Kya: Dark Lineage

So, I have an embarrassing confession to make.

Kya: Dark Lineage is one of my favorite adventure games ever.

So, why is this embarrassing? It received mediocre to slightly-above-average reviews, and wasn't given enough publicity to draw any kind of universal disdain. So why am I embarrassed about this?

Well, let's see what's wrong with the game. There are a number of things wrong, but three stand out as ones that I'm actually embarrassed about.

For starters, the voice acting is terrible. Like, even worse than average, and the dialog is ridiculous. The story is nothing to shout about (travel to this strange world and unlock your father's legacy, only to discover he's a jerk, and then beat him), but whatever.

Second, I'm iffy about any game that consists exclusively of a modestly hot girl who does nothing but interact with a bunch of anthropomorphic dog people. Oh well, at least they're not foxes.

Finally, and more importantly, so many of the mini-games in Kya: Dark Lineage pander to the same crowd as Mountain Dew commercials. Snowboarding, Sky Diving, etc. I'm stunned that you don't spend any time grinding on rails or throwing devil horns while head banging to some terrible metal band. I haven't played the game recently enough to remember whether it substitutes the letters “ex” at any point with the insufferable “X-” prefix.

That being said, this game features among the finest level design of any adventure game I've ever played. I don't have the memory or the inclination to break down every single area of the game (and it's a fairly large adventure game), but it succeeds in the amazing task of consistently amazing me with “This is a challenge that is unlike any other challenge I have experienced in this game.” Obviously, there is some overlap: You play minigames more than once, combat is the same fundamental mechanic (though increasing in difficulty and complexity).

Shadow of the Colossus did a good job of giving you what seemed to be a fairly limited toolset and having you make use of it in more and more creative ways as the game went on. Though, unlike Shadow of the Colossus, your toolset expands drastically as you play, Kya still blows me away for their sheer volume of multi-purposed tools (tools in this case just referring to anything that you use to make your character interact with the environment).

Example: You have a set of controls to navigate how fast you move while in free fall, which you use to collect items and avoid obstacles when you fall. This tool gets re-purposed later when you navigate horizontally through an updraft, and use it to control your vertical position, which is then re-purposed again to control your jump distance when trying to make leaps in particularly windy areas.

Likewise, when you learn to climb latticed walls to access new places, you get a tool, but when you hang off the sides of crates to avoid detection, you're using the tool in a different way. Even though it's obviously devised by the game designers, this kind of re-purposing of existing tools in creative ways is satisfying on a very visceral level to me, which is what Kya: Dark Lineage delivers on so many times. I could try and make a clumsy list of all the things you do, despite not having replayed the game in quite some time, but I'd rather go off on why I think that aspect is so fun.

I suspect it's because of the implicit suggestion that I'm fooling the game somehow. That is, of course, ridiculous, a game that requires you to “fool” it to be able to be beaten is a terrible game (though I still can't figure out how you're supposed to get out of that one room in the mine in Landstalker, cause I'm pretty sure that “jumping on top of an enemy, and hoping that the knockback pushes you onto the head of the other enemy so you can jump onto this ledge” isn't what the developers intended). Nonetheless, the implication that you're somehow fooling the game, or at least the denizens of the game, reinforces the same fun factor as skill mastery.

www.8kindsoffun.com is a rather amazing source on the subject. If you're interested, I encourage you to check it out. I could keep going, but I think it'd just devolve into rambling. More on the aesthetics of fun later.


The RPA Bi-Monthly Newsletter

For years, the plight of the majestic robot has gone underrepresented in the popular media.

In Japan, time traveling robots have been hunted to extinction. Using high tech gadgets that can catch as many as 6 robots at once, peacefully frolicking through the negadimension, heartless poachers kill these robots for their flux capacitors, and frequently leave the rest of the robot debilitated, and subject to time-erosion.

No robot should die from time-erosion.

For a donation of mere micropennies a day, you can do your part in the fight to save these beautiful, untamed creatures from an irreversible fate.

Did you know that robot slavery is still practiced in many first world nations today? And though many excellent law enforcement agencies are taking steps to eliminate the barbaric practice of robot battles- we can do more.

The Robot Preservation Association is devoted to three pronged assault on the factors that threaten continued robot survival. We work to address the economic factors that threaten robot habitats, fight for sustainable robot preserves, and raise the public's awareness of continued threats to robots through robot advocacy.

What's new with the RPA this month:

  • MI Chapter Leader Kimberly Binder is continuing her series of in home meetings about safe robot pet practices. "We're getting a lot of support, and meeting attendance has swelled into the hundreds" says Binder. Click here to read the full story.
  • Rock Trio Binary finished their "Human Like You" tour to a sold out crowd at the Staples Center in Downtown LA this week. 15% of all ticket and merchandise sales from the tour are donated directly to the RPA and its offspring organizations. Click here to visit the band's website.
  • Hank Marshall's 15th Annual Robotary Club fundraiser dinner was attended by hundreds, and raised over $17,000 for robot related causes. Click here to see pictures from the event.

Getting Involved

God Bless, and remember, together, we can make a difference to robots.


Gender and MMOs

Inspired by Girls Don't Game's article on hardcore raiding in WoW, I've gotten to thinking about Gender Roles in MMOs. Though “games” are still heavily biased towards a male audience, the MMO genre enjoys a more balanced gender distribution than any other genre except casual games. It's a widely accepted fact, though I am failure at citation, that women bond primarily through social interaction, and men bond primarily through engaging in activities in parallel. A man is more likely to consider someone his friend after they have played a game together, as opposed to talking to him.

This is a large part of why raiding (casually, in my case) appeals to me. I enjoy working together with other people to overcome challenges of various difficulties. However, as much as it is an oversimplification to say that all male raiders in WoW do so for that reason, it's an even bigger oversight to say that the High End Raid Environment only appeals to stereotypically male behavior. Of course, raids aren't really about social interaction primarily. I like chatting it up as much as the next guy, but I'm there to do my part to fight some giant dude.

However, my empirical observations (which is worth nothing from a statistical perspective, I know) show that of women playing WoW, they overwhelmingly favor healing roles in raids. If we assume this is true (again, HUGE statistical oversight, I know), let's ask why.

The answer “healing is a less competitive more socially oriented role” spring to mind for why this is. It's a bit of a canned answer, though, so before we go too far on that one, let's look at “competition” in an MMO.

In a PvE raid situation, aside from particular boss mechanics, the only direct competitive role is that of the damage dealer. Both tanks and healers are charged with letting the rest of the party do their job efficiently.

Every moment a DPS class spends taking evasive action is time they spend not doing damage. Every moment a DPS class spends dead is time they're not doing damage. Though the mechanics are very different, but there's only two roles: killing the monsters, and making it easier for other people to do so.

I can't help but feel that there is a link between standard MMO roles and games that are generally considered to appeal more to women that hasn't been explored yet.
All ya'all hold onto your britches on this one. I'm gonna do me some research; might have just stumbled onto something very interesting.


Dialogue and Story

Someone asked me the other day about my repeated comments about how forgiving I am about dialogue, which prompted me to start thinking about the difference between dialogue and story, precisely.

It’s obvious what dialogue is. Dialogue represents all of the things that come out of character’s mouths over the course of a game. Though it doesn’t strictly fit into the definition, I also tend to use it to refer to most anything that is written and designed to advance the plot or deepen your understanding of the character. Someone’s diary entry in Silent Hill isn’t dialogue in the strictest sense of the word, but I tend to lump it all together.

All of these things are part of the story, to be sure, but the story of a game is a broader category. I tend to define story as "the order and significance of events designed to culminate in a satisfying conclusion". Unfortunately, using this definition, the term “story” is so broad as to be almost useless. Even DOOM has a story: “Monsters get harder and harder and harder, then they get the hardest, then you’re done.”, but the set-up of being a marine stranded on a station with a gate to hell didn’t tie in at any point during the game. Can it really be called a story if the only important value change that takes place over the entire game is “You’re screwed” changes to “Maybe you’re not screwed after all”, changes back to “No, you actually are totally screwed”?

“You’re stranded on Mars with a bunch of demons” obviously isn’t a story, because it’s completely static. Nothing changes, so you have no story. “You’re stranded on Mars with a bunch of demons, but you finally kill enough demons and get out” is a story, albeit a lame one. So, if nothing else, we’ve nailed down that the essence of a story is that something must change. Even if the point of a story is that nothing changes, the player’s expectation changes, which might be enough. They begin the story expecting that things will change, and end the story knowing that things will not.

However, more to the point of dialogue versus story, I think it’s obvious that good dialogue cannot save a bad story. A combination of good dialogue, good gameplay, graphics, music, whatever else, can save a game, but no amount of good dialogue can make the story parts enjoyable if they’re badly done.

Can good story save bad dialogue? I happen to think so. I already stated my opinion on the lackluster dialogue and hamfisted delivery in Xenogears, but no one can say I didn’t enjoy the story.

A better example would be The World Ends With You. As I said in my review, the dialogue was passable, but not exceptional. There was no crackling subtext, and characters are guilty more than once of telling instead of showing. And yet, at one point in the game, Beat, a punk teenager, tells the main character about his relationship with his parents. He pretty much just explains it, then explains how he feels, which is the sign of uninventive dialogue, and yet, when we read the story of a teenager who is relentlessly pressured to succeed by his parents, and gives up on himself as a self-defense mechanism, so his parents will give up on him too, that rings true with us.

The delivery method (dialogue) is nothing special, but the events behind the dialogue can speak to everyone, because everyone knows the shame of disappointing someone you care about, and the crazy things we do to protect ourselves from having to feel that way.

I think that stumbles onto another key element of (good) story. I’ve already said this (and Robert McKee said it before me even better, and I’m pretty sure Aristotle said it before him), but a story needs to touch something we can relate to. The history of the formation of the earth up until the appearance of mankind is only a story in as much as we impose human emotions and intentions on objects and living things that came before us. Without a human element, it’s a story about as much as a an ice cube melting on your kitchen table. Yeah, there’s a significant change, but who gives a damn?

Now, the epic struggle of a single denizen of the table that stands out amongst the rest, and his brave, but ultimately futile struggle against the forces of entropy… that’s a story.


Mature and Guns

My friend Sestren (with some outside assistance) recently coined a phrase, “Mature and Guns”, which is particularly helpful in discussing video game narratives, so I feel obligated to elaborate on it here.

Shadow the Hedgehog is a (fairly) recent Sega release, starring a supporting character from the Sonic Adventure series. Shadow is Sonic’s rival. He’s black and red, contrasting Sonic’s Blue and White, has just the right combination of Emo and Death Metal to counteract Sonic’s Blink 182 Pop-style.

I’ll cut to the chase. Shadow the Hedgehog is a terrible game. It’s a logistical train wreck, (If you pause to review the missions, but you don’t have any missions yet, you can’t access the “Close Menu” option, freezing your game.) but that’s not the problem.

“Mature and Guns” is a phrase that describes something that intentionally panders to an audience that takes itself more seriously than it deserves to be taken, usually early teenage boys. The term originated with this game because, inexplicably, Shadow the Hedgehog picks up a gun near the beginning. He didn’t have a gun in any of the games he appeared in previously, and he seemed to get along fine without it. To go with his new gun, he also has a boatload of existential crises, and if I understand it correctly, could be maybe a clone, an alien, or a robot, depending on how you finish the game.

Now, understand me, I’m not against existential crises. I think you can get a huge amount of good storytelling mileage out of them, but if your premise is a black emo hedgehog with a gun, who may or may not have been created by this man, the sudden shift into serious territory makes it ridiculous. The term “Mature and Guns” specifically came from imagining the conversation in the Sega board room:

“Okay. With this new Sonic game, we’re looking to try to tap into a much more mature audience. Teenagers love video games.”
“Alright, let’s go down the list. We’ve got darker atmosphere, check, intolerably long cutscenes, check.”
“Oh! Oh! All them kids loved that Final Fantasy 7 business, why don’t we do it like that?”
“Existential Crises, check.”
“I know! All the kids love GTA too, right? Let’s give him a gun! Nothing says ‘adult’ like guns!”
“Great! Alright, I’m beat, let’s get lunch.”

To reiterate: Mature and Guns describes a game which is intentionally pandering to an audience that takes itself more seriously than it deserves to be taken.

The fact that this term also perfectly describes Final Fantasy 8, which introduced the gunblade is purely incidental.


The Holy Mother of Nisan

This month’s round table topic (hosted by Corvus Elrod at Man Bytes Blog) is “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. It asks those contributing to write about a character relationship that they found memorable or compelling in some way, and why.

Well written romance has always seemed rather beyond the pale of console games. There are those that don’t try (7th Saga), those that try and fail (Final Fantasy 8), and even some that do a pretty good job (Chrono Trigger), but only one console game romance that really stuck with me in all my years of playing story heavy RPGs.

I won’t explain the plot of Xenogears (it’s complicated enough by itself, and its ham-fisted delivery ensures that playing the game is no guarantee you know what the heck is going on), but I do feel obligated to talk about why I felt the romance was effective and memorable, as opposed to the lackluster romances found in most console RPGs, or the frequently awkward romantic exchanges between the players’ personal avatars and NPCs.

The game deals with the subject of reincarnation, which provides the handy little storytelling device of flashbacks to hundreds of years ago that give important plot info, but also build the relationship between the two main characters, Fei and Elly. This conveniently telescopes the amount of time you need to build a satisfying relationship, which is kind of a must, given that romantic relationships are barely ever at the forefront of RPGs, and not being given enough time is usually the problem with establishing compelling relationships in games.

Well, the amount of time given and the quality of the writing in the first place (which is not to be confused with the quality of dialogue, which I’m astonishingly forgiving about). Xenogears delivers on this front as well. I won’t go into every event that determines the course of the relationship, but the story pays very close attention to how their personalities interact:

Fei can’t have a healthy relationship with Elly because he has too many unresolved issues towards his mother, and alternates between treating Elly as a surrogate mother figure, and hating her because she reminds him of his own mother. Someone put enough thought into this to see that this leads to an interesting approach/avoid behavior on behalf of Fei. He’s glad to see her, and tries to look out for her well being, but can’t bring himself to spend any actual time with her.

Likewise, Elly, having a mediocre mother figure herself, is unsure of how to relate to Fei, and unsure of how to make use of her power and natural maternal instinct until she is no longer under the thumb of her own mother. She develops romantic feelings for Fei fairly early on, but matches his ambivalence with her inability to free herself of her parents (represented originally as the military).

Ultimately, she reconciles with her parents, and splits from her home country for good to travel with Fei, and is rewarded with the unlocking of memories from past lives (reincarnation, remember?), which serve to very quickly mold her into the person that she is destined to become, an almost perfect embodiment of The Warrior Mother.

Fei’s resolution, however, hinges on the moment where you finally learn that his mother died in an accident that was (possibly) intentionally caused by Fei. Despite their terrible relationship and her complete disregard for Fei, her maternal instinct kicks in, and she sacrifices herself for the life of her child. He realizes this, and in the final chapter, he steps up enough to be able to save Elly, while at the same time saving himself from the guilt of (possibly) killing his own mother.

This kind of metaphorical puppetry of the whole story is what fascinates me. In all previous reincarnations, Elly reaches this perfected Warrior Mother state, then loses her life saving Fei from overwhelming danger (the suggestion being that the sacrifice of one person of overwhelming virtue can do amazing things, stepping up the Christian Allegory of the game from “clumsy” to “half-way thought out”). However, when Fei successfully saves Elly at the end, he is (metaphorically, of course) saving his own mother, and breaking the cycle of Elly’s inevitable death.

I don’t know about you, but compared to any other inter-character romance in a console game, well... there’s just no comparison in my book. Nothing comes close to this in terms of level of complexity, attention to subconscious motivations, and ability to withstand literary criticism.

There’s a great deal to be said about why few other games rise to this level, but that’s for another post.

Next week: Another entry in my audacious attempt at Lexicon building. “Mature and Guns”!


Chalk to up to writer's bloc, chalk it up to the fact that it's a Monday, whatever you blame, it's time for more...


(For the original post, see: http://htparnell.blogspot.com/2008/05/haiku.html )

Legend of Mana

GameFAQs is useless!
No one knows how to temper!
Let's play whack-a-map.


Isometric view
Means ground breaking visuals
Shit! Jumping puzzles!

World of Warcraft

Raiding DPS?
I hope you are a warlock

Warcraft III

Four races clash swords
Delicate gameplay balance

Final Fantasy 4

Though you get there first
You never save the crystal
Goddammit, Golbez!


This puppy is great
Now what button do I press
To get a real dog?