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 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?
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?       

Friday, May 26, 2017

Needs More

Having watched some gameplay footage for the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of War, I've been pondering over the large number of video game developers who push their concepts out half-baked and, due to poor profit margins, never get the chance to improve on their ideas with a sequel.  I'm not just talking about buggy launch titles or the whole early access scene.  What I really mean is games that straight up need more to them.  Let me see if I can explain a bit further by picking out a few examples from this console generation.

Event[0], if you're not familiar with it, is a first-person adventure game in which you spend the majority of your time interacting with a computer A.I. via text inputs.  The two of you are stranded on a starship drifting aimlessly around Europa.  Over the course of the game it becomes apparent that the crew are all dead or gone, but, as a climatic ending twist, it turns out that one member of the crew uploaded their consciousness into the computer system and is constantly vying with the A.I. for control of the ship.  Throughout the game this dueling of personalities doesn't come to light except in the form of odd little glitches in the A.I.'s behavior.  Too me, it feels like a lost opportunity to inject some real tension into the game.  The player could be put on the spot as they try to unravel the mystery of what happened by forcing them to work with, and compromise between these two competing entities (a "friend triangle" if you will).  There could have been all kinds of tension, deception and outright lies going on, as well as a hefty dose of HAL9000 style paranoia.  Alas, what we ended up with was basically Dr. Sbaitso with better graphics and bit more story.
Another example is the Order 1886.  Critics have rightfully panned this game for it's relatively short playtime, bland cover-based shooting, and bog-standard (not to mention highly anachronistic) weaponry.  Where they really dropped the ball though is in the story department.  The setting allowed for an a lot of interesting possibilities, or at the very least some tongue-in-cheek humor.  Instead, we have a jumbled mess of inconsistencies, nonsense, and plot holes conveyed with the utmost severity - nowhere does anyone smile, or even try to crack a joke.  Ostensibly, the titular Order exists to fight the threat of werewolves (and possibly vampires), but aside from two quicktime event boss battles (the second of which is pretty much an exact repeat of the first) we shoot it out against a bunch of ordinary people packing guns.  Maybe if the game had more adventure elements, or some puzzles, it would have elevated itself above a glorified Gears of War copycat tech demo.

Last up is a double shot, or rather two games which individually are not good, but combined together might have been something special.  Specifically, I'm talking about No Man's Sky and Mass Effect: Andromeda.  The former has a severe deficit of story and player motivation, while the latter boasts it has a whole new galaxy to explore, but only allows the player to land on an handful of worlds.  If these two teams had been folded into one project they might have complemented each other.  The No Man's Sky team would have brought the breadth, while the Mass Effect team would have provided the depth.  As is, both lack what the other has...well, aside from a capable animation team..both were kind of lacking in that particular department...then again so is the Farm Simulator series...

A good perspective to take during the pre-production phase for any video game dev team would be from a place of interactivity.  If the answer to the question, "what do you do?" is ultimately "not much," then I think it would be wise to reconsider the approach.  After all if there isn't a lot of meaningful input from the player then why not just turn the game into a novel or movie instead?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fictional Games

When it comes to video games making cameos in movies and television there's really only two categories; either it's an actual game (such as Shadow of the Colossus in the film "Reign over Me"), or it's a game made from scratch to serve as a set prop.  Obviously the latter is preferable from a licensing standpoint.  However, there are some bizarre instances of these fake games turning into actual games people can play.  The text-parser adventure game seen in the Tom Hanks film "Big" (playable here), and "The Last Starfighter" arcade cabinet are two such examples.  The most outstanding purveyor of this phenomenon though has to be the long-running animated TV series - The Simpsons.

It's a funny thing to think about considering there are numerous licensed video games for the franchise (including a four-player-side-scrolling-beat'em-up arcade game).  While at the same time over a dozen made-up games have appeared on-screen.  Many have just been background decorations, but there are six in particular that are prominent enough to be worth mentioned here.

Kevin Costner's Waterworld (no relation to the actual Waterworld movie tie-in game for the SNES) made a brief appearance when Milhouse gives it a try at the local video arcade.  Apparently, the machine takes forty quarters (10 USD!) to play, and results in a "game over" screen for no reason after a few seconds of the player character walking left to right.  This opening segment is meant to be a one-off joke poking fun at the film's 175 million dollar budget (due to wasteful spending and difficulties associated with shooting a movie off the coast of Hawaii).  The humor didn't work for me, in this case, because I personally think "Waterworld" isn't really that bad, and while it was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, many summer blockbusters have exceeded the 200 million dollar mark since.

Escape from Grandma's House is another arcade title that honestly feels a lot like a 2D pixel-art version of Alien: Isolation.  The basic premise appears to be avoid the monster (in this case, Grandma) by hiding or using weapons found in the environment.  During the brief time we see the game in action, Bart uses a wall mounted shotgun on Grandma which, surprisingly, doesn't phase the old lady much.  On the plus side it does net him some points (displayed on a scoreboard in the upper right-hand side of the screen).  Aside from grandma, there appears to be other hazards including deadly mothballs hiding in the closet.

Hockey Dad is a one-vs-one fighting game in which the rivals are a pair of bad-tempered fathers.  While watching a junior league hockey match one parent makes the comment, "Your kid sucks!"  Thus, begins the brawl which inevitably ends in one of the two combatants down in a bloody heap on the ice while the winner is hauled off to jail.  It's mildly funny, although the main reason I like this segment is the indirect callback to early hockey-themed sports video games that featured embedded fighting mechanics.

Bonestorm is, as far as I can tell, a parody of Mortal Kombat.  Aside from the fact that it's a 2D fighting game, the biggest similarity is the combatants (they look like Goro clones except with six arms each instead of four).  We only see it in the form of a Christmas advertisement, but sequels to this fictional game pop-up in the background of later episodes, providing a sense of continuity which doesn't normally exist in The Simpsons.

The next title is an unnamed home console game we see Grandpa Simpson attempting to play with his grandson, Bart.  The game itself looks vaguely reminiscent of Asteroids, but the actual gameplay reminds me of Star Raiders.  The humor comes from Bart's frantic attempts to advise his grandfather on how to play the game, a task the elderly man is not up to given the amount of stuff happening on-screen.  That said, it looks like the kind of game I would have totally loved when I was eleven.

Unlike previous examples which are single-scene featurettes, this final entry is the subplot for an entire episode.  The name of the game is Super Slugfest, a homage to Punch-Out!! for the NES with one big difference; A two-player-mode.  The key plot point of the episode involves Homer going to the Noise Land video arcade so he can learn how to get better at the game under the tutelage of a child who has mastered it.  Typically Homer is depicted as being bonehead stupid, but here is a rare exception to that trend because upon returning home he proceeds to thrash his son, Bart, at the game when every time up until then it has been the other way around.  Unfortunately for Homer, the TV gets unplugged before he can deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce.  Subsequently, Bart announces his retirement (as the undefeated champion), denying his father the catharsis of just one victory.

These final two examples struck a chord with me in that I've always had the utmost respect for (grand)parents who go out of their way to enrich themselves in the hobbies of their children (despite not having any person interest).  The common theme of the son surpassing the father is something that exists in virtually every form of competition, but here it highlights a special generational gap.  Baby Boomers didn't have access to games growing up, but Generation Xers did.  Now, with the millennials starting to have children of their own, gaming has become nearly ubiquitous across multiple generations.  Overall, I'd say that's a good thing.  Even so, it's also nice to see a piece of media that chronicles the cultural history divide of video games in it's own quirky way.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lord of the Wasteland

When it comes to certain games I'm a bit behind the times.  Case in point, I've only just got around to finishing the Mad Max game by Avalanche Studios.  Overall I enjoyed my time spent wandering the wreckage-strewn Australian outback, but I can't help think there might have been a better way to approach the franchise.  It seems like when it comes to adaptations of this setting, they tend to come in two varieties; micro or macro.  The former is the more common with examples like the Fallout series, Rage, Wasteland, and The Last of Us.  They're games focused on a single individual or small group of people trying to endure in the aftermath of a global catastrophe.  The latter is the rarer of the two and is a bit harder to find examples for.  There's a Crusader Kings II mod entitled After the End which features a post-apocalyptic North America divided among a number of tribes.  Another game is Atomic Society, an early access title soon to be available through Steam.  In both cases they put the player in charge of a community (or tribe) and give them a bird's-eye view of what's going on.  I guess you could call them part of the RTS genre.  The problem I have is neither of these video game subgenres quite have what I want.  One category has lost it's luster, while the other feels too detached to capture what makes the setting interesting.  I think though, there might be an untapped sweet spot somewhere in-between.

Imagine taking the role of Immortan Joe, Lord Humongous or Aunty Entity.  How did they get started?  Were they once wanderers like Max?  How did they recruit followers, secure resources and deal with potential rivals?  In a post-apocalyptic future basic necessities are almost always in short supply, which means raiding is one course of action, another is trade.  As the leader of a faction how do you go about getting things like drinkable water, eatable food, adequate shelter, life-saving medicine, and a fuel supply for your vehicles?  That final point is especially important since if you have access to it, you can maraud for the rest.  There's always the risk though that you might run up against someone bigger and meaner than you, which places a certain value on alliances (for mutual protection or simple strength of numbers) Aside from the usual itinerary of burn, pillage and enslave, there could be groups within your own collective that have other motives or desires.  Perhaps a cult springs up from within your ranks or some of your members begin to take up cannibalistic practices.  Do you suppress it and risk rebellion or embrace it and become all the more dogmatic?

From a gameplay standpoint, I like the idea of having some kind of "nemesis system" akin to the one we've seen in on display in the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of War.  Instead of branding individuals though, I think it would be cool to focus on salvaged vehicles.  To begin with the players would only have access to motorcycles and dune buggies, but after obtaining the services of a talented black thumb (black finger?) the repertoire could steadily expand into sedans, trucks and the penultimate vehicle in every aspiring post-apocalyptic conqueror's arsenal, the war rig.  Of course the absolute pinnacle is a flying machine, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.  I like the idea of keeping the gameplay in the over-the-shoulder-third-person perspective because it gives players a chance to not only see their customized rides up close in action, but their warlord and followers too.  As the game progresses he (or she) could go from an unremarkable wastelander to a grizzly-looking cross between a samurai general and punk rocker.  The player's underlings could also have distinct looks with some variation between individuals.  Even the base of operations could have it's own set of "modules" such as gates, walls, garages, cisterns, depots, and armories that make it unique.

Weapons are always important and guns are what everyone wants most.  However, they might not be so easy to come by, the same goes for ammo, so they tend to be reserved for elite units while the rest make due with improvised weapons; pneumatic dart launchers, crossbows, spiked clubs, knives, machetes, and fire axes are just some examples along with armor jury rigged from sports equipment, or my personal favorite - a shield that's actually just an old road sign.  That said, improvised explosive devices such as the thunder sticks seen in Fury Road or molotov cocktails aren't hard to fashion out of scrap.  Grappling hooks and spring loaded harpoons are useful tools for when one vehicle attempts to commandeer another.

Looking back on what I've written thus far, it occurs to me this hypothetical video game I've brainstormed here doesn't have to be an exercise in power hungry conquest.  I've always liked the idea of a post-apocalyptic King Arthur and his knights errant.  Through good deeds it might be possible to form a just and sane government from which society could rebuild.  Good or evil though I think the important thing is to let the player decide how they want to rule the wasteland.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Nintendo Lingo

Whenever a piece of media is translated from Japanese to English (or vice-versa) things inevitably get tweaked or modified to better suit the intended audience.  How exactly one goes about this though isn't always clear, leading to variations between successive translators as well as legacy issues that can crop up in later additions to a franchise.  Nowhere is this more apparent in video games than with Nintendo.

Hypothetical situation - a Japanese and American are talking about their favorite video games and one of them brings up Mario Brothers.  At first there isn't much in the way of communication difficulties since characters like "Mario," "Luigi," "Yoshi," "Wario," and "Waluigi," are basically the same in both languages.  However, when the Japanese person mentions "Kinopio" the American suddenly finds himself at a loss.  "Who's Kinopio?" they might be wondering.  It turns out that Kinopio's name in English is "Toad."  Those small brown creatures that Mario is always jumping on are "goombas" in English, but in Japanese they're called "kuribo."  Interesting aside, "kuri" means "chestnut" in Japanese which kind of makes sense given that the little critters do look a bit like chestnuts with faces and a pair of feet.  The turtle people are "Noko-noko" in Japanese, but in English are "Koopa."  Complicating things further, "Bowser" is called "Koopa" in Japanese, although I can see why his title is "King Koopa" if you interpret that as shorthand for "King of the Koopa."  Other characters such as Princess Peach and Princess Daisy, are pretty much direct translations in either language.  I'm not sure what became of Princess Toadstool though...

The same sort of mystery surrounds the Koopalings.  According to Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario Brothers IP, Bowser Junior is the only actual offspring of King Koopa.  The rest are simply his lieutenants.  Who their parents are, and who Bowser Junior's mother is, has never been revealed.  This kind of bizarreness isn't unique to Mario Brothers either.  Another venerated Nintendo franchise has its own brand of weird.

A great example comes from The Legend of Zelda series, and Link's iconic steed - Epona.  I've heard my share of arguments over whether it's pronounced "E-po-na," or "E-pon-ya."  Turns out, either pronunciation is valid depending on where you hail from.  If you ever played the original Dead Space you probably noticed the planet-cracking starship that most of the game takes place on is called the "Ishimura."  In Japanese and English it's pretty much the same, but in the spin-off game Dead Space: Extraction, for the Wii, one of the british voice actors refers to it as the "Ishimyura."  Phonetically,  "mu" and "myu" are distinctly different sounds in Japanese, but in the U.K. it's just a regional accent - the same goes for Epona.  You might be tempted to say whichever is closer to the original Japanese must be correct, but I'd advise against going down that road.  It's a linguistics quagmire that will get you into more trouble than it's worth.  Knowing which syllable to stress is also a problem.  Are they "bo-ko-BLINS" or "bo-KOB-lins"?  Also, I'm not sure which pronunciation guidelines should be followed with regards to certain nouns.  Case in point, "Hyrule" is "high" plus "rule," but "Hyrulian" could be "hi-RU-li-an," or it could be "Hi-ru-LAY-en" (like the adjective "Hylian").  Typically, when it comes to four syllable words the emphasis is on the second, but there are exceptions (such as "Transylvanian" and "Filipino") where the stress is on the third.

In the past, most of what I've just talked about hasn't been of much importance because until just recently most Nintendo games have been light on the text and dialogue-free.  However, with the introduction of recorded speech in Breath of the Wild I wonder how Nintendo plans on tackling this.  Will they enforce consistency, or will it be left up to the voice actors to decide?  I have a feeling that, much like the original translations, it will depend on who's in charge of the project and what languages/dialects they're familiar with.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Rise from your Grave

A common piece of advice for someone who can't sell their movie script is to turn it into a novel instead.  Wise words, but what if such scripts were made into video games?  Most Hollywood movie execs don't buy film scripts for the words on the page.  They buy them for the premise and ideas underneath.  Sometimes, during the course of rewrites, follow-up drafts, and changes of ownership, the original story ends up lost or replaced with something distinctly different by the time it makes it to the big screen.  Oftentimes that is a good thing, but other times it can be bad.  What if those good original scripts could get a second shot though?...say in the form of a video game.

"Ghostbusters" is one of those rare cases where horror and comedy successfully mix into a box office hit.  I enjoyed the film in my youth, but when I later learned what the original script was about it seemed like I had missed out on a far more interesting story.  A first draft has never surfaced online, but according to people who have read it, the tone was much darker and more terrifying.  For one thing the ghostbusters themselves were more paranormal investigators than pest exterminators.  They didn't have proton packs, but they did have P.K.E. meters and traps.  Most of the plot revolved around unraveling the mystery of why ghosts were appearing in New York City with ever increasing frequency.  Sort of like "The Ring," rather than the snobs-vs-slobs gimmick that dominated the final product.  Still, we do get glimpses of the original story in the form of Ray and Winston's car conversation about the end times, as well as some of the background chatter concerning Dana's apartment building; namely how it was designed by a mad 1920s architect to absorb and channel ghostly energy.  Speaking of ghosts, they were supposed to be extremely disturbing and grotesque.  So no Slimer or Stay Puff, but some of those other designs we get to see briefly might have had bigger roles.  To me it sounds cool in a creepy kind of way.  I don't think attaching the Ghostbusters license to a video game based on this original script would be a good idea, but I like the idea of a game based around these ideas.  It's sort of like a cross between Echo Night and Amnesia: The Dark Decent.

I used to watch He-man cartoons when I was little, and I think I even owned a few of the toys.  That said, I was never much of a fan, even of the live-action movie.  However, I recently got the chance to see a retrospective about the film, and was impressed with the concept art shown.  Even more intriguing was the original pitch for the franchise, which was basically going for Conan the Barbarian except no IP rights.  Obviously changes were made to avoid copyright infringement, but I rather like the idea of Conan going up against a skull-faced wizard and his band of bestial henchmen.  Evil-Lyn would make a pretty good femme-fatale and the kind of adversary that Conan never really found himself dealing with in any of the Robert E. Howard stories.  The concept of Prince Adam kind of works too, if you think of Conan as an adopted member of the royal family of Aquilonia (rather than Eternia).  Regardless of the nomenclature, it still has the potential to be an excellent addition to the sword and sorcery genre.  Maybe it could be an action RPG somewhere between Dark Souls and the Mark of Kri.

The Ridley Scott version of "Robin Hood" is not the director's best work, nor is it a particularly interesting interpretation of the famous character.  Supposedly, the original script for Robin Hood had a distinctly different title - "Nottingham."  In that version of the story the Sheriff and Robin Hood had a role reversal of sorts.  The Sheriff was the protagonist (rather than the antagonist) and a bit of a medieval Sherlock Holmes, using crude forensics to discover the whereabouts, motives, and identity of what was essentially a domestic terrorist calling himself Robin Hood.  This might sound a bit far-fetched, after all, everyone knows Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, right?  Well...that's true, and it's also true that Prince John raised taxes after the King went abroad.  What's often forgotten though is prince's reason for doing this.  It was because King Richard the Lionhearted had exhausted the royal treasury on expensive foreign wars.  From that perspective we have a compelling tale about a dangerous dissident trying to sow chaos throughout the realm in the absence of its rightful ruler.  Enter our blue-collar law enforcement agent as the last line of defense in a kingdom steadily being undermined from within.  It's sort of like a dark ages L.A. Noir meets a reverse Assassin's Creed.  I should clarify; by "reverse" I don't mean the Knights Templar instead of assassins, but rather the player taking the role of a guy trying to prevent wrist-blade stabbings instead of being the one doing them.  Maybe in this case it would be longbow shootings, but I'm sure you get the point.

Those are just a few examples of films that were interesting to me in terms of what they could have been rather than what they were.  It's unlikely that any of those three scripts will ever be conceived as a motion picture in their original form, but perhaps those lost and buried concepts could see the light of day in the form of a video game.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Thieves Guild

Internet piracy may not exactly be legal,
but it is paradoxically non-profit
In theory Steam keys are a useful way for developers and publishers to promote games.  By sending out these strings of letters and numbers they can offer prominent Youtubers, Twitch streamers and assorted review outlets free copies of a game they're looking to raise awareness for.  Just punch in the code, download the game, and you're good to go.  The thing is there's a dark underbelly to Steam keys when it comes to resale.

"What's the big deal?" you might be wondering.  People sell used games all the time through E-bay or upscale pawnshops (usually referred to as "Gamestop").  True, but I'd argue that the majority of the games you see for sale at those stores were trade-ins or simply the result of people getting rid of stuff they're never going to play again.  Steam codes being sold on websites such as G2A though are more often than not an online fence for scammers and thieves.

Steam trading cards?  CS:GO cosmetics?
DoTA hats?
It's all bitcoins to me...
In case you don't know how this grey market works, let me give you a pair of typical scenarios.  Developers, particularly from smaller studios, will sometimes receive E-mails from high-traffic video game websites (such as Giant Bomb) claiming they want to hold some kind of event based around a game made by said developer.  "Please send us promo codes."  Of course, it turns out that the message is a complete fake and just an attempt to swindle a few downloadable copies of the game for resale on G2A.  Because these stolen keys go for cheap, they get remedied before the developer even figures out what really happened.  It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but the second example is far more egregious.

Online credit card theft is a serious problem, but the thing is once the thieves get the info they need they have to find a way to turn it into a quick profit (before the owner figures out what's up).  One way to go about it is to hit up an online retailer and purchase digital copies of video games in the form of download keys.  Then quickly put them up on G2A for cheap.  By the time the credit card owner blocks the charges the thieves have already laundered their ill-gotten gains...hang on though, it gets worse.

Whenever a credit card is frozen, or has its charges blocked, the retail outlet in which it was used has to pay a fine.  This has led some developers such as the makers of Factorio (who allow customers to purchase digital copies of their game directly from them) to come out and publically ask people to pirate their game rather than purchase it with stolen credit card information.  Their reasoning being at least piracy doesn't cost them anything directly out-of-pocket.  Now, I'm sure there's a minority of gamers who end up with duplicate copies of a game for legitimate reasons.  Here's the thing, you should give those extra codes away to your friends not try to sell them for a quick buck (actually less after G2A takes their cut).  Shady websites like this should not be allowed to thrive because none of that money ever finds its way to the people who actually deserve it.  At least with used game sales the developer got their money from the initial purchase, but here it's all hot goods and greedy parasites.    

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Development Hellblade

Mental trauma is associated with schizophrenia,
but it's unclear whether it is a symptom or a cause.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was announced back in 2014 as a third-person action game set in Dark Ages Britain.  The titular main character, Senua, is part of a Celtic community that is devastated by norse raiders.  Being one of the few (or possibly only) survivor of the attack, she takes it upon herself to get revenge.  The twist is she isn't a very mentally healthy individual and is often plagued by hallucinations, voices and other problems typically associated with insanity.  It's an interesting idea for a game, but also has a lot of potential pitfalls.

For one, the game developers like to use the term "psychosis" to describe Senua's mental illness.  The problem is psychosis, by definition, can mean anything from trivialities like a child's imaginary friend or night terrors to dire issues such as schizophrenia or hypothyroidism.  Each classification has it's own particular set of symptoms and subcategories.  Schizophrenia, for example, has five separate subtypes including "paranoid," "disorganized" and "catatonic," each of which has its own rigorously defined set of symptoms.  I get the impression that the developers of Hellblade (at least initially) simply read a bunch of articles about what it's like to experience various kinds of psychosis and thought, "Hey, this is creepy and interesting.  We should totally make a game about this sort of thing!"  The problem is, it becomes a kind of insanity blender that doesn't have much to do with real mental health issues.  Of course, that's fine if the source of the madness is supernatural in nature, say in Silent Hill or Call of Cthulhu.  However, the devs have taken great pains to make the game feel authentic.  They've gone so far as to bring on two Cambridge professors (one a historian and the other a psychologist) as consultants.  Even Senua's character model has been meticulously detailed all the way down to her fingerprints.

Hallucinations are influenced by personal experiences,
but have shared aspects between individuals as well.
Despite taking longer than intended, the development team working on Hellblade has progress to the point that the game reached an Alpha state (playable from beginning to end) last year with a scheduled release date set tentatively to sometime in 2017.  Based on what I can gather from the dev diaries, it looks like the viking enemies in the game will appear distorted and unnatural due to Senua's poor mental health.  It's a cool idea, and not as far fetched as one might imagine.  We tend to think of our eyes as cameras and ears as microphones, but in reality quite a bit of what we see and hear is interpreted by our subconscious.  More specifically, parts of the brain that aren't executive function interpret the incoming data before passing it up to the command center (so to speak).  To put it in video game terms the human mind works a bit like the PS3 multi-core cell processor wherein the component that makes up a person's consciousness is only a small piece of a much larger whole.  Consider the fact that you don't have to actively think about things like blinking or breathing, your body just does it automatically.  Of course, you can control it directly so what's happening there is the frontal lobes of your brain are assuming control over a task normally left to the cerebral cortex to handle.  On the other hand something like heart rate isn't easy for most people to exercise authority over, and some functions of the body are completely impossible to control directly.  For better or worse, the same sort of thing can be said for the senses.  Mudding the waters further still is the subjective interpretation of sensory inputs.
Close your right eye and focus your left eye on the black spot.
At a viewing distance of about 6 to 8 inches from your monitor
the "+" symbol should vanish from view.

What tastes or smells good to one person might be foul and disgusting to another depending on how each individual's brain interprets olfactory data.  Even eyesight has this to a degree.  The human brain is constantly trying to apply patterns to visual data and fill in the blanks.  A really easy way to demonstrate this is with the blind spots we all have due to the way our eyeballs connect to the optic nerve.  The reason you don't have a blank patch in each eye's cone of vision is because your brain automatically compensates by guessing what's there.  In the case of someone suffering from dementia, they are increasingly unable to apply patterns leading to a decline in cognitive function.  Meanwhile a schizophrenic applies patterns haphazardly resulting in wildly incorrect interpretations of external stimuli. Personally, I'm curious to see what the game developers do with this sort of phenomenon in terms of puzzles and atmosphere - ditto for 3D sound and the controller rumble.

Sadly, story-wise I don't things are going to end well for Senua.  Effective antipsychotic medicines didn't exist until the 1950s.  Worse yet throughout most of human history the extremely mentally unwell were subjected to "treatments" such as bloodletting, trepanning and a variety of trials by ordeal involving water.  None of this helped, and in most cases did considerable harm. Regardless, fingers crossed that this turns out to be a psychological masterpiece (albeit inevitably tragic in nature).  If the developer's track record is anything to go by it's unlikely to be a very long game.  My guess is six hours tops.  That might be good thing though all things considered.  I just hope the time spent in her messed up head feels worth it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Horizon: Far Zenith

With 2.6 million copies sold in the first two weeks, I think it's safe to say Horizon: Zero Dawn is going to get a sequel.  The question is "where to go from here?"  As it turns out there's a lot of possible directions the series can go (spoilers to follow, obviously).

In the debut trailer for the game, the narration explains that the Old Ones built towers that reached the sky.  This might be an exaggeration, or it might not.  Amongst some of the text files that players can find scattered about the world, several mention a project called "Far Zenith."  Much like the Zero Dawn project, it was an attempt to preserve humanity in the face of its imminent destruction by the Faro Swarm.  Instead of going underground though, the idea was to use a spaceship called the Odyssey to relocate to a neighboring star system.  Sadly, it was a total failure due to an matter/antimatter power generator accident while exiting the solar system.  That might make it sound like a dead end story-wise, but in order to build something like the Odyssey, I think there would have to be pretty extensive infrastructure setup in orbit around earth.  Things like an space elevator connected to a ring habitat and geosynchronous assembly yard would definitely be within the realm of possibility.  Here's the kicker though, "why would anyone go up there?"  As it turns out there could be a very good reason to do so.

After defeating Hades, Aloy's next task is to reboot Gaia and re-establish her connections to the seven surviving subordinate AI systems.  The thing is, maybe that has to be done by someone onsite with Alpha Prime access.  If that were the case then Aloy might have some traveling to do.  I think it's safe to assume that each of the subordinate AI mainframes (with the exception of Hades) are in different locations than Gaia.  Poseidon, for example, might be located in some underwater base.  While Artemis, Demeter and Eleuthia (in charge of reintroducing animals, plants and humans respectively) are in all likelihood located on the surface of the earth somewhere.  Hephaestus is probably in a Cauldron under a mountain somewhere.  On the other hand AI constructs like Aether and Minerva (atmosphere and communications) might be located in orbit above the planet.  Given their assigned tasks, it makes sense for them to be in those locations.  There's also the question of Apollo, which brings us to the after-credits stinger.

Hades and Sylens are still out there.  The latter is continuing on his quest for knowledge while the former is a bit of a wildcard.  Some have suggested that any DLC for the game might revolve around these two characters.  Obviously, finding a backup of Apollo would be Sylens' dream come true, but Hades' motivation is a bit more muddled.  It's not clear if he is simply following his programming or has become a completely rogue entity after having his system hacked by a as of yet undisclosed third party.  While there's no evidence to support it, I wonder if Elysium has anything to do with all of this?  Maybe the last humans left alive, after the Faro Swarm stripped the planet bare, found a way to preserve themselves in their underground pyramid?  Cryogenic freezing, consciousness uploading or some kind of underground closed ecosystem might have preserved them beyond their intended tenure.  It's certainly a possibility when you consider what a madman Ted Faro was.  Part of me has a mental image of the inhabitants of Elysium continuing to exists and dwell underground like the Morlocks from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.

Story aside, I think there's  also some room for technical improvements.  For one the water physics could use another pass, particularly with regards to how it interacts with things moving into, through, and out of it.  Lip Syncing and facial animations (while not as bad as Mass Effect: Andromeda) could stand some improvement, as could the way robotic herds operate.  Instead of remaining in at set zone, think it would be a lot more interesting if they migrated across large portions of the map.  This might make it a bit harder for the player to find particular types of robotic animals, but I think the problem could be circumvented by having hacked Tallnecks constantly update the player via moving map icons.  I also have this idea of a nomadic desert people who shepard robotic camel/turtle robots that have a big tank (or two) of fresh water on their backs.  Being able to ride a Sawtooth would be cool, or even more awesome - a Stormbird.  Fighting against ape-like robots in the jungle or forest might be fun as well.  Although that last suggestion might be a bit too on the nose given the name of the developer that made Horizon: Zero Dawn.  Regardless, I look forward to seeing what the come up with next.