April 11, 2017

Persona 5 is great, but its characters...

Current in-game date: 5/27

I know a lot of people are, rightly, ragging on the translation. But, honestly, I think the original script is open to criticism, too. The characters – at least in the first two months – just aren't real or interesting or consistent enough. I think it's totally fair to compare them to characters in Persona 4, since they're based on the same archetypes.

In Persona 4, your Bro is Yosuke. Yosuke has a crush on an older classmate who dies early on, and the rest of his arc constantly refers back to his failures – he didn't tell her how he felt, and he couldn't save her. This is also complicated by his family's background, since they run the big new department store in town which competes directly with the store run by the family of his dead crush. Yosuke has plenty of notable surface-level traits (he jokes, he complains, he's clumsy, he's tactless), but the game's tragic inciting incident forces him to spend the rest of the game trying to figure out what his role is in his family, his circle of friends, and his hometown.

In Persona 5, your Bro is Ryuji. What I get about Ryuji is that he used to be a punk, and now he's less so, but people still think he's trouble. On paper, this fits in great with our main character's back story and the game's driving theme – in resisting what society makes you, you tend to become it. What's missing is a tangible action. Ryuji's misfortunes, it turns out, can actually be blamed on the game's first major boss, which basically absolves Ryuji of responsibility in his own origin. So what does he have left to learn?

In Persona 4, your next two team mates are Chie and Yukiko. While they're distinct characters, their relationship beautifully illustrates what makes that game so good. Chie's perceived image in school is as a boisterous and outgoing (to use a loaded term) "tomboy". Yukiko's image is pretty, ladylike, and impenetrable. We meet them as good friend, but when it comes time to actually confront their Shadows, we learn how codependent they are, how jealous they are of each other, and how their attachment might be based on their own respective inferiority complexes. As time goes on, the same feelings that spawn their jealousy also gives rise to a true understanding in each other. It perfectly illustrates the transformation from a childhood friendship of convenience to an adult friendship based on mutual respect.

In Persona 5, Ann's role seems to be The Girl. And what do you do with your primary Girl? In Persona 5, I guess you figure out as many sexually comprising positions as possible and go to town. Her reactions to these situations provide no insight and make less sense as time goes on. She objects to these situations, but offers no rebuttals or alternatives because either 1) she's an idiot or 2) the script says so, so here we are. Her thought process during these moments are never connected to her experience as a professional model. In fact, her profession basically never comes up. Almost as though it's a flimsy excuse to have a tall, skinny, hot girl hang out with us. Add to this that she was a target of constant unwanted sexual attention just a month prior and, not only does the player and rest of the cast come off as cruel and stupid, but the story feels completely disjointed from itself. Why not use what little we know about Ann's past experience to inform her current situation, instead falling back on, frankly, typical anime bullshit of a girl waving their arms and screeching, "You want me to do WHAAAT??"

The only party member I actually like so far is, amazingly, the animal mascot. What makes Morgana work is the simple hook in his backstory: he has all this knowledge about this strange new world, but he doesn't remember who he used to be or what he used to look like, so he's decided to help YOU so that you can help HIM. This noble quest of self-discovery is what makes his goofy and weird behavior funny, making use of the best parts of Teddy's story in Persona 4 while avoiding the more, uh, unBEARable parts. It also means a lot when someone who told you up front they want to use you for their own gain starts to actually like hanging out with you.

That's it! The difference between the Persona 4 cast and and most of the Persona 5 cast is HISTORY.

Persona 4 really captures the feeling of being new in town, because, even when you're in the moment with your friends, you know they're all still dealing with their own past, and you're able to help them work through those problems.

In Persona 5, I don't feel like I'm missing a damn thing. Ryuji and Ann don't feel like they have mysteries to unravel. They seem to be exactly what they look like, at least until the script needs them to act some other way.

April 3, 2016

I think the Final Fantasy XV Platinum Demo sucked, and the users at Giant Bomb agree.



From the thread Platinum Demo Impressions:

Thank god for this thread. Looking at positive reactions on YouTube, I felt like I was living in a cuckoo clock. I downloaded the demo after watching the awesome trailer, and I played it in the same room as my wife, trying to come up with nice things to say while I was going through it.

"Okay, the controls are kinda responsive. The battle transitions are pretty smooth." Knowing me, she said, "Do you believe anything that you're saying?" and I finally admitted, "No."

The trailer had panache and drama, and the demo didn't have any. The coolest part was when I stepped on a switch and Leviathan soared over me and into a lake, and then just... disappeared. It's like none of the teams working on this were ever in the same room. "Here is an ENVIRONMENT; insert SPECIAL EFFECTS; insert MONSTERS - good job, everyone." It didn't feel crafted at all. Really, why did any particular encounter have to occur in any particular space? It was all just Some Stuff Happening.

I was looking forward to the novel concept of playing in Noctis' dream to, like, get into his headspace, find out more about his character. But then I realized they set it inside of a dream for one reason: so they wouldn't have to think about how to transition from one environment to the other. "Oh, shoot, how do we get from the forest to the toy room? Ehh, just say it was all a dream and call it a day."

Remember waiting for the release of previous Final Fantasy games? The question I always remembered asking about any new one coming out was: "So what's the new core mechanic? What's materia all about? How does junctioning work? Sphere Grid? Gambits?" What are the new possibilities being demonstrated here? What makes this the Next Step in the series? Really, what is the POINT of this demo? What's the Thing we were supposed to see that was meant to confirm how we shouldn't skip this game when it comes out?

The demo didn't seem to know. Instead of introducing me to a world, showing me how I should play the game, showing me what makes a strategy more worthy in one situation than another, what's the tactical difference between dodging and warping, they were like... "Circle attacks, Square dodges. Here's some Heartless Nightmares. You're a truck now. It's a dream. Whatever. Here's a summon monster."

Cool. Can I summon it?

"Uh... No." The game barely cared that I was playing it.

And for those defending it as "just" a tech demo:

1) I didn't play Episode Duscae. I borrowed FF Type 0 from a friend, but found out that he had already "claimed" the digital copy of the demo, so I couldn't play it. As a result, this demo is ALL I HAVE to go on. I also didn't like Type 0 much, either. So I'm not gonna pay money for a game I know I don't like to play a demo that I am now PRETTY SURE I won't like.

2) It's not called the tech demo - it's called the PLATINUM DEMO. And then at the end of it they asked me if I wanted to pre-order the full game. If this demo isn't supposed to be representative of the game, someone tell Square Enix, 'cause they don't seem to know.

At first I thought the multimedia / Florence and the Machine / Lena Hedey movie stuff was kind of cool, but it was only cool so long as I thought FFXV would be any good. Now that I don't think it is, I realize now how stupid all of the other stuff is – they're doing the same crap they did with FFVII and FFXIII, banking on the success of a franchise without having even finished it. In marketing this way, it's like they're saying, "Oh, FFXV isn't just a GAME – it's an EXPERIENCE!" It lowers the stakes for all of the projects under the umbrella as a result.

No. Stop it. Just make a game.

There's also just the fact that they're acting like this is an action RPG... While this demo has no RPG-ing, and barely any action. I never had to be thoughtful about my resources or my equipment, and the fights are impactless. The warp sword is ALMOST cool, but hitting things just doesn't feel fun. The Nightmares just kind of melt under your flailing, and the Iron Giant is a wall you can't be killed by.

If you really wanna understand how I feel, check out this video:


You can watch the whole thing, or jump to 4:57.

Have you gotten to the part with the red circles?

FFXV feels like the circle on the top.


Other users' insights:

+ I'd gotten fairly excited for this game (never played the first demo), but this thing just knocked the wind right out of my sails. Also has me really worried about FFVII Remake, which I was already way more excited for than XV.

+ When you push L1 and R1 at the same it brings up a bunch of swords around Noctis, which does... something. I dunno.

+ Transforming to a beast showed how static the maps are. You're telling me that this animal that includes rocks crumbling in his attack animation can't bring a lawnchair to fall?

+ Also I forgot how much I hate the Japanese take on children, particularly the sounds they make when lost and befuddled. So many stupid, unnecessary "gahs" and "huhs?"

+ I kind of hated this(?).

+ I haven't liked the design and art choices in a Final Fantasy game since IX, not a huge fan of SquareEnix's sci-fi takes. I don't know the man's name but isn't that crazy zipper guy in charge of this game and KH3? I don't like his style.

+ ...All that said, if I had to boil time my problem with this demo into a sentence, it would be "I don't see the product of 10 years worth of work."

+ XII I played multiple times and enjoyed thouroughly. XIII was okay at first but I got tired of it after awhile. This I just wanted nothing to do with immediately.

December 3, 2015

United States Gun Culture in Parasite Eve

On Day 3 of Parasite Eve's six day journey, during a sequence of events that are peaceful as they are chilling, our blonde, blue-eyed hero Detective Aya Brea is joined by her hot-blooded partner Detective Daniel Dollis on a stroll through an evacuated Manhattan seeking to liberate resources from abandoned businesses to use in their battle against the mysterious being known as Eve and the mutated creatures at her disposal.

They are followed by a civilian biophysicist named Kunihiko Maeda, whom they've allowed to travel with them, since his research on a being similar to Eve from his native Japan may prove useful. And he's also some skinny, unarmed nerd, so what harm could it do?

When the player takes control, the trio will eventually end up standing in front of Sams [sic] Gun Shop. When approached, Maeda rubs the crown of his head and says, "They weren't kidding when they said they sell guns here in America, were they..."and then reverts to a looped animation of furtive glances to the left and right.

When the door to the shop is examined, Aya will notice that it's locked. Her partner Daniel tells her to step to one side.

"Daniel, no..." says Aya. "Sorry, but it's the only way," Daniel responds.

With a flourish, Daniel pulls out his concealed firearm and shoots at the glass of the door surrounding its handle. Aya knows to cover her ears and turn away from the breaking glass. Maeda doesn't have time to react, and so makes no move until after Daniel already holsters his gun.

"Are... are you really a cop?" he asks.

"We think so," Aya says. "But we don't have scientific proof, if that's what you're asking."

As the player peruses the the shop for ammunition, Aya can find Daniel casually glancing between two products, and waves his arm out generously when approached. "Go ahead and pick your favorite accessories, ladies!"

Maeda, hunched over, peers through the protective glass at the bounty of weaponry, small and large: "This is just too much."

__________

There are are two NYPD officers who manage the weapons dispensary at Aya's Precinct 17 offices. The first the player meets, Wayne, coolly and possessively spreads his arms along the width of the front desk. "So what'll it be... Shotgun? Rocket Launcher?"

Wayne stands at attention when his supervisor, Torres, walks in to reprimand him. "Idiots like you are the reason why guns won't disappear from this country!" Torres tells Wayne to get his ass back to the storage room, and let a responsible adult handle the registration process.

That's right: the officer in charge of registering and dispensing new firearms to other cops HATES guns. He's not too obstinate though, and recognizes that gun violence is systemic, referring to it as a "vicious cycle" of law enforcement relying on guns because criminals do, and vice versa. Moreover, he recognizes that it's fair to bring heavy weaponry to a battle against an unstoppable, mutated terror.

Once Aya leaves, she's met by Wayne gain. Although Torres will only modify Aya's firearm with a permit, Wayne bypasses Torres' authority by letting her know that she can tune weapons on her own through the game's Tool system, the mechanic the player will use most to overcome mitochondrial monstrosities. "Trust me," Wayne says, "you can never have too much firepower".

__________

During the events of Day 3, Precinct 17 comes under attack by Eve's mutated creatures. As the player makes through way through the hostile territories, they reach the weapons dispensary and find Wayne over a fatally wounded Torres. "Why didn't ya shoot, man?!" Wayne asks him. Torres reveals that he hasn't even fired a gun since his daughter died. "Torres, you can't blame guns for that!"

"I suppose... you're right..." Torres concedes. He encourages Wayne to take good care of the place, and then dies.

Afterward, Wayne hands Torres' gun over to Aya, a decent weapon that he always kept in top working condition, although he never used it. Wayne reveals that, although Torres was an excellent shot, after his daughter's accidental death he stopped using guns - and, in fact, he relocated to Precinct 17 for the express purpose of filling the dispensary position and keeping all the guns in check out of a sense of duty.

And so the gun safety expert, constantly surrounded by weapons that could be used for self-defense, dies because he is unwilling to use one. Meanwhile, the brash gun enthusiast lives on because of his love for weaponry.

________

Parasite Eve is one of the few games by Square to take place in a world not framed by fantasty or cyberpunk aesthetics, and the very first to take place in a representation an actual real world, current time location. In a Square game, a player often makes use of magical items and equipment to surmount obstacles. Of course, magic doesn't exist in 1997 New York City - aside from the magic of Rockefeller Center at Christmastime. In lieu of giant swords or glowing crystals, the player uses something much more down-to-earth: guns.

Even then, firearms in Parasite Eve are treated with the same pomp and reverence as any mystical weaponry. Some of them even have fantastical qualities that sound feasible with the right wording - some ammunition is corrosive and deals acid damage, some grenades explode into... ice, and deal cold damage.

Consider that, to the average player within the originally intended Japanese audience, an actual gun might as while be a magic sword, and that playing Parasite Eve might be as close they will get to gun ownership.

Parasite Eve only briefly meditates on gun ownership and the use of firearms, but the choices made clearly indicate the game's origins. Maeda, the only Japanese character in the game, can rather easily explain concepts related to genetics and biochemistry, but can't quite wrap his head around the nature of American gun culture or the behavior of a New York City police officer.

This same outside perspective, though, offers a measure of moderation that isn't often seen in the national conversation regarding gun violence - a willingness to admit that the right answer isn't always obvious.

Wayne and Torres clearly both represent the opposite perspectives on guns in the country, with Wayne seeing no problem with putting limitless firepower in the hands of a citizen who wants it, and Torres not even believing that law enforcement should be using such weapons. It could be said that Torres, who dies, is the loser this debate. His ideas, though, live on in other officers at Precinct 17, who clearly had great respect for him, and in Wayne, who must take on his responsibilities. Although he did die during this one unbelievable situation, for the most part, aside from battles against monsters, his mediation on the vicious cycle of gun violence rings true.

That said... Wayne is much more cavalier about dispensing firearm modifications to Aya than Wayne was, going so far as to give them out in return for trading cards. What kind of trading cards? Trading cards with pictures of guns on them.

You can train someone to be responsible, and you can put obstacles in the way of someone who wants a firearm, but in the end, gun culture is bigger than any law or any one person.

July 31, 2015

Tifa and Aeris

There is one single moment that tells you everything you need to know about Tifa and Aeris, and the kind of people they are.

The calculations that go into deciding who Cloud dates at the Golden Saucer is based on how many invisible "affinity points" a given character has. Based on certain actions and dialogue choices, Tifa, Aeris, Yuffie, or Barret can gain or lose points.

When my wife and I played the game again this past year, we were determined to date Barret. We were successful -- with the help of a handy guide. Rather than spoiling the fun, the guide actually provided a lot of funny insight, like how romantic or gruesome particular decisions were interpreted based on the amount of points gained or lost.

But the biggest revelation comes pretty early on in disc one, when you have to infiltrate Don Corneo's lair.

If Aeris is chosen as Don Corneo's date, you can say to Tifa:

"You alright?" and lose 2 points for Tifa
or
"We gotta help Aeris!" and gain 3 points for Tifa.

If Tifa is chosen as Don Corneo's date, you can say to Aeris:

"You alright?" and GAIN 3 points for Aeris
or
"We gotta help Tifa!" and LOSE 2 points for Aeris.

Aeris and Tifa don't even know each other yet, but Tifa is still ready to help her, and Aeris doesn't give a shit.

That even the behind the scenes MATH of the game supports the characterization is fucking INSPIRING to me.

But still, it shows what good characters they both are. They've both had tumultuous pasts, but Tifa had the luxury of a stable home life for her formative years. Aeris, meanwhile, has had to run, hide, and mistrust all sorts of authority figures to stay alive and sane. Indeed, it could be seen as admirable that she's maintained her kindness despite so much trauma, but her somewhat arrested development shows that she was not unscathed. Her penchant for pink, her coyness, her fixation on guys in uniforms, making a living in a busy city selling flowers at 22 (?!) years old... all seem to bely an unwillingness to grow up because, well, her actual childhood sucked! While Cloud lacks a strong identity, Aeris actively manufactures her own. This, ironically, is what allows her do commit her most heroic act, and also her most dangerously naive: sacrifice herself for the sake of the world. Could it be that Aeris simply wasn't very happy inside?

Tifa, meanwhile, had her most traumatic experience at the cusp of adulthood. Because she has strong ideals ingrained on her by her family and her teacher and her peers, she is able to hold onto them and carry on, even after tremendous loss. This leads her to being somewhat reticent at times, like Cloud, but unlike Cloud, she is also sincere and usually more honest about her feelings.

I love these characters. Not just because the have crazy destinies and origin stories, but, besides all that, they're fucked up in the tragically banal way that lots of real young adults actually are. And they still carry on and care about each other.




From my comment on this

February 4, 2015

So I played Suikoden (or, Sometimes old ways are best)

Konami's Suikoden lacks the panache of some of its contemporaries from Square. Some of that has to do with technical know how, but also knowing how to deal with technical limits.


Characters in Chrono Trigger, like most Squaresoft games of the time, have a repertoire of expressions and motions that are reused and recontextualized throughout the game. Crono dealing the final blow to the Dragon Tank is incredibly awe-inspiring at the time it occurs, because we haven't seen him pull off anything quite like that yet. The violent thrust, especially coming after being wronged by the kingdom, adds a wrathfulness to him that we may not have expected. It is empowering, then, when you can voluntarily make Crono take similar actions as you learn his more complex techniques. By the end of the game, you'll have seen the animations quite a few times.


Here we have a really lovely and nuanced set of animations as the hunky doofus Flik plays host to the cougar counterfeiter Kimberly in order to enlist her. The scene has still more animations with fine detail, like hand movements and head tilts. Moments that are played like this in Suikoden  - featuring a choreographed blocking particular to a location and a set of available props - can be counted on one hand. Flik and Kimberly do not drink sake again - these animations are unique to this scene. The commitment to this brief scene is admirable, but is it efficient from a development perspective - creating an asset that can't be reused?

In the time before 3D models were commonplace, animations could not be shared amongst characters like they are today. Sprites aren't like models that way. In 1995, to design and animate 108 characters for a new piece of hardware is no mean feat. A character needs to face and walk in all the cardinal directions, attack, use an item, get hurt, and be knocked out. Multiply that by about 80, and that's lot of work for a developer diving head first into a new franchise in a relatively strange genre.

The choice, then, to decide where to spend time applying unique, narrative-driven animations must have been difficult. (Especially when, it seems, battle animations and field animations are run on different engines and aren't interchangeable) Since it would be impossible to give every potential character in your party an animation appropriate to a particular point in the story, the choice was to leave leave most character reactions abstracted and up to the imagination. In exchange, story scenes with predetermined casts like the above have moments that make them stand out. That said, this particular scene is not particularly moving or informative, so in the end, the animations themselves are what make them worthwhile.

A lot of Suikoden's charm comes from this unpredictability in the narrative and the turns in tone it takes. Each leg of the journey reveals a different weapon or ally you attempt to bring into your army, but they aren't all alike in execution. It's not always easy to tell ahead of time what moment will result in a new unit, or a large scale battle, or a boss fight, or a duel. Or whether all of the above might occur back to back or simultaneously, for either a short duration or a long. This pattern keeps you guessing what will come next, forcing you to always be prepared and make use of each of the assets at your disposal as often as possible.

Although the brisk pacing makes you eager to find what big fight is around the next corner, the most disappointing thing about Suikoden is that, for the most part, there isn't one. Many times you may load out your party with the best equipment possible, find a great combination of characters with all the right runes and Unite attacks to make short work of any boss you'd find, and it rarely ever comes. There are only about 12 boss fights that involve the party you choose to bring with you, and half of them are weird monster lacking any narrative justification. The only way to measure the success of your tactics otherwise is against the randomly encountered riffraff along the way. It's a shame when there are so many interesting ways that 30 runes and 80 playable characters combine that there aren't that many appropriate challenges to test them on.

The other great challenges you face come in the form of great battles between thousands of tiny soldiers or one-on-one duels. They're both essentially games of rock-paper-scissors. That makes them sound simplistic - and really, they are - but that's not the whole story. Large-scale battles let you make your rock, paper, or scissors really big if you have the right people on your side, and duels challenge you to decipher which instrument your opponent will use based on context clues. The fact that so much rests on each decision, and that these situations come up as rarely as they do, makes the moments up to your choice quite intense.

What really makes Suikoden work, the urge that drives you even when you can't quite tell what character you should be using or how difficult the coming dungeon will be, is the constant growth you enjoy as times goes on, like a lovely colorful garden. Even just the recruits you gather mandatorily add up to make a huge cast. That so many people are willing to join you, and that so many of them have sound reasons for doing so - the main ones being vengeance and employment, but there's also glory and a hope to belong to something larger - reinforces the worth of your objective. Their personalities are portrayed succinctly and surprisingly deftly through a character portrait, their combat ability, and a few lines. Letting imagination take care of the rest, the 108-member cast of Suikoden is less annoying and/or pointless than most of the 40 playable characters in Chrono Cross.

Games like Suikoden invite player imagination by applying just enough abstraction in the right places. Older games than this have suggested fantastic battles between opposing armies, but few have let you put a face and a name to so many individual participants before. There is a limit, of course. You can't identify each of the thousands of soldiers that fight for the Liberation Army in the grand battles that occur a few times through the game, but knowing all the kinds of people that you've met across the land, you can assume what they might be like.

Liberation Army headquarters in the castle on the lake is a precursor to the hub worlds of later years, the lobbies of MMORPGs, the Normandy of Mass Effect - a small space that indicates the largeness of the world outside it with each addition to your war assets. With so many of your supplies being provided within your own domain, Suikoden could have done what later games would do, and simply teleport you to your next mission when necessary. Instead, they kept the iconic 16-bit world map with which you can go from place to place, random encounters suggesting the severity of each journey. Crossing the land by foot does provide a sense of ownership and responsibility that helps make your fight for peace worthwhile.

Some aspects of old design should be thrown out, and some aspects are simply tied to the technology or the trends of the time and die off naturally. The world map is a unique vestige of old design. It was not abandoned because it was a feature that arose from having to deal with old technology, but because even new technology is incapable of presenting an entire world in realistic proportions, and new trends wouldn't allow for a diminutive version of your protagonist crossing even tinier mountains to get from place to place. Today's method of representation, after the graphical arms race of the past decade and a half, has come to lean on 1:1 realism. The virtual space within games today are bigger than ever - there is more traversable surface area, anyway - but it can be argued in some ways that, without being able to artfully present an entire explorable globe, the scope is smaller.

At around the same time, Final Fantasy X, Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, even Wild Arms 4 were all games that did not let the player traverse a world map, even while previous entries in their series did. (Dragon Quest 8, interestingly, would pull an Elder Scrolls and make the distance between towns and dungeons realistic in scale - while keeping random battles). A game could not be on a powerhouse console and fail to deliver on visuals, nor could a game deliver on visuals and find a way to justify the minimalist abstraction of an old-style world map. I tend to believe that the questing beast of realistic scale lead to the downfall of JRPGs that struck a few years back, leading to games that could not rewrite the traditional JRPG script to match these narrower scopes. (Consider Kingdom Hearts, a game about traveling multiple worlds that are each made up of about a dozen rooms or so, or Xenosaga, a game about humanity and the cosmos that is completely linear - but, mostly, consider the shittier games that copied both of these)

Naturally, it took years of failure to adapt to new trends for players and developers alike to realize that there is a place for old design. That's why Bravely Default, a 2014 handheld game with a world map, received such good response in comparison to Lightning Returns.

It's also why - I hope - Sony and Konami had the good sense to bring back interesting gems like Suikoden for reappraisal. Looking back, simplicity and abstraction in a game may seem like symptoms of technological constraint, but when you consider the best possible choices that could be made at the time, the effectiveness of some ideas never truly age.

The question at the end of the day is, how do you best provide any kind of fulfilling experience? By knowing when to show off and knowing when to let the user's imagination do the rest of the work.

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and the Hero of Time


In my mind, this commercial was for A Link Between Worlds, not Ocarina of Time. For me, as Zelda games go, Robin Williams is more strongly connected to A Link Between Worlds.

Because here was the first celebrity death in my life to make me shed tears and the first Zelda game to make me shed tears.

As Egoraptor said, The Legend of Zelda has for many years been reduced to a series of symbols without attention given to their context. The treasure opening sound effect, the keys, the boomerangs, and of course, Zelda and Link, themselves symbols of wisdom and courage.

Zelda - a lot like the American comic book in its Silver Age - became stale and predictable. So something has to give. There has to be a desire for growth. What if we took these symbols and deconstructed their purpose? What if Zelda had a Bronze Age?

As colorful and charming as it is, A Link Between Worlds is also the closest we've come to looking at Hyrule from an achingly realistic perspective. Many, if not most, Zelda games deal with duality in the world - light and dark, future and past.

Lorule is the version of Hyrule in which things did not go right, in which its residents could not fully maintain their roles. Society could not stay harmonious, the Triforce could not stay whole, and the wise ruler could not stay virtuous. This leads to civil war, the destruction of their sacred treasure, the deceit and barbarous acts of Princess Hilda - Lorule's parallel of Princess Zelda. They are fallible and imperfect, not like symbols, but like people.

Lorule allows us to see a glimpse of the characters we've known for years at their absolute worst - at their absolutely most honest. Desperate, selfish, shortsighted, scared.


And of course, the big question that you often forget to ask (because you're having so much fun) is: If Lorule has an alternate Zelda, where is its alternate Link?

What does a hero do when the mantle becomes too heavy? What can a hero do when the difference between what other people see in him and what he sees in himself diverge so fully that it's too painful to bear? Where can a hero go to escape the lie that his life has become, the lie that he himself has participated in by virtue of his existence?

If he's lucky, he can slip away and find someone a little bit like him to help him do the things he is too afraid to do himself.


When Ravio, the bumbling merchant who's been gouging me for rupees for hours, finally pulled off his dumb bunny hood, my heart jumped into my throat.

Ravio, for all intents and purpose, is Link at his worst, his most vulnerable. When he revealed his identity, I felt like I was looking at Link - someone who I've known my whole life, someone who was born in 1987, the same year as me - for the very first time.

Only now, only after all of these years, only after seeing him at his most selfish, his most cowardly, his most honest, did I feel like I truly understood him.

Being a hero, being someone who others rely on to make their lives safe and happy, must be terribly hard.

Please take care of your heroes.

March 18, 2014

In defense of Nash from Lunar



You don't know Nash, because you didn't play Lunar, but you can assume that he is a complete douchebag.

[Trigger Warning: Nash.]

You meet Nash in a forest, stuck under one of those stick-and-box traps from cartoons. He is obviously a huge idiot, but he pretends that he's not only not an idiot, but incredibly benevolent, smarter than you, and he assumes you are stupid enough to fall for a similar trap.

He believes he is also trustworthy and professional, and name-drops his boss, the leader of the prestigious Magic Guild of the Floating City of Vane, who trusted him with a mission to the dirty surface world. So Nash is also a classist, elitist, opportunistic asshole.

Nash is also a coward. He has a crushing infatuation for the guild leader's daughter, but denies it at every turn. Instead of telling her, he is over-protective and condescending toward her. Even after spending a lot of time in harrowing situations with her, he never admits his true feelings.

Nash is so cowardly that, even after a long journey together, he leaves the party and willingly betrays her, you, and your entire traveling party to help the worst person in the world carry out his evil plans and seek mercy from him.

I hate Nash. I love Nash. We need more Nashes.

The other day, USGamer had a bit on the nature of localization in Square Enix games, and how it can improve. I recognized this for the trick question that it is: a translation can never be truly good if the thing being translated is actually bad.

(I say this, of course, trying not to forget that my understanding of Lunar is based on its famously contentious English localization)

It all comes down to the story, and in an RPG that means it all comes down to the characters, and writing characters means writing an ensemble.

Many the relationships in popular Western RPGs are based on mistrust, desperation, and manipulation. Fallout and Elder Scrolls has you constantly second-guessing people's motives, and fooling people into giving you what you want. In Mass Effect, the crew assembled on the Normandy is made up of people with grudges and trust issues, and some don't even want to be there. True camaraderie is something that can only be established after these issues are overcome.

In poorly written JPRGs, this is a one-and-done deal. "Oh, we beat that first boss together? Great: friends forever, now. We'll never disagree again." Every scene after that is just people standing in a row, being polite to each other and basically all having different visual designs but basically the exact same outlook. Nobody does ever does anything you don't expect them to. Even good games fall into this trap, like Bravely Default and, by the end of it, Persona 4.

It's fucking boring, pointless, and possibly a cultural thing, which makes it all the more depressing. Maybe Japanese gamers just want to see beautiful people be nice to each other all of the time, I don't know.

I mean, shit, there's a ton of problems with RPGs and their stories, writing original characters and giving them all a believable excuse to stick together. But if I can give one piece of actionable advice to someone making a JRPG, to elevate even the most cliched plot: write a Nash.

The brilliant part of Nash's character is that his betrayal is surprising at first glance, and then perfectly natural upon reflection. You might wonder how Nash even gathers the conviction to turn his back on the only thing he seems to care about, until you realize that his action is a clue to the deeper meaning behind his shallow behavior up until this point: Nash's dread of death is deeper than his capacity for love. Typically that's the kind of sentence you'd use to describe a RPG villain, not a RPG hero. And yet here we have a terrible person standing right next to your other faithful allies.

And even a single Nash allows for so much to play with in a story. What do other characters say about someone like him? Do they show pity or contempt? How far will they go to correct his behavior?

In the end, Mia - the meek, back row, magic-using girl that Nash has been fawning on and patronizing for hours of game time - walks up to him and smacks him in the fucking face, leaving a red handprint that I'm sure many fans still remember fondly. It is the single violent action she commits outside of battle, and it's the moment she realizes that being docile and accommodating won't make every problem go away.

Characters doing awful things lets other characters do amazing things. And those ups and downs break up the fucking monotony inherent to all RPGs.

I'm trying to think of any other video game character who pulls a Nash (leaving player control of his own will to act against you), and I'm having a hard time. It's such a fucking good schtick, why does no one else do it


EDIT: Speaking of writing an ensemble with conflicting perspectivesf...

January 30, 2014

The Torres Bros. Podcast Review: Bioshock Infinite

Tim, Brendan, and I haven't round-tabled about a game since The Third Birthday, but as soon as Tim finished Bioshock Infinite, we had to have it out.

Trigger warning for people who like Bioshock Infinite.

Bioschlock Infinitum


Part 1: Two Ways of Spelling the Same Game
We tackle the introduction, "racism", Columbia, combat, Elizabeth as a character, and their problems.

Part 2: Grodd Only Knows
We leap between dimensions and talk about the acting, writing, plot, twists, ending, and their implications for society.

YouTube Reference Materials:
The Lighthouse Puzzle
Elizabeth, the waifu
It's like poetry, it rhymes
Secret lullaby password
You are the demons

EDIT 1/31
additional reference materials:
Preston E. Downs
Helpful Yorda
It's Time to Time

The Torres Bros. Podcast Review The 3rd Birthday

My brothers, Tim and Brendan, and I got together a while ago to review The 3rd Birthday, Square Enix's worst ever treaty violation.

It was our first night together since Christmastime, so we were excited AS HELL to talk about this, and well, we started recording around 10 at night and we stopped around 2 in the morning. We cover the game with a fine-tooth comb from beginning to end, with plenty of (non-boring) tangents related to many other games (Resident Evil, Mass Effect, Illusion of Gaia, etc.) and ideas (sci-fi and art, etc.).

It's in .mp3 format, split apart into four segments for palatable listening.


3rd Birthday Stinks and We Don't Like It


Part One: 3rd Birthday Stinks and We Don't Like It
Some Parasite Eve 1 talk and a lot about 3rd Birthday's premise and setting.
Spoiler Level: Low

Part Two: The Greatest Foe Lies Within (Bad Games)
All the gameplay and the entire plot up to the ending gets dissected.
Spoiler Level: HUUUGE

Part Three: It Was the Best of Time Zero, It Was the Blurst of Time Zero
The entire ending under the microscope.
Spoiler Level: Monumental, and not just for The 3rd Birthday. PE1, PE2 and even Chrono Cross get spoiled.

Part Four: One More Final: I Need You (To Make Good Games Again)
Final thoughts, a lot of talk about recent and past Square games.
Spoiler Level: Minimal

January 15, 2014

So I started playing Grand Theft Auto 5

At first I was excited. Now I'm ready to stop.

I wanted to start a mission with the awful paparazzi guy, so I stole a car to get to that side of town. About 15 seconds later, the police are on me, and my wanted level is at 3 - y'know, three white stars up in the corner. I thought maybe I could start the mission and the police would go away. No, I can't do missions while the police are chasing me. So I drive around for a few minutes, into a dead end, jump out of my car, over a divider, and just sprint away.

When I finally lose them, I steal another car, evade police detection, and make it to the side of town with the paparazzo. But as I turn into the driveway to start the mission, thinking that the mission would start automatically when I did so (which usually happens), I end up bumping into the paparazzo, who just kind of... runs away.

So I drive waaay up the street and wait for his little map indicator to come back, drive back, park away from him, get out, and start the mission.

Then as we walk down the street he gets hit by a bus making a U-turn. Mission Failed.

I always thought the growing realism of sandbox games only made them less fun. Things like having to elude the police in a stolen car should be fun, unless it's getting in the way of something else I want to do.

Another big problem I'm having is that I'm sick of GTA protagonists somehow being "better" than the people they're working for. Every word out of Franklin's mouth is always about how dumb or petty other characters are, or how stupid the thing he's being asked to do is.

What sucks about that is I also happen to think that all the characters are stupid and petty, and everything we do is stupid. I did three really dull missions in a row, and for each one Franklin mostly just complained through the whole thing.

For the most part, the player and the protagonist should want the same thing, and for the most part, that thing should be accomplishing the next mission objective. Contrast the self-aware reluctance of Franklin with the doggedly sadistic passions of the Third Street Saints in any given Saints Row. When the missions objective reads, "Save Shaundi," and I Need a Hero is playing, you better believe the Boss is saying to his pals, "I'm gonna fucking save Shaundi!" When Bayonetta slinks into a room and says, "I'm here to beat up Angels," and then Angels start coming after her, you're gonna say, "I am also here to beat up angels." The least you should do for the player is reinforce that what they're being asked to do is worth doing, that they and the game are on the same page.

So the 15th time Franklin asked something to the effect of, "Why am I even doing this?" I was like, "Good question!" and quit the game.

I actually really like Franklin as a character. His reluctance to do dirty work despite his obvious skill at it says a lot about the unrelenting siren call of criminal life. That same struggle was easily the best part of Niko's story in Grand Theft Auto 4, as well. But that motif is somewhat self-sabotaging in a game that doesn't feel the need to invite deep thought about any of its other messages. The talk-news and the commercial segments that parodize vapid American pop culture seem less biting now than they did in 2008. Four whole seasons of South Park have come out since then.

There's also a seeming confusion between what counts as satire and what is just biased observation. Yeah, west coast tennis instructors do have affairs with clients. Sure, aging black women do uses cliched mantras to inspire self-confidence. Uh-huh, pop sensations are actually older than they let on. And? The observations themselves fall flat since the characters themselves aren't deep enough to invite scrutiny over their ways of life, nor are they broad enough as caricatures to invite laughter and derision. Cut scenes start up and I just twiddle my thumbs until Rockstar is done thinking they've made a point about some facet of modern life, waiting until I can pick the controller up again and play the goddamn game.

The parts of the story I've liked best so far are scenes with Franklin and his allies in crime, mostly because they're actually focused on character growth. At this point there's still a question of how far Franklin is willing to go to gain independence, and his respect for others shifts as he tries to answer that question for himself. What's nice about this pre-Michael segment of the game is that there's far less "parody" - more plot development and less lame "satire".

The reasons there isn't as much "biting satire" in this early segment of the game is that there is nothing to satirize. People like Franklin - stuck in a cycle of violence with friends and opportunities constantly drifting in and out of his life at with the whims of society at large - actually exist in the real world. If there are any jokes to be made here, they're only to be touched by writers who know what the hell they're doing. Even Rockstar's writers know well enough.

So they stick with the same old targets: rich white people, Fox News, and most kinds of women. "Okay, writing staff, here are your Safe Topics. These things are funny. Everything else is off limits. We don't want to confuse or alienate anyone who matters!"