12/30/2008

Shiva's Consort

Here's a little Christmas gift for everyone:

In VS Ramachandran's books A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness and Phantoms in the Brain, he attempts to begin to tackle the question of the neurological basis of art. A tall order indeed...

One of the subjects he suggests is called “Peak Shift”. A caricature is created by overplaying everything that is unique about someone's face, and downplaying everything that is not. A caricature of Richard Nixon has a huge nose and jowls, but his chin and eyes are downplayed, while a Buster Keaton caricature would have huge eyes.

Our emotional or instinctive reaction to something that we see is based on the recognition of a small number of salient characteristics. When those characteristics that we look for (consciously or not) are exaggerated, it looks more and more like the thing that we look for, even to the point where a caricature of Richard Nixon can be said to look more like Nixon than he does.

Permit me, if you will, an extended example: The basis of this concept in Ramachandran's book started with an experiment with a bird that, when it hatched, identified its mother by a red spot on its yellow beak. It was quickly discovered that the spot on the beak was the salient characteristic that the bird was looking for. It would respond equally to a disembodied fake beak as it would to an actual bird. In fact, the experimenter was able to create a short yellow stick with three red stripes on it that, in a sense, looked more like a beak than an actual beak. It had the salient characteristic the baby bird was looking for, “yellow thing with some red stuff on the end”, but it had no other characteristics to distract from that, so the birds went nuts over it. He had created, in Ramachandran's words, a “super beak”.

This applies to human endeavors as well. Again, using Ramachandran's examples, the Hindu goddess Parvati:



Parvati, Shiva's consort, is modeled to be the epitome of all things feminine. She has a small waist, huge breasts, wide hips, all the stereotypically feminine physical qualities taken to a large degree. Supposedly, when confronted with statues like this, most Victorian westerners complained that it was primitive and worthless because it didn't look like a real person. What they didn't realize is that the creator had, consciously or unconsciously, emphasized the salient qualities of the character (femininity, sensuality, poise and so forth) and tried to abstract away everything that is common to the larger category (the human form), but not a part of the specific form they were creating. The end result is, as Ramachandran puts it, “one anatomically incorrect but very sexy goddess”.

If you look at the anime style of drawing, you have, generally, very large eyes, mouths that vary in size hugely, and small/downplayed noses. The keys to emotional expression (mouth, eyes, eyebrows) are overplayed, and the less expressive features of faces (noses, chins) are minimized. Anime characters aren't supposed to look realistic, they're caricatures designed for maximum expression of emotion.

This concept, I submit, applies to narrative as well. If I want to write a story about a character who is particularly brave, I will write a story in which that character does things that show bravery. If in the story, my character spends time doing things like eating, shopping, using the bathroom, and so forth, it diminishes the effect of the story.

This is a pretty simple lesson to learn as a writer. In any given story you write, you need to go through every single event, and ask “What purpose does this serve in shaping the overall narrative?” If you don't have a good answer, it needs to go.

Even beyond that, though, Western storytelling, cinema in particular, has a long love affair with movies in which your enjoyment of the film hinges almost exclusively on understanding precisely what is going on. Memento, The Prestige, The Usual Suspects, Murder on the Orient Express... even the entire first season of Lost is predicated on cascading character (learning a new piece of information about a character which makes you reevaluate all your previously acquired information). Even beyond that,

Here's where it gets interesting, however. Take “Kino's Journey”, a 2003 anime series based on a short series of Japanese novellas by Keiichi Sigsawa, and consists of 13 episodes, each detailing their own independent story, designed to raise serious metaphysical and ethical questions. In the second episode, the main character helps a team of people stranded in the snow, and ponders the ethics of hunting rabbits to save the traders who are snowed in, only to discover in the end that the traders are actually slavers. The show has no interest in placing this story as part of a larger world, or convincing you that these characters are real people with real problems. The show is only interested in posing the ethical question of taking a creature's life to preserve the life of another creature, so it doesn't go into things like the names of the slavers, and it only focuses on their humanity in as much as it serves to make the ethical dilemma more engaging.

This kind of convention is rampant in anime in particular. One of the reasons Neon Genesis Evangelion is so enduring is that all of the robots doing their thing is, as Stephen Notely puts it, “a psychological puppet show”. As tongue-in-cheek as the cartoon is, the destroying is largely incidental. Figuring out what's going on, because it's less important than the emotional angle of the show, is downplayed. The “salient characteristic” (to possibly coin a term) is the study in dysfunctional personalities, particularly Shinji, Asuka, and Misato. Everything that isn't in service of that is absent or minimized, which leads to the strong emotional reactions that many people have to the show.

It's important to note that this is slightly different from the “Everything that isn't in service of your story needs to be cut” axiom. In Chinatown, a movie widely praised for its screenplay, everything that happens happens for a reason, but understanding what happens is at least as important, if not more important that how it makes you feel. Or, more accurately, feeling the way that the filmmaker wants you to feel is predicated on a full understanding of the events of the film.

To give another example, Revolutionary Girl Utena, another anime, love it or hate it, will frequently feature scenes with characters talking, with action going on in the background that you obviously know is not actually occuring, (baseball games on balconies, trains running through classrooms, etc.) but assist you in interpreting the things being said by the characters. You are very clearly coached on how to feel about the conversation, and things not in service of the feel of the conversation (where the characters are) are dropped in favor of further emphasis on the emotional content of the scene.

But, you ask, isn't the heart of good cinematography to reinforce the message of the film with every available outlet? Well, yes. However, there's a limit to that that the japanese anime style frequently leaps over entirely. You can have an area and weather that reinforces the general feeling of a conversation, but it's kind of difficult to cram an entire conversations worth of changing opinions, facts, and alliances into a weather formation, which is suddenly possible when you have a baseball game going on amongst the characters.

Now, please understand, this is not about a value judgment. Is Michelangelo's David “better” than the aforementioned statue of Parvati? It's a nonsense question, but Michelangelo's David is a made in the Greek representational mindset, while the Parvati is not, but it seems like a valuable idea to stop and point out the differences between the representational and the intuitive mindset when it comes to both art and narrative. More on this later.

12/12/2008

Children's Movies

Just earlier today, I was looking through an old copy of Entertainment Weekly, and inside was a review of the Clone Wars movie, which had just come out at the time. The positive elements of it were listed as that while the plot was kind of dumb, and the characters were described as... I believe "bombastic" was the word, the reviewers kids loved it, and they didn't know any children who saw it and didn't. I mean, it was just a kids movie, right?

I'd just like to say "Thanks, PIXAR, for proving once and for all that 'It's just a kids movie' just isn't good enough."

12/09/2008

Check it

And by "it", I mean the side bar, for my most recent WoWhead post.

12/06/2008

Gaming Brands cont.

Question: How many of you have seen the Gametap commercials on Adult Swim?

Do these commercials piss you off too?

Okay, maybe that's a little strong for it, but let's face it, 90% of ad agencies just don't “get” video games. What do I mean by “getting” video games?

Example: The Bubble Bobble commercial which many of you may have seen. Come on people! Everyone under 30 knows that the dragons in Bubble Bobble are going to the Cave of Monsters to rescue their girlfriends, not to eat things! Or look at the Deus Ex commercial too. Whoever wrote the copy for that clearly didn't know very much about the game. Anything they say could go for 70% of video games set in the future ever.

I'm well aware that “copywriters not knowing much about the product they need to write copy for” is not a new practice, and it's not limited to video games, but imagine this for a moment:

Instead of their current Bubble Bobble commercial, imagine if you just had a twenty-something guy in a cubicle, wearing a white, short sleeved button down shirt with a tie, hunched over, typing away at a computer, looking bored. The sounds of a modern office buzz around him. Phone rings, people talking, fax machines running, and just barely audible in the background is the Bubble Bobble music. The guy keeps plugging away at his computer, seemingly unaware, as the music slowly gets louder and louder. After 12 seconds or so, the guy has not reacted in any way to the music, and it's gotten quite loud by now, at which point the guy looks up, a little away from the camera, smiles, then nods knowingly. Immediately cut to the Gametap logo and slogan.

I'm not an ad exec, I'm not a copywriter, and I don't have too much of a directorial eye, but I swear, that commercial would kill. Why would it kill? Because everyone who played too much Bubble Bobble as a kid has incredibly fond memories of that music. I know this because I was one of those kids.

Frankly, I'm just calling out Gametap for being clueless, at least they're not patronizing. Penny Arcade already took care of that one better than I ever could.

Okay, how many of you have seen the WoW “What's your game?” commercials? These commercials, I feel, “get it”. As Malgayne has pointed out in his wowhead blog about them, in one fell swoop, they hit the Adult Swim sense of humor by picking a format and spokespeople ripe for parody, but also hit on popular enough spokespeople to scratch the itch for validation most gamers still have. I don't know who does Blizzard's ads, but either the agency themselves get it, or somebody at Blizzard is making them get it.

12/01/2008

Gaming Brands

I've been talking about core fantasies and branding a fair amount recently (when I'm not riffing on terrible games), but I think it represents a significant failure in my logic that I haven't spent more time talking about what the connection is here to games. Afterall, Bethesda isn't a brand, it's a company. A good test to see if something is a brand, and therefore has a core fantasy (not all things with core fantasies are brands, but all brands have a core fantasy) is to ask “If I wore a shirt with their logo on it, what would I be saying about myself?” If the message is unclear or non-existent, then either it's not a brand, or it's a poorly managed one.

If I wear a shirt that says “Secret of Mana”, I'm saying... I guess that I like Secret of Mana? I'm not really saying anything else, certainly not compared to the classic Harley Davidson example, or even something as mundane as In'n'Out: In'n'Out is all about the retro feel, and the quality of the good old days. Harley Davidson makes a much clearer statement, and therefore has a much clearer fantasy associated with it, but we can all agree that Squareenix or Blizzard don't have a core fantasy to speak of.

So what if a game company wanted to make themselves a brand? In order to do that, they would need to stand for something more than just great games. If I founded a company that made consistently great games (companies that could be brands without a consistently high level of quality are beyond the pale of this discussion) that also consistently promoted social reform, I'd have a brand on my hands. If you wear a hat with this company's logo on it, you'd be saying, “I'm a gamer with a social conscience”.

When I was first thinking about this, it occurred to me that part of the lifeblood of the game industry is the variety of experiences it can deliver. Bethesda does sandbox RPGs, Blizzard used to stand for a great RTS, Squareenix is RPGs, but within these categories, there's a huge amount of variation, not to mention a huge variety of catagories. On the opposite hand, part of building a recognizable brand is to specialize as much as possible, and deliver the same experience as much as possible. This seemed, at first glance, kind of at odds with the game industry. If you keep making the same game over and over again, that's a recipe for failure, but can you make a bunch of games with varied particulars that deliver on the same feeling over and over again? And more importantly, if you make them, will they continue to be fun/entertaining/edifying?

The is answer is “Of course you can”, and I think Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki are the perfect example. Studio Ghibli in general, but Miyazaki in particular, deliver on the same themes and feeling over and over again. Every single one of Miyazaki's movies (and yes, I've seen them all) are about the essential goodness of mankind, the awe-inspiring complexity of nature, and the magical innocence of childhood. Studio Ghibli isn't a brand because no one in the western world is selling it as such (can't speak to Japan), but it has all of the important characteristics, and movies that meet a high standard of quality and all stand for virtually the same thing are clearly all you need to be successful. So why not games?

Next: Why Gaming Brands Suck

11/24/2008

But she has ICE powers...!



As much as it pains me to jump on the bandwagon, Chrono Trigger has got to be my favorite game of all time.

The game's strongest suit is that it's incredibly tight. It's really short, but you get the feeling it's so short because they cut as much of the unnecessary material as possible. The game is much shorter (in fact, it can be beaten in less than 15 hours, I've done it), but, despite getting less game time for your dollar (compared to, say, Disgaea), the experience of playing the game is more enjoyable. At this point it becomes impossible to translate into dollar-to-enjoyment-ratio, but that's not really a concern of mine.

As I already said, the best part of Chrono Trigger is that everything you do is in service of the main plot. As I mentioned in my extended review of Breath of Fire 2, the part that stopped me on that game was the moment at which I said, “What am I doing?” and didn't have a good answer. At every step of the game in Chrono Trigger, it's fairly obvious how what you do next will contribute to stopping the apocalypse. Even when you have to find the dreamstone, which amounts to pretty much just a fetch quest, you end up fleshing out the main plot in the meantime, not to mention meeting another party member.

This brings me to the other big plus about Chrono Trigger. There are six additional party members, all with their own separate backstory, but all of the backstories (Robo is a little iffy, I admit) tie into the main story directly. Barrett from FF7 has an interesting little story behind him, about his town and Dyne and Shinra moving in, but aside from the fact that it involves Shinra being evil, you could cut all of those events from the game, and it wouldn't change the main story at all. If you cut Ayla and the Reptites from Chrono Trigger, you'd have no explanation for how Lavos showed up, if you cut Frog, you'd end up cutting most of Magus and the Masamune, which would leave you without a connection to Zeal.

Because the game is so short, there's very little room for rambling, and most important plot developments double up as an important moment for a character as well. Curiously enough, if they had split everything up, making the game much longer, I think my total enjoyment of the game (and therefore enjoyment per hour and enjoyment per dollar) would be drastically less.

This is precisely what the problem with Chrono Cross was, I think. Virtually nothing you did seemed to be directly in service of the main plot. I'm trying to find this artifact, and then eventually fight Lavos again, so... First I'm going to run around the island looking for parts of a clown skeleton, then rig a casino on a ship, and finally stage a concert for ghosts.

Sigh... at least the music was good.

11/22/2008

The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem



Just so we're clear: Daft Punk is awesome. Furthermore, Interstella 5555 is particularly awesome. First of all, (explaining my jump to this from “Moonwalker”) music videos that tell stories are awesome, and more involved stories are more awesome than less involved stories.

Interstella 5555 is an album long music video created for Daft Punk's “Discovery”. It tells the story of a band from another planet, who are kidnapped by an evil sorcerer turned record producer, who markets the band to human audiences via mind control devices planted in the band members, eventually using their energy (and gold record award-ish things) for some sort of amorphous nefarious purpose. Eventually, a member of their original race receives the distress signal, crash lands on earth, and saves the band. Their true identities revealed to humanity, they're hugely popular anyway, and end up salvaging the hero's ship (who was unfortunately slain during the rescue) to return to their home planet, establishing positive interstellar relations on the basis of kick-ass house grooves.

This plot is ridiculous, I know this, but everyone I know (myself included) loves this movie. It's not good or interesting enough by itself to be worth watching if you dislike Daft Punk's music, but as I hinted at before, music and story have a magic synergy that shortcuts the logical processing part of our brains. As I said, this plot is completely ridiculous. I have a lot of difficulty imagining a movie, game, or book that featured a plot like this that I wouldn't immediately laugh at, and yet, because I'm rockin' out in the meantime to Daft Punk, I swallow this stuff hook line and sinker, and so, I bet, would you.

11/19/2008

BA-AUU! (Part 2)

I find it interesting that I'm so prone to going off on tangents about the nature of branding, despite its (at best) tangential relationship to storytelling. Perhaps that's something that can be changed...

Yesterday, Carol mentioned that maybe Michael Jackson's magic powers (or the suggestion of) was one of the things that made young boys part of his audience. I certainly wished I had magic powers when I was a little kid. All that being said though, I don't feel like I can speculate too much on exactly what Michael Jackson's core fantasy is (or at least the core fantasy of “Moonwalker”) without seeing “Moonwalker”, which I haven't done since I was about 6. Still though, we can look at a couple of aspects of it.

First of all, his current condition aside, Michael Jackson is a good singer and an amazing dancer. Without some amount of talent to begin with (all comments about the cult of celebrity aside), it's difficult, if not impossible to become a huge success as an entertainer, and while it's not exactly a one to one correlation, more talent helps.

Second, I think you need to pick an audience that you can actually reach, and nail it. Michael Jackson was less overtly sexual than Prince, so generally given the thumbs up by mothers with teenage daughters, but still “dreamy” enough to be a teen idol. Likewise, whoever concocted the “Moonwalker” magic powers thing delivered on the younger male audience.

Third, I wouldn't say you need to do something nobody's done before, most pop stars, huge sensations or not, don't, but I certainly think it helped Michael Jackson. Is the fact that the movie was named “Moonwalker” not clear enough?

Still though, all of these things make you a pop sensation, not necessarily a larger than life brand. Not only did Michael Jackson start making that jump when he was sold as having quasi-mystical powers, but someone hinted at something very insightful in a comment about Core Fantasies to me a long time ago. Commercials are the most effective when they contain a mini-narrative. My hunch tells me that the reason why people connect with mini-narratives in commercials is the same reason why people connect with anything even vaguely narrative in form.

Next, Music and Narrative: What Makes Interstella 5555 Great.

11/18/2008

BA-AUU!



Just... wow.

I could talk about the specifics of this game, or the story or... lots of things, but more than that, I'm curious about the jump from musician to game. There are a few others worth mentioning (Aerosmith and “Revolution X”, the hilariously terrible Journey arcade game), but none stand out in my mind as much as the Moonwalker games (there was an arcade version, in addition to the Genesis one).

The question that jumps out at me here is: “Why did Michael Jackson inspire a game, and plenty of other equally talented musicians and performers didn't?” Plenty of musicians have inspired movies, self-indulgent ones at that, and I have the vague childhood impression of “Moonwalker” being somehow more legitimate than anything that's come out since, but in all likelyhood, that's because I was 3 when it did. I'm aware of how ridiculous it is, I assure you.

Even given that, though, Moonwalker is just a game about Michael Jackson. Someone was able to make a Michael Jackson game (which was a decent enough game, not great), but nobody would be able to make a Prince game, or a Bruce Springsteen game, or a John Mayer game. They're all exceptional performers and exceptional musicians (as Michael Jackson was), but they're missing some quality that Michael Jackson had.

For your approval, ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you the Michael Jackson Moonwalker Intro. You know, the one where you see his shoes walking in the spotlight, and they start dropping little sparkles. He does a little twirl, and goes up on his toes? Remember that?

No? Well, how about now? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Quite simply, I think he was able to make this jump because someone on his PR team came up with the brilliant idea to sell him as if he had magic powers. By tapping into the supernatural, he becomes a larger than life figure, and (brace yourself) begins to stand for something larger than just himself. That's what separates a product from a brand. To repeat a tired example: Canada Dry is a soda. Mountain Dew is a lifestyle. Bono is a performer. Michael Jackson is... something else.

The question, of course, is “What?” More on that tomorrow.

11/17/2008

World of Explosioncraft

Unfortunately, I'd like to attribute my recent absence to some sort of staggering financial success and critical acclaim, but no, I might just be a lazy jerk.

On the bright side, I can now be found occasionally writing for the good folks at www.wowhead.com

My introductory post can be found here.

11/13/2008

At Least My Mom Thinks I'm Funny...


Okay, okay, I've got a joke for you. You wanna hear a good joke? Okay, here it is:

Electro-Cop

Seriously, I've been trying to keep this to games that were important in my childhood because they were really good. Even Breath of Fire II, despite it's huge problems, was a big influence on my childhood.

Sadly, so was Electro-Cop, uh, well... kind of. I didn't realize it until recently, but this game was terrible. I could explain what it had going for it, or what it did wrong, but really, everything about this game reduces down to one simple aspect of the game.

As you travel around the building that the game takes place in, you run into a number of locked doors. Doors are locked with a four number password, so there's no chance of you guessing them. If you want to unlock a door, you can run an icebreaker program, which will (fairly quickly) run through every possible combination of numbers, eventually stumbling onto the password and unlocking the door.

I know what you're thinking, if you could do this for every door, what's the point of searching out the passwords in the first place? Get this: There are no passwords. You cannot ever get the password for any door in that game ever. Why do they give you the option to input the password manually? You will never use it. Once you've opened a door, it stays open, and the passwords are generated randomly each game, so you can't use them more than once. The end result is: you have to use the ice breaker program on every door in the entire game.

Since running through all ten thousand possible combinations takes a while, the game gives you small mini-games to play while you're waiting. You can solve a 3x3 slide puzzle, or play a bastardized version of asteroids of break out. Cracking the password takes two to three minutes each, and virtually every door in the entire game is locked. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that in any given game of electro-cop, you spend 75% of your time playing smaller, shittier games!

I know I say this a lot, but who could have possibly given that the thumbs up?! It boggles the mind that someone was able to assemble an entire production team of people who do nothing but play video games developed in the early 70s.

Well guess what, it gets better. If you're lucky enough to solve the slide puzzle, beat all three levels of break out (there are only three levels, yes), or destroy all the asteroids, the game says, “You won. Big deal.” and then starts you over. The game makes fun of you for playing it! Electro-Cop's audacity is... boggling.

It's like the Emperor's New Clothes got condensed into a cartridge for the Atari Lynx, and they're trying to see how much time you have to sink into the game before you realize the game sucks and the makers want to hurt you personally. It's like Andy Kaufman hauled himself out of his grave to make a game, just so you couldn't quite decide for sure if he was making a game, or just attempting to damage people emotionally in an obnoxious piece of performance art. As for me, I choose the latter.

11/12/2008

A Wizard has Turned You Into a Whale

After the opening, which we've heard so much about, Breath of Fire 2 drops you in a town, with you and your friend Bow trying to find work. You end up doing a number of odd jobs as mercenaries, before eventually traveling out to a town where a gladiatorial competition is being held, where you unearth an attempt to fix the fights. Right about here, the game just kind of... breaks down. One of the good organizational parties behind the fights gives some speech, aided by your characters, realizing that some sort of black tide is growing, because you fought a bunch of demons in various places, which he may or may not relate to some ancient prophecy.

Personally, I think this sucks as much as it sounds like it sucks. It gives me the impression that somebody came up with the general overlay of demons coming back, dragons being fated to battle them, your main character being a dragon, and so forth, and then came up with the opening, but kind of fell asleep at the wheel for connecting the dots.

Okay, reader poll: That was the best metaphor ever: (Y/Y)

Seriously though, I remember finally putting the game down for good when I was in a cave below a town, trying to kill a fish that was causing earthquakes, when I stopped and thought “Why the hell am I doing this?” I mean, I was doing it cause Ryu is a generally nice guy who doesn't turn down people who need saving from earthquake fish, but for the life of me, I couldn't see why it mattered for the main plot. I guess earthquake fish messing up towns is also part of that amorphous black tide, but I felt like I had sunk nigh onto ten hours into that game, and still had no idea what I should be doing or where I should be going in the long run. I've pushed through moments like that before in games, but every time a player thinks that, I'd say it represents a significant failure on the part of the writers.

I'll be picking up on that one early December. Back to our regularly scheduled program.

11/11/2008

Dreams and Reality

So, I never actually beat Breath of Fire 2, but nevertheless, the opening remains high on my list of best game openings.

(The scrolling text part of the opening can be found here)

I'm not sure there's much I can say about the “piques your curiosity” angle. Anybody who's ever played Breath of Fire knows that your main character has to be a dragon, so the “you have dreams about your dead mother when you sleep near the dragon” is very unlikely to go anywhere other than “This dragon is your mother, or at least a blood relative”. However, it's worth noting that when your character does actually take a nap, you get a brief flash of a reptilian eye, and then you wake up in the village where no one recognizes you. It shows a decent amount of subtlety (something usually missing from games) to not show the dream, or even answer the question of whether or not you dreamed about your mother. Likewise, I don't know if some explanation is provided later on in the game (I haven't beaten it, remember?), but for the moment, nothing is offered in terms of explanation for why no one recognizes you, and because your character doesn't speak, you don't make any big protestation of “Woah, where am I? Why doesn't anyone recognize me?” You might find out later what's going on, but for the moment it's not important, because you've absorbed the information of everything that's happened so far.

Regarding the text of the written opening: the writing is fine, nothing to elevate it particularly high or sink it particularly low, but I'm particularly struck by two things. First, the demon that kills you doesn't appear to have any malice, suggesting that it's more out to force you to embrace your destiny than just tear you a new one, which was a nice touch, back in the 90's when it wasn't so common. Second, the fact that the text ends with how reality fades away and the dream takes shape, only to dump you at the title screen, and then the main game. Much like Godot and His Mask, you have no idea what the reality of the situation is, but it's not important. It's very possible (I'd even say I hope that it's the case) that the entire game is, in fact, a dream about your mother that you had from closing your eyes near the sleeping dragon.

And yet, I never beat the game. Tomorrow: Why?

11/09/2008

Curse You, Dr. Wily!



Okay, so does this box art make anyone else think of the original American Mega Man 2 box art? Way too muscled and old and scary?

I'll just leave it at that...

The absolute best part of Breath of Fire II, in my experience, is the opening. You begin in a small village with your sister and father, and have to search for your sister, who's gone missing. You find her at the base of a mountain on the outskirts of town, being watched over by a sleeping dragon. She informs you when she sleeps near the dragon, she dreams about mom. You try it as well, only to wake up to a town where your father and sister are gone, and no one has heard of you or your family. You meet Bow (your first other party member), and you and he leave the church, only to be defeated almost immediately by a monster in a nearby cave. After losing, the screen blacks out, you're treated to the following text (with a slow, upwards scroll of a tower):

It was like waking from a long dream...
But, now his father and sister have disappeared, and no one else recognizes him...
He dreamt of a horrific demon who ripped his heart and body apart...
But it remains just a dream.

Yet, the vision remains strong.
Deep within the corners of his mind, he hears it calling.
A different world...
A world of silence...
A world of darkness.
He moves towards it, feeling both fear and exhilaration.
He succumbs, and the darkness welcomes him.

“You are the one”, the demon screeches.
Reaching deep within his heart, he realizes that it is true.
Then, in that moment, reality washes away, and the dream takes shape...

Tomorrow: Why this works, and why it doesn't.

11/08/2008

Consistancy and Thoroughness



The Last Blade 2 is most likely my favorite fighting game of all time. This is not a genre I'm a huge fan of, the list of fighting games I enjoy is pretty much this one, Guilty Gear, and Capcom vs. SNK 2. My problem with fighting games is a feature for another day, but for some reason, I enjoy this one nevertheless.

What it has going for it:
First and foremost, I like the character design. Each character has their own (obvious) personality, which matches with their fighting style, and is animated very well for its time. I will be the first to admit that the characters in Last Blade 2 are cliché, but when departing from clichés gets you “I'm an 11-foot tall rock-and-roll doctor with a giant scalpel and a paper bag over my head, who is also a humanitarian, serial killer, and maybe a child molester”-

Well, let's just say that I'll take “powerful but inexperienced protagonist, stand off-ish rival/blood relative, and the woman that tries to stop them from feuding” any day.

The basic format of the game involves choosing whether to play your character is “Power” or “Speed” mode. Power does much more damage and has more special moves, Speed unlocks significantly more combo trees. Nevertheless, the two forms are balanced surprisingly well. Additionally, since combos don't go on excessively long, the game becomes more about using a combination of high and low attacks, rather than successfully entering a difficult combo that the opponent can do nothing about once you've connected with the first hit. Perhaps it's not for everyone, but I drastically prefer this style of play.

What it doesn't:
With a few exceptions, most characters seem to have been designed with one mode (speed or power) in mind, and work significantly better in that mode than the other, so the ability to play any character in either mode is not quite as helpful as you'd think.

Oh, and did I mention that this is an SNK fighting game? Those of you not familiar with fighting game history might not know this, but SNK final bosses are bullshit. They are bullshit, and they engage in bullshit, consistently and thoroughly. I cannot imagine who okay-ed the final boss for this game having no ducking animation, so you can't tell if he's going to hit you high or low until he's already hit you! Your reflexes are worth nothing, and the final boss turns into a glorified guessing game with 50/50 odds, where you get massacred by an ancient Japanese tornado god if you pick wrong.

Defining Moment:
I'm not sure, given the game is so short, that I can pick a particular moment that defines my experience with this game. I think I'd have to pick the night where Natalie, my brother, and I stayed up until 3 AM playing an emulated version of it on my computer.

Well, that or the time I found a copy of it for sale at my local Game Dude, and discovered that by “For Sale” they meant “For Sale for over seven hundred dollars”. At least I won the bet for “who could discover the most expensive used game at game dude”.

11/06/2008

"Blah-blu Blah Blah-blu-de"



Did you ever have those big wooden boxes, with the knobs on two sides of the box, that you turn to tilt the top of the box slightly, and the challenge is to navigate a ball through the maze, while avoiding it falling into one of the many holes dotting the surface of the box? Did you hate it? Did it frustrate you endlessly with your utter inability to navigate past the most rudimentary obstacles presented to you? Did you lack of hand eye coordination and inability to estimate momentum permanently damage your pre-pubescent psyche?

If you answered yes to at least one of those questions, then ON THE BALL is for you.

I can't explain it. I hated that little box with a passion, and yet I love this game, despite the fact that they're basically just the same thing in digital form.

What it has going for it:
On the Ball fills out the gap in the “Entertaining Ball Based Games” genre nicely after Marble Madness, but before Katamary Damacy was on the scene. Aside from your ball's mysterious ability to change how bouncy it is when you hold a button, the physical are also remarkably convincing and consistent, which is basically all a game like this needs to be entertaining. Also, as a plus, you can get revenge on the stupid wooden box that rouses you from sleep in a cold sweat to this day.

What it doesn't:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZElZm00TOVA

There are two things to talk about here. First of all, the music on the first two levels. What the hell is that? Make no mistake, I love this game, but it doesn't somehow blind me from knowing that one of the tracks just sounds like a drum machine, with somebody going “blah-blu blah blah-blu-de” over it.

Second, as you may or may not have noticed, unless you keep your eyes on the ball in the center, watching this makes you motion sick almost instantly, which, of course, leads inexorably to the-

Defining Moment:
which would have to be the drinking game that was created by my friends and I late in my college career. The players were forced to drink after every level they competed without needing to continue, thus leading to a plateau of inebriation, where the game becomes too difficult, and you stop drinking. Sadly, as it turns out, my ability to beat all ten levels of the most difficult course was a function of my brain prioritized far above things like balance, fine motor control, or the finer points of most social graces.

11/05/2008

Toejam Jammin'



I remember seeing Toejam and Earl in 20/20 video as a kid, and thinking “This game cannot possibly be any good. This cover art is ridiculous and terrible.” To this day, I maintain that the cover art is ridiculous and terrible. The game, however, fares much better on hindsight. You control one of two aliens trying to reassemble their ship which crash landed on earth, while avoiding being harassed or killed in some way by the hostile denizens of this planet. Also, Toejam (the red one) and Earl (the one with glasses) happen to be two exceptionally funky aliens. Who knew?

What it has going for it:
There are a lot of things. The basic exploration format and the randomized levels ensured a different game every time, and most of the enemies were a not-so-subtle parody of some ridiculous human behavior, which was entertaining. However, it really all comes down to one thing:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFzee_yoloA

If that doesn't get your red, sneaker wearing spaghetti alien bumping, I don't know what will.

What it doesn't:
Dealing with enemies in this game consists of two behaviors: Running away from them, or hoping that you happen to have some sort of weapon in your inventory (mostly consisting of tomatoes), using the weapon, and running away from the enemy anyway, because the control you have over throwing tomatoes is terrible, and you can't hit the broad side of a funky alien barn. Likewise, earth apparently consists of a bunch of floating islands vertically arranged, connected by space elevators, such that if you fall off the level, you end up on the previous level. Given your slow walking speed, this can become tiresome very quickly.

Defining Moment:
You know how I said that when you fall off one level, you end up on the previous one. Well, that's not entirely true. Every level is the same size, so when you fall off one level, you end up, on the previous level, in an area roughly corresponding to where you fell off. If there happens to be a pit in the area where you fell off on both the level you fell off and the previous level... well, you know where this going. I'd have to give my defining moment as my record of successfully falling through 11 levels in a row. Given that your progress is measured pretty much entirely on the number of the level you've gotten to, that'll turn you off a game real fast.

11/04/2008

Return to Fort Birdman


EVO is something vaguely akin to an action RPG, where you play a lifeform that tries to... uh, I guess evolve, which apparently can be done in real time now. You start out as a fish, going through the phases of amphibian, reptile, and mammal, eventually emerging as a human if you play your cards right. You accumulate EVO Points by consuming the meat left behind after you defeat an enemy (apparently herbivores can't evolve), and use those points to acquire more damaging jaws, higher defense, more HP, horns, and any number of other features.

What is has going for it:
The basic system of “gain EXP by killing enemies, spend EXP to improve specific areas of your character” is a system I've always kind of preferred to “gain EXP by killing enemies, once you have enough EXP, you gain an all around boost in power”, because it affords you more control. The end result is the same: By the end of the world you play as a particular kind of animal, you have the best in every category. If everything increased at once, it would have the same end result, but this way I can customize to my play style.

Curiously enough, the music in EVO was also of surprisingly high caliber. The fish music in particular really hit the spot of “Not entirely safe, but not entirely threatening, vaguely wondrous water environment”.

What it didn't:
If you ever need to grind for EVO points in this game, it's one of the most boring grinds you'll ever experience. Likewise, to avoid the game being almost cripplingly difficult (or maybe I'm just terrible at action RPGs), you need to gain enough EVO points to evolve a few times during a boss fight, because evolving restores your HP. When you have to grind to get those, your patience can wear a little thin.

Defining Moment:
I'm gonna have to go with this one:



That is all.

11/03/2008

The March of the Black... Menu?



Ogre Battle, or “Menu Battle”, as I have taken to calling it, was originally a SNES release. It featured huge tactical battles, in which you designed, equipped, and deployed units (consisting of between 3 and 5 characters), then moved them around to engage enemy units for the purpose of eventually pushing them back enough to fight and kill the boss, usually in a castle.

What it has going for it:
Do you love fiddling with a ton of details? Do you love attempting to maximize the effect of way too many variables at once? Likewise, the recurring tarot card theme gave the game a nice flavor. I don't know much about the history, but it was also the first game I ever played where you had an alignment, which significantly affected how people responded to your army, and eventually the ending of the game.

What it doesn't:
Oh, was my sarcasm regarding “way too many variables at once” lost on you? It's called “Menu Battle” for a reason. It's not until the game reaches the last handful of battle that there become so many enemies that the balance of “time you spend setting up your army” to “time you spend fighting with your army” even barely approaches one to one.

Defining Moment:
Every character in your army has a class and a list of statistics. Once you reach a certain level, if you have the requisite stats, you can promote to a new class. Fighters can promote to wizards, knights, beasttamers, etc, and some of your classes, if you're lucky enough to find the required item, can promote to special classes. One time, I was lucky enough to find the item to promote a wizard into a lich, giving him access to better spells, and then, immediately, discovered the item to promote a lich into a greater lich. I was ecstatic, and when I completed the battle, and went to my menu to promote Warren, my mage, only to discover I couldn't do it. I couldn't figure out why. He was a wizard, he was high enough level, his intelligence was high enough, his alignment was... wait a second. In order to become a lich, you need an alignment of between 20 and 60, 100 being the highest possible alignment. Warren has an alignment of 0?

Wait, stop. My incredibly high level sorcerer was too evil to become a lich of incalculable power? In the words of XKCD: “Fuck. That. Shit.”

11/02/2008

The Month of November

So, for the month of November, I've decided to do something a little different. I'm going to (hopefully) be posting between five and seven times a week, short little snippets, almost-but-not-quite-reviews of the games that formed my childhood (with a few more recent examples thrown in).

To begin:



Star Control is a top down shooter, where you engage a single other ship in battle, usually centered around a planet. Each ship has a primary weapon, usually some sort of cannon, varying in power, and a secondary weapon. Every ship has it's own speed, HP, fuel (used to power your guns), and a wide selection of ships.

What it had going for it:
I'm sure games of this variety existed before I played Star Control in 1991, but the battles were endlessly entertaining. The variety of ships available was impressive, and it showed a great amount of imagination in the variety of weapons available. Kind of like Super Mario World, Star Control took a really simple idea, and gave it a few extra layers of complexity, but didn't mess with the fundamental format that makes for an endlessly entertaining game.

What it didn't have going for it:
There's no real... well, game. The game consisted of dueling spaceships, and pretty much nothing else. No doubt realizing this, the developers slapped in some sort of nonsensical tactical, civilization-esque game where you colonize planets and use them to build ships, which fight with other people's ships. I know I was very young, and most of the intricacies of it were utterly beyond me, so I just kind of figured the game was good, but I couldn't understand it yet. This is untrue. In retrospect, it just sucks.

Likewise, when you're picking ships for just facing off against your brother, they weren't designed with the idea of “all of these ships are balanced for one on one combat”. If they were, I could probably balance ships better with a paper bag over my head and boxing orangutans for arms.

Defining Moment:
My brother and I are dueling, and his ship, the smallest, fastest, weakest one available, as best as we can discover, has no secondary weapon. Halfway through our first duel, his ship explodes for no reason, and he loses instantly. He picks the same ship next time, hoping to discover what happened. Again, we trade shots ineffectually, and after about 25 seconds into the match, he explodes again for no reason.

This happens two more times before we discover that apparently, the “secondary weapon” on the ship is a self-destruct mechanism, and in order to ensure that you don't do it accidentally, you need to activate it three times before it goes off. Seriously, who gave that the thumbs up? I know, let's make the worst ship in the game explode when you use its secondary weapon! It'll be awesome!

Also, curiously enough, some of you may be familiar with http://www.nablopomo.com/ which involves blogging every day for the month of November. Oddly enough, I was not when I began this exercise. Funny thing, that...

10/30/2008

Life with Louie

I've long thought that anger is an integral part of good humor. I'm not talking about Sam Kinison on stage here, screaming about operation desert storm. Good humor draws attention to the ridiculousness of our behavior, and lets us acknowledge it (semi-) safely, but you're not very likely to do that without a healthy amount of outrage, and a good clean eye on the dirty ways of the world.

Could anyone honestly tell me that they think Matt Groening had a positive childhood? And yet, the ridiculous and abusive behavior of what was no doubt Groening's own father gets tweaked probably only slightly, and suddenly, you've got Homer Simpson, who's hilarious. Life with Louie (a much better show than it was ever given credit for) was just Louie Anderson riffing on the fact that he had a shitty childhood for 22 minutes at a time, kind of like “A Christmas Story”, the animated series.

The best examples are all about processing difficult childhood issues, but it certainly doesn't stop there. Even Robert McKee has a joke in Story about a Christmas party with only comedy writers being one of the most unpleasant experiences possible.

And yet, I'd like to talk about “Family Guy”. I was never a huge fan of it, though I certainly don't object, and I find nothing wrong with the format of “I'm going to riff on pop culture references in rapid succession for an entire episode”. Nevertheless, I find the show interesting, because it so perfectly captures the Adult Swim style (despite originally starting on Fox). Personally, like with Family Guy, I'm not a huge Adult Swim fan. I'll watch a lot of their stuff if it's on, but the only show that I've ever intentionally sought out was The Venture Brothers. Really, Adult Swim is just on the very front of this new wave of humor, largely based on nihilism. I can't think of anything that typifies this better than the youTube poop phenomenon. (Has it surprised anyone else that it's yet to receive its own Wikipedia article, but is mentioned by name in the Wikipedia article on CD-is?)

If you're not familiar with what I'm talking about, look at the following: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3e/BowserSourpussToast.PNG

If you're like me, you find that picture really funny, but can't, at first glance, explain why. The short answer for why it's funny, of course, is that it's ridiculous. It features characters you're familiar with (Mario, Bowser), doing unfamiliar things (holding bread, sponsoring bread). This isn't like some dumb picture of a political figure where somebody photoshopped a bong into their hand, that's funny (well, not really, but you get the idea) because it's somebody intentionally flipping the meaning of the photo. Someone who normally stands for not using illicit drugs becomes an icon. It's a subtle jab at the hypocrisy of whoever is in the photo (politicians, cops, church leaders, whatever), which wouldn't be funny or relevant if we didn't have a vague sense of outrage at the hypocrisy of authority figures.

Mario holding Bowser brand Sourpuss Bread is definitely not that. It's funny because it's completely nonsensical. Why would Bowser make bread? Likewise, when Peter gets into a fight with a giant chicken, the joke there is that it makes no sense.

I submit that this is the inevitable consequence of the rising tide of relativism. People are realizing that standards they were brought up with aren't necessarily universal, and on the edge of that is people experiencing a backlash, and toying around with the concept that without absolutes, there exists the possibility that nothing really matters, and everything is as good as everything else. Humor that is designed around things not making any sense brings us face to face with that fact, and lets us deal with it safely, in the same way that The Simpsons does for alcoholic abusive fathers in dysfunctional families.

10/23/2008

Bounty, Which May or May Not Belong to a King

Last night, I beat King's Bounty: The Legend. For those of you unfamiliar, it's a 2008 release, put out as a gigantic tip of the hat to the original King's Bounty, made by Jon Van Caneghem, and frequently credited as the precursor to the Heroes of Might and Magic series.

I played the re-release of King's Bounty for the Sega Genesis in 1991 when I was a kid, despite mediocre graphics, and music that was, frankly, atrocious even for the early nineties. (Come on, people! Megaman 2 was released in 1988, and that music was awesome. You have no excuse.)

The gameplay is fairly simple. Both the original and he remake are based around you controlling an army (in avatar form), and clashing with various other armies in grid based combat. The changes the remake puts into effect basically just make the original game more complicated, or are just slight tweaks to the format. The new one plays in hexes, the old one used squares, your spell book is much larger, you have a host of primary stats and equipment that affect said stats, and most troops now have their own special abilities they can use. All in all, if you even remotely enjoyed the original, or would be interested in a tactical, powergaming heavy ridiculous game, check it out.

But I'm not really here to review King's Bounty: The Legend. The plot to King's Bounty is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The tone was set rather nicely the first time I created a character, a paladin, and was told by my mentor to go pick up a sword and equip it, but not before he checked with me, “to make sure I didn't take any of those stupid vows, like 'No weapons after dark', or something else dumb.”

Further highlights include a quest where a prince asks you to retrieve a frog from a swamp, so he can kiss it and turn it into a beautiful girl, whereupon the frog you find in the swamp informs you that he asks everybody to do that, and all the frogs in the swamp are beautiful girls, but without true love, they turn back into frogs, so the prince just dumps them in his dungeon. This is all not to mention the fact that, in a conversation about this game, I said the following phrase:

“Dammit, my demoness wife can't hold the drill anymore because she has to hold her stupid baby.”

Yes, you can get married. Yes, your wife can equip items (such as a dwarven drill, giving my army -1 initiative, but +25% physical damage). Yes, your wife can have children (also giving you various and sundry bonuses), and yes, those babies, mysteriously, take up her equipment slots.

Make no mistake, I really loved playing this game (and will probably play through again on a higher difficulty), but the story was not very good. It showed a lot of attention to crafting a backstory to the events that occur in the game, but it didn't go anywhere that I didn't expect, and I certainly didn't get emotionally involved, but, as I began to elaborate on in the previous post, it pointed in a lot of directions that got me thinking, “Wouldn't it be fascinating if somebody took that and really ran with it?”

So it turns out that Endoria, the world of this game, exists on the back of a giant turtle, and the orcs, having (sort of) unwittingly set the apocalypse in motion, have kidnapped dwarven engineers and elven magics to build a flying machine to escape to another world, which they have reason to believe is on the back of another turtle floating in the great ocean of space. Therefore, you have to convince them to let you use the flying machine to fly to the ends of Endoria, to rescue the young Princess Amelie (I'm sure it would be a shame I was already married if she wasn't eight years old), and stop the dragon Haas from destroying the world.

The plot holes are everywhere. Why did the orcs go along with the plan in the first place, then decide to stay when you talked to them? The dragon had to kidnap the Princess because she's descended from the gods (King Mark is infertile, it seems), because he needs the tears of the gods to bring about the end of the world. Why on earth do the tears of the gods slay a giant turtle? Why did the dragon go insane in the first place?

Nevertheless, the overactive imagination takes something like the premise of an ocean of turtles with worlds on their backs, and can't help but think about the possibilities allowed by a premise like that. And yes, I'm aware of the similarity to Discworld, though I'm not particularly familiar with the books. Likewise, from the fact that your training involves rescuing a fake princess from a dragon, to the prince who asks you to pick up a frog from the swamp, to the fact that Amelie asks that you be made a prince after the fact, so that her rescuer can be a prince on a white horse, all point to a world that intentionally plays into fairytale tropes. (Again, seemingly not unlike Discworld)

Since I'm prone to analysis and narrative myself, I look at a world like this, and spend a lot of time thinking about the possibilities that you could come up with if you ran with it in various directions. I can't help but think that this is basically the same thing an overactive imagination does when presented with the environments in Super Metroid, or any vague premise, which is either not flushed out or flushed out poorly. I happen to think I'm a good writer, but it doesn't even really matter in this case. Because they're ideas I'm coming up with, I'm predisposed to like them, right? And because it generates, in me, ideas that I find entertaining, the game itself becomes more entertaining.

Oh, and for those who played the original King's Bounty, I can't represent how pleased I was that the final battle basically consisted of you just fighting a ton of dragons. That's the way it should be.

10/08/2008

The Spirits Within

So, I meant to pick up on intuitive understanding, especially considering the discussion inspired by my previous thoughts, which I'm very pleased about, but I was knocked out for a while by an unfortunate illness, and need to throw up something good. Intuitive understanding and this month's roundtable soon to come!

I'll just cut right to the chase here. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within just wasn't a very good movie. I've talked to a lot of people about the subject, and a lot of people have a lot of difficulty putting their finger on why. The voices were of surprisingly high caliber, the visuals were good for their time (with the exception of the conspicuous lack of facial capture technology), the quality of dialog was usually high enough to not bring down the rest of the movie, and yet...

Despite having no explicit relationship to games in the series, (in the same way that games in the series have no explicit relationship to each other) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is definitely a “Final Fantasy” movie. For those of you who don't know the movie, the plot can be summed up as such:

The film is set in a post apocalyptic world where humanity has dropped the ball, and been forced to cede mastery of the earth to a more adapted, (arguably) less intelligent species. Humanity is slowly being pushed to extinction. Enter a young woman, who's able to save the day by seeing the planet as the victim of, rather than the giver of pain, but not before she butts heads with the worst that humanity has to offer in terms of selfishness and short-sightedness.

Those of who who've already heard my deal on this probably already know where this is going, but does this sound familiar? That's just a plot synopsis of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, goodness knows I reference it often enough on here.

The similarity is intentional, mind you. Even the opening scene of The Spirits Within is an homage to Nausicaa: the main character running around in the depths of the post-apocalyptic world, weaponless, observing the otherworldly beauty of the supposedly ruined surface of the earth.

Given that Miyazaki can pretty much be credited with single handedly shaping the face of Japanese environmentalism, and, more important to the discussion, popularizing the “Gaia hypothesis” (the suggestion that the earth itself is a kind of living organism), there can be very little doubt that Miyazaki, probably unintentionally, shaped the face of the Final Fantasy series, and by extension, Japanese Role Playing Games in almost all their forms.

(I'm glossing over drawing the line between early Final Fantasy and Miyazaki because it's merely a stepping stone to my point regarding the Final Fantasy film, but if there's enough support, I might go back and write more on the tangential topic of the environmentalism contained in early Final Fantasies)

When a big blockbuster is made out of a book, TV show, game, or comic, and it sucks, it's usually blasted for being somehow “untrue” to the original Intellectual Property from which it was derived (provided the original IP was any good in the first place): League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Starship Troopers, Resident Evil, the list goes on.

And yet, The Spirits Within is the perfect counter example to this trend. Given that Final Fantasy was so heavily shaped by Miyazaki, what could be more representative of the IP than a giant homage to the quintessential Miyazaki film? Nonetheless, the movie just wasn't all that good.

Why?

I could go on and pick apart every little part of The Spirits Within, and talk about how this didn't work, or that could have been better, but that wouldn't really get us anywhere. Instead, I submit, for those of you (myself included) who are Final Fantasy fans but didn't like The Spirits Within, that the Final Fantasy that exists in your head is just better than the actual Final Fantasy. A friend of mine has been telling me for quite a while that the reason why he liked Final Fantasy 6 so much better than any subsequent ones is because Final Fantasy 6 had poor enough graphics, and just the right about of vagueness in the dialog to leave things up to his imagination. He's just exceptionally aware and up front about what I think virtually everyone who grew up playing video games (particularly RPGs) does: Fill in the gaps with their own imagination.

There's very little actual time, if you go back and play the first disc of Final Fantasy 7, devoted to building the relationship between Cloud and Aeris, but the player nonetheless understands what the nature of the relationship is supposed to be, and can fill in the rest. The gravity of Aeris's death is less based on the quality of the relationship built within the confines of the actual game, and much much more on the quality of the relationship that exists within the player's head.

At first glance, this seems so obvious as to be meaningless. Of course the player's experience is incredibly important in how they experience a game. If I hate Japanese RPGs, I'm not going to get invested enough to care about any of the character development, let alone the death of a character part of the way through the game. It's not even that revolutionary or meaningful, I think, to suggest that the reality of the game is less important than the player's projection onto it.

So why did Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within disappoint? I could make an analogy about how trying to duplicate a Miyazaki movie is like trying to cover “Born to Run” with your garage band (read: a bad idea, don't invite comparison), but I think the truth of the matter is that the actual Final Fantasy IP is just not as good as the “Final Fantasy” that exists in the consciousness of the people who saw The Spirits Within.

This isn't just me whining about how fanboys are never satisfied, and how everybody and their mother has a secret Sephiroth/Vincent slash fic under their mattress. (Is it still a slash fic if they're from the same IP? I don't keep up on my definitions.) The fact is, there's a lot less to Metroid than everyone thinks too. I remember not even understanding that Samus without her suit on was the same character in the original Metroid. I thought it was a second character for the two player version that I didn't know how to unlock. She didn't even have a clear physical appearance until Super Metroid, and only that if you could beat the game in under three hours.

Nonetheless, the environments in Super Metroid were so evocative, those with overactive imaginations (a hallmark of the geek) couldn't help but speculate about the events surrounding them. Would their explanations (if they existed) be as good as the vague sense of wonder the game left you with? I doubt it.

How many of you remember being impressed with the romance between Locke and Celes? I know I was. Well, surprise, the number of lines out of either of them that can be assumed to have an even vaguely romantic connotation number under 25. You get a few more lines when you tack on anything he says about Rachel, but at the heart of it, there's nothing there. Nonetheless, people, myself included, ate it up.

So, is this a bad thing? Hardly. Nonetheless, any attempt to flush out all the dark corners of an IP, especially in a movie, is doomed to failure. Those little niggling aspects (sometimes those big niggling aspects) are always better left to the imagination. Just like how the histories I made up for the locations in Legend of Mana were way better than the actual histories, Braid captured the imagination of the Internet community because of how much it left unsaid.

9/08/2008

Shaking the Tree

In continuation of the last post on gender, and the ideals thereof, I think one of the problems with trying to create a strong, inherently female main character in a game is that passivity is widely regarded as an essentially female quality. Furthermore, we in the West are so heavily inundated with masculinity that we're heavily predisposed to think of activity as good and passivity as bad.

The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy is what everyone learns in grade school makes America great. In reality, there's nothing wrong with that mindset, but like just about everything else, when pursued to the exclusion of other things, it's problematic. So much emphasis is placed on personal fortitude, (“going the distance” as I put it last post) personal ability, and the kind of strength that's required to defeat your foe, that we lose sight of the relative importance of nurturing, passivity, and intuitive understanding.

So, to recap, we've got a double whammy here. First of all, we have a culture that places so much emphasis on the traditionally masculine qualities that we devalue the feminine ones. Second, if the discussion is to be on games, we can't go very far without addressing the fact most people don't think that a game where you don't actually defeat a big enemy at the end would be all that fun. (Even if, like in Fallout, you defeat them by talking) Yes, there are exceptions to this, wildly successful exceptions, in fact, but a majority of games are built around this framework.

I just started reading We by Robert A. Johnson. It's a book that appeared in the wake of Joseph Campbell, applying the concept of Jungian analysis to myths in order to distill universal truths. Personally, I don't put a lot of stock in Jung's concept of the Collective Unconscious, especially as some sort of dynamic information system, but so far the book has had some very interesting things to say about Courtly Love as an institution.

Specifically, that Courtly Love (Check here if the concept isn't instantly familiar to you) is based on the idealization of the lady involved in the exchange. Johnson asserts (and this is debated, as best as I can tell) that the nature of the relationship was entirely non-physical, and the purpose was to bring the relationship up to a more spiritual level. The lady was idealized, so it became necessary for the knight to engage in ridiculous dragon slaying acts to demonstrate his achievement of the ideal of masculinity.

Is slaying a dragon better than being worthy of adoration? Is the sword better than the harp? Is the ability to accomplish your goals no matter what adversity arises better than the ability to remain sensitive to the changing conditions around you?

These questions are way too amorphous to be actually seriously investigated, but I think the point is made that not all of them can be answered with “yes”. Sadly, there aren't very many dragons around to be slain anyway. Either way, I'm not here to make an exhaustive list of feminine and masculine qualities, and it's important to note that everybody has these qualities, the question is to what amount. Likewise, my basis for “masculine” versus “feminine” is not based on any sort of observation on my part, so much as the historical context in which these concepts are frequently viewed.

The qualities that interest me specifically are that of intuitive understanding and passivity. These are generally downplayed in the west, and that's a huge shame, I think, but the question at hand is what these mean in games. Sadly, it seems both have the cards stacked against them when it comes to placement in video games.

Regardless of any axiom about violence and non-violence, it's hard to argue that, in a game, doing things isn't more fun than not doing things. Can passivity really be a viable means to reach some end in a game?

You can definitely craft a satisfying climax out of a moment in which your main character must decide not to fight someone, establishing the value of pacifism over violence, but if that moment came before you had some final test of skill to determine whether you were good enough at the game to beat it, wouldn't you feel cheated? I kind of imagine that I would. Activity turns so easily into challenges in a game because there are so many kinds of activity. The challenge is in picking which kind of activity you need to engage in (and then correctly engaging in the desired kind of activity). Maybe I'm looking at this too narrowly, but can anyone be said to have to chose the right kind of passivity? If asked, I would have said that the only thing you choose is the right time to be passive.

You can't make a game around that, can you? I concede it might be possible in an academic sense, but I think to deal with game design issues, this is a bit of a narrow definition. The true balance of activity and passivity is one that you achieve in aesthetics and narrative, not game mechanics. That seems like the trick here, the word balance.

Do we need more female characters in general in games? Of course. What we really need, though, is characters who act female. We can all agree that another ridiculous fantasy game with a scantily armor-clad woman with a sword is not what I'm talking about. Why? Because they're just the dumb action hero character reskinned for sex appeal to the same male audience. We don't just need realistic female characters (though even just that would be a Godsend), we need male characters that embrace feminine values. (Cecil's conversion into a Paladin in FFIV is a nice one)

Ay yi yi, this has gone on long enough. I'll leave intuitive understanding to be tackled in part three.

8/17/2008

I'll Be That Girl

Before I was derailed a bit (if you can call it that) by my contribution to the Round Table and others, I spent some time talking about archetypes, specifically the difference between two similar female archetypes: the healer and the warrior princess.

At the end of the post, I posed the question of why these archetypes recur so often, and why they're so powerful. Natalie, in the comments, said something very interesting:

When it comes to Heinlein, I can't help but feel like... his (dirty old man) status does taint the validity of his ideas. But here's the thing: he nevertheless makes me wish the world worked the way he proposes.

I think this captures a fundamental appeal of fictional storytelling, but right now, I'm a bit more interested (inspired a bit by Corvus's mention of a more in-depth discussion on gender in games) in the nature of strength as it relates to gender, which I think also keys into the appeal of these archetypes quite nicely.

Everybody in western culture is familiar with the pinnacle of male strength, the action hero. They're physically strong, they're agile, they're smart, they're witty, they're resourceful, and more than anything else they can go the distance. Maybe they don't believe it at the start, but every action hero must believe, before they defeat the final villian, that they can.

I'm reminded of the Lord of the Rings:

"I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness, but I know I can't turn back... I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me."

Must of that book is about whether or not Frodo is, in fact, willing to go the distance.

All of the tenets of the typical male hero, I believe, revolve around this issue. In the case of the action hero (which is most often analagous to the main character of a video game), all of the secondary traits (which are still part of the whole picture, mind you) serve to reinforce the action hero's ability to overcome the obstacle set before him. The idea of "It is within my power to overcome this obstacle, and I will do everything within my power to do so" is the message behind action heroes that resonates with the audience so well, and the more the action hero has to sacrifice, the more notable his journey is.

We see very few female action heroes, and almost as few female main characters in games. When we do, the female aspect usually feels utterly superfluous, and is added for the purpose of throwing sex-appeal into a film that's already going to attract a primarily male audience.

Why do we see so few decent female characters in these roles? The two most common reasons, which are both very true, are: the movies/games themselves primarily appeal to men, and the people making the movies/games themselves are primarily men.

And yet, there are more and more people, as evidenced by the resounding positive feedback that Corvus recieved, who are finding this unsatisfactory. The problem isn't the strength of the male characters, the problem is the dearth of strong female characters.

Paul Wells on Miyazaki (pulled from Andrew Osmond's Foundation article "Nausicaa and the Fantasy of Hayao Miyazaki", which can be found here):

"Miyazaki establishes authorial tendencies by refuting the tenets of films constructed on masculine terms... (His) complex heroines are consistently engaged in the pursuit of self-knowledge and a distinctive identity. His use of the feminine discourse subverts patriarchal agendas both in film making and story-telling.
"As Miyazaki suggests, 'We've reached a time when the male-oriented way of thinking is reaching a limit. The girl or woman has more flexibility. This is why a female point of view fits the current times.'"

While a little more academic than I would have put it, that really hits the nail on the head. There will always be a place for the action hero, but the hill of the digital world is getting big enough for both of those hombres, I think. So if action hero is the male ideal of strength, what's the female?

8/09/2008

Common Thread

As I've said on a few previous Round Table entry comments, I find the "Video Games cause violent crime" discussion hilarious. Not good hilarious, like "laugh and squirm like an itchy bear cub" hilarious.

The argument is invariably based on some sort of a vague hunch that the entire world is going to hell in a handbasket, and that video games and violent crime are just one of the symptoms. Violent crime is down, people. Way down. I'm not going to argue that violent video games cause a decrease in violent crime, but it's hard to argue that they cause an increase, when there's no actual increase to be observed. The subject needs no futher discussion.

Likewise, I've never really put much stock in the "getting your ya-yas out" argument, which suggests that video games actually do reduce violent crime, because they provide outlets for people who would otherwise be likely to engage in violent behavior. Violent crime has been on a steady decline since the 70s, I beleive, with no marked change that can be linked to the popularity of video games. That subject needs no further discussion either.

So what do video games teach us? They teach us pattern recognition, they teach us hand/eye coordination, they teach us faster reflexes, they teach forethought (in the same way that chess does), but to assume that any of these skills are easily applicable in real life is taking, I think, a very large, not necessarily intuitive step. Unless I repair watches, or compete in some sort of speed-knitting Olympic event, my hand/eye coordination will probably not be tested very often beyond the "functioning member of society" level. And while being good at Advance Wars might make me a better Chess player, I hardly think that being good at Chess counts as a "Socially Responsible Lesson", to quote this month's Round Table description.

To make a long story not in any notable way shorter: Do video games teach socially responsible lessons? Yes. Is there any reason, inherent to the medium, why they can't? No. Do they make it a habit to do so? No.

So what "Socially Responsible Lessons" have I learned from games? Sadly, the kinds of things that I would say I've learned are the easiest to verbalize. I consider myself entertained and edified after watching "Rebecca", but did the movie teach me a socially responsible lesson? That's harder to prove. Likewise, I enjoyed playing Portal, and because I have, I now have a shared pool of experience to draw from with virtually everyone else on the internet, but is that really a socially responsible lesson?

Barring Edu-tainment (which I'm totally in favor of), I think this is the most socially responsible lesson that games can teach us. By giving our generation a sense of shared context, games provide identity, ease communication, and build a foundation for all further creative interactions.

Wow, that's a tall order. Let me say it again. By giving our generation a sense of shared context, games provide identity, ease communication, and build a foundation for all further creative interactions. Games aren't really special in this regard, I just happen to believe that they join the illustrious ranks of Books, Movies, Music, Television, and any other creative endeavour.

The first two items on that thesis statement can be granted as common sense. If I read a joke about "The Cake is a Lie" on the SomethingAwful forums, I need to have played Portal to get the joke, and if I'm meeting someone for the first time, and I find out he/she is a big fan of Smash Bros, there's an instant comraderie there.

Regarding the concept of building a foundation for further creative endeavours, who can doubt that the creative gamer minds of my age (early 20s) that are now making it into the working world were impacted by Aeris's death, the search for the way to recruit General Leo into your party, and the sheer tenacity of the little guy from Frogger. In as much as games can tell stories (and probably even farther), they contribute to my generation's shared context, which is a particularly valuable lesson, I'd say.

8/07/2008

Out of my Head

Due to some interesting business related hurdles I've had to jump through, I've decided to postpone the follow up to the last post in favor of talking about the nature of business, specifically, the nature of any highly production oriented business, like the game industry.

In my short stint in the industry since my college graduation at the beginning of this year, I've learned quite a few lessons. Though some pertain specifically to this industry, in general they are axioms of the business world. These merely reflect my experience combined with my common sense, treat them as you will.

A lot of companies say they value demonstrations of ability over previous experience. Very few actually mean this.

Yelling at people never accomplishes anything, but it can sometimes make you feel better.

Everybody waits to the last minute.

Anything that has to be "processed" rather than "dealt with" automatically takes an extra week.

No one cares why you can't deliver.

Even fewer people care what you had to go through in order to deliver.

Timely completion automatically boosts you into the 90th percentile of competence.

"Green light" is a verb.

E-mail is the final authority in confirmation.

"Managing a process", while non-sensical sounding, can be surprisingly labor intensive.

Everybody CCs everybody on everything.

Cyrus the Great is credited as one of the first great thinkers on the subject of Human Rights. (Believe it or not, I did learn this on the job)

It's not really who you know, so much as who knows you.

Checks get signed when the person who does the signing feels like it.

There is no single trait that is more necessary to success in business than doing what you are asked to do, the first time you are asked to do it.

All humorous quipping aside, the most valuable lesson I've learned since entering the work force is that there's no key set of qualifications requried for success, particularly in the video game industry. Many places list jobs that require certain amounts of experience, and getting that first job with no experience can be very difficult, but for those who are interested, there's nothing for it other than to just put enough bird shot into the air that you're sure to hit something.

I think this really taps into a fundamental difference between an immature and a mature way of thinking. I, for one, certainly figured that something would happen in college that would prepare me for the working world. Strictly speaking, something did, I suppose, but there certainly wasn't the magic switch flipping that we all kind of half expect as kids. I'm reminded of Calvin's dad saying, "I would have been in much less of a rush to become an adult if I knew that everything was ad-libbed." It seems that most of the time in life, there's no magic quality that you can possess that makes you exceptionally ready for adulthood, working in the entertainment industry, or anything of the sort.

It's the same kind of harsh, kind of reassuring lesson as the fact that when under a deadline, no one cares what you have to do to make the deadline: the bleak, existential wasteland of the search for employment in the game industry. Want to get into casual games? Make one. Can't find anybody to program it? Do it yourself. Don't know how? Learn. The fact that nobody's handing it to you is counterpointed by the fact that nothing (nobody?) is keeping you from it.

Would I say I'm an "adult" now? That seems a bit presumptuous of me, but I've certainly enjoyed learning that last lesson there. What have you learned recently?

7/29/2008

Kind Lady

The Previous Blog Posts Referenced Within this post can be found in links within the post, but can also be found here:

The Warrior Mother: Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
The Holy Mother of Nisan


Having just finished Time Enough for Love, I feel compelled to blog on the subject.

The book details some of the exploits of the oldest man alive, over two thousand years. It's mostly viewed through the lens of his descendants wanting to record his wisdom, the kind of wisdom one can only accrue from living in four different millenia, two hundred different planets, uncountable professions, etc. No single series of events unifies the story, other than the involvement of Woodrow Wilson Smith in all of them to some degree. Among the primary stories of the book, however, are the story of Woodrow's greatest love, his travelling back in time to meet his birth family, his relationship with a self-aware computer, and his rekindling of his love for life associated with the recording of his previous exploits.

Thematically, the book is about two things (or at least two things stood out to me, there's a lot there): The healing power of love, and the relationship between love and sex.

Heinlein asserts, in a thesis kind of way, that sex is a natural extension of love, and that most social taboos, while they may have served some purpose at some time, are just that, evolutionary tools. As humanity grows beyond their usefulness, they deserve to be dropped. Example: the traditional taboo on incest serves no purpose once genetics advances to the point to pinpoint all possible reinforceable defects. Not that it suddenly makes it a good idea, but it's morally equivalent to having a child with a someone you're unrelated to, who happens to have the same chance of reinforcing an undesirable trait.

Likewise, he seems to suggest that concerns about monogamy, adultery, birth control, and so forth might have been pragmatic at some point, but have outlived their usefulness. He argues (indirectly, of course) that sex is a natural extension of love, and for those who are capable of loving many people at once, there's no reason why they shouldn't.

This is somewhat amusing because, to a large degree, Robert Heinlein is clearly just a very dirty old man, the kind that you call the school about when you find out that he's coaching your 16 year old daughter's volleyball team. And yet, he's a good enough writer, and adamant enough about love that it's difficult to be put off by his emphasis on sex. As Natalie said when I was discussing the book, "He's a dirty old man, but he's a very genteel dirty old man."

Which brings me to my second point. In the subplot about the main character finally tiring of life, and then rekindling his passion, a woman named Tamara is brought in, who is, essentially, a prostitute. Of course, in Heinlein's world, without social taboos, prostitution is elevated to an art form, not unlike any other performance based skill. Woodrow describes what he suffers from as a sickness, and says that Tamara cured him. Not just (though it is involved) by sleeping with him, but by her sheer presence, care, and love.

So appears the second theme of the book. Heinlein asserts that love by itself heals, or, more specifically, that in these people (almost exclusively women, possibly reflecting a reality, or possibly just a bias on the author's part) who have the healing touch, the most important quality is an unfathomable capacity for love.

It's important to note the cause-effect relationship here. These women have enough love in their hearts for the entire world, and sex is a natural extension of love. They are so good at what they do because they truly love each and every one of their clients. The fact that they can make money loving people is a happy coincidence in Heinlein's world, which in no way cheapens the experience itself.

The healing power of love, and the archetype of the woman that has enough love in their heart for the entire world are common themes. (Heinlein's Healer Archetype has a high co-occurrence rate with The Warrior Mother, though it's worth noting that they aren't quite the same thing)

Xenogears, among numerous others, makes the same assertion (the tremendous healing power of being loved by the right person), though I chose this one in particular because the woman who has enough love in her heart for the entire world is so cleanly crystallized in the form of Elly.

Since Elly figured so heavily into my definition of The Warrior Mother, I think it's time I elucidate the difference between the two, and slightly amend my definition of both.

Both archetypes, The Warrior Mother and Heinlein's Healer, have this mysterious power used for some kind of healing. Both are almost exclusively women. (Usually because a power that's deeply seated in pacifism and healing is thought of as a traditionally female quality)

However, first of all, the Healer, as it appears in Time Enough for Love is not a multidimensional character, while the Warrior Mother almost always necessitates a character arc. (which I explain here) Secondly, the Warrior Mother still loves, but she loves fiercely, compared to the gentle passion of the Healer. The relevant analogy, as was mentioned before, is to a she-bear. She's selfless, and loves her cubs, but will absolutely kick your ass if you mess with them, and is much more likely to do so if you threaten those she loves than if you threaten her.

That being said, I think my original list needs to be revised. Mist (Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance), Schala (Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross), Yuna (Final Fantasy 10), Aeris (Final Fantasy 7), and a few others from the list, are really versions of Heinlein's Healer. Female, quiet, humble to the point of lack of self-awareness, and charged with some great duty because of the immensely positive quality of their soul.

The Warrior Mother archetype, more accurately defined, doesn't necessitate that their love be all encompassing, merely that they love, and do so with a fierce conviction. Since their power more often implies violence, they are more disposed towards coming of age stories associated with mastering their power. Likewise, their power is more often clearly defined, though often just as magical. For those of curious, Terra (Final Fantasy 6), Marona (Phantom Brave), Lufia (Lufia and the Fortress of Doom), and Elly (Xenogears) stay on the list.

Elly, in fact, (and by Extension, Nausicaa, more on that later) is the perfect embodiment of both archetypes at once. She is quiet, doubts herself, must come to terms with her power, fights and kills to protects those she loves, is capable of loving the entirety of humanity at once, and has some sort of magical power associated with her love that allows her to heal the hearts of those around her.

Next, why are these archetypes so popular, and so powerful?

7/15/2008

The Elitist Nature of Difficulty

This month’s roundtable topic of difficulty (hosted by Corvus at Man Bytes Blog) seems particularly apropos, given my current absorption in Landstalker, one of the most notoriously difficult games I’ve ever played.

The fact that I’m enjoying Landstalker this much necessitates the question of why I put up with as much punishment from this game as I do. Instead, however, I’d like to tackle the question of varying difficulty levels on a single game.

I played through Fire Emblem for the GC, and enjoyed the normal mode a great deal, but I found that it was a little easy for me. I grew up playing Shining Force 1 and 2, Vandal Hearts, and have probably sunk about 24 days of play time into various versions of the Advance Wars Series. Turn based strategy comes fairly easy to me.

So, I went back to play Fire Emblem on Hard difficulty, and found myself utterly uninterested. By “Hard” difficulty, they just meant that they had buffed the attack, defense, and evade stats of all of the enemies (or similarly nerfed all the same stats on all of my characters). The AI, as best as I could tell, remained entirely unchanged. The game was most definitely more difficult, but more difficult just because they punished me harder for the errors I committed. The same misjudge of how much damage an enemy does that might cause a small shuffle in my battle plan before now would require a restart, because I lost an important character.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very pleased, and didn’t complete the game a second time. I think I speak for everyone when I say that an increased difficulty level that encompasses more inventive AI, and more difficult puzzles is always more rewarding that an increased difficulty level that merely increases the health and damage of all the monsters.

Advance Wars, particularly Advance Wars Dual Strike, were very good examples of a hard mode that didn’t gimp your abilities in any way, but required that you made much more efficient use of your resources to pass the challenge at hand. Sometimes, the computer was more intelligent, sometimes the odds were just stacked more heavily against you, but it required that you play the game not just tighter, but better. How exactly they accomplished will be saved for when I write about my love affair with the series, but suffice it to say that the game accomplishes this impressive task.

Of course, the problem with producing more satisfying variations in difficulty is that it requires more work. The relationship between the riddles in Silent Hill on low difficulty and extreme difficulty is almost non-existent, to the point that it might as well just be an entirely new puzzle game. That hardly seems fair, though. In order to have really satisfying difficulty variations, your designers need to work twice as hard as your writers, composers, artists, or producers? (Assuming everyone works equally hard to begin with, which is a patent falsehood) Of course, it’s also a patent falsehood that creating a new overlay of difficulty over an old game is exactly twice as much work, but I do submit that there is a rather linear correlation between additional work and additional enjoyment derived from the difficulty level.

So, what then? Wouldn’t a designer’s efforts be better put into creating additional games, a sequel or some such to the hypothetical game they’re working on in the first place? Yes, I’m aware this is a shamefully simplistic way to look at things, but assuming that you have an extra body of work that your designers are going to do, where do you put it to maximize the your profit?

More satisfying difficulty variations translates into more replay value, which can indirectly translate into sales, but what about just making another game, using the hypothetical puzzles that have been designed? Would that game just have to be entirely more difficult than the game that came before? It requires questioning the egalitarian nature of games. If there’s another chapter in a story that I’m involved in, but it got created to go with an insanely difficult set of puzzles that I can’t beat, I’m going to be pissed that this next chapter of the story is inaccessible to me, because I’m not good enough at the game.

My initial reaction to “I want to see more content, but I’m not good enough at the game to get there” is that it’s kind of unfair, but what is the whole concept of difficulty, other than something that prevents people from accessing new content entirely at their own pace? A more difficult game gives us a larger sense of accomplishment when we overcome the challenges that have been set out for us, but no matter how easy the game, we have to believe that there’s someone who can’t quite make it over the last hurdle. Do they just get shafted?