Archive for the ‘Playing the Game’ Category

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Finishing Metroid II: Replay Incentives

March 13, 2013

This is my last Metroid II post, I promise. It’s spoileriffic, so most of it’s hidden behind a jump. Sorry.

Metroid II Ship

Even in 1991, game developers wanted their games to be lasting experiences, things that their target audience would be playing ten, 20, even 40 hours after they were done. I finished Metroid II in a little over seven hours. I’m satisfied — seven hours is no small amount of time to be entertained by a black and gray Game Boy experience — but what if I wanted to get more out of it? What incentive do I have beyond the personal satisfaction of pure mastery of the game to try to get through it again?

Well, by this point, the answer to that question was simple, because it was answered by the original Metroid: offer an incentive for mastery by changing the ending.

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The Sunny Side of SimCity

March 9, 2013

Everybody's Happy!I feel terrible.

No, not for something I did, at least not directly. I feel terrible for the people who created SimCity, the people who brought it to life, the people who tested it and programmed it and decided what colors it should have and what Simlish sounds like. I feel terrible for the programmers who came up with a way for thousands of little Sims to influence the direction of a city, to appear to each think for themselves and live unique little lives as we create the infrastructure of their city — and in some ways, their world — around them.

So much of this game is a feat of design and programming. It is so sad to see it reduced to a server complaint and a one-star Amazon review.

Here is what I want to say to the rest of them, to the devs who had nothing to do with the debacle that is now transpiring:

This game, this toy, this thing you have created, it is brilliant.

SimCity is a beautiful game, with a color scheme that’s like every color in nature except brighter. These are the colors we wish we saw in a growing suburb or a bustling metropolis, colors not yet obscured by the browns and grays that come with disrepair, with salted highways, with the pollution that hangs in the air of the modern city. Hell, even the pollution of SimCity is something to behold, a gently wafting cirrus cloud of smog that hangs in the air just long enough to tell you that you have a problem.

This is a game that actually makes the player believe that every action has an effect on each of the individual Sims walking or driving or lounging around the city. You don’t just see stats like crimes and fires, you are actually alerted to individual ones. You watch your police car patrol chase criminals around the city. You see flatbeds with construction materials moving their way to build sites. You watch ambulances transport the sick to the hospital, and you watch the sick try to lurch their own way to the hospital under a constantly, pitifully endless fountain of what I presume to be vomit. The new SimCity makes you care for your city’s citizens in a way that no previous SimCity has.

This is a game that promotes collaboration, even if that collaboration is between you and yourself. Your city is not an entity unto itself. In order to truly succeed, it must ship materials to, or borrow emergency vehicles from, or encourage tourism among other cities in a predetermined “region”. You can create cities whose sole purpose is to exist as a supply house for a city you’d really like to see succeed, or you can create cities in direct opposition to each other — say, a green self-sustaining environmentalist nirvana next to a high-tech smog-covered industrial manufacturing center — just to see what happens, to see if they can coexist.

There are so many little touches that make this game such a charming experience, things that people just won’t see because they’re so angry right now. Someday, when the servers return, when cheetah speed is again attainable, when there’s less vitriol clogging the promotional space, people will return. They’ll see what you’ve done here. And one by one, they’ll applaud your efforts.

Thank you for sharing your vision with us. I hope it’s not too long before you get to share that vision with everyone who wants to experience it.

* * *

The picture I’ve painted here is a rosy one. SimCity is not a perfect game, and I’ll be going through my issues with the gameplay side of it and, to the extent that I can, the server side of it in my review. Still, my personal experience with the servers has been mostly positive, and I want to give credit where it’s due, from someone who has only played it in the time when it’s been open to the general public.

SimCity is a fun, absorbing experience. It’s too bad so much positive has to be outweighed by such an invasive, inexcusable, but still singular negative.

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Metroid II: Setting the Mood

March 7, 2013
...I can see you...

…I can see you…

It is the rare video game that can effectively build a sense of suspense that is legitimately frightening for the player. Driven by the need to progress, obstacles increase in difficulty, maybe, but they don’t often increase the wariness one feels in approaching them. The God of War series, for example, kills the trepidation you might feel at facing an enemy several hundred times bigger than your avatar by making such a battle happen early on; when Kratos has taken down a titan, there is removed any reason to feel afraid of anything. In fact, any battle in which you are not battling something huge and fierce and angry feels like a bit of a letdown.

Metroid II actually builds the sort of tension that can be so intimidating as to force the player to put down the machine it’s being played on. As the ever-helpful Metroid Wiki notes, there are more “boss battles” in Metroid II than in any other Metroid game, at a staggering 40 encounters with metroids at various stages of their life cycle.

Now, whether you actually consider those battles “boss” battles or not — for the most part, these “boss battles” are quick little missile-firing sessions, battles of attrition where you fire as many projectiles as possible without losing too much energy — their setup is very skillfully executed. Almost every metroid you need to fight is preceded by the sight of a broken metroid “shell”, letting the player know that a battle awaits in the next room or so.

This is a nice touch, a “be ready” signpost that more often than not had me grinding my way through minor enemies for energy and missile refills before I went after whatever waited for me. The sense of dread is particularly pronounced as the metroids get bigger, as the Giger-esque Omegas and the smaller but quicker and more tenacious Zetas become more and more common. Once you’re startled once by a metroid uncovered by shooting away sand, you realize that they could be hiding pretty much anywhere.

All of that is well and good, but nothing compares to the sequence that awaits the player at the end of the game.

(This gets into spoilery territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put it after the jump. Yes, I still worry about spoiling 20-year-old Game Boy games. Hey, nobody spoiled it for me, why should I for them?

…ahem. Jump. Clickyclick.)

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Metroid II and the Danger of Subversion

March 5, 2013

It will surprise nobody who knows me that I got lost, and often, throughout my time with Metroid II: Return of Samus. It’s not that it’s a huge game, really, it’s just that it’s in black and white, it’s big enough, and it seems to take pride in re-using some environments for the sake of making the player lose any sense of directional bearing.

Also, I have no sense of direction. I spent a lot of time — a lot of time — taking the controls while my brother barked directional instructions at me when we were kids. Spatial reasoning has never come easily to me; I can read a map just fine, but put me in the middle of a city and tell me to find my way out of it, and I might remain trapped forever.

Of course, I’m too stubborn to actually draw maps as I go…but I digress.

About halfway through Metroid II, I got lost. Hopelessly lost. I had done what I needed to do to that point, I had fought and won against a handful of “gamma metroids”, and I’d picked up a mess of missiles and a couple of energy tanks along the way. I followed the implied suggestion of the game to clear an area of metroids, let the energy-draining lava that blocks off other areas recede, and then move on to the next area. It seemed like a nice way to let the game dictate where I should be at any given point, something the game uses to keep the world from getting too big at any given point. But then I got lost, running around in circles, bombing every wall, checking each area once, twice, three times for secret passages.

Finding nothing, my resolve fell.

The Metroid Life Cycle

As it turns out, a combination of a few energy tanks and the half-damage ability of the varia suit allows for the ability to go through the lava-filled passages into segments of the game that theoretically shouldn’t be open yet.

Really, this is a strength of the game, given that the ability to go into these areas opens up the game in a way that will appeal to those who don’t care for forced linearity. You can seek out and find a few of the overpowered omega metroids if you like, you can get a look at terrains that you’ve never seen, you can practice fighting enemies that you’d only seen in the instruction book to that point, and you can save your game in areas that you’re not supposed to be. You can explore the entire world of Metroid II, aside from perhaps the final boss, once you can withstand enough punishment to speed your way through the lava.

The problem with subverting the intention of the lava is that the entire point of the game is to eradicate all of the metroids, not to get to some predetermined destination. If you go exploring in places you shouldn’t be, you are necessarily increasing the scope of your search for those metroids, and when you get to the point where, say, you have one left, you have the entire world of the game to explore, rather than one comparatively smaller section of it.

That said, it’s difficult to resist the pull of new things, especially when you’re not entirely sure whether the lava is truly telling you not to move on. The last retro game I spent this amount of time with was The Legend of Zelda, a game that delights in slowly breaking down the rule set it establishes early on, forcing the player to consider possibilities about the world that would have seemed impossible in the early going (walking through walls, whistle-triggered staircases, and so on, particularly in the game’s second adventure). Unable to find the metroid that would trigger another lava-clearing earthquake, the question lingered: was I supposed to be navigating my way through the lava to progress? What if my self-imposed limitation, my understanding of the implications of the game’s mechanics thus far, were hindering my ability to conquer it?

Don't do it!

Don’t do it!

Until I did finally figure out what I was missing, a simple strategy allowed for the exploration I needed: go where I like, but don’t save until I have an answer to my question. Metroid II‘s usage of save points allowed for the approach, and my own fear of trapping myself somewhere I shouldn’t be was enough to get me to restrain myself from using them — no matter how off-track I got, I knew that the simple act of video game suicide would return me to familiar territory. Eventually, I did find the metroids I’d been missing, and I didn’t have to go through the lava to get to them.

And thank god, because I might have been at this game for months (or until I dropped it for a prettier, newer game).

The ability to subvert a game’s implicit rule set is one of the things that makes even playing a video game a creative experience. The way you play is unique to you. Whether it appeals to you, however, may depend on how willing you are to accept the consequences of that subversion. Subverting a game’s rules terrifies me, at least until I’m familiar enough with it to turn it into my own personal sandbox; I’d rather see what it has to offer on something as close as possible to its own terms before I start forcing it to conform to mine. Now that I’ve beaten Metroid II, I’m much more willing to go in and try to break it.

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Owning the Grind

October 3, 2011

I’ll admit, it feels a little bit silly blogging about a game that’s apparently already out-of-print, but there’s a lesson to be found in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to point it out whether you get to experience it or not.

Devil Survivor is an SRPG with turn-based isometric battles in the tradition of the genre. The entire game is played on the clock; you get seven days to save the world, and every major game action — whether initiating a major battle or having a plot-progressing conversation — takes half an hour off the clock. Also, the protagonists sleep, because, you know, they’re supposed to be humans rather than automatons trapped in a video game.

BIG EVIL DEMON

Like this guy. You'll need to grind to beat this guy.

You would think that this would eliminate the grind altogether, but this isn’t the case. If you find that you’re simply not strong enough to take on one of the game’s many difficult battles, you can enter a free battle at no in-game time cost whatsoever. You can stockpile money, gain levels, and overpower yourself as much as you like.

It would seem that an SRPG is just about the last place you’d want to be subjected to a grind, but Devil Survivor actually manages to make it work, by inspiring the player to set very specific goals to the grind. The playable team in Devil Survivor is so malleable, so very subject to the player’s wants and whims, that a very specialized team can be created for any situation. Sure, the main characters remain (mostly) constant, but each main character gets to be flanked by two of a possible stable of 16 demons. Demons can be bought, and demons can be created through the fusion of other demons, and a little bit of play time reveals that it doesn’t take all that many battles to create a highly specialized team. If you’re fighting a series of enemies that are weak against fire, finding four or five demons with fire abilities isn’t all that difficult. If you’re fighting a battle that includes the condition of needing to win within three turns, carrying a stable of demons that can double up on attacks might be the way to go.

Strategy in an SRPG tends to be a matter of getting the most out of a very limited set of variables. You have a set team, and you have to figure out some way to get that team to work together, to make the most out of whatever abilities that team has. Devil Survivor has some of this, but just as much of the strategy is in building the team that’s going into battle.

If you pay attention during the battles that you win, you can start forming generalized strategies right off the bat — demons with the “Anger Hit” ability work well with a hero that has the “Marksman” ability, for example, given that the never-miss Marksman supercedes the 50% success rate of the Anger Hit. Given that you have three active ability slots per demon, it helps to slot a healing spell in at least one of those if possible to give the player the greatest flexibility of attack and support. The more likely a paralyzing or petrifying skill is to hit, given whatever aids and buffs are present in the battle, the more useful it happens to be. You can build teams to take advantage of all of these, and for much of the game, fielding a team that simply exists to function in harmony with itself is enough.

There are some very, very difficult battles in the game, however, particularly late, but again, if you’re paying attention, they don’t feel unfair. When you start a battle, there is no mystery to the specific enemies you are fighting; all of the information about those enemies, including their abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and stat boosts, are immediately made available at the start of each battle. By knowing everything about these enemies, the player can then enter into free battles, with the goal of recruiting a cadre of demons that will best fight that specific battle.

Usually, it only takes two or three free fights before you’re ready to go in guns blazing, ready to shred up the enemies that seemed so intimidating not long before. Granted, “two or three free fights” can take an hour to an hour and a half depending on the player’s approach, but there’s a very immediate sense of progress. This isn’t walking back and forth and triggering random battles for an hour just to trigger a minor stat boost; this is grinding with a goal.

Does it undercut the urgency of the game, somewhat removing the idea that the player pays a price for every action? Sure it does. But as a way to keep a player interested in what is already a fairly long and difficult game, it is perfect. The grind is not boring, it’s just one more element to the “S” in this particular SRPG.

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A Bastion of Emotion: Dénouement

August 27, 2011

So, this is part three, which means MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. That’s your warning.

There's something sinister in those eyes...

So. Have you played to the end of Bastion? And then, did you play it again?

I was trying to think back to the last time the end of a game affected me the way Bastion‘s did, and the only thing I could come up with was the end of Klonoa. Klonoa spent a few stages pretending it was a game for kids, and then it killed off Klonoa’s grandpa and started torturing him in ways that would be cruel in an M-Rated game, never mind an E10. Still, even that game was affecting not because the story was executed well — if I’m being completely honest, it was a little ham-fisted and melodramatic — but because it went in a direction that was pretty much the opposite of my expectations. Klonoa‘s story succeeds not because it’s written well, but because it’s written differently than pretty much any other game of its ilk.

The end of Bastion offers the opposite experience. The ending, really, is projected almost from the very beginning of the game; even its central choice is projected early on: Sure, you can erase the past, but do you really, truly want to?

Bastion succeeds because it manages to make two seemingly simple binary choices feel utterly monumental. Primed by the experience of trying to survive a world in which it’s not clear that you’re the “good guy”, per se, the choice of whether you’re going to carry your once-ally-now-enemy Zulf home after he has been betrayed and left for dead by his people is a big one. It’s confession time: I left him facedown the first time I played, and proceeded to wipe out the rest of his people with my very big stick. I didn’t enjoy it, but Rucks assured me that all of the mayhem and death was okay, given that the goal here was to turn back the clock anyway. It was a means to an end, an end in which presumably all of the dead would be resurrected. Systematic genocide doesn’t seem so bad if there’s an undo button, I suppose.

But then, I didn’t push it. I wiped out an entire race of people, and then, at the urgings of Zia, the singer responsible for the first truly affecting moment in the game, I decided the world was better off without them. Partly, I think, this was to spite Rucks, who I was actually angry at for all but tricking me into systematic genocide; partly, it was the nagging suspicion that by erasing the past, I wouldn’t really be changing anything.

I think I messed things up for myself by doing this; not only did I remove any sympathy or empathy that I felt for my own avatar, but Brendan Keogh’s brilliant little Bastion blog post suggests that by not choosing to “reset the world”, I’ve removed much of the meaning from the New Game Plus mode’s clever little changes.

Still, by turning my character into a selfish git, I motivated myself to burn through the game again so that I could “make it right” the next time around. I have a hard time playing the ass in RPGs; I can’t even bring myself to insult the most ridiculous and irredeemable characters in dialogue-heavy Bioware games. Making the choices I did went completely against my normal mode of play, offering the drive to do it better the next time around. Little did I know how much better things would seem.

Carrying Zulf through the mass of hostile Ura may have been the most beautiful little experience I’ve ever had in a game. That the Ura would eventually stop firing — that an Ura commander would quite literally strike his charge down for firing — all while “Mother, I’m Here” plays, and we continue to hear Rucks’ narration, telling Zia that The Kid was probably in the process of destroying him once and for all…it’s thwarted destiny, it’s humanity, and it’s devastation, all in one convenient two-minute scene. It’s a wrenching scene, one that renders the choice of whether to restore Caeldonia almost meaningless.

I restored it. Only because I hadn’t before. But I sort of wish I hadn’t.

The ending is what we work for in a game. We want to see how the story is resolved by the writers and designers responsible for presenting it to us. Coming up with a satisfying way to close a game is a difficult thing, and a half-hour cutscene, while often interesting, often feels like a letdown, as if the power is being taken out of our hands for the game’s final moments. What Bastion does is give us a small choice that makes all the difference in our perception of what happened over the previous hours of play. Without its endings, Bastion is a good game, one certainly worth killing a few hours with; with its endings, it is a treasure.

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Child of Eden: Look at me.

July 13, 2011

The opening cinematic sequence of a game is not typically where you look for innovation or emotional connection; normally, it’s just something pretty to look at while the game establishes a backstory. In this way, Child of Eden begins like any other game. We are introduced to Lumi, apparently the first human born outside the confines of earth, whose memories are to be preserved on the internet for all time to come so that she can be the first digital human or some such futuristic nonsense. Of course, the internet is a vile and hostile place, so almost immediately after she wakes up and notices the neon psychedelia of the inside of the internet, her surroundings and her extremeties begin to digitally decay. She panics, and it is up to YOU, the player, to SAVE LUMI!

Okay, so none of that really makes a whole lot of sense and even as it’s playing out, it feels like a fairly convoluted (not to mention slightly cheesy) way to offer motivation to the player. And then, just as Lumi — here a video of an actual teenage girl (Rachael Rhodes, the face of the Child of Eden creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi-produced “band” Genki Rockets), rather than a 3D-modeled approximation of one — is about to disappear, she looks helplessly into the camera, at the player.

At this point, all of the backstory becomes meaningless, save for two words: Save Lumi.

Until that moment, the entirety of that opening cinematic sequence seems very distant from the player. There is no relating to Lumi, who exists in a space completely apart from our own, who seems to possess a sort of consciousness that we could never begin to understand. There is no relating to the space she occupies, a metaphorical, fantastical approximation of the internet that approaches the sheer ludicrous whimsy of the hacking scenes in Hackers (and yes, I know I’m dating myself here, but I can live with that). And yet, with one quick glance we are drawn into the world of the game, and suddenly it means something beyond a simple “this is the story” introduction.

The key, I think, is the video. If Lumi were rendered with, say, the Unreal engine, this moment wouldn’t have half the power that it ultimately does; imagine the approximations of human beings that occupy The Polar Express trying to replicate such a moment. The eyes wouldn’t be right, not quite. The facial expression would be just unnatural enough, even at the height of current technology, to separate us from the game.

By using video, the game tells us “hey, that’s a real person in there, and she’s looking at you.”

Full motion video gets a bad rap in the context of gaming; blame the legacy of the Sega CD, a machine that had the ability to display it without the power to handle it. Full motion video can take the game out of the player’s hands or offer a distracting backdrop to gameplay visuals too primitive to make any sense in its context. Child of Eden is a game whose playable visuals actually make sense amongst the video images, by imagining a narrative that puts the video in an abstract, “video-gamey” world.

Lumi appears throughout Child of Eden, often as a backdrop to a boss battle, a sort of reminder of the reason you’re grinding away through a given setpiece. While the reminder is nice, however, it’s not necessary — one look is all it takes.

(though it doesn’t hurt that Child of Eden would be a ridiculously spiffy game even without Lumi at the center of it.)