Information Overload and the Removal of Surprise

E3 2012 was so disappointing. Behind all the flashing lights and booth babes, there really wasn’t much substance. Sure, there were some trailers and in-depth demos on some of the biggest hits that were to come out over the year… but what about the surprises, the big reveals? Out of everything shown, so very few games were actually announced. It’s great to know how the games we’re all excited about are getting along, but it’s far from the most exciting news a company can bring.

It’s the biggest gaming conference in the U.S., and no one had anything to wow the country but with more gameplay footage of the same games? Really, what’s going on here?

Skyward Sword is nice and all… but I already knew about that game!

Practically everyone knows the answer already, of course… the Internet. While that may be oversimplifying things, the convoluted World Wide Web has made it easier to announce any tidbit of news than ever before, and also harder to keep secrets. The evolution of the Internet has given millions access to an endless stream of information, and video games are no exception.

Remember when the Internet was not around in its full force? No? Okay, I’m old. But back in the day, gamers did not have this electronic luxury. We were confined to word of mouth and monthly gaming publications, drinking up what little information we could get. So, to us E3 was a glorious event; the one time of the year where the big companies pulled out ALL the big guns, aiming to wow us and surprise us with exciting new console announcements and triple A game reveals.

THIS used to be our go-to source for news and everything gaming related.

But then, computers started finding their way into every home, and the Internet turned from an AOL keyword filled club to a gargantuan mass of websites. Social networking via mySpace, and eventually Facebook and Twitter took center stage in many peoples’ lives. Technology, over just a few short years, has managed to integrate itself so completely into our lives that many would be unable to function without it.

Because of that, it’s very easy to obtain information on practically everything. Wondering how a friend’s doing? Check their Facebook page. Have an odd bump on your leg? Go post a question on Yahoo Answers. Need to know if a game is worth buying? There’s a website for that. Quite a few websites, actually.

So the question now is… why wait? People of this technologically saturated age crave instant gratification. They don’t need the booth babes and the flashy reveals; they simply want to know if and when a game is coming out. Therefore, most developers just announce games and release dates on their social networking accounts. Rarely do companies wait until a big event to announce their big plans–because even if they didn’t let everyone know via tweets, someone would just find out anyway from an internet leak or poking around site sources or copyrights anyway.

Remember when Atlus trolled everyone with their Gungnir/Growlanser reveals? All thanks to social media.

The developers and publishers see a double benefit in this. Firstly, they get to reveal new games to excited gamers at any time, which is beneficial to both sides of the equation. But, they also don’t have to spend time, effort, and money on trying to make their reveal really ‘wow’ everyone. Why bother when you can just post a status update and a picture and get the same results? Social media saves tons of time and money, leaving events like E3 to be little more than a glorified physical GameTrailers-like conference.

Are the old days of reveal parties and huge excitement gone? Maybe not completely, but it certainly is dying. I mean, when the day comes that the next entry of the frequently asked about Fire Emblem series is revealed on Twitter after the E3 event instead of during it, you know things have changed.

Why are they good?

[Slayn Bacon asks: What are your top three favorite games and why are they your favorite?  What elements so they have that make them stand out both to you and to video games in general?]

I originally thought this would be the easiest of the three questions poised to me to answer, but the more I thought about it the more difficult this task became… What were my top three games? Why were they my favorite, and how were they different?  Where many of my top games merely a result of nostalgia, or were they something more?

Well, I think I finally have the answer.  Let’s get into it, shall we?  These three games aren’t in any order–I just wrote about them in the order I saw fit.

DRAGON QUEST V: HAND OF THE HEAVENLY BRIDE

Dragon Quest V is a special game.  I’ve always had an affinity to the Dragon Warrior/Quest series… it is the series that ultimately got me into my favorite genre.  Also, until recently the series was never changing:  While Final Fantasy and other series would go out on a limb and try new things, Dragon Quest would always have the same gameplay, the same general plot, and so on… it was like a safety net.  You booted up a Dragon Quest game and you knew exactly what you were in for.

One thing the Dragon Quest series was not known for, however, was its engaging plot and characters.  The series had its moments–the multiple characters’ plots in IV, that one heart-wrenching moment in III, the post game of VIII–but it was nothing compared to, say, the epic plot of Final Fantasy IV, or even the vibrant characters of FFV (when we got a proper translation, at least).  Dragon Quest V is different.

How does V manage to pull off what the other titles, even the newer ones, could not?  A lot of it comes from how they introduced generational party members into the mix–i.e., having your kids fight alongside you, or take up your mantle after your death.  Back when DQV was first created, this kind of plot device was almost unheard of… I could think of only two other 16-bit titles that attempt this, one coming out before V and the other after.  Those two, however, had the kids fighting a war left behind by the parents, and has a broader sense of time.  DQV, however, has you actually fighting alongside your (young) kids, and in the intro has you as a child fighting with your father.

What does this small difference give you, exactly?  Well, it gives you empathy for the protagonist.  You aren’t just the main character… you live his life, and work through all the ups and downs with him.  The main character does not speak, as per DQ tradition, but the feelings throughout the game are palpable.  As a child, you watch your father killed before your eyes, his final words being “Your mother is still alive” before you are carted off to ten years of grueling slave labor.  Later, having to choose between the duty you were left with by your father and love, with Bianca depressingly telling you “It’s okay, I understand… I’ve been alone all my life anyway”.  That time when you were turned to a statue, and were forced to watch a little boy grow up and be kidnapped by monsters, all the while being unable to do anything and wondering if your own children are alright.  The moment you finally find the Zenithian hero, to discover that you and your father could never find him because he wasn’t even born yet.

It’s marvelous, but I feel this couldn’t have been well relayed in the original version of Dragon Quest V, but then again it was never released over here: The West never got the game until the DS remake.  Hand of the Heavenly Bride is wonderfully written–the story and the characters come off extremely well in the localization, and the Party Chat gives them a new dimension you would not have seen otherwise.  The third marriage option actually ruins that particular scene slightly (like really, Debora? Really?), but everything else is masterfully handled, and the design and writing help drive the narrative home.

I guess the long story short is that it has a fantastic plot, and great characters to back it up.

SUPER MARIO WORLD

Super Mario World is the game of my childhood.  It’s the one game that I’d play over and over, pretty much anywhere I went, because even after all the times I’ve moved some family or another always managed to have the game.  It was kind of like a safety net for me in the realm of gaming, even before I considered myself a true gamer.  If I was bored or trying to get out of doing chores, well, there was Super Mario World.  When I grew older, I bought the Game Boy Advance release of the classic, and played it endlessly.  Even after getting 95 lives (which a friend managed to whittle down to two in an half-hour’s time once) and finding all the exits, I still played that wonderful Mario title over and over… and yes, to me this is the greatest game of all time.

So obviously Super Mario World has a fair bit of nostalgic and even sentimental value to me, but what is it that even kept me coming back in the first place, as opposed to other games (or even other Mario titles)?  Well, for starters it has an expansive world map to explore.  Sure, Super Mario Bros. 3 had a world map of sorts as well, but it wasn’t really used in any manner other than a siphon to get you from one area to the next, with maybe a quick stop-off at a Toad House or to beat up some unfortunate Hammer Bros.  In Super Mario World, however, you can find different exits and new levels to explore… and you don’t even have to go about looking going through all of the levels if you don’t want to.  You can either go through the game a straight as possible, going through the different levels and scenery without all the extra bits, explore every nook and cranny and find all the exits and secrets, or any place in between the two.

Speaking of scenery, everything in Super Mario World was so colorful and detailed looking, it was hard not to fall in love with.  When Nintendo took Mario into the 16-bit world, they made sure to do it right, and it really shows in the graphics and sound.  Everything looks great, and goes with each area’s food theme… well, at least vaguely.  The caves especially looked great, with how expansive or restrictive the background made the caverns looks and the little details in the design.  Of course, it’s all very colorful too, with Mario and the baddies popping out and making everything easy to see.  No cheap deaths until you get to the Special Zone here (and even then, it’s more skill based than anything)!

Finally, there’s the wonderful level design.  Super Mario World is never really difficult, and most of the time it actually is, it’s because of the great level design.  Almost all of the levels are very well designed, and complete with many paths to get through the stage, no matter what power-ups you do or don’t have.  I also love how the game makes great use of the cape power-up, allowing you to soar the skies and find hidden paths and out of the way areas… but the game also makes sure you can’t just soar through every level with cleverly placed pipes and other obstacles to stop you.  The Ghost Houses can sort of grind your gears with the secret exits, but everything else design-wise is wonderfully crafted, and gives you an incentive to explore.

It’s basically like Nintendo gave everyone a Super Nintendo and Super Mario World, and said “this is how you make a 16-bit game”.  It’s one of the titles you can look back on and say that it’s the embodiment of what a 16-bit platformer was:  Great, updated graphics, a bigger world than any of its 8-bit brethren, and tight and fun gameplay…. and even the fact that it’s still completely playable and not outdated today says much for Super Mario World.

SOUL NOMAD AND THE WORLD EATERS

This third game, for me, kind of came out of the blue.  I rarely consider it for most ‘top’ lists I make, but Soul Nomad is really a fantastic game.  Almost everything about the game comes together to make an engaging and fun game, and as a Nippon Ichi game, it has plenty of hours of extra content to work through.

The thing that really makes Soul Nomad stand out in my mind, above all else, is a part of the post-game content.  After you beat the game normally, you get an option at the beginning of New Game+ that’s a bit unusual.  This option would normally give you a Bad End, but on a second playthrough, this option opens up an entirely new plot and story, and is aptly dubbed the Demon Campaign.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself–a little background information first.  Soul Nomad is about your avatar being ‘possessed’ of sorts by a soul named Gig, who is seen as a pretty evil dude.  However, over the course of the game and from Gig’s interactions with the main character and the world in itself, he softens up a bit (he’s still pretty bad, but he’s not flat out evil).  This is a very gross generalization of the entire main plot of the game, but it’s enough to get my point across.

Anyway, on a second cycle, you have two options at the beginning of the game:  Accept Gig while retaining your normal self (which is, again, the normal plot), and accepting Gig… well, in a slightly more homicidal fashion.  Instead of being a normal main character, you more or less turn into the devil incarnate, and your first battle is in which you and Gig murder the members of your home village.

This is the beginning of the evil path, something that I personally was shocked in seeing.  Soul Nomad’s plot shows signs of the world’s cruelty and desperation, but for the most part its a bit toned down in light of focusing on the secondary characters.  This path takes all of that and puts it under a magnifying glass.  For example, there’s a plot thread in which the character comes across a wealthy lord and a group of bandits that are terrorizing his land.  At first these bandits seem uncouth, but once the leader Shauna explains her motives and past with this lord (which is very dark, but only implied in the normal story), before certain events happen and she sacrifices herself to save Tricia’s life.

But, what does the evil path do?  You never save Tricia from her adopted father, nor do you help save the land from a bad ruler.  You later come across Tricia, although in the evil path she is far different from her optimistic, cheery demeanor.  Since in this evil path you never really save Tricia from what was about to happen, the shock of the sudden physical and sexual abuse from her adopted father drove her to insanity–while Shauna was able to endure the trauma and escape, and eventually rescue Tricia, she is too late, and the mentally broken character spouts off nonsense before eventually passes away some time later.

This new plot thread, and the handling of the death itself (“Oh, what happened to Tricia?” “She died.” “Oh” *everything moves on*) is really quite shocking.  I’ve rarely seen a game handle such rather cruel points with the finesse it does, and it really makes the player feel evil in just playing it… I mean, after all everything that goes on in the evil path is pretty terrible, and not ‘evil’ in the way that feels mocking or as a joke.

Soul Nomad is a good game in itself in its right, but it’s the Demon Campaign that really excels the title into greatness in my eyes.  It’s just so… different.  Like Drakengard different, but with a terribly hopeless plot wrapped around good gameplay mechanics.

That about sums it up… yeah, that’s a lot of word about three games.  These games certainly have a special place in my heart, and not a place ruled by nostalgia (like where Golden Sun and Dragon Warrior III sit).  There’s little else to really say now that it’s all done, so I hope you enjoyed.

To Tell A Story, You Have To…

[Slayn Bacon asks: What is needed for a compelling story in a game?]

Storytelling in gaming is still very much in its infancy, compared to other media both popular and not so.  It’s a bit of an interesting conundrum–as of recent years, some video games want to take gaming’s storytelling to the next level, but whether or not the industry is ready for it is still up in the air.  Many ‘mature’ themes are constantly been seen as ‘bad’ or ‘controversial’ when movies or TV can do the same with only over-protective mothers batting an eye.  Heck, most of these people probably watch Game of Thrones, and if that stays true to the novels, nothing that I’ve seen in a gaming story can top that grimdark series.

That may seem like rambling, but it’s difficult for video  games to tell a truly compelling story in some settings because of this aversion to certain (though not all) mature themes.  If I’m playing a gritty brawler involving the underbelly of society and how truly brutal it is, I expect the full spectrum of mature content to come with it.  I expect violence, death, sex, druggies, and pretty much everything else a child wouldn’t see–and an ESRB rating to reflect that so that kids don’t get their grubby hands on it (unless a parent lets them).  However, even the mere mention of certain subjects like rape instantly turn gamers against developers, even if other terrible crimes like (mass) murder go without so much as a peep nowadays.  But, now I’m actually rambling, as that is more of a U.S. society issue than anything else.

So, back on topic, I feel that a story is best told in the way it was meant to be, and all the good and bad that comes with it.  If someone wanted to create a thrilling adventure tale involving an Indiana Jones-style hero?  Well, besides being called an Uncharted clone, that tale should be allowed to be told in full, even if say a minor not-so-bad-guy is brutally crushed to death with a boulder that you in fact pushed.  If you want to just tell a story about the fantastical life of a fictional pony, why not be able to go for it?

But really, such a view is too idealistic.  Making video games is a business, after all, and while the indie community is rising to the challenge of bringing more thought-provoking titles, mainstream titles simply do not have that same flexibility (much like the indie/mainstream film industry at times).  Games must make a budget, appeal to a wide variety of people so it will sell, and make it out on time.  Sometimes games need to be toned back so that they will actually sell (as an Adults Only rating can many times damn a game’s sales), and other times the developers don’t have enough time and money to put everything they want in to their title.

Considering that, what is it that I feel can make a truly compelling story, given gaming limitations and giving myself more realistic expectations?  Well… most people know that I’m a fan of JRPGs,  Do I think JRPGs tell the best tales?  Sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed other stories from other countries and genres.  In fact, some of the most recent games I’ve played that I feel have a compelling story are not JRPGs, or were even made in Japan.

What is is, then, that made those stories so interesting to me?  The games strive to make me feel for the characters.  Let me take the example of a game I played recently that had a fantastic plot:  Telltale’s The Walking Dead.  I had not watched the TV series or read any of the comics, so I did not have the ‘fan’ potential going into the game, but the story was nothing short of great.  Lee was a good main character that many people could empathize with, but what really made the episodic title shine was with the choices you must make in this zombie apocalypse.  Many choices are extremely difficult to make, and the game will make you feel the results of your choice.  I honestly felt how Lee did throughout the game–I was shocked, I was enraged, and I cried.  Qualms about the game giving an illusion of choice when it may not have mattered in the long run aside, the plot in itself, and not taken in with the spoiler ridden Internet, was one hell of an emotional ride.

But giving me a choice of what happens to the story isn’t the end-all thing I need to have a great gaming plot.  Many of the JRPGs I play and love don’t offer me choices, or the choices are really of no major consequence.  In that case, instead of a character I can emphasize with, or choices that’ll bring the consequences of my actions to front and center, I would prefer to have an enticing world or setting to explore and learn about.  This can be done in any number of matters; either the world can be open for me to explore and learn its lore, or maybe it could be spoon-fed to me as I progress through the tale.  It hardly matters to me, but one recent title I played really gave me an interesting sense of its world and characters: Crimson Shroud.

It’s really an interesting thing; the game focuses on a small team infiltrating a monster-laden ruin in search of the ultimate magical artifact.  You never leave the ruins, and see the outside world–but through the Giauque’s inner monologues and other story bits give you a glimpse into a truly interesting world.  You never get to see any of it, but these little tidbits are more than enough to give you a feel for the world and its culture.  Instead for everything being laid out to you, you get an interpretation of the world from an individual whose seen the worst it has to offer.  Given it’s a pretty short game, I’m glad the title presents itself as is; otherwise, I may be disappointed that it never went any farther.   But, the way this title works gives me everything I need to understand what’s going on and the levity of the characters’ quest, but without over-explaining to bog down the tale.

So… either an empathetic character, decisions that give me meaning, a rich world, or a combination of the three?  Is that all?  Probably so.  In the past I would have said I would also want memorable characters in titles; some of my favorites like Final Fantasy IX thrive on its great characters.  However, nowadays characters are rarely original; with so many video games in general it’s hard to, after all.  I’ve learned to really look past characters themselves, as (with the case with so many JRPGs) they tend to fall into tropes to the point that many characters seem the same.  I don’t want that to ruin my experience, so character in themselves don’t matter much to me anymore if the game is trying to shine elsewhere… although, I still find character development an important step to many (but not every) tale.  They may be tropes for the most part, but they don’t need to be one-dimensional tropes as well!

I think that wraps this up pretty nicely.  Then again, many of the games I’m playing don’t even have fantastic or epic tales, so maybe I’m not even looking for a compelling story right now.

What makes a video game… a video game?

[Slayn Bacon asks: What is the defining characteristic of video games?]

So, what is it that makes video games different from other forms of media?  What makes games different from movies, books, and television?  Well, to be honest, most people probably know the basic answer to the question:  Interaction.  In video games we are allowed to control the character, our avatar in the gaming world if you will, and steer the character to its story’s conclusion.  In a movie or television show, you simply watch the plot play out, and see its conclusion without any input of your own.  Likewise, in a book (for the most part), you have no say in how the story plays out, even if you physically turn the pages yourself.

Of course, this one simple word, interaction, brings up a plethora of new questions:  What counts as player interaction?  What games are actually video games, and which are really just glorified movies?  What about completely linear games?  Simply saying ‘interaction’ doesn’t really answer the question as is, so let’s answer these new questions then, shall we?

The thing about ‘interaction’ in games is that without it, the game would never complete itself in the instance of the person playing it.  You could leave a movie running, or turn of a TV show while it’s being broadcasted on a station, and the particular movie or episode would complete whether or not you were there for it.  Sure, decreased viewership could cancel a TV series or stop a much-needed movie sequel before its logical completion, but you yourself are not directly responsible for theses acts.  In gaming, if you turn a game off and never play it again, you will never personally the that game to its completion.  Mario will not save the princess.  Kirby will not eat to his(?) heart’s content.  Sonic will never stop Dr. Robotnik.

While there are other means of seeing the game and the ending other than playing it yourself, such as Let’s Plays and other forms of videos and walkthroughs, even if you yourself didn’t play through the game, someone else had to in order for you to look up all those videos.  Video games absolutely require interaction in order for them to be completed in some form or another, regardless if its you yourself that played the game, or another gamer that you’re watching play through it.

But still, what about games that are completely linear in nature?  What about games that, even with player interaction, leads to going through the exact same game with no changes to the exact same solution?  Well, for the most part these are still video games.  Let’s take for example Dear Esther, a semi-recent indie game that literally involves nothing more than walking along a path from one area to the next.  Exploration offers little results, and there is no fighting, or gameplay… simply a goal of making it to a lighthouse.  No matter who plays through it, you will hear the same dialogue, see the sights, and get the same ending.

However, it’s still a video game in the most basic sense of the word.  Sure, it may not be much of a game for the most part, since you don’t do much but walk, but it still requires interaction for you to complete it.  If you, or whoever you are watching, just stopped walking, you’d never to able to get to the conclusion of the tale.  If it were a movie, you would simply watch the character, detached from your player point of view, reach the end of his tale without any interaction on your part.

But that brings up a new conundrum–what about visual novels?  Visual novels are often contested in the gaming as to whether or not they are video games.  By their name, visual novels are essentially, novels with visuals to help enhance the tale; or, in other terms, a digital picture book of sorts.  However, many people consider these video games, despite the genre’s name and trappings as digital books, using the same word that I’ve been using through this entire piece:  Interaction.

So, are visual novels really games or not?  It’s still a very hard question to answer, and it’s because of that that it’s even a heated topic in the first place.  One can argue that most visual novels require interaction–the choices you make affect the visual novel and the ending itself.  However, that’s the same amount of interaction that you’d give to a choose-your-own-adventure book:  In those, you make decisions to lead to a certain outcome; the only difference between those and visual novels is in reality the visual aspect.  Some visual novels don’t even give you a choice in the matter; they are just stories that you click through until the end of the story.

In that case, it’s very hard to classify visual novels as games… however, visual novels are actually a pretty wide genre.  Take 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.  This title is predominately a visual novel, but there are also segments where you have to solve puzzles.  999 features apparent interaction and player input, even if the core of the game is reading through a story.  In that case, this particular visual novel can certainly be classified as a video game, even when other titles in the same genre are not.  So, um… I guess the grand answer to the visual novel question is ‘yes and no’.  It may seem like a cop-out, but saying it’s one or the other denies valid and truthful points the other answer things.  Besides, the world’s rarely clear-cut.

There might be more to talk about, but I believed I answered what I could think of well enough.  Video games require a certain amount of interaction to actually be video games, even if the interaction is small in itself.  It’s a simple enough concept, but deciding how much interaction is enough is difficult and debatable.  There’s so much more that could be explained, but I believe this wall of text has gotten long enough.  Until next time.

Bacon’s Writing Challenge

My boyfriend, who goes by Slayn Bacon on the internet, has challenged me to write about things!  He’s given me three subjects to write about over the next two weeks or so… so it should be a lot of fun, since I love getting little challenges like this!  Here are the three questions posed to me:

  1. What is the defining characteristic of video games? [The Answer]
  2. What is needed for a compelling story in a game?
  3. What are your top three favorite games and why are they your favorite?  What elements so they have that make them stand out both to you and to video games in general?

Hey, that last one’s two questions!  He’s cheating!  Well not really, but anyway… I’ll be working to answer these come August, since the end of the month tends to be busy for me writing wise.  I’ll update the list with posts and whatnot when I’m done.

Also, if you have a question you want to pose to me to answer, ask away!  I love answering questions~

Zelda Challenge – Day 30

Day 30: Your expectations/thoughts on Skyward Sword and/or Ocarina of Time re-make?

I haven’t played Skyward Sword yet… I really should get on playing that and Twilight Princess already.

Ocarina of Time 3D was a pretty great remake, in my opinion.  The textures were nicely updated and looked great, and having the touch screen available for the Ocarina and other item equips helps with not having to change your items was good too.  Little else was changed, though, so gamers were able to enjoy what Ocarina of Time really was.  The addition of Master Quest was a great touch, too.  Overall, a terrific remake.