Friday, October 28, 2011

Darkness in Lordran

Any boss becomes easy once you know how to deal with it,
but jumping into The Abyss with no grasp on how your poise
works will lead to a hateful relationship with The Kings.
I've made it no secret that I've been pretty knee-deep in Dark Souls for the past few weeks (currently broke 220 hours last night), but I've yet to actually articulate any meaningful thoughts on it yet. My weariness with doing so stems mostly from trying to come at writing about it in the same manner that I did with Demon's Souls last year. Dark Souls really is quite a different experience, but the majority of criticisms and thoughts I applied to Demon's Souls can easily be carried over to this title as well[1].

What's interesting I suppose, is my reaction towards the way the game has been received and looked at, particularly in comparison with Demon's Souls. I wasn't around for Demon's Souls's initial release, I picked it up about a year later, so my secondhand impression of it was just being a decent third person RPG with a wonky difficulty curve. After picking it up and discovering it for myself, I realized what a gem it was, despite a number of glaring issues that I took with it. With a couple of personal biases factored in (i.e. third person, more action-focused combat, narrative ambiguity, etc), it was easily my most favored console game in this generation (probably still is too).

Now comes Dark Souls, and with it I begin to see how both titles affect gamers as a whole and to some extent---the developers that made it. I speak on the developers because most prominently the advertising for the game was geared specifically to emphasize the title's difficulty. This sadly runs contradictory to how I view the 'difficulty' of both Demon & Dark Souls. I suppose my 'methodical and uncompromising' description isn't as catchy and flashy as 'Prepare to Die'[2],, but I certainly see it as being significantly more accurate. Running up the difficulty as a marketing tagline told me something very important about the game. That was that From Software was digging into their little niche, but they may have gotten a little tunnel vision in doing so.

This is because the difficulty of the game spirals out of control at points. This is to the extent to where someone focused on single player will be forced to use online help or re-outfit and grind their characters (a practice which can take days if they're not using a guide), tailoring a specific build to circumvent getting too frustrated. Demon's Souls only had one fight that I took issue with (the Maneater encounters)---Dark Souls has three (admittedly, one of which works to a positive effect). These are fights where it's not just about throwing overwhelming odds at you which you'll face and eventually triumph, it's simply about beating you into the ground with no regard to anything else. The three bosses are as follows:

1. The Capra Demon

2. Ornstein and Smough

3. The Four Kings

The one for which the difficulty actually works is the Capra Demon. Due to his somewhat wild nature and accompanying dogs, he's a bucket of cold water in the face of anyone trying to come to grips with the game's world. You face him early on in a narrow passage to which he has two massive swords of great reach. The majority of players initially will die, unless they're prepared for it. It's a death meant to throw players off. He requires a shift in gears no matter what class build the player is working on at that point. He also presents the player with a problem they can solve in a number of ways. The most popular is running across an awning to get a couple seconds reprieve in order to gain footing, kill the accompanying dogs, and keep an eye on the Capra Demon as he paces at the player. After facing multiple versions of him later in the game, the player can see how much of his formidable assault relied on his previous surroundings. In short, the encounter(s) with him becomes a dynamic presence in the game thanks to his initial assault. He also allows a sense of progression in terms of what the player will see of him/herself at a much later point in the game.

The other six bosses won't get too much credit from me because they crossed the line for me in terms of being a cheap ploy at 'being hard'. The one positive thing I will mention regarding them is that they are both intense, memorable, and composed of bosses that are aesthetically fantastic in terms of general art and design (the music for both of them is among my top five favorites in the game as well). Playing solo against either however will lead to many frustrated encounters if the player isn't either overly prepared for them or is conveniently equipped with a build geared at taking advantage of a weakness in either one of the characters. I personally got lucky with the latter, but that didn't change the fact that both of these battles are ones in which the player will typically have to break the game's world somehow in order to triumph over them single-handedly. Either one could have been easily solved by the likes of a fog-gate having a Soul Level prerequisite in order to proceed.

Even I'll admit that I only beat these two due to luck my first time through.
Ornstein and Smough cross the line because of how much they complement each other, Smough being a gigantic hammer-wielding juggernaut that literally crushes anything standing in front of him, Ornstein being a nimble and powerful lance wielder with an imbuing of lightning. Beating either one supercharges the remaining fighter and refills his health bar. There's very little the player can do other than strafe throughout the somewhat cavernous area (which is the fight's only saving grace in terms of a reprieve) hitting them when it's only marginally appropriate. Again, this could have easily been avoided if Smough's fat ass actually got tired every five minutes and stop to rest (even if it was for only three seconds). Yes, he's slower than Ornstein, but he's almost always running around so the difference in speed between them is nearly irrelevant when trying to be strategic about it (not to mention the amount of reach he has with his hammer). There are very few sound cues between either of them and even learning the visual ones in terms of reading patterns will hit a wall in terms of what the player can do to counter. Were there some form of reasonable solace granted in the fight, this battle would actually be my favorite one in the game.

The Four Kings cross the line because of how much of the fight relies on time. If the player is unable to deal a certain amount of damage to one, another will join, then another---and another until they're facing all four massive figures in a dark abyss from which there is no means of escaping (apart from picking a direction and running in it, hoping they don't immediately follow you). The Kings I should mention aren't humanoid as the name implies. They're massive ethereal statue-like figures, each with swords capable of striking the player at least fifty feet off. Even when most of them are defeated, they respawn in some capacity just to keep the tension in the fight up.

These fights certainly aren't impossible, but they just show how when compared to the rest of the experience, they only stand out because of how severely imbalanced they are---not because of how 'challenging' they are. One can summon NPCs (while offline) to help with a few (if not all) of these fights, but the summoned characters are hardly any more than mere fodder for the boss to hit while the actual player can figure something out (they don't last long, and the game's AI is just as horrible as Demon's Souls's was). The trouble here for me is when summoning some of these NPCs, it's presented in the same manner that summoning an actual human player is. This created a dissonance for me, as a summoned Solaire suddenly doesn't talk or respond to me at all. He's just there to tank Smough for about two minutes. It wouldn't have killed From to allow a bit more of a lens on the game's lore through some of these summoned NPCs (also introducing more things that depend and change on their survival and treatment).

Speaking on not using a guide is intrinsically important with this game because it reminds me personally how and why I've always played games the way I do. Slowly, methodically, without help---and taking pride in discovering and building a character by myself---for myself. As great as the Dark/Demon's Souls Wikis are, how rewarding the game's community can be, they also satiate an easily rampant insecurity in gamers, to where they just have to create the most tailored builds and allow them to have the least frustrating time as possible. This destroys the entire point of the game in my eyes. A quote coming from Masahiro Sakurai is a nice summation of this problem[3]:
"The thing is, this sort of thing happens all the time in games, especially RPGs, running into situations where you permanently miss out on important items or story events because you didn't know any better. I make every effort to avoid reading strategy guides or sites because I want to explore worlds for myself, these worlds that dozens of people worked hard to build, with as fresh a perspective as possible. This can have its drawbacks, because there are some things where it's completely to your advantage to have previous knowledge about. In the end, though, there's a lot of fun that comes out from the fact that you can't go back. This game wouldn't have been half as fun if it wasn't built that way."
The joy of making mistakes in a game like Dark Souls is what makes it such an experience, much more so than other games that hold your hand so much---it doesn't really matter either way. It's not just about pride in saying "Well, I'd much rather play the game like this", it's about insisting that you play the game on terms where it's actually worth something to complete even the smallest section or task on your own. Given the number of times that New Game Plus carries over for the Souls titles, the Wiki can easily be picked up after an initial SOLITARY playthrough (i.e. how I played both Dark Souls and Demon's Souls) to appreciate just the number of things one may have missed, messed up, and gotten on their own.

Dark Souls's narrative shares my criticism with Demon's Souls in that it's at many points too restrained. However, it beats out Demon's Souls for the sole fact that Lordran is a large interconnected world that feels more alive than Boletaria did. Like its predecessor, Dark Souls's narrative is gleaned through ambiance, atmosphere, and whatever the players fill the holes in with themselves.  Even more than Demon's Souls, Dark Souls's world is more oppressive in the sense that this is not a quest to save the land(s). That battle has already been lost. As a player, you're simply in the hollow shell of what was once a thriving world now gone to hell. There's almost no optimism in the game, be it through characters, the world's design, or even both of the game's conclusions. Lore is gleaned through anecdotes, conversations with NPCs and item descriptions---just as Demon's Souls was. There are also subtle touches of interactions between certain characters in Dark Souls that leave their motives to question and just what place that have played (or do play) in the world.

Initially intimidating as hell, The Capra Demon loses his bite after
you silence his bark.
There are also some praises in design I should note, as most people skimmed over the game without noticing exactly what influenced the design of some of Lordran's areas. It was far more understandable for people to relate Demon's Souls to some singular categorization of a medieval aesthetic. Dark Souls doesn't do that at all. The Undead Parish/Burg are the only areas in the game that evoke this now. The rest are reminiscent of more 'high fantasy fallen very low'. Some areas show influence from periods not seen in games enough these days. For example. When the player goes from Blightown to Ash Lake, the forlorn nature of the game's world quickly becomes evident. That and the player can typically see the outskirts of other parts of the game's world from another, far off in the distance (Ash Lake is viewable from the Tomb of Giants, as is the Demon Ruins). Not only that but, the design is so dense that these far off areas give more sustenance to the area in which the player is currently in. For example, the Tomb of Giants is a labyrinthine cave on a cliffside. It's such an alerting experience thanks to the darkness, that it is almost impossible not to notice that the only natural source of light that the player receives is coming from the far off glow of the Demon Ruins's lava.

The entire thing starts in Blightown ,which is this game's version of the Valley of Defilement[4]. This quickly turns into the Demon Ruins, which is a crumbling underground (not to mention lava-filled) path leading to the Lost Izalith, a nigh-impenetrable fortress run by a lost matriarchy of witches and showing a Mesoamerican influence (a particular favorite of mine) in its architecture. Personally, even the Izalith paled in comparison to the Duke's Archives which took a couple of features prominent in my favorite Demon's Souls area[5] and rammed them into an aesthetic which is appreciative towards my current job.

Dark Souls is still mostly a challenging and richly rewarding experience, but it's also much less punishing than its predecessor thanks to the bonfires peppered throughout the world (which are arguably the game's most rewarding things). It keeps and builds upon most of Demon's Souls strengths while showcasing all the same faults. Like I said...tunnel vision.

1. One of my many posts from last year, giving my impressions with Demon's Souls. []
2. The official website's url. []
3. Masahiro Sakurai Plays Dark Souls []
4. Demon's Souls's poison marshland. []
5. The Tower of Latria []

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It’s All In The Game!

Over the past seven days, I’ve seen at least three high-hit posts that somehow manage to take two things that shouldn’t be held together in the same regard to make a statement which can only interpreted as a subjective abomination. I’ve decided to join the ludicrousness here, but I’m going to be a bit more creative with it. I won’t use extremely biased points to reach a conclusion for the sake of ‘stirring the pot’[1], nor will I make some silly tongue-n-cheek reductivist claim at the expense of a myriad of class and race problems[2]. Nope, I’m going to use two of those horribly attention-whoring posts to form one in which both parties can live in harmony!

I recently went through and rewatched the The Wire (which I didn’t think I’d have a hankering for again at least for a few more years), but upon completion I realized a disturbing number of people comparing the show to the likes of other high-profile television serial dramas---most likely because of the Emmy Awards (and fans of The Wire remain bitter to this day that the show touted as 'the greatest television show ever' somehow managed to not win any of these awards). Mainly though, I’m speaking of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos. Now, I’ve seen two of those shows and a bit of remaining one and I’m pretty certain that none of them are even in the same league as The Wire. No, I’m not saying ‘this is objectively better than this’---what I am saying is that the modus operandi of the former three isn’t the same as David Simon’s fictional assault of Baltimore. Despite the fact that the aforementioned three are good and entertaining shows, The Wire is the only one that wasn’t designed with a core focus on entertainment, in fact it might be the only television show that ever has done such a thing (at least to the degree it did). Now, if you’re a fan of my blog you should be able to immediately see where I’m going with this…

There’s a certain game that I’m a big fan of that wasn’t designed as pure entertainment either. I covered it in quite a few posts last year and I stand by that assertion to this day. Since the spiritual successor to this game is due out in a week, I figure such a post is timely.  Yes, that game is Demon’s Souls, From Software’s 2009 ballbuster that pulled none of its punches and punished the player for even the slightest whiff of stupidity during play.

Both of these pieces of media are initially experiences that may or may not appear too dense for someone to just jump into, typically because their first impression of them are that they are too boring, or too hard to 'get into'. These experiences do not cater to the audiences whims. It assaults everything they fundamentally hold dear as mere viewers and players.

At this point, I’m going to use an article[3] to illustrate the similarities between these two (and a little bit of research on my part[4]). There are five dense seasons in The Wire just as there are five dense stages in Demon’s Souls and each are notably different experiences from one another. For the uninitiated, the article I’m using basically uses the opening scenes of each season of The Wire to illustrate what that respective season is meant to accomplish (something David Simon said was intentional on him and his crew’s part).

Season 1: The Wire

"The scene: McNulty interviews a witness to the killing of a man nicknamed "Snot Boogie," who was shot after robbing the local craps game once too often. When Jimmy asks why they kept letting Snot play after he robbed them a time or two, the surprised witness explains, "Got to. This America, man."
"The theme: America and all its institutions are now so fundamentally committed to business as usual that they keep letting their own equivalents of Snot Boogie into the game, since that's the way it's always been done."

Demon’s Souls: The Boletarian Palace: How many people picked up Demon’s Souls under false pretenses? They might say they were looking for an enjoying action RPG, but the second that first dredgling leaped upon them, they immediately got pissed. The formula from The Wire is working backwards in this instance, as business as usual was letting gamers into this experience to begin with. Every gamer that picked up Demon’s Souls and got pissed because it was too hard, picked it up to soothe some weird fucked up RPG standard it didn’t live up to, or even those who picked it up solely because of its quickly acquired reputation for being hard were all shot down. They were all in essence ‘killed over some bullshit’. The tagline for the DVD of The Wire is ‘Listen Carefully’ and this is something I myself immediately picked up on in Demon’s Souls level 1-2. The famous bridge where a large red dragon comes swooping down to burn any living thing making its way across is easily avoided. I recall a certain reddit exchange where the voice of dissent was claiming that Demon’s Souls offers no indicator of this encounter, that the game was just cheap, stupid, and uncessarily hard. Both myself and another opposing redditor were kind of dumbstruck at this because our assumed reaction was simple:

We heard that dragon’s wings seconds before it came roaring down to burn us---therefore we avoided the attack. This is business as usual in gaming. Players have been trained to just run across the bridge and if there’s danger, there better be a big fucking sign that says ‘hey stupid, look behind you!’. Demon’s Souls relentlessly requires that you pay attention to what is going on at all times, or else you’re just going to end up lost and frustrated. Sound like a certain television show?

Let’s not forget the sense of familiarity that is associated with any ‘first level’ in any videogame. Demon’s Souls being as unforgiving as it is essentially guarantees that the player will not soon forget the Boletarian Palace, just like any viewer of The Wire won’t soon forget the D’Angelo Barksdale[5] running grounds. Such an opening level easily relates to The Wire’s ‘pit’, where that same raggedy-ass orange couch holds analog to Demon’s Souls’s infamous bridge.

Season 2: The Wire

"The scene: McNulty, banished to the marine unit, is reminiscing about the now-defunct factories that once ringed Baltimore's harbors when he gets a distress call from a party yacht that's stalled in the shipping channel. The tux-clad host bribes Jimmy to let his swanky pals continue their soiree unmolested."
"The theme: Season Two deals with the disappearance of American industrial life, as seen through the eyes of the barely-employed union men on Baltimore's docks. McNulty's run-in with the party boat shows how a place like the harbor, which once provided steady employment to the city's blue collar citizenry, has now become just another playground for the rich."

Demon’s Souls: Stonefang Tunnel: The resignation the player will have at this point is easily relatable to officer Jimmy McNulty’s banishment to the docks throughout the second season. Coincidentally, the enemies here mirror the labor force in The Wire, being hostile working goblins (literally, the golbins are mining as you make your way throughout the level like a small workforce) that don’t take kindly to having their area infringed upon. The docks in general is an easy corollary to stage 2’s mining tunnel. The long arduous path to the first and second boss is also reminiscent of Frank Sabotka’s situation in which he accepts the compromise of shipping illegal materials for the sake of making ends meet. His dangerous but efficient shortcut mirrors that of Stonefang’s horrific drop which serves as a infamous shortcut to stage two’s boss, the Flamelurker, and taking on the Flamelurker with anything less than magic is trouble most people are simply unprepared for.

Season 3: The Wire

"The scene: Dope slingers Bodie and Poot witness the demolition of the high-rise towers where they once worked, and discuss how often Poot caught social diseases from a girl there. ("Don't matter how many times you get burnt," Bodie says. "You just keep doin' the same.") The high-rise implosion inadvertently fills the surrounding streets with dust."
"The theme: Two, two, two themes in one! As Bodie and Poot's boss Stringer Bell and police commander Bunny Colvin each try - and fail - to change the way their side of the drug war does business, Bodie's words foreshadow the pointlessness of attempting reform. Meanwhile, Stringer's partner Avon Barksdale gets caught up in a pointless war with rival Marlo Stanfield, which becomes an Iraq war allegory; the high-rise implosion and its aftermath are framed to evoke 9/11."

Demon’s Souls: The Tower of Latria: Just as stage three is my favorite level, season three of The Wire is my favored season. What begins in a prison-like insane asylum ends up branching out in the decayed tower of a once revered queen.  The player cuts the chains on a massive heart to gain access to an elevated tower where two ruthless and infamous enemies are likely to viciously [6] kill you. The decay of a once great tower is shown across the simple aesthetic in this level, just as streets show the decay of the bureaucracy inherent in Batltimore’s Police department. The trip from the hellish depths of the swamplands to the highest tier of the tower show that no matter where you go, you’re essentially fucked. You’re not getting out. The game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.

Season 4: The Wire

"The scene: Snoop, one of Marlo's chief assassins, visits a hardware store in search of a new nail gun. A salesman, not realizing Snoop intends to use the device to seal up her many victims in abandoned homes, gives her an elaborate lesson on the value of powder-actuated nail guns."
"The theme: The focus shifts to a Baltimore middle school and how the city school system isn't preparing many of its students for anything but life on a drug corner. Snoop's conversation with the hardware salesman is the first lesson of many where the student takes away something entirely different from what the teacher intended."

Demon’s Souls: The Shrine of Storms: The tagline for season four is ‘no corner is left behind’ which is funny considering that the corners in the Shrine of Storms are the most dangerous in the game, featuring cliffsides where any hyper-powered skeletal guard could be waiting with a giant axe, and there’s no time to think as the childish manta rays are there to prove just much of a danger at almost every turn. Any small amount of hope seen inside the safety of the caverns is a false light emitted by invisible wraiths who are just as deceptively much of a danger as any potential-filled child who is forced to grow up on the corner. There’s no solace in any classroom if you’re just fated to go right back outside, and any formidable challenge in the face of the player is actually just a blind[7] obstacle to be overcome so you can proceed back outside.

The Wire: Season 5

"The scene: Homicide detective Bunk cons a very dim suspect into believing that a copy machine doubles as a lie detector." 
"The theme: “Season five is about ‘what didn’t happen’. This is the great joke that we played the newspapers this year. And I said ‘you’re gonna be angry at us’. Not all journalists. I got a bunch of correspondence from smart journalists who got it. People consume stories on one level for the most part, not everybody—-but a lot of people do. The guts of what happens in The Wire season five is what doesn’t happen.”"

Demon's Souls: The Valley of Defilement: ‘Read Between the Lines’ is the tagline for the concluding season of The Wire and the archdemon for world five respresents that in spades. Not only that, but she ideally captures ‘what doesn’t happen’. There is no climatic boss battle, there is a confrontation where the player is depressingly introduced to the futility of their actions and just what it is they’re fighting towards. In a game that places very little ‘in your face’ emphasis on its story, what the player reads between the confrontations with Maiden Astraea and the concluding encounter with King Allant isn’t a note of triumph. Its either a potent realization of sorrow or a primal awakening of a lust for power.

Nothing is won, no greatness is gained. At best, the conclusion of Demon’s Souls is like The Wire in the same sense that either one rises to power with a vain lust to maintain and cultivate it further or a failed hope in trying fruitlessly to uphold their sense of right and wrong in a world that no longer has any meaning for such concepts anymore.

1. IGN’s pointless article comparing Skyrim to Dark Souls.
2. questfolove calls Breaking Bad ‘the white wire’, why? God only knows.
3. ‘Keys to the Wire’ by Alan Sepinwall
4. Since the prior article was written while season five was still on the air, I added my own summation for season five,  mostly gleaned from a lecture I watched David Simon give on YouTube.
5. One of The Wire’s ‘babies’, a mascot for what happens when any real change is attempted in a world that renders you obsolete.
6. Go find Stringer Bell’s eerily similar fate when he decides it’s okay to cut the heart of out of his own business measures.
7. See Roland Pryzbylewski

Monday, September 26, 2011

Poor Okamiden...

Yeah, I’m still here. I’ve just been busy.

Kurow is full of weird slang.
While the list of recent games that interests me has been dwindling this year, the urge to write about the ones I have played hasn’t lost its will at all. I’m well aware that I still owe this little space quite a few blogs too, it’s just a matter of my finding the time to bang them out. One of the games that I have been playing off and on over the past few months is Okamiden, the portable sequel to Clover Studio’s 2006 Zelda-killer (which if you regularly keep up with me---was a successful ‘assasination’ in my eyes)[1]. The title for this post is apt because this game will be the middle child in what I’m assuming for the series’s future. I completed the little adventure last night and I was quite impressed with it.

What surprised me is that even with no immediate title to pointlessly compare it to, I couldn’t help feeling that upon completion, Okami as a potential franchise just zapped away a bit more of the small reservoir of love that I have for the Zelda series. It’s surprising to me because Okamiden is not a game without its flaws. It’s riddled with shortcomings and questionable decisions left and right, but still managed to intrigue me as a game even more than Skyward Sword probably will (which I’ve decided to skip until I’m home for the holidays). The question there becomes why?

Well it wasn’t that hard to figure out after immediately completing it, as the game’s conclusion is as satisfying as its predecessor---but starkly more depressing. Even in comparison with more high-profile AAA games with focus on narrative, the game deals with its own in a surprisingly mature manner. This is the biggest and most obvious thing that I took away from both Okami and Okamiden. It actually cares about the little tale it’s presenting whereas the likes of Nintendo only cares about its franchise’s continuity to the extent that they can tease fans and keep it as vague as humanly possible as to not risk compromising things as ridiculous as its timeline’s continuity (all while appealing to the fanbase’s every whim) [2].

I’ve never been one to spare people details just for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but if you’re trying to keep things fresh in terms of Okamiden, you may want to stop reading here.

So the most famous thing about Okamiden is that a main character dies at the end. Kurow, a living doll made by a Moon Tribe member (who was prominent in the first title) makes a small doll in his image; Kurow is then sent down from the moon and immediately befriends Chibiterasu (the main character and son of Okami’s main heroine, Amaterasu). What was surprising about Kurow is that in reality he was a MAJOR player in the overall game. It’s arguable that the player will spend even more of their time with Kurow on Chibiterasu’s back rather than Kuni (son of the first game’s Susano and the small child featured prominently on all the game’s advertising). That leads into another discussion on the games treatment of its partner characters. Chibiterasu befriends five children who all play major roles in his adventures during the game:

Kagu – A brash young girl who participates in theatre acting as a passion, but is also ashamed of being a powerful Miko practitioner.
Nanami – A young mermaid who the player meets chronologically before she actually first appears in the game proper.
Manpuku – A portly boy looking for his mother in the past who has a distinct weakness for eating.
Kurow – The eccentric ‘doll’ sent from the moon. He talks and carries himself in the same style as Okami’s Ushiwaka.
Kuni – Susano’s adopted son who is captured after the second boss battle for the entirety of the game.

The game weaves these five together as well as a game of its nature will allow, even going so far as to repeat the time-travel thematic that the first game used so ‘epically’. This is the most defining characteristic and difference I can ascribe between Okami and Okamiden. The former was a massive and epic adventure encompassing a narrative that worked on multiple scales. Okamiden is about a third of its predecessor’s size (going off my own playtime as Okami took sixty hours for me to complete my first time through; Okamiden took around twenty five), and made more use of thematic mechanics in terms of how its story unfolded. Not only that, but it makes use of subtlety to hammer home those themes too. The best example I can think of to describe that is the appearance of the ‘Goryeo’ from the first game[3].  What was a sunken ship in the first title is a thriving vessel in Okamiden, filled with people and doubling as a sort of mini-dungeon. As its arc draws to a close however, a sea dragon appears and attacks the ship. Instead of the expected boss battle with the dragon,  the captain and its members proudly lecture Chibiterasu and Kurow on the responsibility meant for them both and forces them off to complete their own journey. 

As Kurow carries a crying Chibiterasu off (who is upset because he wants to help the ship’s crewmembers who are facing dire odds), one can make out the ship being dragged violently underwater by the serpent. Granted, some of its members do survive and can be met later, but the way in which the scene dealt with the concept of loss was unexpected for a portable game of this type, and as far as I know there was no indication at all that the crew as a whole survived, so you’re left to accept the death of a number of people you just recently met.

The things that really work against the game are the reason I almost stopped playing halfway through myself. Technically, the game is inferior to its PS2 counterpart. There’s only so much a portable game will be able to accomplish so that much was obvious. Aesthetically, it’s just as charming, but not as surprising as the first game. This means that novelty that was present in the first game is now lost in a game that is technically hindered as well being only a supplement in terms of its own aesthetic originality. The difficulty of the game is not to be overlooked either, as one will probably make their way through the entire game being able to count their total number of deaths on a single hand. There’s only so much sense of accomplishment one can glean from a game when it’s as easy as this, and that ends up working against it. The celestial brush techniques are varied, but don’t deviate that much from the first game and only enjoy the DS’s more-suited touch screen functionality at best. The game generally relies too much on retreading mechanics, themes, and areas from the first game without (or only minimally) garnering appreciation for each. As much as I appreciated the double trip to two different sections of Nippon’s past, we did do the exact same thing in Okami too---we didn’t need a checklist crossed off in terms of ‘cool stuff we should just do again’.

So the first ten hours was me fighting that last paragraph in its entirety, but the latter fifteen or so let the young characters shine and Okami’s original game mechanics take center stage in an admirable fashion easily worthy of its big PS2 brother. The music is just as lovely as it was before and it more than anything else---breathes new life into the old areas the player will traverse again[4]. Given the somber conclusion of Okamiden (Kuni is denounced as a son by his father and leaves home to learn about his past), both Kuni and Chibiterasu could easily appear in a grander fashion on a more powerful console.

Okamiden makes me enthralled to think about what could be done with a new PS3 iteration, but at the same time I don’t even think it would be worth it at this point either [5]. Gamers have proven that they don’t really want (nor do they deserve) it.

1. There’s a in-depth post in there somewhere, but in order to capture it accurately, but I’d have to play both Okami again and a Zelda of my choosing (probably Ocarina of Time) to figure out why I’m so intent on Okami proving Zelda’s unequivocal failure. As it stands, I’ve enjoyed the first Okami title more than I have any one Zelda game.

2. Nintendo has spoken on this countless times, but the most recent instance I’ve read is in this month’s Game Informer where Zelda’s series producer states outright that they purposefully keep the series continuity and narrative downplayed because otherwise they’d have to give it priority comparable to the game’s mechanical design (which is about the laziest damn thing I’ve heard).

3. Okami Wikia – Sunken Ship [ ]

4. Check out ‘Evil King Supression’ – Okami’s Final Boss theme [ ]

5. Okami was in the Guinness Book of World records for being the least commercially successful game to win a ‘Game of the Year’ award. It failed to break 1 million in sales even including a 2nd release (the PS2 and the Wii).

Saturday, July 30, 2011

On Arkham Asylum...

I really don’t like Batman…

I always feel as if it's necessary to initially point that out when talking about him. As far as mainstream comics go, I pretty much draw the line at anything that isn't Spider-Man (being that he was the only mainstream Caucasian 'superhero' I could even remotely relate to), but I've always been able to find appreciation in some of the others. One of those others is of course---the dark knight.

I've honestly never bothered with him past the obligatory childhood phase where I watched the Tim Burton movies and just had to have the accompanying toys. However, I was cynically surprised when Nolan rebooted the films to their mostly-deserved critical acclaim (though I recently flew off on a rant about how The Dark Knight should be a mediocre film[1]).

So, apart from genuinely enjoying Nolan's recent trilogy, I've had no real exposure to the comic hero---then I purchased Batman: Arkham Asylum this past week. While I was initially impressed by the demo I played last year,  it still wasn't quite enough for me consider shelling out for. Then on a whim I decided on Arkham Asylum instead of Nier. I don't regret the purchase (especially considering it's a two-year old game that only ran me $20), but once again I'm a victim of knowing who and exactly what I want out of my games[2].

First and foremost, the hype for the game itself far outclassed it, but being that could generally apply to any 'well-recieved' games, I guess I should clarify even further that games like this only stand out as paragons because they have no relevant competition. The last Batman game I personally remember playing is the accompanying Batman Begins game on the original X-box, which wasn't actually a terrible game[3]. What Rocksteady did with Arkham Asylum was only notably exceed the basic formula for what will make a decent Batman game. They didn't evolve it, they even didn't innovate it, they just expressed competence while navigating it (and threw in a few goodies for the fans to lull over).

What I find really taxing about the whole thing is that Batman is an inherently different figure to design a game for. When compared to the other biggies such as Spider-Man or Superman, it's instantly recognizable that Wayne only has one thing---his wallet. That wallet allows access to neat little gadgets and gizmos that almost scream 'Hey! design game mechanics around me!'. Now I'm not arrogant enough to say that this inherently makes it easier to design a game for, but I will say it should throw into question to how all games featuring Batman's family[4] should be designed. Hell even the general navigation of Batman is more fitting in gaming than the likes of Spider-Man, Superman, and any number of heroes that designers think it's more 'fun' to focus on in terms of their 'powers' (e.g. Parker can swing everywhere and this is something that most of the Spider-man games consistently get right because that's all that most people care to deem 'important').

Stealth shouldn't be an exclusive trait to Batman in the 'gameverse', but it seems to be given the general familiarity to who he is and what he can do (e.g. things such as Nolan's summation of Wayne's ninja training help aid this perception these days as well). Through these types of consistencies in the character, AA makes it very clear that Batman isn't invincible, as a couple of shots will put his ass down for the count---thus this makes the game at times a very methodical experience (which is mostly to its merit). Like I just stated though, it shouldn't be exclusive to him as a character, as other more aptly named superheroes are just as susceptible to gunfire and the like and just as accommodating to other type of genre-work akin to stealth (again, Spidey is a great example there[5]). 

If I go any further with that, I'll just diverge too much into what I want out of an ideal Spider-Man game, so I'll stop here today. 

Harley Quinn is cute though...
So the greatest compliment that I can give Arkham Asylum is that it is a fantastic new template for how any superhero game should be approached, but that's where my compliment ends. As a game on its own merit, it's just another reminder of how much lower gamers' standards are and how quickly they're willing to dote on something just to pass around geek communion (in this case the comic & game community which have always been in close proximity to one another). I'll give Rocksteady a deserved vote of confidence by purchasing Arkham City in a few months, but if it's not moving the concept's general milieu along in terms of its mechanics, characters, and interweaving between the source material's conflict translations[6], then I'm not bothering again.

1. A quote from a Salon article that I recently read concerning comic heroes which hit a number of valid points but diverged way too much (and wildly) to be taken seriously past a certain extent. 

2. My post here from two years ago where I identified the hype for what it was in regards to me.

3. It was just yet another unbearably medicore cash-in licensed game.

4. That is---any damn superhero.

5. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, I still haven't played this, but I'm guessing that even if it does acknowledge what I'm talking about here, it's still blatantly guilty of focusing on his superpowers instead of his limitations as a 'superbeing'.

6. This is just a shorter way of saying how a the source material's concept is translated to the player. In this case, that means how much of Bruce Wayne's conflict and 'I am Batman' the audience gets to feel instead of just the 'I'm Batman dude---fuck yeah!' design methodology that I picked up on as a substantial force driving Arkham Asylum.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Would Capcom Ask Such a Stupid Question?

“As a fan of Resident Evil, what do you think we're doing right and what should we be working on?”[1]
One would think that enough fans yelling the answer to this since 2004 would have left more of an impact on the series. Given that it actually HAS been seven years since Leon S. Kennedy traipsed through Europe[2], inspiring a notable number of other developers to forgo one of the media’s longest lasting muscles[3], it would only be sensible that such an echo chamber be created. The answer to the question is of course, atmosphere--- or at the very least some semblance of a narrative (the former of which can make the latter always seem more qualitative than it is if done competently). The answer of atmosphere should only inspire ‘fans of Resident Evil’ to ask their own question, which is:
“Why in the hell haven’t you delivered on it already?”
Even to the answer to that is obvious, as the action of RE4/5 easily pandered to a generation of gotta-shoot-shit-junkie gamers, understandably making them the best-selling entries in the franchise to date. Money was the answer, so the question then becomes:
“How much of that fanbase can you see yourself realistically parting with Capcom?”
The answer to this isn’t as cut-and-dry and would rely mainly on hypotethicals of optimism and pessimism that would be up for debate by any of the various fanboy camps involved. The current formula being tampered with would irrevocably alter the income generated by the games. What does a new Resident Evil even mean in the context of this late age of 7th generation console survival horror? The only reason Resident Evil is even still relevant is because it’s had no worthwhile competition to spur it on. I wouldn’t consider something like Silent Hill as competition like most would either, because it mainly provides a different type of fear in the new rhetorical age of what all of these games could potentially convey.

Resident Evil easily flew off into the action-cliché arena for another reason apart from money. That is---that it was simply more of an action-based game in the basest sense. The horror was always more external, rather than internal (something I intend to post about on its own when I get back to playing a ‘certain’ pre-4 Resident Evil title). Players were always better armed and they were consistently more powerful in the space of the game’s narrative context. Resident Evil 4 capitalized on this gloriously, abandoning all prior atmosphere and external horror in the face of power and a cathartic sense of action; instead of horror acting as an overbearing supplement for the latter two in the franchise, it was laid on top of an action game more along the lines of a mere aesthetic filter instead. The little horror that the games started out with has never progressed forth since. Capcom merely used all of the flashy design bells and whistles to ‘put the band-aid on a broken arm’ (i.e. HD optimization, inclusion of co-op elements, potent design focus on being a shooting gallery, etc.). There were also plenty of stagnant design decisions that when analyzed, become questionable in themselves (such the inability to move whilst shooting).

So many of the comments on that Facebook Status resonate with the older titles, but few give articulation towards what it would mean to make a new Resident Evil game that’s not just a mere remake[4] or extension of an older title [5], but rather an admirable evolution in the design of the older games’ synergy. I don’t want to dwell too much on this post-because as I’ve said---I’ve got another one coming somewhere down the line concerning a pre-4 title specifically. So, here’s a short list of things off the top of my head that better-delve into the inadequacies of the franchise as it exists today.

1. Something Resident  Evil 4 did right was depict Leon get butchered in a plethora of brutal and vicious ways[6]. This was strangely absent in Resident Evil 5 where the dynamics of various socially-retarded design tropes began manifesting all over the place (e.g. Sheva wouldn’t be shown getting graphically mutilated simply because she’s a woman). So, less timid design choices would always be a plus in evolving the likes of fear, vulnerability, and gore that’s not specifically for gore’s sake. If you Capcom can GRAPHICALLY show a pair of tits shaking whenever a woman blinks her eyes[7],they can GRAPHICALLY show them get ripped apart as well. At least grow a pair of testicles if you’re going to be GRAPHIC.

2. Something else Resident Evil 4 and 5 did well was introducing an exclusive air of tension into progressing through the story-mode. This of course, is undermined by how the AI will still react (i.e. running full speed at you then stopping just so the player can have a sort of ‘reaction reprieve’ and can see how much work the animators put in as the infected leer at you before launching a scripted strike). This has its ups and downs in both games, but putting an emphasis on how the enemies react or act at all is key. They can be mindless, but that has to be conveyed through their action (which is why the older games hold up, as the zombie’s action is consistent with the general perception of how a brainless undead corpse would act). It doesn’t hold up in the recent games because the Ganados and Majini are semi-intelligent entities that are part of a larger hivemind. When the illusion breaks on that (which is fragile as a spiderweb holding up a two-ton truck), the game devolves right back into a competent shooting gallery.

3. What the latter two entries in the main franchise remain utterly terrible at is the distribution of power available for the player. There’s a similar problem faced in stealth games where over-equipping the player kills the entire point of the genre. Resident Evil 4 basically said ‘fuck it’ and gave the player everything from tommy-guns CONVENIENTLY-useable rocket launchers. When finding weapons and ammo in the older games, it was complemented by the direness of your situation, requiring you constantly keep an eye on and maintain it. RE4/5 only do this in the superficial sense of the player managing the layout and organization of their weaponry rather than the content of what they have (yet another example of ‘the band-aid on the broken arm’).

4. There’s only a slight difference in the variance of monsters between the pre-4 titles and those afterwards, but there was better sense of unpredictability in the pre-4 titles. For RE4 and 5, the game had begun to hit the point of ‘going through the motions’ with what it offered in terms of its creatures instead of giving more interesting dynamics and systems to the ones that were already there. Sometimes the inefficiency of the combat system in the pre-4 titles worked in favor of gaining those titles atmosphere. If Capcom designed the over-the-shoulder shooting-mechanics to expose themselves with similar deficiencies (which are only alluded towards in certain areas of 4 & 5), then the franchise would begin moving forward again at least.

5. Narrative-wise, there’s no coherency in terms of the game’s scale. For the first three titles, which were confined to a small Mid-Western American city, more of a global sense of doom was available than that of the latter two games (which ironically take the player to two different damn continents). It was obvious at the point of RE5 that Capcom was more excited with ‘traveling’ for the sake of SAYING they’re doing something different rather than actually doing something different.

6. Then there’s the massive number of Japanese design problems inherent to their whole culture in terms of social inertia. This includes things such as the way both females and males are shown aesthetically, how the design of both the narrative and characterization have always been hovering just between camp and plain dumb, and just the general tendency for the Japanese to rely on their over-disciplined design principles out of the sheer sake of not wishing to shake up certain aspects of their games.

As usual, I don’t expect any of these to be acknowledged within the next two or three games---that is if they ever even will be. Too much experience with the franchise has run me dry towards being optimistic for it in any realistic sense. Someone like me is better off playing one of the older games and theorizing how they could be better-built upon, which is exactly what I’m doing these days anyway. ¯\_()_/¯

Note for #1: Yes, I realize the fact that this being a fanpage question means that such a query is not likely to have been generated or even be accessible to the actual developers of the game and is just a pandering attempt by the fanpage itself to interact with and grow its fancount. I just used it as an excuse to write this. ^_^
2. Resident Evil 4 – Wikipedia []
3. Gears of War – Wikipedia []
4. Gamecube Remake of Resident Evil – Wikipedia []
5. Resident Evil:  Revelations – Wikipedia []
6. Resident Evil 4 Death video []
7. Excella Gionne – Resident Evil Wikia []

Friday, July 15, 2011

No Comment

"You're not an easy person to talk to."
This really originated as a response to some recent activity on my Tumblr (where a surprising number of people acted as if they paid for some type of strict gaming/art microblog without doing two seconds of work to figure out that I post everything from nudity to highly-offensive opinions and jokes), but before the backlash gets out of hand here as well, I thought I’d at least make one post explaining why comments are no longer enabled on my blog. Most of my readers HERE have just been expressing a bit of confusion on whether I don’t ‘allow’ them anymore, or it’s just their browser acting funny. Those actual readers do deserve an explanation in that regard, but people with some axe to grind on this topic can READ my two cents as well (especially given that the latter is really who this blog is aimed towards).

I’m not going to waste my time offering any academic muscle/backing for why I will no longer entertain feedback (and even calling it ‘feedback’ at this juncture is somewhat of a problem).  Such work would be a waste on the ears that are likely to contest it on any ground inconvenient to their perception, so I’m not going to waste my time simply humoring the dense. I’m just going to address what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and what I’ve gathered in response to not only my recent decision, but a conversation that went down earlier this year at Critical Distance.[1]

First of all, not everyone wants or needs feedback as much as others (and even then, not in exactly the same way). This also applies towards how all blogs handle comments as well, which should be enough for the intelligent mind to settle at but obviously it isn’t. Many have begun working the pro-comment stance off that assumption alone, and it’s just as inherently flawed as any accusation made with it. This blog and its predecessors have pretty much just been 80% me expressing myself in regards to thoughts on various gaming topics. Occasionally, I did ask for feedback---sometimes my wording was even specifically geared to provoke it, but the structure of my writing style often called for a comprehensive understanding of one’s own individual dynamism, which would be better suited to a blog in itself (which I’d always gladly read when notified or if I found it on my own). Occasionally, people actually would e-mail their commentary to me anyway, as they felt odd publishing it on the post itself. I can even recall one quoting my blog here on Tumblr and offering her own commentary under the blockquotes.

"Personally, however, I feel this marks the beginning
of a new era of despair. What's your opinion?"
There’s also the reductionist accusation of this action being an ego problem. EVERYBODY HAS A DAMN EGO PROBLEM, but people who accuse others of ego problems generally are those with far more troubling self-image issues themselves that they're trying to conceal behind weak opinions and pseudo-true accusations, so the whole ‘ego-trip call-out’ is a wild shot in the dark against anyone who’s taken a similar route with their postings (the reason behind which could range from a sense of comfort and confidence in one’s own writing to overwhelming distaste for the ‘noise’ which the Internet is so effective at facilitating). If you have a need to assert an opinion towards the ‘originator’ of some kind of concept or idea, THAT in itself is an ego problem. The neurotic need to be ‘heard’ on the Internet is one that many people have given into, and announcing slavishly that others be branded with a similar mockup is borderline counterproductive to all of the arguments I’ve seen in favor of comments---or more specifically, in criticisms of the option to not allow any.

Anyone who has entered into my illusive circles of friends is always free to use any of the ever-growing list of social linkups to engage a discussion with me.[2] That’s not what this is about. I’m not against comments, not at all. I’m against my ideas being challenged, questioned and engaged in a very particular fashion, as my idea of what that information will mean when it is will cause its value to degrade in my eyes. That’s it. One could make the statement that it’s simply too cumbersome to ‘go out of their way’ to offer their thoughts to me elsewhere, but I’m fine with that thought just being lost if the person is too busy, too apathetic, or outright too lazy to convey it (e.g. if you’re too lazy to sit on your ass and click open an e-mail to throw me your opinion, then I don’t really care either). The Internet has become an overbearing collection of noise and filtering it out for myself is my goddamn right these days. Manipulating the negative space is the forte of any competent crafter and that’s what a lack of comments represents to me (to offer an analogy to aid that metaphor, I very rarely take photographs of people for a somewhat related reason). I don’t necessarily operate off the assumption that I am actively encouraging conversation to happen elsewhere, but lo’ and behold I have an option that says put up or shut up’---at least enough to say that ‘I’d rather it be that way and this is the step I’ve taken to make it so’.

If you happen to be one of those people who just ‘shuts up’, an idea will be lost, but the world will NOT end. Get the fuck over it.

True enough that once a post is made public, it doesn’t necessarily belong solely to the author anymore. In effect however, disallowing comments allows the author to ‘vanish’ in sense. Such a sense has most commonly been described as liberating (with which I agree with). There’s also the assumption that the vanishing author (in terms of simply not engaging with his/her readers in comments) is not an action in itself---not only that but that such an action isn’t equal or possibly of more value than allowing comments/engaging. Asserting so is a dangerously short-sighted stance in favor of an (AT BEST) optimistic lure of debate and discussion which have more immediately tangible (and increasingly more often redundant) ‘results’.

And here’s a quote concerning the author who sparked such an action (no matter how unrelated it may or may not be to my particular related actions here).[3]
“Ben Abraham is famous not only for having a very clever blog, but for having a blog at which it is impossible to comment.  A little while back, Ben produced a post that prompted a good deal of controversy and discussion but because Ben’s site does not allow comments, it is now incredibly difficult to find out what was said.  In a round-table discussion recorded for Critical Distance, Ben defends his decision to not allow comments and there ensues quite an intriguing chat about the value of different forms of online communication.  Does not allowing comments encourage ‘the conversation’ by forcing people to write their own blog posts and argue on twitter or is it reducing something worth preserving to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trend on Twitter?  You decide (Please RT, comment and pay attention to meee!)”
"Yes, it was because of that I became a vanishing mediator."
Comments such as this one make a valid point and further throw darts at certain problems in the sphere of game-blogging in particular. Obviously from this paragraph I’m referring to Twitter. Anybody that does follow me can easily note that in the past six months my style-usage for Twitter has transferred mostly to my Tumblr, which has taken its own monstrous form[4]. There’s a reason for this. Twitter is a horrible medium for any type of realistic discussion/debate, so in essence that was the first move I made towards ‘vanishing’. Anytime a concise point CAN be made, the perspective can consistently be shown to reveal a facile and willfully-ignorant assault on the complexities of any given situation, all under the guise of being succinct.  Given that this blog is about a relatively young medium that most of the populous is still growing up with, the pains of such a social structure (based profoundly on personal and biased viewpoints) that’s in itself built on the foundation of malleable digital information is dubious at best.

A comment is useless to me on numerous levels given that vast majority of the time as it's either:

A)  Simply sympathetic towards my point.
B)  A reactionary contrarian situated atop some nonsensical or irrational argument.
C) A troll looking for provocation.
D) A sparse critical look in which the basic foundations (or some irrelevant minutiae) of my ideas are questioned.
E) A comment without an exact goal or ‘message’, but a mere expression of stance/opinion as a reaction to my own (these are typically very long comments that deserve to be explored in posts in their own right). These are what usually get e-mailed to me.

Now does this mean that most of the comments I’ve received up until this point are 'worthless' (i.e. 'worth less') in the terms most relevant to this particular post? In regards to the criteria I just mentioned---yes. Are they the incentive for the lockout? Not---necessarily. Hell, 'E' is what I'm after most of the time (with a bit of D sprinkled in). Mostly it’s just a minimal factor in why I decided to do it. My negative and positive experiences with comments overall is irrelevant because my conception of what ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ even means is subject to debate in itself.

It has nothing to do with privacy. If I didn't want anybody to read or engage with my idea, I wouldn't have posted it at all, especially not on the vicious and cacophonous cesspool of opinion that is the Internet anyway...

It's about distance. It’s about my weariness with the ludicrousness of syntax and semantics that so many arguments these days are based on (gaming-related and not). I'd rather the discussion (if there's any to be had) take place away from me for a countless number of reasons both personal and logical; and even if it’s in my reach, I want the option continually open for myself where I’m not simply obligated to launch a response towards someone that may not see a certain discussion in the same light as me. This is especially in regard to people I'm not already familiar with and doubly so for arguments I’ve repeatedly come across in my years of posting about games.

"As your captive audience, I've listened to your words,
now I have a few for you----"
It’s not about me not caring what someone has to say, it’s about allowing the audience to make up its own damn mind and not waste its time trying to fruitlessly and gradually proselytize me towards their own viewpoint. By all means engage with my thoughts and ideas, but don’t you ever assume that you’re entitled to engage with ME on them. Quote me, praise me, eviscerate my entire posts piece by piece, or simply call me an idiot, but don’t expect to do it here. Forced attempts to do so have already seen me tossing all cordiality out the window and acting as troll and/or malicious manipulator (and anybody who knows me beyond a superficial level will instantly attest to this, as I’m notorious for purposefully manipulating information for various ends) to provoke people in fashions that most likely will be more affective towards communicating any idea I deem necessary.

It sure as hell isn’t about controlling conversation. Well---it is controlling towards conversation with me specifically, but if you knock on my door I have no obligation to answer (something else plenty of people will attest to concerning me). People saying the existence of the door does actually obligate me to answer is tickling. People saying they have the constitutional right to stand on a soapbox in the face of any author on the merits/demerits of their work is downright hilarious. Hell, it’s actually leaving the door open (though it may not be as encouraging as I’d like it to be) for a more tangible sense of ‘free’ conversation to blossom.

Ironically though, where my reclusion has kicked in on written expression, it has receded in visual (i.e. my two-year-long ban on the likes of future commissions and finished illustrations/paintings being posted here from now on).

The Internet along with too much recent Ghost in the Shell re-viewings/readings has given birth to a newfound contempt for discussion that is pointless in cyberspace. Welcome to it manifesting on Misanthropic Gamer.
Thank you, and good day.

1. Critical Distance Podcast, Episode 7 []
2. Misanthropic Gamer, Hypocrisy Tab []
3. On Magazines and Conversations []
4. My Tumblr []
5. Tachikoma, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Episode #2, ‘TESTATION’ []

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Ridiculousness of Pokémon, Part IV

The experience of playing through any of the Pokémon titles often naturally leads to a place of extreme player-entitlement. To be honest, this is something that most games in general are guilty of, but focusing on the franchise at hand leads to some interesting questions to say the least. The world that players are meant to inhabit is so skewed narratively and mechanically, that nearly no illusions are present in which they aren’t ‘the special one’ (i.e. the game doesn’t even try to pretend you’re just another trainer rising to prominence).

Sure, we’re consistently given things such as rivals to serve as wannabe illusions/complements, but at no point do the actions of that rival manifest in such a way that would challenge the player to honestly think of them as such (and in turn, think of themselves outside of the ‘I’m the special trainer’ mindset). The only one that even came close was Blue and this was mainly due to the fans running amok with nostalgia and deifying him as a meme as time passed.[1] In reality, he wasn’t that much different and at best, was only a notch above the others due to the limitations in the software/hardware at the time. Also, take a look at the situation in this sense---very, very, VERY rarely does the player actually witness an in-game battle that is not their own (for example, two regular trainers engaging each other or two legendary Pokémon clashing in the wild). Of course there could be a plethora of situations that would call for simple spectation (off the top of my head, an example would be coloring a Champion as a formidable fighter long before the player has to engage them him/herself).

Exacerbating this even further is the fact that over 60% of the NPCs in the games are barely even that---‘Non-Player Characters’. It’s possible that the original Japanese versions of the game are able to hide this better, but I’m assuming for the sake of argument that at best they’re only minutely less embarrassing. Most of the time, NPCs are just ‘grindstones’ or ‘event-dispensers’.  They exist mostly for the player to gain EXP from (which is a can of worms in itself to engage in most RPGs period) or they exist to give the player some tool (such as a Hidden Machine) that they need to proceed further in the ‘narrative’. To ask for anything such as ones with actual writing or creative existences (e.g. importable characters across different games) would be stupid on my part, so I’ll spare you the ‘what I wants’ in this paragraph. However, to keep this entitlement rant going, I'll also assert that this applies to the base moveset in the games as well.

The total number of moves actually rivals the number of creatures in the current roster (i.e. 649 pokemon sporting  559 moves).. This stifles any sense of individuality the games could possibly have for the sake of having control over the stat-play that's so popular among the hardcore players. If the moveset were say---double the number of current creatures (i.e. 1,200 moves between 649 Pokemon), we’d be looking at a much richer experience, but only special legendaries and mascot fodder have noteworthy signature moves, and most of them can learn the same moves. The moves themselves don’t differ that much between most Pokémon and when it does, it’s only in the most extreme cases.

Fittingly enough, where individuality is positioned up front and center, it’s pissed on within the same game or one title later. The previously-mentioned OT/Nickname dilemma is one of the more prominent ones (e.g. when a player loses their status as an Original Trainer when transferring any Pokemon across gens). Another example is one of the sneakiest and one of my most personally reviled: Shiny Pokemon.[2]

The concept is intriguing, but the execution is nothing short of insipid. The rarity between any player catching a shiny Pokemon without any kind of aid is pretty damn rare and THIS is assuming they play any of the games for well over 200+ hours.

First and foremost, shiny Pokemon are simple palette swaps in the franchise's current state. In generation II there was a slight difference in  IVs (1/2 of the underlying code that individuates the overall battle efficacy of any given Poke), but after generation III it was scrapped and left these catches as rare aesthetic ‘treats’ to stumble across through extensive play. A palette swap Pokemon in itself doesn’t bother me, but the method to which they are applied in every single game I’ve seen them in is as I said---nothing short of stupid. Personally speaking, more than half of them are just plain ugly. The colorings reek of programmers childishly turning the tone meter all the way in the opposite direction and expecting players to freak out when said ugmo jumps out at them in the wild. 

There’s nothing wrong with questioning why each individual species of Pokemon don't AT LEAST have a dozen different colors.

 (and if I really want to be demanding, differing sprite positionings between each one), because current Pokemon variations such as Shellos[3], Spinda[4] and Unown[5] are just bad arguments. Such a drastic variation between each Pokemon species could realistically turn a 649 roster closer to 8,000 if done with a certain level of expertise. As it stands for any of the current games, I don’t begrudge any player that has hacked a shiny Pokemon (or got it ’off the back of a truck’) over the course of their play, as the rarity of even encountering these butt-ugly palette swaps is ludicrous to begin with. I’ve seen children and adults act like idiots to get their hands on them, trading away hard-earned Pokemon for these things, all in the name of grasping a jokingly superficial status of individuality and expression.

Just so you have more of a sense of what it takes to get a shiny Pokemon the ‘legit’ way (speaking towards something more removed from flat out numbers), it recently took me three weeks of Soft-Resetting[6] (basically just cutting the system on and off) my DS in Pokémon Diamond to get a shiny Giratina[7]. I spent at least two hours every day doing it nonstop and came away getting one fairly easy after about 3,000 resets. And yes, I only did this just to say I did (and to also palpably grasp the insanity of catching one personally) and also because I’m a stubborn idiot.

And us idiots compose 90% of the Pokemon fandom and most of those are unquestioning slaves to the little scam that ‘NintenFreak’ has set up. A smaller amount are fans that are so dependent on the franchise’s system that they---inspire this quote from Morpheus:
"And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependant on the system, that they will fight to protect it."[8]
The rest are in my arena---and are arguably the worst. These are the players who are well-aware of the inanity of the franchise but continue to give our vote of approval with further purchases. Either way the coin falls, it’s not likely to matter. Why? Because gamers are known for a lot of things, but speaking with their wallets isn’t one of them. GameFreak & Nintendo now UNDERSTANDABLY rely on this basic rule of thumb, which is why the series only grows in popularity.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Throwaway Experience...

After completing the free-download inFAMOUS, I had no incentive to write about it. Being a fairly old game now, I assumed my problem with it would easily be echoed by others in a quick Google search and it didn't take long to find this passage (among many others) that resonated with how I felt on the game.
"I made a choice that I wasn’t entirely proud of, but it was MY choice. The game felt so much closer to me now, I had imprinted myself into it. It had let me imprint myself into it. Except that it had not. A cut-scene explained that I had not really saved my girlfriend, that I had been tricked because she was among the doctors. OK, I thought, I’ll replay the mission and save those guys then. Hmmm, well no, not really because this time you were not tricked, see? Basically, she was going to die either way.

And I must say that sucks. That moment right there threw every other choice I had made into the dumpster. For a moment, it felt as if all the small choices were in preparation for this big, truly meaningful choice. And when that moment shattered, so did all those other, small moments.

 When I reached the ending, I had very low expectations. The ending was surprising, tying the story in a cool, unexpected way. But again, it was identical regardless of any choice the player had made during the game. In the game’s defense I will say that it could be interpreted differently, but the words and the imagery are the same. The only reward, the only difference comes after the credits, when the character makes a final statement that sums up the player’s behavior and how it has affected the world.
Every choice made dies with the game, with the virtual world. When we power the game off, the choices made lose all meaning, they are turned off along with the game. We are never left to deal with the consequences of our actions, never allowed to really care about our choices. We are given the Illusion of Choice. And when the illusion breaks we see the game for the piece of plastic that it is, and go to bed so we may forget about it."
(via Intelligent Design)

I have no incentive to try the recently released sequel now because of how cheap the above situation laid out the game's experience. Admittedly, I was interested enough to spoil the entire thing for myself via the game's Wikia, but this only backed up my stance that I wasn't missing anything. inFAMOUS is certainly an enjoyable title, but without the comic-homage plot wrapped around it (which in some areas, wasn't half-bad), it's just another superhero simulator that's merely enjoyable to play (i.e. if I want to run around and blow shit up, games such as it are a dime a dozen).