Filed under Video Games

Customisable everything

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

stats-and-jensen

There’s a lot to be said for RPGs. Way back when, at a time when platform antics ruled the screen, and wearing red and sporting a moustache was the pinnacle of cool, RPGs signalled a respite from the so-called ‘straight-up’. While other games offered you the chance to play as a plumber, a hedgehog, or a kid with a mighty fist, RPGs allowed you to bring a little bit of your self into the game. Your thoughts, decisions, feelings about who should wield what, all suddenly given weight. Who would have thought it’d catch on?

Some time ago (and we’re talking years here), Epic Game’s Cliff Bleszinski said that the future of shooters lay in RPGs. His point being, that the traits of the humble RPG – customisation, levelling up, a sense of monitored achievement dolled out via increasing numerical values and upgrades – would become the bedrock for the shooting genre as well. Online play and an increased need to offer hand-outs for hours logged and experience gained, has drawn the RPG and the shooter genre together.

Bleszinski’s point was not a controversial one and time has only proven him right – especially with regard to online play. But I wonder where it ends? Games are striving towards real depth and immersion. As they draw closer to film in terms of look and scale, so too is there a desire to move beyond what film offers and into new territory. For an age it seemed that games were striving for cinematic quality – that somehow the filmic experience was a benchmark for games to achieve. Only now that’s not the case. Films and games have proven themselves incompatible bedfellows in more ways than one. As games match cinema’s production values, more and more weight is being placed on their differences – crucially that games offer the player interaction.

It’s becoming more and more the case that guiding the player from cut-scene to cut-scene via interactive segments is an old-school method of game design. Cut-scenes where the player merely watches are increasingly old hat. Quick time events have offered an easy fix to shoehorn interactivity but they’re unpopular. Offering the player some means to personalise her experience – in a way a film cannot – is something of a grail. Allowing the player to put their stamp on the game-world in some way seems, (to me at least), to be an industry-wide direction.

And here Bleszinski’s point re-emerges. RPG-level customisation allows for this, to a degree. Why merely play as a character when you can craft that character into your own unique version of him or her? Games don’t have to embrace wholesale roll playing they just have to offer choice. So many games these days, even non-RPGs, offer the player a choice of skills to specialise in. The RPG as a genre is becoming increasingly hard to define. So successful are its core mechanics that it is in danger of bleeding out into an ill-defined soup.

I’m not saying Mario will one day find that platforming isn’t enough and that you, the player, will have to choose if you want to specialise in the Fire Flower or the Tanooki Suit. But I do think Bleszinski’s point stands. Customisation’s in…and here to stay.

An absurd take on the future of the JRPG

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

final-fantasy-viFor the longest time I’ve defended JRPGs, laughed off their transgressions, forgiven their quirks and idiosyncrasies, and positively lauded their often regressive design-philosophies. I was in the camp that didn’t necessarily jump for joy when SquareEnix took the Final Fantasy series towards a full voice cast. Oddly enough, in my staunch determination to uphold the values of a genre so often the butt of industry jokes, I’ve actually neglected the Western RPG as a genre itself (almost out of fear for liking it too much). I must confess however, I now side myself with those who cry out for a change to take place within the Japanese role-playing game. But not in the way you might think.

I actually believe that, for all SquareEnix’s horrendous schemes to milk the Final Fantasy series, as far as the main numbered iterations go, they’ve actually done a fairly good job of mixing up the battle system. The battle mechanics have always been the fallback for the Final Fantasy series insofar as, outside of scrolling through story dialogue, fighting is pretty much what’s for breakfast, lunch and tea. And to that end Square have recognised this. Of late, the last 7 or so main entries have shaken up the formula, with their latest, Final Fantasy XIII, going as far as to attempt to make visceral action relatively turn-based.

But this will not save them from some rather damning criticism. The wholesale removal of any form of exploration, need to converse/engage with the game-world, and total lack of choice when learning upgrades in FFXIII is nigh on unforgivable. But there was at least the evidence that they wanted to embrace a degree of change. It just so happens that all the choices made monumentally backfired.

I’ve been asking myself recently if I think the JRPG needs to evolve in line with its Western cousin? Whether the deeper sense of role-playing needs to be given weight? Some caution must be taken if we think down these lines. Take a Western RPG master like Bioware. While the original Mass Effect was certainly hewn from a PC heritage of stats and more stats, its follow up pushed all of the old-school hallmarks of the WRPG behind the scenes, favouring a straight-up third-person shooter experience being the game actually presented to the player. A similar thing happened to their other recent franchise, Dragon Age. You see, for all the enviable traits of the Western role-playing experience, one must also accept the baggage of the Western market; the fact that action-oriented gunplay is currently overlord, with minions, ‘drab-brown’ and ‘chest-high cover’ tagging along behind.

And so I find myself in a quandary. I certainly think that the JRPG needs a little bit of a shake up. But I certainly don’t think that lusting after the WRPG is the way to go about things. Japanese developers have proven they can ape Western genres with immense success (see Demon’s Souls) but that’s not to deny their own unique place in the grand scheme of things.

The conclusion I’m most happy with at the moment is one where I accept that the ‘next-gen’ world of progressive-fully-voiced-shooty-shooty-cover-system-dialogue-optioned-Westernised ‘role play’, is not a world the JRPG belongs in. And that’s no bad thing. It is the current desire to strive for modern relevance that is seeing the JRPG fall short. The genre itself seems suited to a particular period in technology, much like the side-scrolling platformer. Sure, newer tech can buff your game to a tasty shine, but the core mechanics need no such overhaul. Mario is Mario, today as much as he was back in 1981. Perhaps it is a move backwards, toward static backdrops and old-school fantasy, which will paradoxically confirm the future relevance of such a uniquely odd genre. SquareEnix are right to switch up their battle system. But their desire to change other aspects of their games has left them wanting. Invest new tech in devising new ways to battle in the most gentlemanly fashion, but house your progression in the trimmings of yesteryear. Such absurdity seems right at home.

Death by Variation

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

sonymsnintendoHideo Kojima of Metal Gear infamy recently announced that high definition iterations of Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, and Peace Walker would be coming to both the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the near future. Such re-releases are nothing new, currently all the rage and by and large no great shame (unless of course one adopts an air of cynicism and rejects the project as nothing more than a ditch attempt at more money). What’s interesting is the fact that they’re heading to both current mainstream HD consoles in two subtle variations. The core games will be the same for both Xbox and PlayStation owners, however people playing on the Sony machine will have the chance to take their game and save data over to their PSP to continue the stealth action on the go. This is a nice touch for owners of both a PlayStation 3 and a PSP and whether you care to use it or not, its existence can be seen as nothing short of a bonus. This is noteworthy only insofar as this trend of offering a ‘variation’ on effectively the same product is increasingly the only way companies seem to be able to get you to favour buying a game on their system over that of their competitors. And it’s all rather tiresome.

Metal Gear Solid, as a franchise, is no stranger to multiplatform releases. In the past, Nintendo have offered a home to Solid Snake and his ilk as have Microsoft. The fact that the HD re-releases are heading to Microsoft’s console when the last main game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 4, was exclusive to Sony is not anything to get worked up about. But it’s this move away from console exclusivity that has opened up another more infuriating practice – the ‘pick-me-because’ form of game marketing.

Console exclusives are no longer as prevalent as they once were. Higher production costs means that your install base better be vast, or your game so good that every current console owner (and a few million yet-to-be buyers) will rush out and snap it up immediately. In reality, huge franchises that used to be synonymous with one system are increasingly playing the field. Final Fantasy, while once a Nintendo property, jumped ship and established itself as a Sony franchise for two generations. The releases of Final Fantasy XIII, however, saw the necessity for a multiplatform release and all of a sudden Microsoft is in with a trump card. Hell, it was only last E3, when Hideo Kojima walked out onto the Microsoft stage to announce Metal Gear Solid: Rising as a multiplatform release, that Microsoft boasted the fact that nearly all the major ‘big hitters’ of Sony’s yesteryear were now MS properties too… (minutes before they pealed back their plastic faces and cackled to a backdrop of champagne, forked-lightening and the haunting blare of the Imperial March).

But a loss of exclusives is a baffling state of affairs. The types of experiences you could only get on certain consoles was the major hook. Oddly enough, the hook still remains. It’s moved from the consoles themselves and deferred to the games. Publishers may want their games out on every platform under the sun but the console makers are constantly cutting deals to ensure that the wandering eye of the consumer favours their shinny treats. We’re left with a sea of semi-variation, things that are almost the same but annoyingly different. You could buy a game only to find it’s better supported post-launch with DLC on one system over another. You weren’t necessarily to know this before you made your choice and so the revelation that you’ll only ever get this or that map-pack or side-story on the console you didn’t buy the game for is nothing short of infuriating.

I know that there is good to be mined from multiplatform releases. If you don’t own a PlayStation and now get to experience once ‘PlayStation-only’ releases then that’s thumbs up for you. But what of the folk with more than one system? It’s easy to assume that if they can afford all major systems in a given generation that they deserve no pity and should be shafted at all possible turns. I can attest, however, that it’s not easy being a multi-system owner in a generation where the lines of exclusivity are constantly blurring.

Owning a console exclusively for one or two games and then making your purchasing decisions about multiplatform releases based on controller preference or how many disks it comes on is the very definition of opulence. But it was once a luxury that meant you could play all games no matter the system they were released on. Nowadays it’s seeming increasingly likely that in order to get the most out of a franchise you’ll have to buy the same game for all systems just to see everything. The core game may be the same for both systems, but the PlayStation version may come with one set of bonus features and content, and the Xbox version an entirely different set. Who does this benefit? As a consumer, I get the feeling that it sure as hell isn’t me.

This doesn’t happen elsewhere either. Your choice when picking up a DVD player is a matter of size, price, colour, functionality. Aside from price, these are largely superfluous choices. But companies like Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony cannot let the games industry become like that. There has to be more behind your choice to pick up one console over another than just price or colour convenience. The opposite would just be to have one universal system that does everything. The merits of such a thing are surely a topic for another day.

So we’re left with the current state of affairs – a world with dwindling console exclusives and increasing games with ‘buy-me-because’ features. E3 is mere hours away and the list of known games is long and multiplatform heavy. What delights will Sony and Microsoft have to offer in a bid to tempt you to get a game on their system? As Nintendo sits poised to enter the HD market with their next console I get the feeling we’re staring at a three-way attention-grabbing spree with each major player jostling against each other screaming, “Pick me!”

A First Person Future

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

holodeckI’ve been wondering about the far-flung future of video games; the direction we’re headed in if one allows themselves to imagine hundreds of years into the future. Pointless, granted, but interesting none the less. Positing some kind of Star Trek-esque holo-deck seems a fairly safe bet. Either that or some Avalon/Matrix style plug-in-and-play method of virtual reality. In fact, that’s actually probably more like it – god bless you Virtual Boy!

I get the feeling that all games will one day be first person. Think about a film where there are really high-tech iterations of virtual entertainment. Invariably the ‘player’ will be in some kind of environment (the holo-deck), or plugged into a device that transports a virtual self into a virtual world (Avalon or the Matrix). In all these instances, while we the viewer see the events in the third-person, for the actual player, events unfold from their own perspective. And that makes sense.

A third person view very much arises from the position the player is in when controlling the action. When looking at a screen at distance it makes sense that the virtual avatar should similarly be distanced in the virtual space. This is largely how film is framed. It is therefore logical, conceptually, that taking control of something/someone else should also be done in this way. But taking control of something/someone is totally different from actually being that person/thing. Current FPS games aren’t all that immersive given the situation the player is in, (probably sitting on their bed or sofa) but in essence they could be. In essence they could be immersive to the point of fooling the brain into thinking you are actually somewhere else.

I guess so long as genres such as puzzle games exist then different perspectives will remain. I can’t imagine playing future-Tetris from a first person view no matter the technology. Although I can totally see a situation whereby to ‘play’ Tetris, you log into the holo-deck or whatever and then play a virtual Tetris as your virtual self. That’d be in the first person, sort of, in the same way life and playing Tetris now is in the first person. Weird.

There is a twinge of sadness to all of this. I’m not the world’s greatest player of FPS games and, as much as I’d like to posit my genuine self into a game environment, it’d be strange to think that unique game experiences (such as JRPGs or third-person shooters as we know and understand them today) could die out with the onset of more immersive technology. But then again, if I could fool myself (with technology) into the belief that I was in a fantasy world, off to slay monsters with a party of friends, all from my own perspective and as real as real life. Yeah, I’d play that.

If Music be the Food of Love

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

ifmusicbethefoodoflove-finaIs it just me, or is video game music becoming less memorable? Now, I know that statement will get some people firing up their counter arguments in the form of standout videogame scores, but think about it a while. To my mind, we’ve lost the insanely catchy melodies of the 8 and 16-bit eras. What we have now are sweeping, epic rifts akin to movie soundtracks. That’s not a bad thing… it’s just not as memorable.

Movie scores can be memorable of course. Just hum the Indiana Jones theme in your local supermarket and you’re sure to snag someone willing to hum along with you. But think on the number of films produced each year compared to the number of film soundtracks that have stuck in your mind. Casting back, I’d note Christopher Nolan’s Inception as having an awesome soundtrack. But when I really think about it, all I really remember is that soul-disrupting blaaarrrmmmmm noise. The melody is a vague memory.

Increased game production values have rocketed their associated soundtracks into the world of movie-stardom. Big names can now be attached to projects and big blockbuster titles have soundtracks that are nothing less than impressive. They’re emotive, expressive, grand and highly competent… and lacking. It’s hard to define.

Some people argue that good music, when dealing with film for example, is unnoticeable – it should not intrude on the picture. It’s doing its job, building suspense, exciting, adding mood, all the time in the background. To notice it would be to say that its function had become obvious, thus destroying its very purpose. There is probably a lot of sense to that. And as games seek to convey a greater cinematic experience, perhaps they too must adhere to this. But what of the main score? The character theme that kicks in as the hero does something of note? Even the briefest flurry of the main notes of Star Wars is enough to tell us that Luke or Han had at least done something we should applaud. I’m not sure I could say the same for a slew of current-gen big-name game releases.

You might have thought that the longer playtime associated with games would embed their background music deeper within us over that of a film. The music accompanies our own personal actions and so should increase recognition. But that argument doesn’t seem hold these days. I played through (and loved every second of) Mafia II upon its release. I could tell you nothing about the soundtrack.

Alas, I can see the counter argument. The function of in-game music has changed. Mafia II’s music formed an entirely different function to that of say, Megaman’s. The score was tied up with the atmosphere of the game and the emotions of the characters. Megaman’s level themes on the other hand defined location and pace. They were not required to showcase the Blue Bomber’s range of emotional responses or convey his feelings towards his current predicament.

In the end, perhaps it is function that has dampened how memorable a game’s soundtrack is. That, and a fair amount of nostalgia. But while there are indeed sublime movie scores, they are not as prevalent as you’d suspect. And whereas I could name some great examples of video game music from the 32-bit era onwards, I still feel there is a gulf opening up.

Compile a list of the greatest game soundtracks in history. Look at how many were produced with a minimal range of beeps and bloops. Sure, there’s some potent nostalgia at play… but then again, it could well be telling of something more.

Here’s the thing… Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

mgr revengeanceThe violence in Platinum Games’ Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is really quite shocking – genuinely so – and in a way few other games can match. To put it on in front of anyone unfamiliar with what they are about to witness is to elicit cries of “eww,” and “that’s grim.”  And yet it isn’t overtly gory. This alone is noteworthy, but it is the way the game deftly manages the sensibilities of its audience without sacrificing the core tenants that make it violent in the first place that must truly be commended.

For someone who typically has no problem with violence in games or film, pinning down exactly what it is that makes me say that Rising contains an aspect that deserves attention is tricky. Blood flows with abandon, sure, but that in and of itself should not immediately mark the game out from any number of titles that similarly offer gruesome imagery. Likewise, the game does not appear to inherently ‘get-off’ on its own violent indulgences in the way a title like Manhunt does for example. However, there is something about Rising’s particular brand of violence that is worth commenting on.

For me, it is that there is a pervasive sense of unease that arises from the gameplay. The act of carving and slicing takes on an uncomfortable quality when you’re offered up the fidelity to actually observe each and every incision. In pinning so much of the gameplay onto a mechanic that allows players to ‘cut at will’ (to use the marketing jargon), the whole of the game-world becomes infused with a viciousness that is hard to shake.

The imagery surrounding the ability to cut things in half is present in everything from the game’s most fundamental design to its marketing campaign. Raiden’s ability to choose the exact angle to slice along feeds back into a loop where precision dismemberment becomes your primary means of health replenishment as well as obtaining pick-ups (in the form of soldier’s left-hands). The narrative, too, is shot-through with this same chop-happy motif. Organ trafficking becomes the backdrop, the loss of limb both the highs and lows of secondary character development. It’s all rather odd and would be incredibly distasteful if not for two key points: the first is that Rising is fundamentally a fun game to play. The second is that it freely acknowledges and facilitates the player’s need to distance themselves from all the butchery.

Gameplay first, then; Rising is a blast to play as games go. Its action is fluid, frantic and tightly designed. By removing a more traditional mechanic for blocking and instead demanding the player remain on the offensive – parrying oncoming blows by attacking yourself in the same direction – gives the combat a brilliant focus. The game gains a kinetic sense of hyper-achievement; as to slip into its rhythm is to feel empowered, becoming death-incarnate to your enemies. When you’re on your A-game, everything just works with Raiden leaping from foe to foe, dicing his merry way to victory. And by turns, get pushed onto the back-foot (even for a second) and swathes of your heath-bar can fall in brutal punishment as enemies crowd around you, dolling out hits that stun and revelling in your poor ability to recover. In this sense, the accomplished gameplay goes some way toward justifying the base-nature of its violent aesthetic, if only for the player rather than the spectator.

But herein lies the second of Rising’s good-points. This may be speculative, but I personally can’t shake the sense that the game both knows that it is rather bleak, and wants acknowledgement for the lengths it goes to allow the player to distance themselves from the violence. Raiden is the character we play as but he is not necessarily our entryway into understanding the world. We are allowed to be put-off by his actions despite being the one pressing the buttons. NPCs comment on Raiden’s distasteful means of dispatch in line with the audience’s (and player’s) potential feelings. This is highly vindicating. Witnessing, or even orchestrating, a succession of horrendous deaths on screen can leave you feeling at odds with the enjoyment of playing vs. engagement with what you’re witnessing (this is more so for the observer as they get no control-gratification). It can leave you feeling rather low. To have Raiden’s support team commenting to that very same effect is therefore a perfect pick-me-up. Raiden is cold and ruthless; the game is as vicious in nature as you suspect. And it’s not just you who thinks so. Everyone involved, it seems, gets to heave a collective sigh. It’s very much a case of: “oh good, we were all thinking it, time to move on, eh?”

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