Sunday, June 30, 2013

Scale and Gravity

No, no, no, this isn't about space games, where you have to worry about flight trajectory and whatnot.  This is about the plot of a game.

I was recently thinking about what was lacking in Arkham City, and why I couldn't shake this feeling that I'm missing something.  Something about the story in Arkham Asylum immediately sucked you in.  The peril seemed much more dire at the same point I'm at in City.  In Arkham Asylum, we know the score.  Joker has taken control of the island, and now has some control over the villains within.  in Arkham City, Batman was injected with a life threatening virus by the Joker, so he'd be forced to find a cure for the both of them.

The second situation seems more dire, does it not?  For some reason though, it doesn't seem like it.  The only time that the disease seemed like an issue was for a short, few seconds after I chased down this assassin in the underground of Gotham.  Vision got blurry, Batman falls down, and coughs up some blood.  That's the first time we see how serious this illness can be, but you wouldn't know it by the two hours I spent between getting injected with the virus, and getting to Mister Freeze, who was working on the cure before being kidnapped.  In Arkham Asylum, going from story point to story point felt like progress was being made.  Joker would taunt you at every turn, but it Arkham City, the open world actually takes away from story.

While yes, it is fun, and yes, getting around the city via hookshot/gliding, and the characters are very interesting (the villains, natch), but the situation doesn't feel as important.  there is this overlooming "Protocol 10" thing that Dr. Strange keeps yammering on about, but that's been vague.  Maybe that's the way they're trying to get the tension up, with an unknown event lurking on the horizon.  But it just isn't working all that well.  Some games can do intrigue well, but it missed the mark here.

Let me contrast this with Final Fantasy VII.  I'm not huge on the game as some people are, good game, just not 'best ever' category.  What it DID do well though was letting you know EXACTLY what the stakes are. Disk one, Sephiroth is the clear cut villain, starting as a SOLDIER gone manic.  He commits a massacre in the ShinRa building, which is one of your first indicators that he's snapped.  As the game progresses, he gets more and more genocidal.  By the start of disk three, he's turning himself into a god among men, and plans on slamming a Meteor into the planet in order to siphon all the planet's energy into himself to make himself a globetrotting vehicle for Armageddon

Pictured: Sephiroth if he decided to play basketball.

.This is the goal post.  You are shooting to stop him.  This is established in the first few hours of the game.  Every subsequent event in which you see him, aboard a ship, in Nibilheim, Temple of the Ancients, etc, the stakes just keep getting raised.  Not only the whole "save the world" thing, but the main character has reasons for going after him for more reasons than "I go because I must".  Sephiroth messes with Cloud's psyche so much, that the end fight is one of the more cathartic things in video games.

Pointing to another example from the same series, Kefka in Final Fantasy VI.  Here's how grave the situation is.  He succeeds at destroying the world and becoming a god.

Not as a game over, not as a bad ending.

He succeeds.

Final Fantasy: now with 100% more Killer Clowns.

The entire second half of the game is spent regrouping your forces after they've been scattered, and taking him off his pedestal.  Kefka succeeds when you're around, because you get distracted by something else.  He then becomes an omnipotent deity, who as the final boss goes through 3 stages of ascension into godhood, who has a cult worshiping him, and shoots laser beams of death when he gets bored.  Again, this is the scale of events in the second half.  The first half is spent keeping the Empire from obtaining this sort of power.  The effects of the statues, the artifacts that grant the power, are brought up fairly early on, so it's not like this comes out of nowhere.

This breaks so many tropes it's not even funny.  How many times do you see that the villain has succeeded in his huge, grand plans?  It really leads to some great storytelling in the second half.  You don't HAVE to go out and find everyone, but it's recommended.

In Psychonauts, someone is stealing campers' brain. In Red Dead Redemption, your old gang member betrayed you and left you for dead.  Alpha Protocol has you interacting with the 'final villain' throughout the course of the game.  You see Halbech all the time, as he tries to profit off a full scale war.

I'm fine with games going for an intriguing storyline, I really am.  They just need to have enough of a pull or mystery to get you invested.  Being vague, or too avant-garde can just leave me feeling that something is coming out of thin air.

For a quick example of how I feel this worked out well, I'll point you to BioShock.  Wonderfully done game, with an ending that was a bit off, considering the rest of the quality in the game.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Album Review: Krallice - Diotima

The Pretentious Version:

Picture, if you will, the very concept of music. At its core, it is merely arrangements of sound that some may find pleasing. To the listener, however, music transcends what it is composed of to stimulate the listener's mind and even his soul at times. Each piece of music, in its own way, creates a world, some glimpse of another plane within the human mind, some more so than others. Diotima, the third album by New York progressive metal band Krallice, is one such work; each song a piece of the darkly serene world that the work as a whole creates, one of chaos, yet beauty amongst its ruins.

The intro track "-" (This review may be pretentious as hell, but even I can't justify that title) is brief, but sets the scene efficiently, where tremolo picking and blast beats combine to weave a dark tapestry. It gives way to a solemn guitar riff, which itself crossfades into the feedback of Inhume. There are few moments like this on the album, the other two such moments occurring on the title track and Telluric Rings, but these moments are a stark reminder that despite the beauty of the landscape, its jagged mountains and foreboding gloom still render these lands hostile and uninviting. Krallice are not a band known for being "evil" or "brutal", but the atmospheres evoked by these passages are quite dark indeed, and would work well if reworked into a black metal album. (Note: I don't consider Krallice to be black metal, despite their classification as such. If an artist uses the techniques of surrealism in addition to his own skills and vision, the painting is not exclusively a surrealist work.) Despite the overall solemnity of the album, there are still plenty of points at which some hint of celestial essence can be seen, as moonlight penetrating the clouds. The riff at 5:26 on Inhume, which is repeated shortly after, is an example of this, as is the first climax of Telluric Rings at 6:41.

A work of art is only as quality as its artist, and on that front Krallice certainly deliver. The twin vocalists, Mick Barr and Nick McMaster, complement the surrounding music perfectly, and, while some may find Barr's higher-pitched vocals grating, the album takes more of a focus on McMaster's growls, which are the deepest they've been throughout their discography on this record. The dual guitarwork of Barr and Colin Marston always strikes a balance between flashy and reserved, with solos used sparingly. Special mention goes to McMaster on bass duty; his playing does not mirror either of the guitars, but cuts its own path to augment the surroundings, often to the effect that lesser bands try to accomplish with over-the-top keyboards or orchestras. His work is the subtle undercurrent to the rest of the band's waves.

The album holds plenty of stand-out moments, but the most interesting of which to my ears is the track "Litany of Regrets". The production is compressed heavily, not to produce a lower sound quality overall, but to create a sort of motion to the song based around the bass drum pedal. The song keeps a consistent up-beat tempo throughout, which combined with the aforementioned compression, lends the track a sort of hypnotic quality. The music itself is heavily focused on repetition, with occasional theme changes, but ultimately returning to the central riff. "Litany of Regrets" is essentially the modern metal realization of an ancient shamanic trance ritual, a theme with the lyrics touch upon as well: "And the anchorite dreams/He dreams a shaman carving blood unto/Darkened cavern ribs/While shadows dance/To the ecstatic rhythms/Of the Pacan/He dreams of pages of gossamer and spider web/Whose words will not survive their altercation back to dust." The repetition may easily be seen as a weakness, but it fits the concept quite well. The album ends with another example of one of the things Krallice does best; taking a moment and building upon it until it envelops the listener. While not as bombastic as the last minutes of "Monolith of Possession" (from their previous album, Dimensional Bleedthrough), the outro of "Dust and Light" is a more than satisfying conclusion to Diotima, providing a fitting end to the sonic journey through forgotten lands.

In conclusion, Diotima must be viewed as a whole work, not on a song-by-song basis. It, like all Krallice albums, is not to be viewed on merits of its status as "metal", although to the patient listener, it has more than enough moments to satisfy those listeners as well. It crafts a world within the listener's mind, and then guides him on a journey, bearing witness to both beauty and savagery. If you are a fan of music as an artistic medium, or simply like quality progressive metal, Krallice is certainly a band to check out, with Diotima as another shining example of their status as craftsmen of sonic landscapes.


Krallice are clearly skilled musicians, with plenty of guitarwork to keep metalheads interested, if they can bear a bit of repetition in "Litany of Regrets" and each song blending together to create a whole instead of simply crafting memorable songs with hooks, choruses, etc. It's worth a listen to see if it's your thing, certainly, but I can't guarantee the appeal of it to a standard metal audience.