Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Experience and Execution

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

Why is it that I will almost always think of something interesting to write about when I am least able to do so?  The shower is prime among these instances, followed closely by trying to fall asleep.  It is a subtly maddening thing, to feel creative and profound and be powerless to record these sudden inspirations.  But the thinking today was on a subject I’ve pondered before, and I remember somewhat the general idea of what I was wanting to say, so I will attempt to reconstruct my musings this morning.  Well, afternoon technically.

Video games, as with any artistic or entertainment endeavor, are praised or criticized based on their merits or shortcomings.  And there are things that can be defined and quantified, mostly mechanical in nature.  If the camera doesn’t respond easily, it feels clunky and makes the game less enjoyable.  If there is a counter mechanic in the gameplay that doesn’t always trigger when the conditions for it are met, then the strategy is unreliable and thus either a test-your-luck move at best, or a waste of skill points/moveset/etc.  Mainly, it is issues around how a game plays that is easiest to analyze and pinpoint issues with.

Then there are elements that are more ephemeral, but still rooted in the mechanical, or perhaps technological would be more appropriate.  These are things like voice acting, which is a relatively new development, and in my mind a long way from being generally”good”.  I’m not saying I could do a better job, certainly — I’d actually be pretty terrible at it.  But that doesn’t change the fact that most times, I find myself wishing I were simply reading text and letting the characters themselves speak to me, rather than listening to a voice that feels exaggerated or overly “staged” or acted.  But that’s not to say that all voice acting is bad either, or that a voice can’t grow on me over time — or even get better as the game progresses.  A prime example of the latter here, I feel, is Yuna from Final Fantasy X.  I’ve played through the game more than once, and every time I find myself kind of cringing when she has lines.  They just feel too forced, unnatural.  Yet by the end of the adventure I find myself endeared to her, and her voice honestly sounds different to me.  She’s found her flow by that point, and I begin to believe that that is how Yuna sounds, that the timbres of emotion are what she is feeling right then.  And in general, though to less extreme a degree, I feel the same for the voices of the rest of the protagonists in Final Fantasy X.

Music is another step removed from the technological.  It is of course influenced by the means through which it is delivered, and this aspect can even ruin a song that is otherwise good.  Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is a heinous offender in this sense, taking the battle theme from the original game and reducing the elegant implementation of 16-bit instrumentation to crass, generic midis that grate on my every nerve.  I might not have believed it possible if I hadn’t experienced it myself, but FF IV: TAY indeed managed to ruin a classic Final Fantasy song.  Another, if less extreme, example of sound quality affecting musical impact, to me, is Mega Man X2.  The instrument set used isn’t necessarily bad, but it is both one I don’t care for and one that is patently different from both Mega Man X and Mega Man X3.  Perhaps it was a bout of experimentation on Capcom’s part, but it nonetheless creates something of a disconnect for me.

Then of course, there is the most ephemeral elements of video games, ones that I feel get a lot of undeserved criticism: the story, and the characters.  Now, I am by no means saying that all video games tell good stories, or tell their stories well — not by a long shot.  But there are some things that I feel are, like I said, dealt criticism that is undeserved.

Chief among these is the convention of the silent protagonist.  I have heard this technique branded as laziness on the part of the writers, that for the main character to have no lines or voice whatsoever is uncreative and, in short, bad.  I disagree.  The point of a silent protagonist is for the player to connect with the environment in a deeper and more visceral way by allowing themselves to place themselves in the position of the protagonist.  A silent protagonist doesn’t create disconnect by displaying tendencies that could be considered obnoxious, and their silence allows the player’s inner voice a chance to speak through them.  And simply because they do not utter a single word, that doesn’t mean they can’t have personality.  Indeed, looking at it from a distance, a silent protagonist is one of the more difficult characters to properly implement, to prevent them from being a cardboard cutout amidst the other people and places of the game.  But actions speak louder than words, and so long as they are the actions the player wants to be carrying out, or actions that the player can empathize with, then the character has a powerful voice indeed.

That is another issue I take with criticisms of entertainment, or even stories, in general - that such and such characters weren’t believable enough, or that some particular plot seemed hokey.  Now, it’s true that bad writing or poor execution can eject even the most stalwart and forgiving of audience members from a setting.  But I say it is also true that one can convince oneself to dislike even the most engaging of narratives and characters.  Because, ultimately, it is up to you whether or not you want to listen to the people in this world; it is up to you whether or not to see sense in the structure of the conflict and the various motivations within it; it is up to you whether or not you want to believe the story you’re being told.  So in this sense, there are two ways to approach any story, in any medium.  The first is to take everything at face value, and let the narrative carry you along in its current.  The second is to scrutinize every detail, and attempt to preemptively guess what is going to happen next.

I am not saying there is anything inherently good or bad about either.  Ultimately, it is up to the individual to choose just how to enjoy something.  But I sometimes feel that people do too much of the latter, and not enough of the former.  Perhaps it is the former is more familiar, simpler — I know that for me at least, I would exclusively participate in the former as a child.  Or perhaps it is a distrust ingrained from some previous betrayal of trust between an author and a reader.  Or, perhaps it is a perceived air of intelligence around being able to dissect and predict what a story will do, where the bends in the narrative will occur and where the flow of the narrative will head.  But in doing so, aren’t we missing something deeper?  Something intrinsic with the experience of the moment that we are trying so hard to remove ourselves from?  Wouldn’t Bambi be a much less powerful film if we correctly guessed the major event of the film, rather than let ourselves feel along with the protagonist as he experienced life at its most gracious and most harsh?  These are thoughts that have plagued me for a long time, and I still feel that there is so much that could be gained from trying to empathize with fiction, rather than predict it.

Take The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, for instance.  For those of you who haven’t played this excellent game, you may want to consider going and playing it now if you wish to experience it for yourself firsthand, as I am about to mention the most pivotal plot point in the game.  In other words: spoiler alert!

I’ll give you some time to go do that.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

…Okay, done?  Okay.

Now.  There are certain plots or scenarios that are considered “bad writing”, and for legitimate reasons.  One of these is the “dream scenario”, where the reader learns at the end of the book that the entire story leading up to the moment of revelation have all been illusions, hallucinations, or otherwise fake — the character wakes up from a long dream, the end.  I’ve heard that there is one television series that does this for its last two or three seasons, and that it is a sore point among its fans even today.  And for good reason — having all the struggles and emotions tied to an entire narrative, investing in it, only for everything to disappear in a puff of smoke?  Most of the time, it is a betrayal of trust, a big middle finger to the reader, laughter and a kick in the gut for being such a gullible fool.

Before even starting The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the short intro video shows Link on a ship out at sea in the middle of a storm, when all of a sudden a lightning bolt strikes.  The next scene he is found washed up on a beach by a girl we’ve never seen before, the camera pans to a giant egg on top of a mountain far off in the distance, and then the start menu appears.  Link then proceeds, in the game proper, to find a way off of the island so that he may return to Hyrule, a process which involves waking an entity known as the Wind Fish.  To do so, he seeks out the eight Instruments of the Sirens, wresting them from the grip of the eight Nightmares inhabiting Koholint Island.  Then, finally, when the ninth and final Nightmare bested, the Wind Fish appears, telling Link to play the Song of Awakening.  So he does…

…and wakes up.  It was all a dream.  None of it mattered.

And that is what most people, I imagine, would remember — that it was all a dream Link had while adrift at sea.  That’s what I tend to remember, initially.  But doing a little bit of research into the dialogue of the game, it actually goes beyond a simple elaborate dream sequence.  For you see, while Link was indeed dreaming, and though he played a vital role in it, it wasn’t his dream.  It was the Wind Fish who dreamed it was inside an enormous egg, envisioned the island surrounding it, and inhabited it with people and creatures.  But then the Nightmares arrived, trapping the Wind Fish in its own dream and preventing it from waking.  These Nightmares were more than simple bad dreams — they were an external force, with enough power to impose their own will on the Wind Fish’s dream world.  And so, it follows that an external source would be required to banish them.  Somehow, Link was drawn into the conflict, and guided by a fragment of the Wind Fish’s spirit on a journey to wake them both.  So it is not an empty journey, just one with a disguised purpose.

Thinking about it now, there is a subtle hint to the nature of the game even before the start of the game proper, as in the opening “cutscene”, Link is shown close up, and graphically more well-defined before the lightning bolt hits the ship, and afterwards is shown only via in-game sprite.  Thus, already there is a nod to a shift in the nature of the game’s reality, though it is easily chalked up to cinematic direction.  Not to mention that Link’s first objective after retrieving his sword involves taking a mushroom to a witch, who mutters, “It has the sleepy toadstool, it does.”  And then using the resulting powder on a raccoon, transforming it back into one of the villagers, he mentions that he had a dream about being a raccoon.  I’m sure there are other nods, such as the goomba-esque enemies that Link can jump on to defeat rather than using his sword, that hint towards an altered state of reality.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

…And that is why I feel The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a good implementation of what is otherwise considered a poor story structure.

While we’re on the subject of Zelda, I have heard multiple times the notion that the series is “the same game over and over again.”  This implies a lack of cerativity, an absence of innovation.  And it is true that there are many reoccurring themes — certain musical themes, the setting of Hyrule, Ganon as the final boss, and various tools gained, the most iconic of which being the boomerang.  But there is a difference, I feel, in regurgitation and reiteration — just because the main protagonist’s name is Link and he always wears green, why should that diminish the game, or the legitimacy of the character or the game’s story?  Yes, it is predictable, but it is part of what makes the game a Zelda game.  They’re iconic, and at the same time, there are distinctly different Links — the Link of Twilight Princess is not the Link of Link to the Past is not the original Link.  They are separated not by space, but by time.  Is it really so hard to believe that there can be a recurring hero who follows a familiar heroic path, etched into the eons?  Are there no other traditions where a single person is called upon for heroism, whose name is itself a symbol, a name that refers to many individuals who have all played the role they were chosen for?  And despite each game implementing various items that are familiar from iteration to iteration, they nonetheless play slightly differently, the gameplay itself nuanced based on the system the game is based in.

In the end, it is like I said before: I feel there is more to be gained from empathizing with fiction, rather than predicting it.  How much you to take away from the experience is based on how much you want to take.  Is it possible to outline how the story of a Zelda game is going to play out?  Sure.

Do you want to?

rare

Two Simple Words

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

DO.  WANT.

Edit: So there actually was something else I wanted to comment on this, and I only just remembered!  Well, that and I wanted to see the effect of the post as it was.

But yeah, I’m really, really hoping that the transition from “Mega Man” to “Mega Man X” series is explained in this game.  The numbering system is too perfect for them not to capitalize on it, barring some new line of games starring Sigma as the protagonist.  Which would be odd, to say the least…but also intriguing.  I mean, they already did that with Tron Bonne, so who knows?

Slippery Slope, For Five Hundred

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

So I got a haircut about a week or so ago.  Some may regard this as a most noteworthy incident in and of itself.  However, my hair was getting into the “hang just far enough down to poke at the edges of my eyes and drive me insane” phase, so it was unavoidable.

I wasn’t exactly expecting to spend almost $500 dollars, though.

You see, there’s only one place I know for sure I can get a haircut in Champaign-Urbana — the mall.  While they are rather close to my previous employer (The Store That Shall Not Be Named), they do a good job and I’d probably spend the same amount of time searching for another place as I do taking the Gold West bus line to the Red North.  My tipping habits did make the haircut itself more expensive than it would be for most other people, but altogether that’s only thirty, thirty-five dollars.  Spread over six months, I can handle it no problem.

It was after I’d arrived at the mall, but before getting the haircut, that I thought to myself that I’d just check in at GameStop and ask them if they had a Wii in stock.  Well, truth be told…I’d thought that ever since it had become clear I needed to go to the mall, but!  I thought it again at that point.  Wii’s are still in high demand, and they’d been sold out at the GameStop on Green Street, Meijer’s, Wal-Mart…they’re just not found at retailers.  So it was all in good fun — I’d ask, they’d say they were out, and I’d be on my merry way to cooler hair (as it applies to temperature, at any rate).

As it turned out, they had three of them.  They’d had five ten minutes previously, but two had already sold by the time I’d asked.  Faced with a retail price of $250 and the prospect of finally being able to play my copy of Super Smash Brothers Brawl, there was little deliberation in the matter.  And of course, I’d need at least another controller, Brawl being multiplayer and all.  And I’d need a change of pace from SSBB at some point, so as long as I was there, I might as well grab a couple other titles.

So there you have it, the $500 question.  And if you ask me, it was worth every cent.  Brawl is crazy awesome like a fox.

To the max.

Lucky Seven

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

So apparently, I’ve missed my scheduled posting day.  Mother was kind enough to inform me of this fact when I talked with her recently, and rest assured it won’t happen again.

So long as I remember I have one of thems now, at least.

Mostly I want to talk about video games right now, but before I do, something I’d just like to put down into words.  Here are the things that I view myself as being fairly proficient in: singing, playing video games (snuck in there anyway), following directions.

I have been told that I am intelligent, but I don’t really feel comfortable touting myself as such.  I have been told that I write well, but it’s hard for me to believe that when I can’t stand to look at anything work on while I’m writing it, much less when it’s done.  I have been told that I am creative, but lacking any initiative on my part, I don’t think I’ve done much with it.

…Yeeghh.  Anyways.

Super Smash Brothers Brawl.

This is such a fun game.  There’s an interesting story mode — with co-op! — final smashes (huuuuge attacks that are often instant KO’s), and perhaps most fun of all, new characters!  Including Pit and Meta Knight!  Both of which I find fairly easy to use and can fly.  They each hold a nostalgic place in my heart, but especially Pit, as I only ever knew him from my original Game Boy game Kid Icarus.  Which happens to be one of the ones I can’t find anywhere…

And actually, if I had to choose between the two, I’d go with Pit.  Nostalgia aside, he has a lot of decent regular attacks with some decent smashing force behind them.  I would say that having two of his B-moves be purely defensive is a bummer, except that…it’s not, really.  They have valid and useful effects that I appreciate (especially Up-B — I can fly~), and the lack of offensive specials lets me focus on how best to land a hit with regular attacks and smashes.  Throw in arrows with a modifiable trajectory and a multi-hit move that lasts pretty much as long as you want it to, and you have one fun character.  He’s a bit on the fast side too.

Oh and Mr. Game & Watch!  I finally got a chance to use him today and he was awesome!  Still a lightweight, which means a good hit will send him really flying at lower damage percentages than others, but his regular attacks feel as though they’ve been vastly powered up.  Which makes him a viably competetive choice, should I wind up in a situation where that would count.  I just have to get used to the way he moves — it’s all jerky and kinda fast, but with out a little beep each step.  Although maybe I just didn’t hear it.

Perhaps it is a good thing I don’t have a Wii, because this would have a very high chance of taking up a goooood deal of my time.  Then again, I already own the game so it just…sits there.  Taunting me.  Which is my own fault, really.  Friggin’ tournament…that I lost…and it wasn’t even a dramatic loss, just…just bad…sudden death…first round…and I’d been doing so well…

…Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

I ended up talking to Billy about this particular Super Nintendo RPG on the way home from dinner at Rich and Anne’s house.  So cool a hobby, I thought you would enjoy it!

The game centers around Maxim, a monster hunter with an obscure past…and that’s all I’ll say about the story.  Other than it’s good.  (I don’t like spoilers.)

Lufia II is at once both the typical RPG — epic storyline, turn-based battle system, level up! – and a uniquely innovative RPG.  A lot of which involves battles.  Which is logical, really; half the game is battles, so it better be a good system. 

The basic structure is pretty standard: decide everyone’s actions at the beginning of the round, higher speeds go first.  And there’s the usual commands.  Attack, Defend, Magic, Items, IP…wait, huh?

Innovation 1: IP!  I don’t know what the “I” stands for, but I like to think it’s “irritation”.  Because that’s how IP works; as you take damage, you gain IP, which can then be used to unleash attacks on enemies or enhance/heal the party.  Very similar to the Limit Break system from FF VII.

The main differences, though, are that the IP actions are determined by the a character’s equipment and that different actions cost different amounts of IP.  So, instead of learning powerful moves that (in general) have a long charging period, you might decide to keep the robe with a party-healing IP ability over the no-IP armor.  And then after using that particular ability in battle, use a less-powerful IP move to increase someone’s strength.

Another detail I find interesting about IP is that it’s measured as a percentage rather than points.  So, I guess it’s “Irritation Percent” rather than “Irritation Points”.  But I like points better. ^_^

Innovation 2: Magic.  Not the magic itself, or even the fact that you have to purchase spells.  Rather, it is the fact that you can cast any spell on any number of enemies or allies.

For instance, if you’re focusing your attacks, a Spark spell can be cast on the single lizard you want to finish.  Or, you can use the same spell to just get all of the slimy buggers.  Or, you can cast it on the two you’ve already damaged, and focus you’re other attacks on another one.  Another scenario: Strong can be used to heal one person, everyone, or the three who are actually hurt, thus saving MP from being wasted on mending a fully healed character.

With all the games I’ve played, this is the only instance I’ve seen of being able to be so specific with magic targets.  Which is too bad; I really enjoy being able to do exactly what I want with a Droplet spell.

There is a price for such control, however: the more targets included, the weaker the spell.  And that makes sense.  A Fireball should cause more damage whole than split up into four pieces.

As a minor point, the spell names are occasionally…interesting.  Fireball, fire damage, yup.  Dorplet, water damage, okay.  Strong, heal HP…um, makes sense, I guess.  Fake, increase agility…a bit less…logical.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Nothing like a unique spell name foster nostalgia.

Innovation 3: Capsule Monsters.  They’re little companions that, once you find them, join you on the battlefield and help out.  The fifth party member!

Of course, you can only have one fighting at a time.  And the lack of control over their actions can be annoying (No, don’t heal the guy with full HP!  The one about to die, save him!  Grrr!).

The other aspect about them that is at once refreshing and restricting is that they evolve.  By eating items.  But not just anything; no, most things they’ll just gag at when you feed it to them.  They’ll tell you what they want.  When choosing what to feed them, they appear at the top of the screen with a box next to them showing “Buckler” or “Fairy Wings”.

Innovation 4: Moving Monsters.  Maybe not so much the fact that they’re moving, but that they only move when you do.  You can really pick and choose your fights, so long as you step right, and you get all the time you want to think about it.

Which reminds me about another big part of Lufia II, the puzzles.  They start out real easy, but there are a couple that I’ll never forget.  Like that one in some palace place with the red and yellow tiles (It’s been awhile since I played).  Think of it like a human-sized othello where you pick up the tiles and try to turn all of them one color in a certain number of moves.  The first two are okay, but the third one, that one always kills me.  Every.  Time.

I first played Lufia II when I was fairly young — I don’t know exactly when.  As such, I recall having a tough time figuring out how to do anything but attack.  See, the way the cursor’s set up, you have a five-square panel on screen, with each square corresponding to an action: up for magic, left for items, right for defense, down for IP, and center for attack.  What I didn’t realize, however, was that the cursor defaulted to the middle square.  That is, whenever I wasn’t pressing a directional button, it stayed on attack.  When I pressed up, the cursor would move up, but when I let go it would go back to center square.

It took a great while for me to grasp the idea that I could press A while holding up, instead of pressing up and then A.  Battles were pretty straightforward for awhile.

Perhaps that setup itself could be considered innovation #5: Dynamic Command Selection.  Certainly makes for a nice change from point & click.  Er, point and press would be more accurate, I suppose.

And yet, the most amazing part of Lufia II, in my opinion, is the Ancient Cave.  This is no dungeon for the weak of heart, or short of time.

First off, it has 99 floors.  99 floors.  Granted, they’re randomly generated and of varying sizes, but that’s still a heckuva lot of dungeon-crawling.  Secondly, you start out at level one.  No items, no spells, nothing save the party and thy trusty capsule monsters.

Combine that with the fact there are no save points anywhere, you can only leave through the use of an item that can only be found after the first 20 floors, and that you can’t even keep any of the loot in red chests…quite the feat, eh?  Oh, and supposedly there’s a really strong boss at the end.  Due to the nature of in-game rumors, I’d say that’s probably the case.

So now you’re asking yourself, “What’s the point?  Besides trying to go insane, that is.”  The point is that there are, occasionally, blue chests lying around.  The treasures found in these chests are always powerful, and you get to take them with you when leaving the Ancient Cave.  Oh, oh yeah.

I once tried to get all the way through the Ancient Cave.  I got pretty far; floor 74 or 75 I seem to recall.  This was spread out over the course of three days where my SNES was constantly on.  I ate, I slept, but my dear, precious Super Nintendo kept going.

It was really too bad that I got careless and died and lost all of the cool stuff I’d acquired.  But at that point, I don’t think I was caring as much as I had been.

I’ll never forget you 8-headed Hydra, with your freaking eight physical attacks in a row…NEVER!!

And thus ends my recounting of Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals.  Or, if it’s biz cas fri, L2: ROTS.

…Worst…abbreviation…ever