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Monday, April 30, 2012

Humor in games

As I write this, I'm still uncertain as what I'm talking about, so this may ramble.

I like video games that can handle heavy issues, but by that same token, I also like games that can make me laugh. Like, genuinely laugh with good writing and situations.

I think Eastern RPGs are better at this than the American made ones.

I get the feeling that a lot of North American based RPGs go for this overt, heavy-handedness that is fine and all, but when the game feels like it's always weighting down on you, you need a reprieve. And this is where the pacing of the game comes into play.

I'm going to reference some games below, so I'm going to try to avoid major spoilers, but I promise nothing.

You have been warned.

We're going to start off with an easy example. The Opera Scene from Final Fantasy VI. The setup, one of your main characters (Celes) is going to portray the role of the Opera's lead actress Maria. She does this, because they need to coerce the pilot of one of the only airships in the world to help them. The ruse works because Setzer, the rogue, is in love with Maria and is going to kidnap her during this performance.

Now, amidst all this, the main goal of the party is to get to a floating continent and stop the madness of the Emperor and Kefka. Hence the need for the airship. Pretty urgent stuff right?

Well even with all this chaos going on, the game manages to be funny. Back at the opera house, Celes is trying to act out the main role in the Opera. At times, the game will prompt the user for input on the lines. If you read the script beforehand, you should be able to pick out the proper lines. If you're feeling a little curious, you get some amusing dialogue that's pretty dissonant to the theme of the show. Even funnier is what happens if you purposfully botch the dialogue roughly 3 times. You get a game over. Seriously. That's hilarious to me. You have to reload your game... because you can't remember lines properly.

The in game reasoning is because you blew your cover, but whatever, that's boring.


Persona 3

The entire premise of this game is that the world is going to end in one year, and you're the only one who knows this. Throughout the school year, you partake in normal school behavior during the day, and basically demon slaying at night. This naturally leads itself to some interesting changes from the urgency of the Shadows, to the humors of a standard high school life. You're entire party could be brooding for a week due to circumstances, but them it's a trip to Kyoto as a class trip! And here is where the boys get caught in the hotsprings spying on the girls. The changes aren't too extreme, but they're natural enough to make you appreciate how the game shifts.

To give a quick counterpoint, Bethesda games like Fallout and Oblivion, (core game only) have yet to really make me chuckle or laugh at what's going on. Yes, I get it, the world is huge, but it seems to be lacking something. The random happenings that make things funny. Things like seeing a person trip up the stairs would be a nice touch. What about having events tied to specific days of the year? I know Oblivion kept track of time, it could've had a festival of some sort that wasn't story driven.

I know JRPGs get a lot of crap for being linear and pre-planned, but sometimes the writing makes the game world feel so much more alive than a huge open world game.

I'm going to cite a Western game that gets humor right though. Portal. The game is legitimately funny. The writing is great, and it has this nice contrast to the core game.

Contrast I think is one part of gaming that can be overlooked by developers sometimes. The furthest some games go into humor is a quick quip or one liner, but not scenarios where humor can naturally occur.

I know I've rambled a bit here, but writing this made me realize that I appreciate a game that can blend humor in with foreboding. It makes for a nice break in the sense of dread, and can sometimes help spur me on.

Friday, April 27, 2012

April 27th News Podcast

This week I cover


The results of the Madden cover vote.

EA potentially being bought.

China's new Console

Nintendo's plans for Kirby and Mario


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Choice in Gaming

I touched on this briefly in a comment I made on the FPS post, but I figured I could go into more detail here.

Choice is a huge part of gaming. From playing Monopoly, to Dungeons and Dragons, to your favorite video games, you want to have a direct impact on what's going on around you. In Monopoly, it's deciding whether to build, buy, or even to sit in jail for a turn. In essence, your choice is shaping every aspect of the game within the confines of the rules. In a tabletop RPG, you can go about your missions via diplomacy, stealth, guns blazin' or any other option you can think of. But it seems when it comes to video games, you always run into a section where the choice you would make, isn't a choice presented to you.

The reason for this is obvious: if a developer tried to come up with tons of potential options for every situation, the game would require many, many disks (even on Blu-ray) and a monstrous budget to cover all the art objects, animation differences, voice acting... everything.

Well, why isn't this an issue in board games? Well, for one, they have clear-cut, concrete rules. You can't steal in Monopoly, because you'd face repercussions from your friends.

Obviously, choice isn't really an issue in a tabletop RPG, because 90% of what happens is based off choice. Don't want to shoot the monster? Go ahead and pistol whip him, or try to push him off a building edge. Want to bail and leave your team to die? Seen it happen. Want to steal from allies? Totally possible if you play your cards right.

But what about a video game? Let's say I'm having a conversation with this dude and I don't like him, and I just want to end it abruptly. Well, if the game doesn't give me the option to shoot the guy in the face, I can't. And this always seems to happen... The player sees the bad guy early in the game, but can't do anything about it, even when fully armed. If you're playing a character that doesn't care what happens to themselves, why shouldn't you be able to try to take down a bad guy, even if he has guards outside the door?

I know you've all come across this sort of situation, where you WANT to do something, but you CAN'T. Sometimes, for me at least, it can break the flow of the game. Wouldn't you just LOVE to be able to ignore the shoehorned in love story, because it doesn't feel right? Or how about being able to have more choice than being either Paragon of Justice or Giant Douchebag? I'd LOVE to see a morally grey area explored. The problem with the Morality systems (inFamous, Mass Effect) is that they only reward people who follow along one path. If you think about all the shades between "Good" and "Evil", you really are leaving about a huge chunk of options. Sometimes people only act a specific way to unlock the next power or reward in that alignment. If given the option to save the bad-guy from falling off a bridge or killing him, a la Scar from Lion King, if I'm playing a reasonable character, I'd kill him. But in doing so, I'd earn Evil points, and gain nothing if I've been relatively good up to that point.

So, why should I be penalized for not following the strict moral code? i hope that in the future, when hardware increases, we'll be allowed the option where we can be in the middle of the morality scale and not be "behind" our Evil/Good counterparts in terms of strength. Sometimes it's cathartic to do something bad, especially when we feel justified doing it after having our good efforts undermined by the douche. As often in real life, decisions are not black and white, so I wish I could hold my games to that standard... But I can't. I know of the limitations, I know of the costs, but... It doesn't stop me from desiring it. A game where the main character reacts to a situation in a way where it feel natural to the persona I have carved for them.

I feel grateful though, to tabletop RPGs for allowing these morally grey areas to exist. You may not agree, enjoy, or even like hearing about them, so if that's the case, feel free to skip these next paragraphs.

I'm going to give an example of a situation where Agency was in full force. Agency is the concept that the players are in a world where their decisions have actual consequences. In a DnD game with some friends, I was playing a thief who was paranoid of people, especially those close to him. One friend was playing a boisterous Warlord (kept the party alive), and a stoic Ranger (NEEDS MORE DPS). One day, I felt a bit slighted by the Warlord, so one night, while we had camp made up, I slipped a note to the DM, and made my roll, and ended up stealing 500 gold from him. He had no idea it was missing until the next time he tried to go shopping for gear. In retaliation (he found out that I stole from him when he saw my fancy new stuff), he decided to steal stuff back from me. He ended up taking a few gems from me. Well, to be fair, I 'loaned' them to him so he could get new gear (and pay me back with interest of course), but he said that he was going to pay me back. I snuck into his room at the mansion we were guests at, took the gems, and set fire to his gear. Naturally, the whole room went up in flames, his weapons he crafted for selling melted, and he lost a lot of non-combat gear.

Now, this whole chain of events was entirely detrimental to the group, but it was fun. It was in the character's personae to act this way. Why should my paranoid Rogue trust that he'll be paid back? Why should an honorable, seasoned Warlord take that kind of guff from a guy who's only along due to circumstance? When a character takes a persona all of their own, choice becomes much more powerful, and Agency is in full effect.

That's the kind of experience I want to have one day. I know a multiplayer experience like this is long out of reach, but a single player experience where are choices aren't confined on such a binary scale. Hell, I'd settle for a triangle shaped morality meter, one that offered a third option. Like acting out of Greed, Charity, or Violence.

Friday, April 20, 2012

April 20th News Podcast

New news Podcast under the Podcast page.

Topics include

Call of Duty

EA

Madden

StarCraft II

And more!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Indie/Flash Game Highlight: The Company of Myself

The Company of Myself is in indie flash game developed by 2DArray. The game describes itself as "a story about a hermit", but the story proves to be far deeper and certainly far more emotional than its description would lead one to believe.

To start things off, this game is, without a better word... morose. The soundtrack is almost-but-not-quite minimalist, and quite somber. The text that appears onscreen during and after the levels is often haunting and adds to the plight of the "hermit", although it occasionally throws in some fourth-wall related humour to break up the stream of sorrow, which is a fantastic notion, but simply doesn't work as well as it should in the context of an otherwise stark experience.

The game itself is a sort of hybrid of platforming and puzzle elements. The gimmick in The Company of Myself is that the player can press the space bar to return to the start point, with a clone performing the player's actions up until the point in time that the space bar was pressed. These clones cannot be controlled, but can be manipulated in a variety of ways. The puzzles themselves are middle-of-the-road in terms of challenge, no cakewalk, but not "I haven't a clue what I'm supposed to do here" calibre. Despite this, the puzzles are quite fun as a whole, although the final puzzle in particular abandons all types of strategy and manipulation in favour of a far simpler and more mind-numbing solution.

The gameplay, as engaging as it is, takes a definite back seat to the story. Without any spoilers, let me just say that the story is quite depressing, with a moment that puts Portal's infamous Weighted Companion Cube to shame. The ending is shocking, putting all of your past actions in an entirely different and darker light, to haunting effect.

If you enjoy platformers/puzzles and aren't on the verge of suicide, The Company of Myself is, by all accounts, worth a play.

You can play The Company of Myself at http://www.kongregate.com/games/2DArray/the-company-of-myself

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The World Ends with You and Square/Soft/Enix

In 2008, Square-Enix released The World Ends With You stateside.  This Action RPG title for the DS is one of the handheld's gems.  An argument could be made that this is one of the best third party titles for the DS.  It was developed by the Kingdom Hearts team at Square-Enix, which now, at least to me, has a reputation for surprising.

Personally, I didn't see Kingdom Hearts becoming a huge success after seeing the promotional materials, but after playing the first two, I can honestly say I'm a fan.  But this isn't about Kingdom Hearts... not yet anyways.

TWEWY takes place in modern day Shibuya, Japan.  The main character, Neku, is an aloof teenager who prefers to be alone.  He finds himself with a strange pin, and a timer on his body.  These are the calling cards of the Reaper's Game, a game that lost souls partake in, in a chance to be returned to their bodies.  The "players" are given a task to complete during the day and only have a specific time to compete the task.  If they fail to complete the task, they are removed from the game.  If you do not have a partner, you will be removed from the game after the first day.  There is a week of the Game, and then a winner is named.

So, now that you have a simple plot synopsis, we can move onto one of the strongest aspects, the soundtrack.  This soundtrack is a mix of JPop, electronica, and, of course, the required dramatic music.  The soundtrack fits the game excellently.  The upbeat tracks fit excellently with the setting.  Having multiple battle themes means that there's variety among the random encounters from an auditory perspective.

The combat system is rather interesting, and complex.  You can control both the character on the top screen and Neku on the bottom.  You use directional button presses to control the top character while you use various touch screen controls to move and act with Neku.  If you can combo attacks back and forth, you can unleash really strong attacks that affect all enemies.  Some enemies switch between the top and the bottom screen, so you need to be careful for that.  If you can't follow both screens (like me) there's an option to set the options for the top screen.  You can have it go to Auto control right away, or after a few seconds of controls not being input.  This is a useful option because you can always punch in the controls if you feel up to it.  So for those fights when Neku has nothing to do because the boss is up top, you can control your partner to inflict damage.

Your attacks are done by equipping Pins.  Pins can do everything from AoE damage, to ranged attacks, to melee attacks, or even healing.  Some pins, like your healing ones, only have a set amount of uses during a battle.  If you run out, well... good luck.  Others, they have a set number of uses before they need to recharge.  So, for example, you could shoot energy balls with one 8 times, then it'd have to recharge for 8 seconds before you could shoot 8 more.

The anime-esque art style may be a turn off for some, but for others, it's a nice aesthetic appeal.  Your call on that one.

The World Ends With you is a great game.  If you have a DS, I highly highly recommend checking it out.  The game runs about 15-20 hours, so it's not an enormous timesink.


Onto the next topic.

SquareEnix, as a developer, has released 20 games related to the Final Fantasy series in North America.  The World Ends With You, The 3rd Birthday (3rd Parasite Eve game), Mario Sports Mix (wait, what?), Tactics Ogre; Let Us Cling Together, Mario Hoops: 3v3, Musashi: Samurai Legend, Romancing SaGa, Lost Remnant, and Front Mission 4... those are all the Non-Final Fantasy games they've developed in the last 8 years that have been made available in the United States (I could have missed a few of course).

It appears that they might be stuck with what they CAN do.  They need to keep making Final Fantasy games, because the brand power it provides is what will keep them afloat, but it really restricts them, I feel.  They can't take too many risks with that franchise because doing so will damage them long term.  Though if they can release some games under the radar, without the Final Fantasy tag, they might find some room to experiment and potentially find success.

Then again, that has mostly been the case.  In the 90s, Squaresoft released several Final Fantasy games, but they also had popular games like Einhander, Secret of Mana, the Chrono series, and the Parasite Eve series.    Hell, they even made Super Mario RPG, which seemed to be predecessor for Kingdom Hearts.

I feel that their own success has painted them into a corner in terms of what they can and cannot do with their key franchises.  I feel that they need to keep these side projects up as a way to test out new mechanics and ideas in hopes that they can slowly bring them into the fold of their main series, which is slowly starting to suffocate under its own legacy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Some Changes

So, I've been obviously messing with the site some.

  • For one, I made the post and gadget backgrounds a greyish color.  This should help people to read, as the black-on-black background/text area made it hard on the eyes occasionally.  
  • I've added a separate page for Podcasts.  
  • We also have Podcasts
  • The update to Blogger allowed the separate pages, so yay Google.  
  • I also switched from the simple media player I had originally used to a newer Yahoo media player.  Unfortunately, the post on the Podcast page looks... well... bad.  Since it has all the links showing.  Not sure if I'm going to stick with this player, due to how it adds media.

Apart from these few changes, business should be as usual, except with hopefully more posting activity.  I'd like to get more opinions on the site, so if you want to pass this along to people who may enjoy it, by all means.

Leave your thoughts below, if you feel so inclined.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Podcast 01: Console vs PC

Using the fancy media bar, you can listen to the first Fans On Fire Podcast.

Okay so I guess I'm totally playing WoW

So this was a game that I never thought I'd play, although I admit that my reasons behind not wanting to play it were silly. But yeah, so now I'm playing it, and I'm loving it.

So what happened?

Well, a few of my friends play it, and they wanted me to start, so I did the trial a few times and came to the same conclusion. This isn't really that fun, but it is relaxing, but there's NO way in hell I'm doing this for 85 levels. Combat felt clunky, like an awfully implemented mix of real-time brawlers and turn-based RPG combat, quests were boring and repetitive, but the environments and presentation were superb.

A few months after my first few attempts at getting into it, I decided I'd give it another go via private server. I really didn't want to spend all that time leveling, but I did want to see some of the end game content. I still just couldn't fathom how this game had so many subscribers when there was so much boring garbage attached to the front 90%.

So I started playing on a private server with x12 experience, and this made it work. This made it easier for me to see what WoW was about, and how it could be fun. The early levels of WoW are really just world exploration. Azeroth is the most thorough iteration of a living fantasy world to date. A few elements of the game turn it into a race to 85, but really it's something to savor. Using the refer a friend, I got a quick 85 and immediately starting leveling alts. The hurdle that was keeping me out of the game is now the reason I play. It's still slow, still repetitive, but the detail that goes into the game is unfathomable. All the "throwaway" quests have meaningful characters, stories, and places that continuously add depth to an already colossal experience.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Podcast? Podcast

So, we're doing podcasts!

UncloudTheSky95 and myself have made a podcast for this fair blog.  If you've noticed the bar at the top of the screen, you'll notice the fancy new audio player.

So I decided that, instead of being obtrusive with the media player, I opted for something smaller, with our playlist hidden by default.  To view the playlist (which will have both podcasts, and gaming music), click the 4 horizontal bar button on the top of the screen, across from the play button.

Hopefully this will mean more content from us, for you.  You lucky people.  Our hope is that we can add more podcasts, either single person, or panel style, onto the site, which might lead to more actual posts.

Any questions comment below.

If you have any podcast requests, you can leave a comment and we'll consider it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Game Concept (An Appeal To The FPS Industry)

The FPS genre, as a whole, is crowded with shit, plain and simple. Even though I acknowledge that this has always been the case, far too many developers are dumbing down their once-great series or making pointless sequels that only serve to destroy the legacy of a genuinely great series, all for the sake of more sales. I know that sales are important, not only to provide funds for future developments but also for the sake of the studio staying afloat, but sales alone should NEVER be the whole reason for a product's existence. Take Call of Duty, for example. Every game in the series has been nothing more than a new coat of paint over an increasingly-tired formula, that is fancy-looking setpieces and mindless multiplayer for the proletarian masses, rereleased every single year with some new colours and shiny new additions that do absolutely nothing. Regardless of its lack of quality, each title in the series is the highest-selling game of all time, year after year. The absolutely preposterous amount of sales inspires every other major studio to attempt to get a piece of the action, so rather than make a product with some degree of actual quality, they churn out endless CoD-ripoffs which kill any sort of creativity in the genre, forcing it to rot away into eventual oblivion. This is not the way that FPSs should be. All of the big companies in the industry are whores, and the few games that are quality releases are pushed aside as niche titles while everyone makes way for Brown-And-Grey Corridor Target Practice 9.



That's the state of the industry right now, and here's how to fix it.



To me, the three most defining factors that all video games should be developed upon are Quality, Challenge, and Fun. Let me go into more depth on these tenets:



Quality: Make sure the game is well-developed and has loads of replayability and content. All game developers should strive for adding something new and innovative to their game, because owning twenty games and having all of them be, for all intents and purposes, the same is never fun.

Challenge: The game should be genuinely challenging. Yeah, you can add easier difficulties for accessibility and what-not, but the game as it's meant to be played should challenge the player, make him think outside of the box, and not merely in "THIS GUY TAKES MORE BULLETS TO KILL" logic.

Fun: Do I really need to explain this one? The whole point of a video game is for entertainment and fun. If your game stays true to the first two tenets but abandons this one, your product is a failure. This is the most important of the three tenets.



At this point, I'm just gonna talk about my idea for an FPS that, in my opinion, exemplifies everything that an FPS, and a video game in general should be.



My concept for a game: An FPS that gives you a whole range of superpower-equivalent abilities, like time control, temporary invisibility, flight, and all that good stuff, and then proceeds to challenge the player's skills with these abilities. Linearity would be thrown to the wolves in favor of pure, unadulterated choice. There would also be more additions to the gameplay that would not only be technically astounding but would also actually add to the gameplay, rather than being a simple gimmick. Some of these ideas include an extreme amount of customization in weapons, uniforms/costumes (Potential disguises), and the ability to control each gun's aim individually while dual-wielding. The storyline would have the same basic gist no matter what, but the events, and as a result, the levels and the gameplay would be entirely dynamic.



An ideal section of the game would be like this: There's a hostage that must be rescued before he's taken to a interrogation/torture facility. You're within a few miles of an airport, where the hostage is being taken to in the back of a heavily-armed-but-not-so-armored enemy vehicle. Potentially, you could shoot out the tires of the car, kill the guards and bring the hostage back to safety, but a more probably outcome would be that the impact causes the car to flip or crash, killing everyone, the hostage included. In this way, the player would be truly challenged, as he is forced to come up with genuinely out-of-the-box solutions. One solution would have the player placing some sort of barricade to stop the car momentarily, and then shooting out the tires, causing the guards to exit the vehicle, at which point the player could lure the guards to isolation and then knock them out or kill them, and another solution would be entirely-based on luck or nanosecond-perfect timing, as the player could rush the vehicle, flying on top of it, cutting a hole into the back, very quickly jumping in and grabbing the hostage, flying out and shooting the fuel tank of the vehicle while flying out. However, since the fuel tank is on the bottom of the vehicle, and there's no exact way to tell its location, much less while flying away from it at so-and-so miles-per-hour, so this approach would require either an acute knowledge of the vehicle or sheer luck, making it much less practical, but not impossible (Pretty much badass mode). If the player was to fail to rescue the hostage before the car gets to the airport, there would still be chances at the airport, or even on the plane itself. Let's say that the hostage was forced onto the plane, and the plane is preparing for takeoff. Potentially, you could stealth/fight/whatever your way to the control tower about a few thousand feet away and either force the traffic controller to convince the pilot of the plane that the conditions are unsafe and postpone the flight, or you could kill the traffic controller and get on the mic yourself, using either persuasion or bluffs to call off the flight, or if you really have a way with words, to relinquish the hostage. The success rate of the latter option is lower, but could potentially have stronger results if it does succeed. This is all a variable, however, as the entire thing depends on whether the player makes it to the control tower in time. The player could also do the dirty work himself, either hitching a ride on the plane using stealth, or fly with the plane, at which point the player could do whatever he wants to do. You could enter through one of the bottom shafts, use stealth to knock out/kill the guards and soldiers, and meet up with the hostage, all while never disturbing or alerting the pilot to your presence. At this point, you could wait with the hostage until the plane lands, at which point a whole other set of choices appears. You could knock out/kill the pilot, take control of the plane and fly it back to the previous airport to free the hostage. Potentially, you could do the exact same while the plane is in flight, but the risk factor is much higher, as you never know which buttons the pilot's body could lean on and press, or which way his body will tilt while holding on to the steering wheel. If the player feels he has the experience to counteract whichever consequence of his actions results from his elimination of the pilot, then he can go ahead and do whatever. Or conversely, the player could go loose-cannon, fly on the top of the plane as it takes off, sabotage it by disabling the propellers or jamming the ailerons, whichever way the player chooses to sabotage the plane, and then quickly force his way in, grab the hostage and a parachute and jump out, leaving an active grenade as a going-away present. But should the plane be destroyed or disabled while the player is parachuting out with the hostage or whatever, there's always the chance that the resulting debris falling from the sky could strike the player or the parachute, potentially wounding or killing one or both of the people. There's also the matter of if the player fails to rescue the hostage at all. In this concept of a game, decisions and outcomes play a major part of the story, as well as which direction the gameplay goes for the next mission. If the hostage is tortured, he will almost certainly let slip some very important details about the location of some very important buildings. If this happens, the next mission will take place at one of these buildings, as the player (and the rest of his army/group/whatever, depending on the location) must defend the building from a HOLYSHIT amount of enemies. If the player rescues the hostage using more stealthy and restrained methods, the next mission could be an infiltration mission, and if the player goes loose-cannon, the next mission could be a sabotage or destruction mission. No matter the type of mission, each mission would have the same level of choice as the scenario described above.



The point of the game as a whole would be to give the player some great new tools for him to experiment with and have fun using, and then to challenge the player to use them to the best of his ability, each time pushing the limits of what was thought possible in the game. It would have a shitton of replayability and quality content, it would be accessible to the new players on easier difficulties, but would be truly challenging in the best way that a game can be challenging on the hardest difficulty, and most importantly, it would be fun as hell. After all, isn't being fun what games are all about?



The Three Tenets of game design detailed above should be the most important things for all game developers, yet very few FPSs nowadays actually keep them in mind, while most forsake them for the sake of gaining the most amount of money with the least amount of work. Games should be games, not products. It's time something changed.