Saturday, February 10, 2018

Best of the Bunch

 Perhaps it's because of the competitive nature of video game, but I often see discussions about which game is better (particularly within a given series).  "What's the best Final Fantasy?" or "Which Legend of Zelda do you like the most?" are questions that have come up fairly regularly on video game message boards for many years now.  As far as I can tell people keep asking the same kind of questions; only the games they discuss change.  One that I've heard a lot recently is "Which Soulsborne game is the best in the series?"  I think the only correct response to that question is to ask "What do you mean by 'best'?"

Do you mean best level design?  If so, the original Dark Souls wins by that metric.  A large variety of environments interconnected in interesting ways is the biggest reason for recommending that entry over others in the series.  From the Asylum in the beginning to the Kiln at the end, pretty much every zone in the game is a feast for the senses.  My personal favorite is Ash Lake which, incidentally, is an entirely optional area that can be easily missed given the fact that the only entrance is secret hidden within a secret.

Do you mean best combat?  If so, Bloodborne is the most satisfying.  Unlike other other action-RPGs made by From Software, Bloodborne doesn't allow players to take cover behind a sturdy shield.  As such players must react dynamically and take the initiative.  The stat and upgrade systems are also less complex than those used in the Souls series meaning players need not spend large amounts of time fiddling with numbers, and instead can focus on doing battle.

Do you mean best story?  If so, then Demon's Souls is the most compelling in that department.  Bloodborne suffers from a clouding of dreams and reality, leaving the player to wonder if anything they do (or that happens) really matters within the fiction of that world.  Meanwhile, Dark Souls has time travel and some pretty convoluted lore to the point that really understanding what's going on requires a fair amount of online research.  On the other hand, Demon's Souls is a lot more straightforward.  Carefully reading item descriptions and listening to NPC dialogues are still necessary to get all the little details, but one not need become an amature detective to grasp the main storyline.

So which is the best overall then?  It depends on your priorities...or to put it more generally, they're all good from a technical standpoint so it comes down to (largely subjective) personal tastes.  Some folks swear Dark Souls II has the best PvP so if that's your thing then maybe that's the best one.  Personally, I never got into invading so I don't have much to say about that.  The same goes for Dark Souls 3, which up until recently was still a work in progress and, as such, makes it really hard to say where it stands in comparison to the rest.  Regardless of it all, Hidetaka Miyazaki has yet to make an objectively bad game, so I say let the good times roll...or block...or parry and repost...

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Meta Games

In the indie space it's fairly common to see developers experimenting with the limits of what video games can achieve.  One direction I've seen being pushed increasingly the last couple years is in a meta direction.  "What is game?" is a question that was first brought to my attention with the Stanley Parabola about four years ago and is one which I'd like to address here by pointing out three specific examples.

What starts out as a VR adaptation of Duck Hunt on a pseudo-NES, turns more sinister the longer you play.  I won't get into the story details, but I would like to mention that the game uses the virtual reality headset to allow the player to see through the eyes of a child (complete with a 1980s home built around playing one of those third generation video game consoles).  It's all rather immersive in that the player can swap out cartridges to try out different games, stick in a VHS tape and watch live-action video on an old CRT, or even interact with various objects in the house.  Although you're limited movement-wise the weather outside the house seems to imply a hot sunny afternoon.  Perhaps the environment was crafted based on one or more of the developers' childhood memories from a leisurely summer school break.  Funnily enough when you pop in the Duck Season game cartridge the player is quite literally drawn into the TV set and a version of the game that feels much more consistent with a modern adaptation of Duck Hunt rather than the 8-bit version it's supposed to be based on.  Oh and that hound has a Donnie Darko thing going on...just replace Frank the Rabbit with the Dog from Duck Hunt.

Advertised as a text-based adventure game it actually has more in common with an old television series like Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone.  The story is broken into three seemingly unrelated episodes and a fourth info-dump that ties everything up into a big metatextual ball.  This is one of those games that sets up players with a series of extraordinary events and then hits them with an ending twist that's actually very mundane.  If you've played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Firewatch or Gone Home you probably know exactly what I'm talking about.  If not, then let's just say it's not my cup of tea.  Performing medical/scientific procedures on an unknown specimen is intriguing.  Relaying weapon deployment codes from a remote base somewhere in the frozen wastes of Greenland?  Riveting!  Even the first episode which features the double layer of the player using his or her computer to manipulate an in-game character to play a text-based game on their computer (which in turn seems to affect that reality) is trippy and bizzare in interesting ways...alas, learning that it's actually just a daydream fantasy made up by an ordinary loser who made some questionable life choices is kind of a let down.

Billed as an educational game, the demo version of PC Building Simulator has been freely available for download off the internet for the better part of a year now.  However, a more fully realized version of the game is set for a January 2018 release.  From the perspective of trying to teach people how to build PC desktops without make costly time consuming mistakes, I can see why this piece of software might have a degree of widespread appeal.  That said, the whole notion of using your computer to build another computer in a simulated environment is more than a little weird when you take a step back and look at it objectively.  When we're done building a simulation of a PC are we going to use that PC to run a simulated version of PC Building Simulator and build another PC in that one?  If so, things are starting to look a lot like one of the endless series of reflections you get by placing two mirrors face to face.  I suppose this sort of game coming out was inevitable considering that there are over 200 unique pieces of software for sale on Steam (not counting DLC) that have the world "Simulator" in the title.  Maybe a better name for PC Building Simulator would be Simulation Simulator...or is that too meta?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Friday, January 19, 2018

Tools of the Trade

"Now, where did I put the Rifle Spear...?"
Over the New Year's break I noticed a Bloodborne sale on PSN with all the DLC included.  So, I finally decided to pick myself up a copy.  I'm a big fan of Demon's Souls and the first Dark Souls, but Dark Souls 2 gave me a severe case of franchise fatigue.  As such, it took me a long time to work up the motivation to play yet another one of From Software's brutally difficult third-person action RPGs.  For the most part Bloodborne is an excellent next-step in terms of design.  A lot of the needlessly complicated baggage that muddled aspects of the Souls series has been refined and streamlined in Bloodborne; the number of character attributes has been reduced, the complex system of equipment upgrade trees has been greatly pruned, the repost technique has been modified by replacing parrying with "boomsticking," and the weapon list has been mostly stripped of redundancy.  That last point is a bit controversial amongst Souls fans in that some prefer a wider variety than what's available in Bloodborne.  I would argue that the greater variety found in the Souls games is actually an illusion though in that weapon categories sharing the same moveset usually have one among their number which is undeniably superior in every way, a fact that renders all the rest undesirable (at least in the long run).  Regardless of what individual fans feel about the limited arsenal, I think there's one thing pretty much everyone can agree on - weapons in Bloodborne are kind of weird.

The closest there is to a
Bloodborne table-top RPG
Before continuing, I should clarify that last statement by saying particularly when it comes to melee.  Given the faux-historical setting blunderbusses, wheellocks, and other black powder firearms are a logical fit.  That said, "hunters," as they are called in-game, have some bizzare tastes when it comes to doing their job up close and personal.  Take, for example, the iconic starting weapon - the Saw Cleaver.  To me it looks suspiciously like an oversized straight razor.  Similarly, the Whirligig has a shape reminiscent of a pizza cutter.  The Flamesprayer has an uncanny resemblance to a plant mister (with the obvious exception that it shoots fire instead of water).  The Kirkhammer might actually be an exceptionally large meat tenderizer, while the Tonitrus looks more like a scepter lacking in adornments rather than a precursor to the stunbatton.  The Threaded Cane is just that, a cane (that happens to be made of segmented joints).  Then there is the Logarius Wheel which is...yes, you guessed it...a wagon wheel with some nasty bits attached to it.  Meanwhile, weapons like the stakedriver, church pick and hunter's axe feel more appropriate for use in construction work than combat.  The Burial Blade is basically a swiss-army scythe (great for harvesting wheat and it folds up nicely!).  Based on it's own descriptive text, the Fist of Gratia is really just a lump of iron with some crude finger holes in it.  In other words, if it were a bit rounder you could go bowling with it.  The Rifle Spear looks like an enlarged version of a penknife.  Lastly there's some creature's arm, a beast's claw and a parasitic organism, all of which can be used in battle (although they might be better suited to a jar of formaldehyde sitting on some biologist's specimen shelf).

As I said before, not all weapons in Bloodborne are such strange combinations of utility and deformity.  Ludwig's Holy Blade is most definitely a sword, as is the Chikage.  Even the exotic reiterpallasch is actually based on real-world renaissance era prototypes of attempts to combine firearm and blade into a single weapon.  Having said that, realistic weapons are definitely in the minority when it comes to a hunter's arsenal.  Then again, when you're up against werewolves, vampires, and the Cthulhu Mythos (in all but name) the best option might be to fight unconventional foes with unconventional weaponry.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The War for the Galaxy

I have a confession to make.  Despite seeing every single Star Wars movie in a theater I've never been much of a fan.  That might sound kind of weird and contradictory, but the reason is actually pretty straight forward.  I don't particularly like any of the plotlines or characters in Star Wars, but I really enjoy the production design; speeders, walkers, star destroyers, costumes, locals, alien critters, blasters, name it.  I think they're all incredibly cool looking (and sounding).  As you can probably surmise this also influences my tastes when it comes to Star Wars video games.  Simply put the games that focus on vehicles and gear are what I like the most, the arcade style action movie tie-in games for the Atari 2600 as well as the space flight-sims X-Wing and Tie Fighter.

Obviously, story drive Star Wars games have always held very little appeal to me (sorry...I couldn't care less about Knights of the Old Republic).  I'm also perpetually annoyed that there's never been a game that can emulate the cutting power of the lightsabers as depicted in the the film.  In fact the closest I've ever seen a game get is the totally unrelated Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.  When it comes to Jedi themselves, I've always wondered what they do to safeguard peace and justice outside of combat.  Being able to sense the feelings and thoughts of others sounds like it would come in pretty handy during diplomatic negotiations...not to mention mind control.  How about this?

  • A Jedi Detective game in the style of L.A. Noire

Here's a few other ideas I've had recently:

  • A turn-based space combat game like Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock
  • An RTS set on Tatooine akin to Dune II or Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
  • A Coruscant city builder similar to City Skylines or the Anno series
  • A puzzle-platformer wherein you are a baby dianoga hitching rides on starships

None of these pitches are terribly original, but when you look at what EA has done with the license thus far all we've gotten is in 2017 is a bland online multiplayer shooter which feels especially superfluous considering we already have Overwatch, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.  This is an entire galaxy we're talking about in Star Wars, right?  I doesn't always have to be about the Rebels, the Empire and the Skywalker bloodline.

Sadly, most designers don't really see it that way.  There's this perception that Star Wars will be rejected by fans if it isn't sufficiently similar to the original trilogy (episodes IV, V and VI).  The problem I have with that line of thought is what constitutes a Star Wars experience tends to be an all-to-vague collection of narrative themes, character archetypes and visual setpieces.  I get it, but it's sort of like insisting that all anime must be about cute big-eyed girls and angsty boys that yell a lot.  It doesn't have to be that way...and yet the overwhelming majority of the time it is.  I wish Star Wars video games would be willing to distance themselves creatively rather than being a poor-man's copy of the plots from the films - complete with cameos by all your favorite characters...*sigh*