Archive | September 2013

Summary Judgment: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

        I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago in the Theme Party about games that execute perfect mergers of story and gameplay in such a way as to create a stronger emotional resonance in the player than a purely visual medium would be able to achieve on its own.  Having played Starbreeze Studio’s  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I now have the most perfect example imaginable to point to when people ask me for one game that most effectively embodies this concept.  Brothers is the fulfillment of the promise that was made by the creation of the medium, and is a game that anyone who wants to understand the power of the interactive experience needs to play.

SIMPLE BEGINNINGS

            It’s interesting, then, that Brothers has such a simple underpinning when it comes to the core functioning elements of the experience.  At its heart, Brothers is a puzzle/adventure game in which the player utilizes one half of the controller to embody each of the two titular brothers.  The left stick and left trigger embody the big brother, and the right stick and right trigger embody the little brother.  Using this scheme, the game creates a sort of singleplayer co-op environment in which the two characters work together to coordinate and solve puzzles to advance.  Simple enough.

But there’s a reason I was careful to use the word “embody” and not “control” up above.  In a normal game, a controller is an apparatus used to manipulate physical objects; it moves legs, arms, cursors, swords, triggers.  The controller manipulates tangible things towards specific goals.

In Brothers I can think of no better way to describe the change here other than to say that the controller’s halves do not represent objects, they represent souls.  The left stick and trigger are the essence of the big brother, and similarly for the little one.   They’re boiled down so much, simplified and contextualized to such a degree that the player comes to attach them to the brothers as emotional and human creatures, and not simply as objects to move around on the screen.

And this shined through very clearly as I progressed through the game.  It was a bizarrely new experience, simultaneously thinking of each brother as myself but also as the “other” brother.  The game asks you to be two people, and it’s an incredibly unique experience.  The little brother and big brother started to exhibit different personalities in the way that I played them and in the inconsequential choices I made; I often found myself having the little brother run ahead of the big brother, or climb things earlier, or be the first to rush to act with a new object.  I didn’t do it on purpose, it just sprouted out of the way each character felt.  The two brothers are just slightly different enough in the way they approach the world that you get a strong sense of personality from them despite the lack of understandable dialogue or a specifically laid out backstory.

A TRUE FAIRY TALE

The brothers themselves are not the only part of the game that oozes personality despite never directly forcing it down your throat.  The visuals and general artistic direction of the world are phenomenal and bring to mind the sort of fairy tale stories we’re told in our youth, stories of heroes and children and monsters, always fascinating and scary at the same time.  The game stunned me with how variable the environments were and how different each new place felt.

On top of that, there are so many details crammed into each scene for the attentive explorer, little visual things that lay out the dire situations some of these locations are in without directly spelling much out.  History is here, stories are here, but they’re never dropped on the player’s head and the world lets you bring it to life yourself as a result.  In addition, the game has a wonderful achievement structure that encourages the player to interact with things in a way that is more organic and not objective driven.  It brings the world to life and enables the player to spin their own legends.  By the end, I had a few pet theories rolling around about the places I’d seen and what had transpired there, and like all the best stories, it compelled me to think up stories myself after the fact.

The emotional resonance of the whole experience is an incredible sum of all of these parts, and the way that Brothers connects with the player on an emotional level is like nothing I’ve ever seen before aside from perhaps Journey.  This is the game that is proof of concept for the entirety of the medium, and it does so in such a condensed, simplified fashion that it makes me think that simplification should be our aim more than the over complication that many games tend toward today.

            Brothers is an achievement in interactive storytelling, slow building emotional connection, and artistic vision.   It is a very nearly perfect combination of interesting and unique gameplay mechanics, extremely strong artistic design, and peerless storytelling technique.  It is an artistic creation that screams to be experienced.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is available on Steam, Xbox Live, and Playstation Network for $14.99.  

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Theme Party: A Million Spotlights

          In their infancy, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) were not particularly heavy on the whole story thing.  Looking back at Star Wars Galaxies, Everquest, and their ilk, it was common in the MMO genre for the writing and narrative focus to be placed entirely upon worldbuilding, electing instead to let players make their own stories.

But as time progressed, a more traditional storytelling style broke through and a central question arose: how can we tell a story with the player as the hero when there are so many players?  There is an inherent tension in an MMO between glorifying the player and the number of players, and a number of different approaches have been taken, some of which succeed, and others of which fall short.  In this piece, I’ll be examining what techniques have worked well in MMORPGs when it comes to narratively driven storytelling, and what stories have been lacking due to shortcuts in the writing that ultimately lessen the value of the players’ experience.  Three key examples will drive this analysis: World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.

SAVING THE WORLD ONE RAID AT A TIME

World of Warcraft is, of course, the keystone of the genre in a number of different aspects, but from a narrative perspective, WoW takes an interesting approach to the idea of the role of the player character in the game’s story.  The approach in WoW is largely just to meet the reality of the situation head on in a very simple way: on the global level, every player character is part of a generic set of “adventurers” that are referenced as the ones who kicked in Arthas’s door, shoved their boots up Illidan’s ass, and made Molten Core their training arena.  On a wide level, much of the action in WoW’s story is acknowledged as being the result of the actions of this roving band of coordinated badasses.

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The scenery doesn’t hurt, either.

On a personal level, WoW doesn’t go to huge lengths to approach the player character beyond presenting you with tasks to be complete.  What enables WoW to get away with this, though, is the fact that there are so many tasks to complete in that world that it weaves a kind of self-formed narrative solely out of what it is that you’ve chosen to do out of the enormous amount of choices present.  The fact that I’m Exalted with one faction and haven’t touched another, that I’ve quested in one zone but ignored another, all of these become part of my personal narrative in a way, though it admittedly does not approach the level of personal connectivity that something like The Old Republic achieves through heavy dialogue choice options.

WoW isn’t without it’s flaws on the storytelling front, however.  While the player characters are the ones that really do move the wheels in the story and are the ones on the front lines of the climactic raid content, it’s still almost universally the case that some other kind of hero comes along and does all of the real work, ala Tirion in the end of Wrath of the Lich King or Thrall in Cataclysm.  This kind of usurpation of heroism is a key problem in the genre’s storytelling, and it’s what I’m going to focus heavily on in looking at Guild Wars 2.

THE LEGEND OF SIDEKICK

            One of the things that excited me a lot when I was hearing about Guild Wars 2 pre-release was the idea of the “personal story” that each character would have, a tailored adventure that spoke directly to your own character’s involvement in the world in some kind of almost singleplayer environment.  On release, though, the story was deeply flawed for a number of reasons, chief of which was the way in which the latter portion of the story was presented: the player character is reduced to a sidekick.

The Batman to the player character’s Robin, of course, is the Slyvari Traehearn, some kind of special hero necromancer who-zzzzzzzz.  Who Traehearn is doesn’t matter because he isn’t the player character and so I don’t care why he’s more important than I am in my personal story.  But the personal story is really the story of how Traehearn saves the world; the player character is made his lieutenant and spends the majority of the second half of the personal story running around the world completing errands on Traehearn’s behalf.  I remember at one point in the story I was attacked by assassins of some kind, and afterward, Traehearn assured me that despite the way things looked, it was clearly him the assassins were after.  I wasn’t allowed to even be the subject of my own attempted murder, and it severely cheapened the entire experience.

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Is it? Is it really?

I can understand the dilemma that the writers faced with the personal story; how can we assure that the player character is someone important, without making it so that every single player character the savior of the entire world.  I’m a roleplayer at heart, and I can understand the sort of oddity that would result in making every player the ultimate hero.  But that oddity, I think, would be much easier to mentally write off than the bitterness that results from having my “personal story” wind up being wholly usurped by some kind of Mary Sue hero character.  Even the final mission, the culmination of the entire plot, is a mission to protect Traehearn while he does the actual heroism.

The takeaway here, then, is to keep in mind that some kind of narrative awkwardness that results from the multiplicity of thousands of simultaneous personal stories is still less damaging to the storytelling than marginalizing the player character.  People play these games to be Big Damn Heroes, and putting someone above them in every scenario cheapens that feeling.  Blizzard, again, is susceptible to this as well, though not quite as egregiously.

A NARRATIVE REBORN

An interesting tactic utilized more successfully by Square Enix, then, is just to make everyone the damn hero to the point where you’re explicitly glorifying the playerbase.  A Realm Reborn’s equivalent to the personal story goes to great lengths to illustrate how special your character is, and how special all of the original characters from the game’s 1.0 iteration are in the story.

The “Warriors of Light” are revered by the people and are the stuff of legends, and the idea that you are one of them instantly transcends you beyond even the important plot NPC’s.   Yes, there’s a heavy element of anime-ish Chosen One-ness being slathered onto the player character by the story, but in the current situation, I found it pretty refreshing to actually be acknowledged as the special hero in an MMO.  I haven’t finished the story yet, but it’s been impressive so far, and part of what makes it compelling is the feeling that I actually am the hero and that my deeds are impressive and well-known enough to be noteworthy.

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It’s cool, this kind of thing happens to me a lot.

The individual class quests are a bit more NPC-heavy in their stories, but it’s still noticeable how much effort the game puts into making sure you know just how badass you are.  For a genre that’s largely about self-improvement and the acquisition of accomplishments and trophies, it goes a long a way towards making you feel connected to the experience and proud of the progression your character makes in the plot.

So the bottom line here is that the most important thing for an MMO to avoid when it comes to storytelling is the usurpation of the player’s right to feel awesome about themselves.  It doesn’t have to be an individual glorification of this specific character; even WoW’s acknowledgment of “adventurers” gets the job done and really makes you feel like a contributor to the world’s legend.  There are a lot of things to be done with MMO stories, but the key lesson is this: make the player characters the main characters if you want to avoid the perils of Mary Sue NPCs and lack of connection to the plot.

 

Feeding Log 9-24-13

WEEK 4: BRONZE I, 37 LP

                Thanks to the mercy of the League system, I did poorly this week but managed to only lose a small amount of LP from where I was previously after regaining much of it from a win in my last game.  Overall, this week was a sort of frustrating series of throws, with games that could’ve easily been winnable that were lost due to either lack of coordination or game knowledge.  Still, there were some good moments here, and I think I’m pretty aware of what I did that I could’ve improved to make winning more possible.

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GAME 1 – EZREAL ADC WITH SONA, MORGANA, TEEMO, AND ZAC vs. CORKI, THRESH, AHRI, JAYCE, AND UDYR

                My laning here was terrrrible.  While I managed to keep pretty ahead on CS thanks to our poke, we got caught out really badly by ganks several times, and died several times through misguided attempts to roam upward to help others in ganks inside our own jungle.  I wound up getting pretty far behind as a result and spent most of the early game trying to play catchup on CS.

The rest of the game was pretty heartbreaking.  We came back from our early deficit and got a pretty good lead going with a lot of momentum, but ultimately threw it away by not grouping to push an objective and getting aced while split up as a result.  It’s tough, but once again, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to group up.  Those wolves in the jungle will still be there when you get back.

What I did well: I turned things around pretty well in teamfights and got a lot of clutch kills with my ultimate.  It’s crazy how much damage you can put out with an Ezreal Q and the right items, and I managed to sneak quite a few of them through the back line towards priority targets.  Also, I had a completely accidental Dragon steal when I shot a blind Q over the wall to see if it hit anybody.  We’ll just say it was all perfectly planned and calculated, and that I really am a god at Ezreal.

What I need to improve: A lot.  First of all, I need to switch around that item build a bunch.  The second Sheen there is mostly due to the desperate badgering of my teammates for an Iceborn Gauntlet, despite already getting Sheen procs from the Triforce that won’t stack with it.  Instead, I should’ve gotten a Last Whisper.  I think it’s also definitely worth considering dropping the Manamune at this point and getting a Blade of the Ruined King or even an Infinity Edge for the extra straight up damage; Manamune takes too long to get going now that I’m not rushing it.  In addition, I really need to work on keeping my farm up in the late game.  I have a support player’s mindset at heart, which means I am very rarely thinking about farming, and it hurts on AD Carry when I need to be getting as much farm as possible.  Besides that, not getting caught so much early would be great (thanks, Arcane Shift!).

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GAME 2 – SONA SUPPORT WITH EZREAL, EVELYNN, GRAGAS, AND JAYCE vs. LUX, VAYNE, NOCTURNE, JAX, AND KASSADIN

                The tale of this throw is the tale of not properly understanding one’s own team composition.  What we have, by and large, is what you might call a “poke/disengage” composition; a team designed to hang back and throw out a lot of damage from poke and harass, and then go in and take objectives while the enemy team is too hurt from the harass to properly contest them.  Ezreal, Jayce, and Sona all have fairly reliable long range harass, and Gragas has long range damage in addition to a strong disengage knockback ultimate for the situations where you get engaged upon (i.e., Nocturne ultimate.)

However, we didn’t play our cards right here and it cost us the game.  We tried to play a poke comp like a pick comp, roaming the map looking for kills on people who were caught out.  What you may realize about this strategy is that their team is much better suited for this style of play than ours, so despite the early lead we acquired through superior laning, we got squashed when we tried to out-assassin the assassin team.  Still, it was very close, and really could’ve gone either way.

What I did well: My early game burst harass on Sona is getting to be elevated to an artform.  Sona was my “main” and my favorite champion for a long time, so my laning play on her tends to still be noticeably stronger than other supports at times.  When paired with Ezreal, we managed to almost completely zone Vayne out of the first several waves of farm and kept her and Lux very damaged to the point of having difficulty responding to pushes.  And hey, I didn’t steal that many kills this game!  I sort of do that a lot on Sona, and I’m trying to work on not being quite such an unstoppable killing machine.  It’s hard being this great.

What I need to improve: The late game didn’t go so hot, and my vision probably could’ve been better, which would have helped enormously against not getting jumped on by Jax or Kassadin.  I tried to use my W Power Chord to head off the burst damage from the assassins, but in the end it wasn’t enough and we got caught out too much.  I didn’t have any particularly great Crescendos either; I need to start saving that for times where I can get at least two people with it.

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GAME 3 – LEONA SUPPORT WITH VAYNE, RENEKTON, NASUS, AND KARTHUS vs. BLITZCRANK, DRAVEN, KENNEN, VOLIBEAR, AND ANNIE

                These are some scary friggin’ teams, now that I look at them like this.  First thing to notice: Leona pick!  I don’t normally play Leona in soloqueue because I tend to think she’s very communication reliant and all-in, which is a bad combination if your laning partner isn’t necessarily on the same page as you.  If I pop all my abilities and dive in with E and my carry doesn’t follow up, it can easily mean death for me.  Against Blitzcrank, though, there’s not much you can do better than a Leona pick; we Leona players tend to refer to Rocket Grab as “That move that gives me a free gapcloser.”  Thanks to a well-timed gank from Nasus we were able to snowball early, and the global pressure from Karthus’s ult really turned some clutch fights in our favor with the extra damage.  We had sort of a scary dive-oriented composition, but it paid off in the end and we were able to snowball along to the win.

What I did well: Those engages!  I hit some really good E’s and managed to zap to people just in time for the team to close in on them and finish them off.  I had some really good saves with judicious use of the Shurelya’s Reverie active as well, and I think my choice to go with Boots of Mobility is something I really need to consider doing much more often on supports – I think in pro play it’s actually the Boots item of choice on supports at the moment because of the sheer amount of map presence increase it gives you.  On Leona, it’s a no-brainer, because of the ability to close in on people and then lock them up with your stupid amount of crowd control.  Once Leona gets going with an aggressive ADC like Vayne, it’s a very tough train to stop, and we got Vayne the momentum she needed to push us into the late game win.

What I need to improve: I stole sort of a lot of kills here, although a lot of them were just as a result of my W blowing up and killing someone next to me as we fought.  While I did his most of my stuff, I’m having a recurring problem of trying to anticipate people’s dodges and then being surprised when they don’t even try to dodge.  Maybe I’m giving my opponents too much credit?  Either way, I shouldn’t be so scared to decisively place a skillshot in a way that isn’t completely predictive.  Beyond that, I could’ve again benefited from placing more vision on the map, but I think this game was better than the previous one in that regard.

Theme Party: Free at Last

            One of the central tensions that’s arisen as games have grown as a genre is the perceived conflict between player freedom and narrative integrity.  Games have grown from being purely linear affairs of advancing from objective to objective, and have turned into sprawling metropolises, fantastical continents, and entire galaxies for players to explore and conquer.  Player freedom is at an all time high, and liberty in an open world is one of the most demanded experiences in games today.

But what effect does this have on the quality of game narratives?  I wrote last week about the concept of the marriage of story and gameplay, the idea of what many have coined “ludonarrative dissonance”, but what I didn’t get into was the way that giving the player freedom can affect a narrative.  It seems somewhat contradictory to be able to give a player absolute freedom while still expressing a specific story.  So the central question is this: does an increase in player freedom automatically result in a less compelling narrative?

It doesn’t, but it does expose narratives to certain pitfalls, and by examining two sets of games, I’ll illustrate how increases in freedom on their own are not the direct cause of a weakening in the narrative.  The two dangerous flaws that player freedom exposes a story to are both related to dissonance in the game’s directly expressed story and the story that the player makes for themselves: First, there is a problem when a game increases player freedom, but at the same time grants a player a compelling plot objective in the hopes of getting them on track quickly.  Secondly, there’s an issue when the story paints a character one way, but the gameplay allows you to generate a drastically different picture at the same time.

GALAXY QUEST

            For the first storytelling trap, I’m going to look at a pair of science fiction space operas, both of which are Bioware games: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2.  Both games are somewhat open ended, both give the player freedom, but there is a significant difference between the two when it comes to the urgency of the protagonist’s mission and how that urgency affects the narrative quality of the exercise of the player’s freedom.

Knights of the Old Republic isn’t quite as open as Mass Effect 2.  While you’re able to tackle the given planets in any order, and generally have a large amount of freedom to explore side missions and the like on the planets as you please, there are nonetheless undeniably fewer total destinations than Mass Effect 2 provides.  However, the thing that makes KotOR’s narrative safe from this particular pitfall is that the player’s mission isn’t so pressing that it doesn’t make sense to be doing side tasks along the way.

KotOR asks you to visit various planets in order to find out information about the Star Forge, a tool that a Sith Lord is utilizing in order to generate an unstoppable force with which to conquer the galaxy.   The information you gain is acquired by accessing certain data nodes which allow you to discover information about your antagonist’s aims and past, and discern where the Star Forge is located so that you can travel there and put a stop to him.  This sounds pretty compelling; Malak is up to no good, and it’s pretty damn imminent that you get out there and lightsaber him to death ASAP.

However, the key here is the way that the primary objectives are nested into the planets.   The player goes to Korriban knowing that a node is there, but not knowing where or how to reach it.  This makes the side missions things that are nested into the main story, as they all become part of the overarching narrative of your primary objective.  Getting caught up in other business on the planet may be a little distracting, but it’s all ultimately part of the process of figuring out leads and getting a sense of the planet’s situation so that you’re able to piece together where the ultimate goal is.  You have freedom to go to any planet and do as you please there, but the narrative is mutable enough that once you arrive, almost anything you do is at least tangentially related to achieving your objective on the planet.

So what’s different about Mass Effect 2?  The objectives don’t line up with the options your character has with how to spend his or her time.  Shepard is given an imperative to gather a crew and take the fight to the Collectors, and if he doesn’t get on that right away, more human colonies are going to be swept up into space by the alien kidnappers.

The game, however, gives you the ability to just gallivant off into space and do whatever you want, with almost no direct correlation to your stated objective.  It stretches suspension of disbelief to see cutscenes describing how important it is that you go find all these people and fly through the relay, only to then zap off across the galaxy and spend an hour probing planets for platinum.  The tie between objective and action isn’t universal like KOTOR, and it damages the narrative of the game.  But it’s important to not it’s not the freedom itself that damages the game’s story, it’s the fact that you’re given the freedom to do whatever you want but simultaneously told by the game that no, you really should get on with this saving the galaxy business because people are dying.

So what’s the solution here?  Don’t lay out specific, highly compelling objectives right at the start of a nonlinear, freedom-oriented game.  Rather than telling Shepard how crazily important his mission is and then letting him loose on the galaxy to go fart around probing planets and doing sidequests, tell him that he needs to acquire information about his mission and that the best way to do so would be to start looking for anything suspicious sounding out there in the cosmos.  Either that, or take the Mass Effect 3 route and tie everything into the main goal:  every main quest and side quest increases the galaxy’s war readiness for the fight against the Reapers.

Whatever the story does, just make sure it doesn’t simultaneously give the player an extremely compelling story objective and then suddenly also give you the ability to utterly ignore that objective for 20 hours.   Open world gameplay doesn’t have to mean ignoring the world’s need to saved, it just means the game has to adapt itself to the inevitability of the player’s whims.

I’M WEARING MY PLOT HAT NOW

The other key pitfall that open world games produce is when the game presents a certain image of the protagonist through the story but then simultaneously gives us the ability to act in ways that are drastically at odds with that presented persona.  The most obvious iteration of this is in Grand Theft Auto IV, and here I’m going to show why that game’s portrayal of its protagonist could learn a lot from how Saints Row IV approached virtually an identical issue.

GTA4’s protagonist is a lot of things.  He’s a criminal, a killer, a soldier, and a jaded misanthrope.  What Niko isn’t, however, is a lunatic.  The story presents him as fairly measured and deliberate about his ideals and his objectives, and shows that he’s not without his soft side and humanity.

That sure as hell isn’t what you’d believe from watching the average player get ahold of Niko, though.  In gameplay, the average portrayal of Niko Bellic is a person who enjoys jumping half-wrecked police cars off of ramps while listening to 80’s tunes before he hops out of his car mid-drive in order to arbitrarily hit an old lady with a baseball bat.  Which is what GTA is about for many people; the freedom to just go completely nuts until the military shows up and puts a tank shell in your chest cavity.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  The older GTA games were much the same, and the core gameplay of the series remains mostly unaltered even in GTA V years later.  But what makes Niko’s experience stand out as flawed is the harsh contrast between what he does in cutscenes and what he does once a player gets ahold of him.  It makes the experience dissonant and narratively contradictory, and damages the game’s ability to tell a compelling story.  I don’t believe Niko in the cutscenes after I’ve seen Niko in my gameplay, and it makes it hard to grow attached to Niko’s story when I know that once the mission ends I’m going to go do wheelies down the highway in the oncoming lane.  True, some of the onus could be on me to try to play him in a way that’s more in harmony with his story portrayal, but the game practically begs you to turn Niko into an utter psycho once you’re not constrained by a specific mission by incentivizing the type of lunacy the GTA series became known for.

Saints Row IV has a solution: acknowledge that your player is going to almost inevitably use the first instance of freedom in order to start running rampant through the city, and treat the protagonist as such in the story.  There are a huge amount of references in SRIV to the fact that your player character is a total maniac.  Your various allies are constantly referencing your loose-cannon ways, and the game’s villain even points out that you should get off your high horse because all you did with your position on your planet was fire rockets at homeless people.

It means that the game is aware of what I’m going to do with the freedom it gives me, and just hits that head on in the game’s story.  It made the entire experience feel much more contiguous and less at odds with itself when the game paints two radically different pictures of what’s within a character’s personality.  I suppose it’s possible that one could play a calm, law abiding character in Saints Row and generate the same tension when the story presents you as a homicidal lunatic, but the gameplay is such that the natural result of playing it is not a measured, rational human being, and GTA is no different.  Take a look at LA Noire or Sleeping Dogs to see examples of gameplay guiding you down the path of rational morality in an open world; psychotic behavior is often discouraged by penalties or punishment, causing you to get a sense of the character as a moral person.

So that’s the answer to this question: either paint your character as a psycho in both gameplay and story, or give us compelling reasons to go by the book once freedom has been given to us.  Now, I’m not making the claim that it’s impossible to tell a good story while this dissonance is present; GTA V’s story shapes up very well despite some of the same issues.

My argument is more that a story can be better by attempting these kinds of reconciliations from the get go.  By trying to make the story as presented by cutscene and the story as presented by game line up in a way that makes sense, greater harmony is achieved, and we can dispel the notion that granting the player freedom grants the story a lack of believability.  When the entire game is approached with a narratively-oriented mindset, greater contiguity can be achieved with a little bit of story tweaking.

Retropsection+: Suikoden, Part One

RETROSPECTION+: SUIKODEN, PART ONE

            I’m taking a bit of a different approach to Retrospection for the next couple weeks.  Up until now, the feature has been about looking back on games that I’ve played extensively in the past and seeing how those experiences can be imported into the present.  This time, however, I’m going to take a look at a classic game that I missed the first time around, and seeing how it holds up to fresh eyes and with no nostalgia or much prior knowledge.  Given that this is a long game this time, I’m going to be posting at least two updates of my ongoing impressions as I make it closer to the game’s finale.

So for this first iteration of Retrospection+, I’m looking at 1995’s Playstation JRPG classic Suikoden.  Suikoden as a game and a series is largely famous for the incredible feat of containing 108 recruitable characters, the “Stars of Destiny,” and for utilizing a wider scale battle system alongside some strategic battle scenarios that occur sporadically throughout the game.

The first game in the series is something of an interesting middle child between the SNES and PSX golden ages of JRPG dominance.  Before I’d done some research on the game’s release, I was ready to place this next to the PSX Final Fantasy games and things like Breath of Fire IV and Chrono Cross in the timeline of PSX JRPG history, but on actually reviewing it, it’s much more tied to the late generation 16-bit JRPG’s like Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Lufia II than I would have expected.  Given that it was released in 1995 alongside those titles, it’s no surprise that it seems to be more part of that generation than of the one with which its hardware is typically associated.

The most obvious example of this is the way the game is laid out visually.  The environments, characters, and backgrounds are all almost entirely sprite based, not rendered in 3D.  The only real 3D I’ve encountered so far in the game is the battle screens, where the terrain and backgrounds are 3D renders.  Sprites still lived on for a long time in the PSX era, mind you; the PSX Breath of Fire games and games like Xenogears were notable for using 2D sprites overlaid onto 3D rendered backgrounds.  Suikoden, however, sits in a more SNES looking 2D plane, which makes it feel more nostalgic for that set of games than the PSX to me.

The soundtrack, though, harkens to a more modern era.  The actual compositions are very well done and fitting for the wide variety of environments, but the real advantage shows in the CD quality of the sound vs. the SNES’s more chiptuney tracks.  The format’s audio superiority is extremely evident in the soundtrack, and it really shines through as exemplary for its time as a result.

Something that really strikes me about Suikodens famous 108 stars is the amount of characters you recruit that are temporary.  I would’ve expected a game with such an insane amount of recruitable characters to be shoving permanent party members down my throat at every chance, but I’ve had quite a string of temporary characters so far, and it’s surprised me when they’ve left, especially when they die.  It really keeps me guessing and I’m shocked they were able to have so much breathing room with the game’s cast.

Indeed, it’s something of a bit of narrative witchcraft that the 108 stars don’t feel forced or hamfisted into your party.  When I think of RPG’s with very large casts, I tend to think of Chrono Cross, which had some pretty big issues with the way it handled the recruitable characters in a number of instances.  Many of Chrono Cross’s 40+ recruitable party members were strange one dimensional gimmick characters with stupid accents and little contribution to the party or the story.  Suikoden, however, has managed to make everyone I’ve encountered so far feel meaningful and narratively unique in their own right, and it’s damned impressive.  If Suikoden can manage to really give me a cast of 108 recruitable characters that feel like real characters, it’ll be an enormous feat; I can’t think of an RPG that has 108 named characters, let alone recruitable ones  in addition to antagonists and nonrecruitable characters.

Mechanically, I’m really liking the way that the 6-person party gives me flexibility and tactical depth to the encounters.  A good implementation of turn-by-turn auto battle gives me a lot of discretion as to controlling the flow and pace of a battle, as I can decide each turn whether I want to bulrush things quickly or stop and take each turn more thoughtfully.  Customizing characters via runes is interesting, and I’m liking the level based weapon upgrading system when compared to the constant revolving door of entirely new swords my characters in these games normally go through.

I haven’t had a chance to do any tactical battles yet, so I’m curious to see how those factor into the gameplay and story on a mechanical level.  My only real gripe with the gameplay so far is the existence of random encounters, which is a facet of old RPG’s I will never stop disliking.  It punishes exploration and turns the gameplay into a chore, so I’m glad we’ve largely moved past it.  Suikoden, at least, gives you a lot of leeway to dispense with encounters quickly.

So far, I’m enjoying Suikoden a lot, and it’s very interesting to approach it as a transitionary game between the 16 and 32 bit RPG eras.  I’m only about 7 hours in so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the 108 stars really start to shape up and how the story will be escalating from here.  Next week, I’ll be back here to write up my continuing impressions, and if I haven’t finished the game by then, I’ll be shooting to do my final thoughts on it in part 3.

Feeding Log: 9-15-2013

WEEK 3 – BRONZE I, 43 LP

This week was jungletastic, and turned up positive in the end to boot.  I went 2-1 over three games, and those 2 victories were the first two times I’d ever played Jarvan IV in ranked games.  As a side note, this means my win rate with Jarvan IV is now 100%.  DEMACIA.

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GAME 1 – JARVAN IV JUNGLE WITH GRAGAS, LEONA, RIVEN, AND CAITLYN vs. SKARNER, DIANA, THRESH, IRELIA AND VARUS

This one was a classic example of when your team does their job so well that jungling almost becomes vestigial.  Gragas absolutely sat on Diana mid and top and bot lane outlaned their opponents as well, which meant my ganks were basically a shooting gallery.  To top it all off, Skarner is pretty hopelessly outmatched pre-teamfights by Jarvan in the current meta so there wasn’t much he could do to stop the train once it got going.

What I did well: My map presence was pretty on point here, and it helped my lanes get going even faster than they would have normally (although they really didn’t need my help).  I don’t think I had a gank the whole game where I didn’t at least squeeze a Flash out of someone, and as a result of my lanes getting so ahead I was able to take more time out to farm the jungle than I’d normally be capable of.  Once I hit 6, the ganks were rolling and were inescapable thanks to Cataclysm, so it was gravy from there.

What I need to improve: I did get a lot of kills that could have gone to the laners.  4-0-2 is a great score, but ideally as a jungler I want to give those kills to the laners when I can.  All of those 4 kills were acquired during ganks, and while it’s great to have extra money, it would’ve been better used on Caitlyn and Riven.  I tend to be very cagey about securing kills, and I need to learn to trust my laners to lock things up a bit more and not slam on everything myself to get the kill locked up as fast as possible.  Still, I guess I shouldn’t complain about getting fed.

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GAME 2 – JANNA SUPPORT WITH SINGED, XIN ZHAO, VAYNE, AND KASSADIN vs. LEONA, LISSANDRA, CAITLYN, UDYR, AND JAX

                A battle of attrition that we ultimately lost, although we put up a good fight of it in the end.  We got outlaned pretty hard in the early parts of the game, but we were able to win a few clutch teamfights in our base near the end which could have turned the game around if we’d been able to capitalize on them fast enough.  Alas, we were not, and it led to the slow death by a thousand cuts of losing all of our inhibitors and watching the creeps pour into the base.

What I did well: I went crazy near the end of this bailing people out of stuff, and a lot of people were able to turn fights around once I’d pulled them out of the fire a little bit.  In a game where the team died an overwhelming amount of times I was able to keep my own deaths low and play protector for the rest of the team, which really turned the tide in some fights in a significant way.  I think if we had been a little less reckless with chasing people we could have turned it around, and I think my peel and protect abilities made the difference in a lot of teamfights.

What I need to improve: I need to react to Leona faster in lane, as I allowed her to get ahead and start bullying us.  On top of that, my low death count relative to my team suggests that I may not have been getting as involved in fights as I needed to be, which is a problem.  I’m never quite sure if a low comparative death count means I was just good at avoiding deaths, or if I was being cowardly.  Either way, I probably should’ve gotten a little more into the fray.

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GAME 3 – JARVAN IV JUNGLE WITH LEONA, DIANA, ZAC, AND VARUS vs. VI, ALISTAR, FIZZ, JAX, AND ASHE

                I had a lot of fun with this game, even though it was really stressful early.  We had a great tanky teamfight composition, and all I wanted to do was pull us into late game where we’d be unstoppable as a group of five.  The laning phase was a kind of curious thing where I felt like I needed to constantly be running around everywhere on the map at once, but then I’d look at the scoreboard and realize we were really ahead.  Despite the craziness of the early game causing me to fall behind Vi in levels, we were able to turn it around because of our superior team composition and early game lead.

What I did well: I responded well to being called around the map and was able to pull the solo laners out of some rough situations early on.  I also managed to steal a dragon at the last second by hitting it with my E, a frankly ridiculous accident that I will never be able to replicate again in a thousand years.  I’m still taking credit for it though.  Beyond that, I transitioned well into late game and was able to deliver kills to teammates rather than taking them for myself as I did in the previous Jarvan game.

What I need to improve: We came nerve-wrackingly close to throwing this one a couple times near the end.  I need to work on not letting a huge lead get to my head; there were a few times when the three tankier people on the team went waaay deep into the enemy team without the damage behind us to back it up, and we paid for it.  Still, we got our heads on straight by the end and were able to stop ourselves from throwing the game completely, and we were able to lock the game up pretty neatly once we stopped being so dive crazy.

Credit for the data on the images goes, as always, to lolking.net.

Summary Judgment: Spelunky

                When thinking about the platformers of gaming’s genetic history, it’s easy to consider the genre as a series of growth tests.  Fundamentally, a platformer is largely about training oneself to surmount the challenges presented by the game in order to achieve a measure of progress through a number of levels.  Your growth, ultimately, is presented to you by a show of pure progress – you know how good you are because of how far you are in the game.

With Spelunky, that measure of progress is moved from the game to the player.  As the Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera said in his review, “Spelunky features a robust leveling and XP system, but it exists only in your heart.”  No truer words about Spelunky have ever been spoken.  It’s easy to think of progress in terms of completion or levels, but that would be a lie for Spelunky; the only levels you really complete are the ones in your mind and your skill.

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Pictured: Optimism.

BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME

Spelunky is a game of endless optimism.  A platformer in the traditional style with a peculiar twist, each life in Spelunky consists of an attempt by the player to reach the bottom of a series of levels intact, with death being permanent.  Upon dying, the player is sent back to the beginning (or to the most recently unlocked shortcut) and the dungeon’s levels reassert themselves into new configurations, creating a new challenge for the player with each new attempt.  As a backdrop to all of this and a permanent temptation, the levels are filled with various special forms of loot and money, with the money serving a dual purpose as both a score mechanic and a means of purchasing powerful items to use in the attempt to reach the bottom.

The optimism comes in with each death.  Each new attempt to tackle the caverns is accompanied by the hope that this time, it will be different.  This time, I won’t hit spikes, or blow myself  up, or be shot by an arrow.  This time, I have the knowledge and experience necessary to make it farther than I’ve ever made it before.

And the beauty of this optimism is that every time you set back off thinking it will be better, it is.  Each new death teaches you something critically important for your success in the journey downward.  Got killed by a trap?  Now you know better.  Blew yourself up?  Now you understand the bomb physics a bit more.  Pissed off a shopkeeper?  Now you’re terrified of shopkeepers.  Every new death is a new lesson and a new chance to get better at the game, and I quickly found myself adapting and breezing through the levels that had previously given me seemingly endless trouble.

But that’s not to say that things get boring as you improve.  Even the basic levels in the mines still contain treasures that carry with them a risk of spikes or arrows, and each level can be as challenging or as easy as you’re willing to let it be.  Spelunky is entirely a reflection of the player, and that’s what makes it so damn compelling.

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Okay, maybe this dog isn’t a reflection of the player.

So when I and others say that the progression of the game is internal, what we mean is that it contrasts to a normal platforming experience.  If I die on 8-1 in Super Mario Bros., I have to then approach that level again and think on ways to overcome that specific challenge.  If I die on 2-2 in Spelunky, then I need to get better at Spelunky.  As a result, even when I don’t make numerical progress through levels, it feels like I’m moving forward because I can tell that I’m improving at the game.

A COMMUNITY OF TRYING

                Where the game really comes together is in the wonderful social connection you develop with the other people you know who are playing it.  Spelunky is practical a story generator, with each new death providing you with a crazy tale to spin about the circumstances that led up to your untimely demise.  Those of us who play the game form a community solely around the insane stories of our deaths and survivals, and it makes each new crack at the caverns a new chance to gain a conversation piece, because no two adventures are ever the same.

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What could possibly go wrong?

On top of this, the Steam version of the game contains a staggeringly brilliant facet known as the “Daily Challenge”, a predetermined set of levels that every person playing the challenge has to confront.  The catch?  You have only one shot at conquering them, one chance to make it to the bottom for cash and glory on the leaderboard.  It provides that common ground that Spelunky stories were missing at times; if myself and a friend both tackle the Daily Challenge, we each have a story of that exact set of levels and where we screwed up, died, or survived miraculously.  It’s such a compelling social experience that Gunpoint’s Tom Francis has dedicated an entire site, the Spelunky Explorer’s Club, to chronicling and showcasing people’s daily attempts at the pregenerated, fixed set of levels.

Spelunky is worth taking a look at for anyone who enjoys growing as a player rather than as a number.  It’s available on Steam, the 360, and on the PSN, each with their own advantages: Steam has the Daily Challenge, the 360 has access to all of Xbox Live’s functionality, and the PSN version contains cross-buy and cross-play support for the Vita and PS3, enabling independent split-screen multiplayer across a Vita and PS3 on this version only.   Whatever platform you’re on, Spelunky is worth taking a look at.  You just might find yourself learning a thing or two about improving as a gamer along the way.