob Landeros and Graham Devine had an idea to scare gamers witless with a mysterious invite to a haunted mansion.

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The 7th Guest is like the Kennedy assassination, in that most people remember where they were when they first played it. From the beautifully animated 3D mansion to the groundbreaking full motion videos of ghostly apparitions, Trilobyte’s spooky puzzler introduced players to what could be achieved with ingenuity, imagination, and a new thing called a CD-ROM.

‘Rob and I were really into the old TV show Twin Peaks,’ says co-creator Graeme Devine, ‘and the company we worked for, Virgin Games, had the rights to the board game Clue. So our initial thinking was that we would make a version of Clue with a Twin Peaks feeling to it. We also loved the old movies House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting, so slowly the idea morphed into a haunted house.’

The house became the home of Henry Stauf, an evil toymaker whose creations claim the lives of several children through a strange virus. As the game begins the player enters the mansion to find it populated with bizarre puzzles to solve and ghosts roaming the halls playing out a tragic story.

‘Initially his name was Henry Steeple,’ Graeme admits, ‘Matthew Costello came up with Henry Stauf because he thought it was good to have his last name be an acronym of Faust. I think we just wanted to find the creepy angle, toy maker, creepy…’

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The bulk of the puzzle design was on the shoulders of co-creator Rob Landeros, a long time fan of pen and paper brainteasers.

‘I think my main inspiration was a little game called The Fool’s Errand.’ Rob states. ‘It was a series of puzzles of various types with a tarot card related story and theme. Every time you solved a puzzle, you would get a piece of a map that would lead you to the final goal – that’s how we structured 7th Guest. Most of the house is inaccessible to start, but each time you solve a puzzle or solve a riddle, another part of the house is opened to you.’

Players had to contend with an impressive array of logic puzzles involving slicing up cakes, word play, mazes, classic board games like Reversi and chess, and deciphering patterns. But the real star of the show was the lusciously animated mansion itself. From the stained glass window in the entrance hall, to the iconic staircase that dominated the lower floor, every location was an impressive artistic feat and a world away from the typically blocky graphics of the time.

‘Our original idea was to find a mansion,’ says Rob, ‘take a camera in there, set it up on a tripod in the middle of the room, then scan 360 degrees and use that. So we found the largest house in Oregon…but there are no mansions here that have 100ft art galleries. They’re very claustrophobic and it wasn’t working. Then one of our artists, Robert Stein, played with 3D Studio and put together a room, animated it, and had furniture floating around eerily. It was kind of a revelation at that point and we said yeah, we’re gonna do it that way.’

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The introduction of the ghostly video scenes that the player encounters was also something truly revolutionary.

‘There had been the Sherlock Holmes games which had tiny 160×100 videos,’ Graeme remembers, ‘but no one had tried full screen and certainly not in SVGA. A lot of people thought what we were doing was impossible and that our demos were smoke and mirrors.’

Assembling a cast from Oregon’s thriving acting community the team set about capturing the spectres that would inhabit the house and reveal the terrible story of Stauf.

‘We filmed for two days on SVHS’ says Graeme, ‘against a blue screen that wasn’t really blue (we got it at an art supply store) and that we broke (one of the actors fell through it), then repaired with blue painting tape. All in all, that’s not the best way to film ghosts. We left the halo around the actors in place because we couldn’t clean it, and made it into a ‘ghostly aura’.’

The Ensemble

A game of the 7th Guest’s size and ambition required huge amounts of storage and advanced multimedia capabilities. Something made possible by the arrival of the CD-ROM.

‘It was timing.’ states Rob. ‘That tool was there and we were one of the first to use it. Only a handful of people had CD-ROM drives in their computers when we first started looking into them. People were still thinking of doing things the old fashioned way pixel by pixel and building up graphics. The debate was how do you fill up a CD-ROM? And even if you did how can you screen video? Those were the questions…and we solved them.’

The game was released on the Mac and PC in 1993 and sold over two million copies. Even Bill Gates became an advocate when he called it ‘the new standard in interactive entertainment’. The game also spawned a sequel ‘The 11th Hour’, and was re-released on iOS in 2010.

‘We were expecting some success,’ admits Graeme, ‘but we didn’t expect people to rush out and buy CD-ROM drives just so they could play a game. We were blown away by the reaction. I think it was something magical you could buy and play for the first time. Moving real 3D that looked nice. The puzzles were fun and the story, while a bit goofy, held your attention. More than that it was a game you could sit down as a family and play. It wasn’t Doom. There was a lot of people who wrote saying they took turns with the mouse to play the game, and while a lot of the game was spooky, it was scooby doo spooky, which you can easily sit through with a family. That said…a lot of people did seem to get really scared playing the game alone in the dark.’