Friday, September 22, 2017

Bring on the Bronze

I'm afraid that this weapon and the person
who wields it are both ahistorical.
The mediterranean bronze age (3200 B.C. to 600 B.C.) is one of those oddly neglected eras in history when it comes to representation in entertainment media.  Sure, there has been a few movies ("Troy" and "Clash of the Titans"), a little bit of fantasy literature ("The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"), and a few games (Apotheon and Rise of the Argonauts), but not anywhere near the amount of attention medieval Europe gets.  What's more, the little we do see set in the region tends to be iron-age Rome or the Crusades.  It's a shame because there's no real reason why we couldn't have a Game of Thrones style epic set during that era.

I think one of the most common turn-offs is the titular metal - bronze.  It's weak compared to iron, but has some beneficial qualities that are often overlooked.  For one, it's possible to make bronze weapons really sharp...so sharp you can shave with them.  In fact, bronze razors are a common artifact found in ancient tombs.  It's easy to mold thanks to a relatively low melting point.  The optimal ratio for weapons is a simple ten parts copper to one part tin.  Castings that feature a thick ridgeline along the spine of a blade can greatly strengthen the weapon, as can tempering the edges.  Iron will completely rust away over time, but bronze only takes on a red or green hue with age and neglect.  It's perfectly possible to clean up and still use a bronze sword that has been buried for thousands of years.  Bronze also tend to bend rather than shatter like iron.  One of the net positives of this is if the weapon gets tweaked it can be straightened without any special tools.  So, for reasons such as these it's easy to see how bronze became so popular.  It's not as good as more recently discovered alloys, but it is a big improvement over flint or plain old copper.

Hey!  You got Dynasty Warriors in
my Greco-Hungarian epic!
Considering how ancient they were, the societies of bronze age were surprisingly advance in places.  There were written languages, trade networks, centralized governments and settlements that had sewers, as well as aqueducts to supply fresh water.  There were carts and chariots although fighting from horseback had yet to catch on mostly because horses were smaller back then...not to mention the saddle, stirrups, and horseshoes had not been invented yet.  There's also the simple fact that horses can pull weight a lot further and faster than carrying an equivalent load on their backs.  Ships traveled by sails or oars though the galley was a single deck affair.  So, what does all this mean for video games?  Well...simply put, it means would-be developers can have a lot of the things they like to include in games; world exploration, highspeed action, ship battles, secret messages and interesting urban centers (such as acropolises and ziggurats).

There were bronze age axes, spears, arrows and bludgeoning weapons.  Slings and stones were also quite popular, as were swords curved like sickles or shaped like leaves.  There were even bronze age rapiers though they, like most bronze-age weaponry, were shorter than the middle-ages equivalent.  Size might actually be one of the big reasons why developers pass over the era.  It seems like the preference in gaming is to exaggerate the dimensions of most weapons to the point that it looks silly.  Some of the blades found in skyrim are so wide they look more like paddles for rafts than swords for fighting.

The phalanx hadn't been invented yet, but the concept of closed ranks of armored soldiers had been pioneered by the Sumerians and quickly adopted by the other major powers of the day.  Individual glory was a big part of warfare as was polytheism and henotheism (see the campfire conversion between Subotai and Conan about their spiritual beliefs for a great illustration of the mindset that dominated that time period).  The term "king" was also used liberally at that time (in large part because there were no other ranks of nobility) and really just meant the boss of a particular region.  Theoretically, you could carve out your own kingdom if you could scrape together a band of 50 or so able-bodied and well-equipped soldiers.  In that sense there was a surprisingly degree of social mobility although just because you're a king doesn't mean you're not a vassal of someone even more powerful.

Anyway, I think I've established that the time period is full of gameplay and storytelling possibilities.  So instead of yet another For Honor or Life is Feudal copycat, how about more games with gods, monsters and a generous helping of bronze?


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Cyberpunk TBA

When it comes to subgenres cyberpunk has to be one of the most varied.  It's origins are rooted conceptually in the novel "Neuromancer" by William Gibson, and visually in the film "Bladerunner."  Oddly enough, most noteworthy entries don't really follow the format very closely (if at all).  "Akira," for example, has the moodily lit city at night, but forgoes bionics and cyberspace for bikers and psionics.  Another film, "Inception," has technology that allows people to share dream-spaces (basically high-res versions of cyberspace), yet lacks any of the signature visuals typically associated with cyberpunk.  Cases such as these make it hard to really define the conventions of the subgenre.  The best summary I've ever heard is, "High tech meets low life."  Almost every cyberpunk story involves criminal activity in a big way.  The technology on display also tends to be the kind of thing that might actually be possible sometime in the foreseeable future.  Granted, what actually becomes viable down the road is far from certain.  Cybernetic enhancements, wherein mechanical limbs are superior to organic ones, are still a heck of a long way off.  "Ghost in the Shell" has the concept of a human brain in a robot body.  At first it might sound like a plausible scenario not-so-many years from now, but it quickly becomes silly once you consider all that grey matter needing oxygen supplied by red blood cells, which in turn must be replenished by bone.  On top of that nutrients must be supplied which means stomach, intestine, liver and kidneys.  Replacing certain internal organs, such as the lungs and heart, with artificial substitutes is currently within the realm of possibility, but there's no way anything (short of a sprawling chemical refinery) can do the job of a human liver.  It's a common failing of science fiction writers to drastically undervalue the complexity or, for lack of a better term, "engineering precociousness" of the human body.

People uploading their consciousnesses into a computer is also one of those cases of "it might as well be magic."  Our current understanding of the human brain is pretty limited.  Even coming up with a way to get an accurate picture of the wiring, let alone copying it, is something that still eludes neuroscientists.  I have a feeling that even if they were to crack that particular nut, it would be incredibly difficult to translate all those neural pathways and connections into the binary language of computers.  At the very least I would be incredibly surprised if the file size for a person's brain came out to anything less than hundreds (if not thousands) of zettabytes of data.

Want to defeat a bunch of cyborgs?  The easiest way might be to simply cut off their supply of electricity.  Without it they won't have any way to power their machine bits...and don't get me started on issues associated with waste heat dissipation.  Another classic example of not thinking things through is your average cyborg with prosthetic arms picking up a car and throwing it.  Maybe it looks cool, but in real life it would result in dislocated shoulders and/or a crushed spine.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution does address this sort of thing to some degree by having the main character's superhuman abilities toned down along with bionic reinforcing across the shoulders and back.  Then again, if you're playing Shadowrun, who cares?  In a setting filled with elves, dwarfs, orcs, trolls, dragons and magic, why worry about realism at all?  Well...it depends on what kind of story the author is trying to tell.  Oftentimes the appeal of cyberpunk is its closeness to the world we currently live in.  Bigotry, corruption, and exploitation are common thematic elements of the subgenre.  They're also the kind of thing that resonates with many because it rings true.  Before it was called cyberpunk the term "tech noir" got passed around a lot as a descriptor.  While I won't got into the definition of noir, I will say it gained a lot of popularity by "telling it like it is."  In the case of cyberpunk I think its strength lies in "telling it like it will be."

Friday, September 8, 2017

Monetization of the Dead

This topic has been converted pretty thoroughly by Jim Sterling and Totalbiscuit, but I feel compelled to dedicate a post about it on my blog simply because it bothers me that much.  Just to make sure everyone is up to speed, one of the heads over at Monolith Studios passed away about about a year ago from brain cancer.  By all account he was a well liked guy whose death was considered a great loss by many of the studio's employees.  Monolith collectively decided to make a tribute in the form of a character modeled after him that will appear in their upcoming release Middle-earth: Shadow of War.  Supposedly the character will come to the rescue when the player is in dire peril.  It's a nice touch, but there's a problem with all this, Monolith Studio's producer is Warner Bros.

In case you don't know, WB has a fairly tarnished reputation - loot crate driven microtransactions in a full-priced games, attempts to manipulate media coverage, and the abandonment of the bug-riddled PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight.  There's more, but for the sake of brevity their poor industry practices have brought the publisher down to level Ubisoft and Konami.  In other words, WB is some of the worst the industry has to offer.  Not helping matters is their handling of Monolith.  In a backhanded attempt to improve PR, the aforementioned tribute character is being offered as paid DLC through Steam.  After Valve takes their cut the remaining proceeds go to the family of the deceased.  It's not a great arrangement, but I could get behind it if it weren't for the fine print.  Specifically, purchases made in six states in the USA along with anywhere else in the world don't actually go to any charitable cause whatsoever.

In essence, WB is trying to make a little extra money off the death of a cancer victim.  It is, in my opinion, disgusting.  It also underlines how cluelessly greedy WB really is.  They could have simply said for every sale of this particular DLC they will donate the full amount to the family or, barring that, a reputable cancer charity.  Alternatively, the DLC could have been free; honoring the dead man in the same way a statue in a park or a bust in a university does.  Of course if that's too much work then a simple "In loving memory of..." at the end of the closing credits would have sufficed.  However you slice it though the current setup at WB is a mix of avarice and ineptitude of the lowest order.  One wonders if anybody calling the shots over at WB has even read any of J.R.R. Tolkien's works.  If they had they probably would have noticed the similarities between themselves and certain villainous characters that appear in the stories.

So the question is (metaphorically speaking), will WB perish by their own folly like Ungoliant, at the hands of a hero like Smaug, or will they redeem themselves after a fashion like Thorin Oakenshield?  Sadly, I don't have access to Galadriel's Mirror so we'll just have to wait and see what comes to pass.  Personally, I'd be happy with any of the above...

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Myth for our Time

There are certain pieces of entertainment media that maintain an important ecological message far beyond their years; the novel "Dune," the anime "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind," and (since this is a blog about video games) Myth.

Not to be confused with Mist, this is a series of three games, the first two of which were created by none other than Bungie Studios...before they became famous for the Halo franchise.  The first entry Myth: The Fallen Lords is my personal favorite in terms of story, while the second Myth: Soulblighter improves on the gameplay of the original.  Sadly, the third game was outsourced and is just all around bad.  It should probably be forgotten.  So how do these games play?  Well the genre is a little bit difficult to classify.  It's somewhere between an RTS and MOBA, but also has a few RPG elements woven in here and there.  The setting is your typical middle-of-the-road fantasy world wherein the big bad has all but won.  The narrative framing device comes from the journal of an ordinary soldier fighting in the war.  Stylistically, I've heard comparisons to "The Black Company" novels by Glen Cook although I think most people who play the game will be reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings more than anything else.  After all, Myth features things like treants, dwarfs, a dark lord, and a heroic wizard.  On the other hand there are some original aspects to the setting as well (such as The Tain, Myrkridia, Trow, Fetch and Ghols).  The plot mostly revolves around "The Legion," a melting pot of warriors from a variety of different backgrounds.  On one extreme you have shirtless claymore-wielding berserkers, while on the other end there are robe-wearing journeymen who use plant roots to heal the wounded.  Rounding things out are the Fir'Bolg (stand-ins for elven archers), dwarves armed with explosives and surprisingly ordinary swordsmen complete with mail hauberk, surcoat, nasal helm and heraldic shield.

The opposition is even more varied and includes ghostly peltasts called "soulless" that float over the terrain, as well as the aforementioned fetch that can shoot lightning from their fingertips.  However, the backbone of the armies of darkness are the thrall, axe-wielding zombies basically...Stages in which the player is charged with defending a fixed position against advancing columns of these foes are by far my favorite mission type, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of on-screen carnage.  Of course planting satchel charges and creating killzones is great fun, but equally exciting is targeting the shuffling timebombs known as "wights."  Hit them with a couple of arrows and the resulting explosion, created by these bloated walking corpses, causes the ground to ripple and can kill or paralyze anything caught in the blast radius.  Some other units also have interesting secondary abilities; thrall can pass through (or hide in) deep water, archers can release flaming arrows, ghols can pick up objects on the battlefield and throw them.  As you might have noticed, the bad guys have more interesting units.  Thankfully, players do get the chance to try them out in multiplayer.

Contrary to my usual gaming habits, I did play quite a bit of Myth and Myth II online.  In part it was because of Bungie's free, easy-to-use matchmaking service (a rarity in those days).  There was also a ranking system although I never made it past the lowest crown tier.  There were also some interesting mods for the game, including a vietnam multiplayer total conversion and a developer-endorsed fan-made single player campaign for Myth II entitled "Chimera."

Despite the vast array of features offered, when I think back on the Myth series my fondest memories are of the names of each unit and the accompanying flavor text.  The game tracks kill counts in addition to the number of mission survived for each unit.  These forms of experience affect movement speed, attack rate and even hit points.  One way to make the later levels easier in Myth (aside from turning down the difficulty setting) is to make sure more units survive earlier on - thus allowing them to become veterans.  So, in a sense, each of the player's units starts to take on their own personal history and value.  The names are also evocative and reflect the culture from which that unit came.  For example a berserker might have a name like "Eirik who Jams the Gates of the Underworld," or "Tyrgeis with a Shirt of Scars," while a journeyman might have a name along the lines of "Eight Flint Deer," or "Twelve Eagle Falling Sun."  Meanwhile, swordsmen have old English sounding names such as "Duncan," "Avis," or "Owen."  One particular race of foes called the "Bre'Unor" only appear in one level, but their bone armor, flint weapons, pet wolves, monolithic shrines and nocturnal ambushes made a lasting impression on me.

The flavor text made visible by selecting a single unit hints at a much deeper and richer setting than what actually makes it on-screen.  Steve Jackson Games actually ported over the setting to G.U.R.P.S. (Generic Universal Role-Playing System), but the sourcebook was oddly lacking in details.  Particularly with regards to the cycle of light and dark.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but the setting of Myth follows a 1000 (or possibly 500) year pattern of civilization rising and falling.  The concept is kind of interesting considering the mediterranean followed a similar course with the bronze age collapse in 1177 B.C., followed by the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., and now with war in Syria, civil unrest in Egypt and a major financial crisis in Greece one wonders if this simply isn't the third time around.  Even the "Leveler" takes on a quasi-symbolic importance in that the creator of one age is the destroyer of the next.  It's all too topical considering recent matters having to do with fossil fuels and climate change.  Did Bungie intend their IP to convey that sort of allusion to the real world?  I don't know, but there's no denying its relevance even to this day.  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Kickstopper

To quote someone off the internet, "Unsung Story has gone from hopeful to worrying to disappointing to unbelievably frustrating to past the point of caring to morbidly entertaining."  Like many people, I'm a fan of Yasumi Matsuno's work.  Final Fantasy: Tactics and Vagrant Story are probably somewhere on my top-ten list of PSX games.  Sadly, the last fantasy game he had a hand in was a little Nintendo eShop title way back in 2012.  Unsung Story, I hoped, would be a chance for him to return to form.  Unfortunately, the developers (Playdek) botched it.

I know that in the grand scheme of game development 660,000 USD isn't all that much money, but I've seen games made with far less.  FTL, for example, was made on one third the budget.  Banner Saga was made with only the slightly higher sum of 723,000 USD.  I don't think it was unrealistic to expect Playdek to make a game with the money they had.  Maybe it would be barebones.  Maybe it would be somewhat lacking in terms of graphics, but what backers ultimately ended up with was nothing.  Granted, the project has been handed over to another company.  However, the new custodians of Unsung Story (Little Orbit) say they are going to have to start from scratch.  What the heck was Playdek doing the last couple years?  To take over half-a-million dollars and 2+ years of time with nothing to show for it reeks of the worst kind of incompetence.  Who are these inept fools?  I doubt Yasumi Matsuno was one of them.  It's my understanding that he already submitted all his design work long ago.  Then again, if his handling of FFXII is any indication, he's not the most capable individuals out there either.  

On the flipside, the backers of Unsung Story are surprisingly mellow about being swindled out of their hard-earned cash.  Even one super backer simply mentioned that he was glad the game still had a chance of coming out eventually.  Maybe it's because I didn't throw any money at the game, but I don't share their optimism.  Looking at Little Orbit's credentials, they've successfully made several licensed games none of which are particularly good.  I shouldn't be too hard on them though.  At least they got their projects out the door...and who knows...maybe this is a breakout chance for them.  For all we know this new development team might be chomping at the bit to do a turn-based strategy title.  Regardless of their disposition, I do hope the dev team over at Little Orbit go back to the original concept art, and try to build something akin to that design.  What little pre-alpha footage that we did see was pretty rough and felt very generic.  I know Unsung Story is supposed to be a throwback to those classic strategy RPGs, but at least go with the chinese checkers layout instead of the generic square boxes that practically every game in the SRPG subgenre uses.  After all this is supposed to be an unsung story, not a story that's been told many times before.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reverse Dungeon

Evil simulators are few and far between.  I think the reason is not many games want to let the player be the bad guy.  That said, there are a few.  Overlord, Plague Inc., and my personal favorite Dungeon Keeper.  In this case the game we're discussing is The Shrouded Isle.  As far as I can tell it appears to be set on a small, remote, northern latitudes enclave during the late 19th or early 20th century.  Five families own the place and answer to a high priest who is the player's avatar.

The deity worshiped by this isolated community is "Chernobog," a slavic word derived from "čĭrnŭ" meaning "black," and "bogŭ" or "god."  I should mention that the only written information on this particular entity comes from a 12th century christian priest who, while recording local customs, mentioned him in passing.  The pagans who worshiped Chernobog left no records.  Because of the lack of information, a lot of mystery surrounds this ancient (and mostly forgotten) deity.  Although I should mention that Chernobog makes an unnamed (but major) appearance in the 1940 animated Disney film "Fantasia."  He is the bat-winged demon that constitutes the peak of a mountain top in one of the ending segments.  I should also mention that the accompanying music "Night on Bald Mountain," was created by a russian composer named Mussorgsky as a tribute to slavic paganism, but was not actually performed by an orchestra until 1881 - five years after the author's death.

Considering the fact that the shrouded isle is (by definition) surrounded by water, it's a little strange that the cult in the game doesn't worship Cthulhu or some other aquatic deity like Dagon.  Supposedly the developers didn't want to copy from H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos too liberally, though they don't deny the influence it had on the design of the game.  The artwork and soundtrack do an excellent job of setting an appropriately dour mood.  The color pallet, on the other hand, perhaps takes it a bit too far.  In a post-release patch the devs introduced a black and grey (excuse me...CREMATION ASHES and DARKNESS!) scheme which is easier on the eyes.  As for the gameplay itself...

If you've ever tried Gods Will Be Watching then The Shrouded Isle will feel quite familiar.  Like that game it is a turn-based time/resource management sim wherein, the player must hold out for a certain number of turns.  In this case the amount is three years, which are divided into four seasons each - that are then subdivided into three month phases.  No matter what the player does their net resources will decline in the long run.  So, in essence the game is all about minimizing losses mixed with risk management and peppered with the occasional random event or hint/request from the upper managment (a.k.a. Chernobog).  Sadly, that's about it.  The game is rather barebones with no announced plans for further expansion.

Back when I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, there was this interesting module called "Reverse Dungeon."  Essentially, it took the generic premise of adventures going into underground locals in search of treasure and flipped it.  Instead of clerics, fighters, thieves and wizards, the players controlled the underground inhabitants (mostly monsters) with the goal being to expunge the intruders.  I can't help but feel that a similar approach would have work wonders for The Shrouded Isle. Sort of like a reverse "Shadow over Innsmouth," if you're familiar with the short story.  It would be interesting to see what options the player had if, say, a reporter or private investigator showed up in town.  Instead of resources like ignorance, fervor, discipline, penitence and obedience, I'd much rather see things like obscurity and influence (outside of the five families) play a more prominent role.  As is, the whole human sacrifice thing is the only major differentiator from being the high priest in an esoteric cult and the manager at some mid-sized corporation.  I'm sure some would argue that if one were to replace murdering people with firing people the two would be largely indistinguishable.  Realistic?  Possibly...Fun?  Not so much...

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Darkseed

Blink and you'll miss it
Hans Ruedi Giger was never directly involved in video game development. If documentaries about him are anything to go by, I doubt he ever even used a computer. Of course, most of his fame comes from being a concept artist for the Alien and Species franchises. Regardless, his artwork has (through those films and other sources) influenced countless video games starting way back in the 8-bit era (with titles like Contra and Metroid) and most recently with the, as of now, unreleased game Scorn. Some of his artwork has even appeared directly in a pair of adventure games entitled Darkseed and Darkseed II.

I'm pretty sure the original idea, concept, or "seed" (if you will) comes from a series of five nearly identical paintings by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin, all entitled "Isle of the Dead."  Böcklin offered no explanation for his returning interest in this particular scene, but it's been speculated that it was based on a recurring dream he had involving the seemingly fictional island.  Giger (possibly because he was a native to Switzerland as well) took an interest in the work and made a painting of his own, very similar in the broad strokes but with his signature biomechanical style.  It was essentially a dark interpretation of the same scene.  So, therein lies the basic premise behind Darkseed.  For every real world person, place or thing, there is a dark world equivalent.

Don't worry...it's just a doll...oh...wait...
Normally the two never intersect.  However, a race of beings, known simply as "The Ancients" are attempting to cross over via an embryo implanted into the protagonists brain.  This unlucky fellow is Mike Dawson, a writer who has only just purchased the house he is currently residing in.  The previous owner died of a stroke (or so the story goes) and now this bland stand-in for the player is suffering from headaches, bad dreams, and terrifying visions.  Dawson only has three days left to live before he dies from the parasitic organism gestating inside his skull.  The first game day is spent by the player exploring his surroundings and discovering cryptic clues as to what is going on.  Starting on the second day though, Dawson finds out how to cross over into the dark world via a full-length mirror in his living room.  Obvious story references to Alice in Wonderland, Alien, and Rosemary's Baby aside the dark world is where things really begin to get interesting.  For reasons not elaborated on this alternate reality is a grotesque parody of our world; the neighborhood dog is a hideous beast, the local barbershop is some kind of brain surgery station, and the young woman working at the public library is a wall mounted biomechanical construct called the Keeper of the Scrolls.  The two worlds are so closely connected things which happen in our world are reflected in the dark one.  Leave a door open in Dawson's house and the corresponding building in the dark world will have a gaping hole in the wall where there previously wasn't one.  Another creepily clever touch is The Ancients themselves sleeping in a hibernative state where the normal world cemetery is located.

The most frightening part is him going to bed
with his shoes still on
Much of the artwork in the game is lifted in little bits and pieces from various paintings done by H.R. Giger himself prior to the game's development.  There are numerous examples of original assets as well, although it's unclear whether or not Giger had a direct hand in their creation.  Completely absent are his commonly used pagan iconography and reproductive organs.  Personally, I've always found biomechanical landscapes to be his most interesting kind of painting, so no big loss from my perspective.  That said, the actual gameplay in Darkseed is pretty weak, even for point-and-click adventure gaming standards.  It also suffers from a severe case of "Guide Dang It" in that it's practically impossible to win on your own.  On the plus side though, the official hint book comes with some interesting bios on the character in the game, both in the normal word and the dark world.  From this outside source of information we learn that not all the dark world inhabitants are complacent in The Ancient's machinations.  We also gain some interesting background information on the town locals.  It's a shame more of this characterization didn't come to the forefront.  Very little of the underlying mystery is explained (let alone revealed) either.  Are the inhabitants of the dark world dying?  Why do The Ancients want to cross over into our world?  How does implanting a creature into some dude's cranium help them accomplish their goals?  These are questions the game itself bring up, yet no answers are provided.  Granted, I understand that revealing everything can ruin the mystique, but Darkseed doesn't even provide enough information for players to come up with their own theories.

The sequel continues where the first game left off, but feels like a made-for-TV follow-up to what wasn't the greatest franchise-starter to begin with.  It's a shame because the basic building blocks for an intriguingly horrifying story are there.  They just needed to be expanded on, fleshed out a little more, and maybe have some mechanical bits attached to the core ideas.  After all, this an H.R. Giger inspired project we're talking about here...

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Horse Stories

I'm pretty wary of horses in real life.  When I was little I got trampled by one trying to give it some food.  Later, when I was a teenager and trying to learn the basics of riding, my mount (not the same steed) thought it would be fun to try and rub my leg across a barbed wire fence.  Someday, I'll give horse riding another try, but sufficed to say my equestrian experiences thus far have been less than positive.  The same can't be said about video game horses.  Unlike a lot of players who bemoan the fact that these animals don't handle like motorcycles, I have generally enjoyed my time spent with Epona, Argo and Roach (not to mention a whole herd of noble steeds in Red Dead Redemption.  Most recently though, I've had a few interesting adventures in Breath of the Wild that I'd like to recount here.

I was a bit surprised to learn that a lot of players never really use horses and instead prefer to have Link do everything on foot.  Maybe it's just my experiences with Mount and Blade, but I find mounted combat a much easier proposition against groups of enemies that trying to duke it out with boots on the ground.  Better still, if the tide of battle starts to turn against Link, it's easy to flee on horseback assuming the opposition lacks mounts of their own.  The reverse on the other hand is a real nightmare (pun?).  Having Link stand his ground and fight is the only way I ever figured out how to deal with horse-riding Bokoblins once they're spotted me.

Literally the moment I got off the Hyrule plateau I glided down to where a trio of wild horses just happen to be.  Sneaking up on them, I managed to jump on the back of a coffee colored stallion and was just barely able to break him before my stamina bar depleted completely.  It took a while to find a stables since I don't know where any of them were.  Eventually, I stumbled upon the one over by the Dueling Peaks and registered my first horse there under the name "Courser."  After a brief stay in Kakariko Village, I struck out east on foot and during my journey to Hateno, picked up another solid colored horse.  this one had better speed, but less stamina.  Eventually, I registered him under the name "Blue" since that was the color of his coat.

After some adventures with the Zora, I journeyed companionless to the north-east and got caught in a Bokoblin ambush.  It was in an open field during a lightning storm.  They were mounted.  I wasn't.  I might have perished then and there had I not managed to knock one of those pig-faced beastmen out of the saddle.  Quickly, I confiscated his horse only to find (much to my dismay) that it wasn't going to obey me very much.  A confused skirmish with the remaining Bokoblins ensued.  After the grass fires settled down (due to their enthusiastic use of fire arrows), I was still in possession of the milk and chocolate horse I had procured earlier.  As it turned out, she was not the best horse one could hope for.  I named her "Rouncy," but our time together was brief.  I sold her to a man in the canyons to the south-west for 300 rupees.  In truth I was glad to be rid of her because I had recently added "Shadow" (a black mustang) and "Dynasty" (a pure white mare of royal pedigree) to the stables.  The limit per person is five and I have four, with the last opening reserved for a legendary giant horse said to roam an arid valley to the south.

Still, I sometimes find myself wondering what happened to Rouncy.  When I happened upon the man I sold her to many days later, he claimed to have resold the horse to an acquaintance.  His motivation for doing so though felt driven more by avarice than kindness.  If I happen to come across Rouncy again I will make doubly sure she is being treated well.  Real-life horses may have never been particularly kind to me, but I have no desire to be callous or cruel in return, even if it's just a video game.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not Once or Twice, but Thrice

It looks like the Switch is turning into a real success story for Nintendo.  One might be tempted to chalk it up to the originality of the concept.  However, the Switch isn't a piece of engineering that sprang forth out of the eather.  In fact most of it's features have existed in previous iterations of gaming hardware, the Wii and WiiU being two of the most obvious comparisons.  Even the concept of a system that can be played at home or on the go was first, albeit half-heartedly, attempted by Sony with the PS Vita.

Like many gaming enthusiasts, I never got my hands on a Vita in part because there wasn't that killer app, or "system seller," as it's sometimes called.  The hardware was great, but it lacked the software supported needed to draw my interest.  In a broader sense piracy was another issue and, in some ways, exacerbated the problem of insufficient third-party support.  Sony could only do so much with its first-party lineup.  It's a problem Nintendo doesn't have so much, especially since they can now merge their handheld and home console development teams under one platform.  In theory this should significantly boost the first-party output of Nintendo-themed games.  It also helps that Nintendo doesn't have any real direct competition.

The PS4 and Xbox One are definitely aiming at the same demographic, namely males in their 20s and 30s, but the Switch is kind of doing its own thing.  That's not to say people who own a PS4 or Xbox One don't play video games on the Switch...rather it has to do with a certain kind of appeal Nintendo games offer.

"Kid Friendly" might be the first quality that springs to mind though it's not an entirely accurate thing to claim.  Sure, most Nintendo games shy away from sexual themes and gratuitous violence, but the same doesn't hold true for the challenge.  The term "Nintendo Hard" exists for a reason, namely the unforgiving nature of one's experience on higher difficulty settings.  Mario Kart 8 might feel like a total breeze at the 50cc level, but crank it up to the 200cc mark and even veterans of the genre are in for a serious challenge.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also has it's own hard mode in the form of speedruns.  Speaking of Breath of the Wild, if there ever was a system seller it's that game.  According to released sales figures it has more than a one-to-one attachment rate.  I'm not sure why any Switch owner would want more than one copy of the game (or a copy of the game and no system to play it on), but there you go.  In order to make up for the usual slim pickings that happen during a console's launch window, Nintendo is drip-feeding new titles to keep players invested in their machines.  It's actually a smart move from a business standpoint, which is saying something for a company known to not necessarily make the best decisions outside of game development.

Portability is another advantage the Switch has that only smart phones can match.  Here too though Nintendo isn't going head-to-head with Apple or Android, mostly because the kind of games coming out on the Switch have a lot more meat on their bones (plus they don't go the free-to-play route).  Again, different audiences although not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So, allow me to reiterate in the form of two video game axioms:
  • A console is only as good as its games
  • Better to make a great game a few people will love, than mediocre game a lot of people will think is just okay    
For both of these truths, Nintendo has it covered.  The switch already has a critically acclaimed exclusive out of the gate and, while their style of games aren't as big sales-wise as say GTAV or the Call of Duty series, there's definately a subset of their playerbase who absolutely love the games Nintendo makes...sometimes to the point of toxicity (but that's a subject for a different time).  You've done well so far with the Switch, Nintendo.  Keep up the good work.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

beep-Beep-BEEP!

Oddly enough nobody wears white in the actual game
My last blogpost ended on a bit of a cliffhanger in that there was a sixth and final arcade game that I consider one of my all-time favorites.  One of the neat things about arcade games is their malleability.  Because each machine is dedicated to playing a single game (Neo Geo aside), it allows for a variety of non-standard control schemes; driving games with steering wheels and pedals, air combat games with flight sticks and seats that shift when the player banks and turns, Paperboy even featured a pair of handlebars for controlling the on-screen bicycle.  By far the most common kind of variation was the light-gun game.  When asked which is the best of the bunch, I imagine most people would reply Time Crisis, Terminator 2 or Revolution X, but for me the standout game was the rather generically named Space Gun.

Right away I think most people will pick up on the Aliens film parallels, industrial environments infested with hostile organisms, sometimes cocooned human survivors in need of rescue, and sci-fi military hero characters representing the player(s).  Like most light gun games it plays from the first person perspective.  There are a few instances where players can choose from one of two paths, as well as the ability to backup via a foot pedal, but for the most part the gameplay is on-rails, shooting whatever happens to pop up in the FOV.  The guns are fully automatic and have several different secondary consumable ammo types that freeze, shock, blast or burn targets.  The alien creatures themselves are a purple/green mixture and come in a few different humanoid shapes.  The most common has three eyes and four arms!  It's possible to shoot off limbs or even the head.  Combine that with the basic plot structure which features the player(s) exploring a spaceship, then a base on the planet it's orbiting around, and one can't help but wonder if Space Gun indirectly influenced the original Dead Space.

"Watch your fire and check your targets"
The last chapter also features the obligatory rush to escape while a self-destruct timer counts down.  The end boss battle emphasises one of Space Gun's more defining features, the player has to be mindful of where and when they shoot.  Obviously, they don't want to gun down fleeing humans (or "hostages" as they are called for some reason...), but in addition to this, targeting incoming projectiles or monsters winding up for a melee attack also serve as examples of skilled gameplay.  Additionally, the guns the players use deplete an ammunition reserve when fired, but refill when allowed to idle.  Hence, shooting non-stop will cause the weapon to "chug" at a reduced rate of fire.  In the aforementioned final battle (which takes place onboard an escape shuttle) players must do their best not to hit the control panel in the background while dealing with the last boss.  If the ship takes too much internal damage during the battle it will be unable to take off, dooming the player characters and anyone they had rescued up to that point.  In other words, being too gung-ho nets you the bad ending.  It wasn't a gameplay feature unique to Space Gun (even at the time of its release), but in my mind the emphasis on player restraint did help set the game apart from the pack.

FYI, Alien 3 had one facehugger,
 one chestburster, one xenomorph,
and no guns, Sega
Other than that, there are a few distinct variations on the standard type, automated sentry turrets, flying enemies resembling giant insects or manta-rays, and a few snake-like mini-bosses.  There's also a motion tracker display at the bottom of the screen that tips-off players to potential dangers (not to mention further reinforcing the Aliens analogue).  Three years later Sega would copy the format of Space Gun when they introduced Alien 3: The Gun to arcades using a fairly similar rendering engine and gameplay interface.  Apparently, the developers over at Sega completely forgot the plot of the Alien 3 movie though...

Weird film to video game adaptations aside, Space Gun is the sixth and final entry in my top six arcade games list.  Due to an itchy trigger finger, I never got the good ending, something I found very frustrating at the time, but in hindsight makes me respect the designers for trying to evolve the genre despite having a fairly unoriginal premise...oh and the arcade cabinet was really cool looking too.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Favorite Arcade Games

Recently, I've been browsing various Top-10-Arcade-Game videos and articles across the internet.  Sadly, my person favorites rarely make the cut or even get a mention.  Maybe my tastes differ from the norm.  Then again, I have a feeling that more than a few of these lists were composed by people who were too young to catch more than the tail end of the era.  Either way, I'd like to do a top-six list (I don't do that top 10 stuff) of my favorite arcade machines.  So, in no particular order let's begin.

Rampage
This one stands out in my memory for three reasons.  First, I was a huge fan of "Kaiju" movies growing up so the concept of getting to play as one of those gigantic monsters held enormous appeal to me.  I usually played as Lizzie because she reminded me of Godzilla.  The second reason is Rampage wasn't a quarter eater like most arcade games.  You could actually last quite a long time provided you made an effort to devour those hapless little humans, an act that would restore a small amount of health.  This brings me to the third reason for liking this game, co-operative play.  With the help of up to two friends I was able to make a complete tour of all the cities (essentially seeing all the game had to offer) at the paultery cost of $2.25, or nine credits worth of gameplay.  Very few arcade games, before or since, have offered that kind of bang for your buck.


Operation: Starblade
I've discussed this game at length in another blogpost (here) so I won't go into a great deal of detail here.  In short, it was a sit-down rail shooter visually similar to Starfox (minus the anthropomorphic animals).  It had an exceptionally large display screen for the time (courtesy of an image reflection system) backed up by a surround sound speakers setup.  Needless to say, it was an immersive game with a few neat stylistic flourishes that reminded me of the space battles seem in Star Wars and The Last Starfighter.  I must have beaten the game half-a-dozen times growing up.

Gauntlet
Eight-year-old me thought it was strange that this four-player top-down dungeon crawler/shooter was named after an armored glove when no such item ever makes an appearnce it the game.  It wasn't until a few years later that I learned the word "gauntlet" has another meaning which accurately sums up what it's like playing through the game.  As I recall, there were four different playable characters; a wizard, an elf, a barbarian, and a valkyrie.  I liked to play the valkyrie because her perk was a 30 percent reduction to damage. Each character also had their own kind of projectile weapon (fireballs, arrows, axes, and daggers respectively).  The dungeons themselves were maze-like structors populated by monster spawners that would spit out a trickle of enemies.  Ideally, ranged attacks would be used to defeat them, but it was also possible to take foes down in melee combat (doing so would incur damage to the player's character though).  Other than that there was treasure for scoring points and food for restoring health.

Rampart
While interesting to a degree, I've always felt puzzle game like Tetris and Columns needed an extra layer of gameplay to make them truly shine.  Puzzle and Dragon did the latter right, but before that Atari did an excellent job of improving on the former.  Rampart is divided into three tightly timed phases.  The first, wall building, plays out similarly to Tetris except the idea is to make fully enclosed spaces around keeps rather than solid rows.  Doing so nets points which, in the second phase, grants the player cannons that they can place inside their castle courtyards.  The third phase is combat, in which the cannons can be used to bombard other players' walls and cannons.  The process then resets until one side can no longer maintain a castle.  There's also a single player mode that features ships attacking by sea, but to me the game was really only fun versus other players.

Gladiator
In order to maximize profits, most arcade games were brutally difficult with mechanics deliberately designed to discourage caution.  An exception to this design trend was Gladiator.  Essentially a 1-vs-1 fighting game, players were reward for systematically wearing down opponents by breaking their weapon, shield and armor until an opportunity to deliver a well timed killing blow presented itself.  Because the game allowed for this kind of methodical approach, I could last a ridiculously long time with just one quarter (oftentimes vexing friends and family in the process).  I rarely watched anyone else play this particular arcade game, but the few times I did it was horrifying to see players foolheartedly rush in mashing buttons with reckless abandon.  It was a tactic which, more often than not, resulted in the player losing, whereas well timed strikes, probing attacks and a fair amount of patience would almost always result in victory.

I said that this was a top six list so that means there's one more game I want to mention.  However, I want to go into detail on it and to do so here would make for a very long blogpost.  So instead I'll make a separate post on it next week.  Until then...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

Best/Worst of Show

It seems like every time E3 rolls around there's one game that really grabs my attention.  In previous years it has been titles like Below and Horizon: Zero Dawn.  This year it's the stylized cyber-punk thriller The Last Night.

Very little information has been released about the game thus far.  It's a 2.5D platformer with some stealth elements.  Nothing remarkable, but what makes the standout is its visual direction.  Rainy nights and neon lights are pretty standard fare since "Blade Runner" came out over three decades ago.  However, the use of pixel art mixed with numerous foreground/background layers and enhanced lighting filters gives the game a distinct look.  As far as I know, I don't think any other game has done this sort of thing before which makes The Last Night unique in its presentation.  In other ways though, it might be less outstanding.

My personal hope is, if it doesn't totally vear off in its own direction, The Last Night takes inspiration from the best of the subgenre; namely Flashback and Out of This World (Another World, if you're European).  The prototype version of the game, made in just six days, only takes a few minutes to finish and as such doesn't offer much insight into what a longer version of the game might be like.  Another title the development team was working on, Behind Nowhere, has been postponed indefinitely.  So, with only a few screenshots to go on, it's hard to garner much regarding the studio's approach to design based on that game either.

The head of development, Tim Soret, also has a somewhat checkered past going back to that whole SJW vs Gamergate controversy of 2014.  Tim has since apologized for past remarks claiming that his views have changed since that time.  I'd like to believe him.  People are allowed to change their mind on things after all...plus I'm a strong believer in the Death of the Author philosophy when it comes to critiquing any media (not just books).  That said, I doubt I'll ever get a chance to play The Last Night because I don't own an Xbox or a copy of Windows 10.  Oh well...I can alway enjoy the pretty art direction via a Youtube LP or Twitch stream, I guess...


Thursday, June 15, 2017

What's in an RPG

Are men imitating beasts?
...or...
Are beasts imitating men?
Sometimes video game acronyms can be pretty confusing.  "RPG" is usually shorthand for "Role-Playing Game," but can also mean "Rocket Propelled Grenade."  Add a capital "T" to the front and sometimes it's a "Tactical Role-Playing Game," such as Shining Force, Vandal Hearts and Fire Emblem.  Then again the "T" could stand for "Tabletop Role-Playing Game," which is the one people play with paper, pencils and dice.  I've also seen CRPG written a lot which is supposed to mean "Computer Role-Playing Game."  The opposite of this is, for some reason, "JRPG" or "Japanese Role-Playing Game."  Japanese because it's made in Japan...or is it?

I recently watched a Giant Bomb Quick Look of Cosmic Star Heroine, and while the game wasn't made by a Japanese development team it sure tries to look like it was.  Of course, this brought up a semantics argument.  I didn't bother to get involved in the comment section mostly because I don't think there's really many meaningful distinctions that can be made between the two subgenres anymore.

Back in the 8 and 16-bit era the Japanese video game industry was making RPGs pretty much exclusively for the console market.  Western developers, not wanting to compete directly made their own RPGs available on home computers.  There were some overall aesthetic differences.  I'm not going to get into them primarily because Extra Credits did an excellent three-part series on Youtube about it awhile back (link to part 1 here).  Recently, I feel like whatever distinctions there were though have become blurred to to such a degree that it's hard to point to any definitive differences.  Case-in-point, western made RPGs come out on consoles just as much as the PC these days.  This has lead a few people on the internet to start throwing around the term "WRPG," or "Western Role-Playing Game."  Personally, I don't see the point in splitting stylistic hairs like this when we have more useful terms that can be attached to the front of "RPG" such as "turn-based," "open-world" or even simply "action," all of which do a good job of informing someone as to how the game is played.

I guess if you have some deep-seated love/hate of anime then there might still be some small worth in distinguishing between eastern and western made RPGs, but in my mind the usage of genre terms really should evolve with the times.  Sadly, that would require people to change their way of viewing and thinking as well.  It's a problem that goes far beyond video games and this blog so I'll end things here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Zelda Maker

The sun has set on the WiiU.  Looking back on its library of games, I find myself hard pressed to come up with more than half-a-dozen standout titles (especially when the selection criteria is limited to system exclusives.   Even so, there are a few really great games for the console.  If I had to choose one in particular, I probably go with Mario Maker.  I might be an outlier on this, but that game feels like the amount of play time you can get out of it greatly expands thanks to the creativity of the user-base.  I'm sure Nintendo has a sequel in the works for the Switch.  However, it might not be Mario-themed since there's another IP that's well suited to the format - The Legend of Zelda.

The challenges associated with designing intuitive editing tools for Zelda are far greater, I think, than in the case of Mario Brothers.  For one thing Zelda is potentially much more complicated in terms of layout.  As for eras of play, I think the top-down 2D perspective titles are the most feasible.  Specifically, the original NES Legend of Zelda, SNES Link to the Past, Link Between Worlds on the 3DS and maybe one more (I'm not sure which).  Maps could consist of a bunch of interconnected rooms or outdoor zones that can be filled in with monsters, chests, claypots, traps and other obstacles/challenges.  Treasure should probably be limited to classic items such as the lantern, raft, ladder, bow, boomerang, wands, outfits, as well as shield and sword upgrades.  Consumables can be hearts, arrows, rupees, and bombs.  I'm not exactly sure what the best approach would be for bosses other than the obvious solution of having some customizable templates, such as a dragon that can be designated with a specific weakness or one of several different breath weapons.

Another important point to consider is food.  It played a big part in Breath of the Wild in terms of loot.  Fairies have traditionally been the stand-in for this mechanic, but it might be worth including a few food items (such as apples and meat on a bone) even though though they technically didn't exist in certain earlier iterations of the franchise.

The way levels are shared through the Nintendo network would require a bit of tweaking.  Perhaps the best way to handle it would be a generic central hub area that branches off into user created overland zones with entrances to dungeons (each of which contains a shard of the Triforce).  Merchants should also be included in some way, shape, or form, although I'm not sure whether or not it's best to let their location and wares be defined by the level creators.

Other than that, I can't think of any particular aspects of a hypothetical "Zelda Maker" that would have to be radically different than the format set by Mario Maker.  Not being a developer, I'm sure there's some important things I am oblivious to, but if Nintendo can pull the concept off elegantly then I have no doubt it would be a welcome addition to the franchise.  I've always wanted to craft my own Zelda dungeons and I'm sure there are more than a few fans out there who feel likewise.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Make it a Game

To paraphrase something movie reviewer Bob Chipman said:
There have been eight Alien films at this point and only the first two were good -just stop making them already.
It a comment I can relate to except I don't think it needs to be the end of the franchise.  I'm not talking about reboots here, rather I think any future Alien-themed properties should be in the form of video games.

Aside from novelizations of "Alien" and "Aliens" the books have been mediocre at best (with the possible exception of Aliens: Labyrinth).  The same is true of the comics although there are a few clever ideas scattered throughout them.  Video games have a pretty dismal track record as well, but the most recent adaptation of the IP, Alien: Isolation, has shown potential.  Don't get me wrong, the game is far from perfect.  For one thing it goes on for way too long, and for another there's a lot of pointless side characters whose presence seems to contradict the the title of the game.  Even so, I think a less action focused Alien game is the way to go.  Sure, everyone wants to recreate that classic battle between the xenomorphs and colonial marines, but it's been done to death now.  I'm not just talking about licensed games either, franchises like StarcraftResident Evil, Halo and DOOM have mined "Aliens" for every last piece of usable material.  The later movies have little of value to offer, and the original motion picture has been sucked dry too.  So where does that leave the IP?  As far as I can tell there's really only one place left untapped, and that's the prequels.

Putting it nicely, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are not good films.  The visuals are well shot courtesy of long-time directory Ridley Scott, but other than that the mystery is poorly revealed, the horror bits are cliche, and the plot is a total mess.  For whatever reason the writers chose to ignore most of what the previous movies had established, resulting in contradictions all over the place in terms of the Alien lifecycle and overarching timeline.  I could go on a rant about all the inconsistencies, but I'd prefer to keep things positive here (and more importantly - constructive).

Figuring out the origins of the Alien isn't as interesting as it might seem.  On the other hand learning more about the enigmatic Space Jockey race is worth exploring in more detail.  Unfortunately, in the 2 hours and X minutes running time allotted to films these days, it's practically impossible to do the subject justice.  So instead we're given an abbreviated version with disjointed events and scatter-brained ideas, as well as character actions and motivations that don't make much sense.  The hands of the writers are also clearly visible at times since they want to go from point A to point C without taking the time to come up with a satisfactory point B.  These are all problems that could be solved if both these films had been video games instead; more time for the story to unfold, ideas to be fleshed out, and characters to behave in believable ways.  The player could actually get to explore the ruins of the engineers' civilization, uncover the secrets of their technology.  They could fully read the poems of Shelley, Milton and Byron, gain a deeper understanding of David's fascination with T.H. Laurance, not to mention have branching dialogues with various characters.  Best of all, the story need not be confined to a single path.  Think The Dig meets Until Dawn and you're well on your way to a proper video game adaptation of Prometheus.  Incidentally, it would be pretty awesome (not to mention subversive) to have an alien story in which everyone survives through sheer competence and teamwork.  It might not bet especially true to the franchise, but the simple fact of the matter is xenomorphs are basically oversized bugs with the brains of chimpanzees.  Deadly, to be sure, under a certain set of circumstances.  However, once they become a known quantity they're not an unsolvable problem.  Compare them to to Space Jockey race and suddenly humanity appears to be in far greater peril.  Unlike the xenomorphs, this species of (once pachyderm-like) interstellar travelers has technology far in advance of even what exo-world colonizing humans posses.  What's their culture like?  Their psychology?  Do they have outposts scattered across the galaxy?  How long have they been roaming the stars?  Based on what is shown by the holographic map in Prometheus the implied answers are "many" and "for a long time."  That begs the question though, are there any other planets with engineered life?  If so they must be close to human...maybe that's what the line from Aliens was on about regarding Arcturians...

The Alien franchise has followed a very bizarre course over the years.  It's started off as a very simple, but well thought out (and executed) melding of sci-fi and horror.  As more and more films have been released for the IP though the premise has become increasingly muddled until it degenerated into the brain-dead wrestling match that is the AvP movies.  Then it flip-flopped hard and turned into a bunch of pretentious nonsense.  A video game adaptation could potentially give this franchise some much needed grounding, structure and balance.  Of course, it would still need a competent storyteller which might be too much to ask of the video game industry.  Hmmm...I wonder if John Gonzalez is available?