Game Eaters

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

In Defense of Stat-Porn.

I dislike heavily stat-oriented RPG’s. I feel I have better ways to spend my time than doing the same actions over and over and over again, just so I can unlock a new cinematic with the same cloying melodrama. But once in a while a game comes along, does all these things, doesn’t innovate at all, and I love it. Odin Sphere is one of those games.

I usually play mainstream RPG’s like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, or Genso Suikoden. These are RPG’s where exploration, story, combat, and character advancement exist in roughly equal proportions. But there is another strain of Japanese RPG, like Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics, where character advancement and combat are much bigger parts of the game than story or exploration. These games seem designed for those with a fetish for complex systems and a low interest level in narrative. They are stat-porn.

I’m normally driven crazy by the tired conventions stat-porn RPG’s indulge in. In my old age I have become a critic of game conventions that constrain imagination and keep designers from better exploring the worlds they create, thus preventing games from reaching a wider audience. There’s no worse offender of this than Odin Sphere. I was disappointed with Kingdom Hearts when a non-gamer friend lamented that its rich fictional universe was expressed strictly in terms of opening treasure boxes and hitting people. So how can I not hate Odin Sphere, which takes Norse mythology and makes it about whacking monsters and mixing potions?

I’m sure most will assume art is the decisive factor; the sublime 2D art of Odin Sphere. The art is a big part of the aesthetic experience of this game. It does make the world feel evocative, which inevitably encases the play experience—as pedestrian as it is—in a warm and magical glow. I suppose next one might assume it’s the story cinematics. The stately Japanese voice acting removes a lot of the normal barriers to taking an RPG melodrama seriously, and the story itself achieves the human pathos that mythology is supposed to embody. Ever since Square made unconventional plots boring I’ve come to appreciate RPG’s that have the grace to make me care about simple tales of love, lust, power, and betrayal. This is why I now find Dragon Quest far more human than Final Fantasy has become, and I think it’s why I find Odin Sphere romantic. The central metaphor of Odin Sphere is a little girl in a dusty attic reading age old tales of princes, princesses, battles, and gods. The story appropriately feels like a long old book, but one that’s populated by beings of human frailty.

But aesthetics are only part of Odin Sphere’s appeal. Also important is the fact that the mechanics, for all their repetitiveness and simplicity, yield dynamics which are not repetitive or simplistic at all. Lots of reviews complain that characters have very limited moves and that the game is really about doing the same combo over and over. On some level Odin Sphere is about repeating the same combat moves, but what I fail to see is how these reviewers missed the strategic planning one must achieve in order to survive. I’ve done more thinking in Odin Sphere than in games with more so-called variety. Gameplay requires an impressive level of concentration. The dynamics created by one enemy type versus another enemy type, by groups of enemies versus a single enemy, or by one boss versus another boss, are always complex. Odin Sphere is a triumph of minimalist mechanics giving rise to multi-layered dynamics.

I like Odin Sphere for holistic reasons, even though it isn’t the sort of holism I hope for in games. I want games to be better combinations of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics but not in ways that require years of genre literacy to enjoy. Because it’s mired in the fetishism of Japanese stat-grinding RPG’s, Odin Sphere requires a deep level of genre literacy. On the other hand its combination of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics are unusually balanced for a game of its type… which is something I, at my literacy level, can appreciate.

There’s nothing wrong with game conventions that require literacy in order to engage players. After all, there is no such thing as media that is devoid of convention and therefore no media that doesn’t require a form of literacy. The games industry needs to work a lot harder to pioneer new conventions that require new literacies so we can reach new audiences. That said, it’s nice to see existing conventions—arcane as they may be to new players—handled with such superb artfulness. It may be stat-porn, but Odin Sphere is one game that will make you proud to be a pervert.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

After GDC: Reflections on Eiji Aonuma

At GDC, Eiji Aonuma gave a talk entitled Reflections on Zelda that could be briefly summarized as "Nintendo's special brand of development hell." I found it an insightful examination of the various different market and internal forces that shaped the creation of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Aonuma explained each creative decision made for each major change to the series since Wind Waker, including the handheld iterations. In some ways, Aonuma's generally humble tone seemed to me to be an apology to all the Zelda fans who disapprove of various changes to the series.

The Game-Eaters met up at GDC and voiced our opinions about Aonuma's and Nintendo's decision making process, not least being the decision to make Twilight Princess "120% Ocarina of Time" instead of continuing the trend of giant innovative steps in Wind Waker, Four Swords, and Majora's Mask. As always, our GDC discussions get pretty spirited and our dinners get pretty Mexican.

The comments following 4 Color Rebellion article about Wii Sports and Wii Play going platinum reminded me that Aonuma claimed that Wind Waker did extremely poorly in the market, despite breaking a million preorders in North America. A little digging in Wikipedia, that resource of oh-so-reliable information, indicates that Wind Waker was the poorest-selling home-console Zelda thus far. Some of the handheld versions sold fewer copies. It sold slightly less than Majora's Mask, which in turn only sold half as well as Ocarina of Time. Sales-wise, the latter is the champ for the entire series.

Twilight Princess worldwide numbers appear to be about 300k copies away from catching up to Wind Waker, which is coincidentally the difference between the Japanese sales numbers for Twilight Princess and Wind Waker. So, despite the change to Aonuma's "US-focused" graphics by moving away from cel-shading, it sold about the same in the US. The game has been on the shelves for a while, but Wiis are still in short supply, so it's possible for Twilight Princess to perform well in the long-tail and sell more copies to prove Aonuma right. As of this moment, though, Wind Waker is still doing better than Twilight Princess.

Seeing the marked downward trend since Ocarina, I'm not at all surprised that Nintendo wanted to keep their their game development low by throwing out hi-def from their Wii strategy. It also reinforced the doom-and-gloom pronouncements of the Japanese "Gamer Drift" that drew every major Japanese game publisher's eyes to the US market in the past two years, until Nintendo stemmed the tide with the DS. Japanese speakers at GDC gave a lot insight into the various alternative strategies from Konami, Capcom, Nintendo, and Square-Enix, the results of which are only just beginning to hit the shelves.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas at Ground Zero

A holiday mod for Introversion's Defcon. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Dangers of Playing Guitar Hero

So the pitcher of the Detroit Tigers has hurt his hand... not by training, but by playing Guitar Hero. It's a problem that is unavoidable when you play the game; you're so into it, it's difficult to put it down, even when your hand is hurting. One of the first things I noticed when I started playing was that my left hand hurt the same way it did when I (unsuccessfully) tried to teach myself to play the real guitar. But pain is no obstacle to go on playing... nor tiredness--right after after getting Guitar Hero II, I played until I was practically falling asleep and therefore failing to hit a single note.
Soon we will hear about "wiimote's elbow" or "DDR knee". Doctors should start preparing a speciality on videogame injuries.

(We Game Eaters bloody love Guitar Hero, don't we?)

Friday, December 01, 2006

There are cool games for Mac (only) too

I just came across Sketchfighter 4000 Alpha, a Mac-only game by Ambrosia Software (these guys also did the Mac port of Darwinia). It's a shooter game, but not a shoot'em up--it has the controls of Asteroids, which force you to navigate the space carefully, while you shoot the enemies that come at you. This, in a way, it forces you to move carefully and not too fast. The concept is interesting, though its hybrid nature makes it more appealing to players that like slow-paced games rather than action-packed.

What made me download the game was how it looked. Following on with the confession series started in the previous entry, I have to admit I admire retro-looking games which turn technical limitations into a style choice. What is now "realistic" (mind the quotation marks) will look old-fashioned with the advent of the next generation of consoles; you can see this yourself by checking early PS2 games, for instance. Making a statement with your visual style that goes beyond "you can count the hairs in this guy's head" is what I'm interested in. There are beautiful "realistic" 3D games out there, as FFXII (which looks fenomenal), but if game developers give a chance to riskier and new visual styles, we can get more stuff like Okami.

Sketchfighter is neat, it makes its visuals part of the concept of the game, the game that you imagined with your notepad doodles, this time moving for real. The music is not sci-fi themed, but more of a retro-calm-leisure soundtrack which makes you feel, not that you're in outer space, but that you're a kid playing with pen and paper.

The only bad thing is that it's for Mac only. Give it a try if you can.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I like to watch...

... people playing games. And before you start thinking that I'm a videogame pervert, remember that in South Korea there are three cable channels that broadcast videogame matches. I like playing too, of course, but I still keep a certain fascination about watching people play. Perhaps it's part of my academic side, always observing how people relate to media. Perhaps it's my crazy scientist side, the same side that showed clips from Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive in the US) and Evil Dead 2 in a symposium to my fellow students and teachers of English Literature, and watched their faces instead of the screen.

There is an inherent pleasure in seeing other people play. C'mon, you've done it too. Watching sportsment while they play cannot be so different from watching someone playing a videogame. As in sports, it is more enjoyable to see a game played when we know what it is about; we should have played it ourselves to appreciate good (or bad) gameplay. Only when you've played Guitar Hero can you be astounded at a video of someone hitting all the notes of 'Bark at the Moon' in Expert mode.

This videogame voyeurism probably started with my own limited gaming skills. I've improved a ton, but there are still certain genres that I completely suck at, so I need someone to play them for me. Six years ago, when I started studying games, if I got stuck in a certain level of a game, I would call my brother to help me pass that level or that stupid boss whose strategy I could not figure out. We scholars need to know as much of the game as possible, so at times we must resort to surrogate players to get us through the game. (Stop that disdainful smirk, you've used GameFAQs too, I'm sure!)

I must confess I'm not so interested in watching a video of what the screen shows while someone plays. I like to watch what people do, their gestures, what they say. More importantly, I love to see how people learn to play the game, and improve with every try. Again, Guitar Hero is an excellent example of this--you can see a newbie from failing the first song to happily rocking on in less than an hour. Every game of the Wii, so far, also brings out that sense of wonder, since we're still getting used to the new controller.

However, the biggest kick I get from watching people is when they play a game I had a hand in. When I was demoing my interactive fiction piece (which I'll post here one of these days), I was thrilled to see what people would try that I had not thought of, and later I would try to incorporate it into the game if it wasn't supported. I would not get discouraged if they did not do what they were supposed to, I made a note and tried to make changes for people to understand what they could do. On the one hand, making games gives you a sense of power, since you get players to do what you want (more or less, if you're a good desinger). On the other, it's also gratifying to give players a sense of power too, by which games allow them to do things that they can't do in real life.

The empowerment of players, letting them do things that they can't do in real life (flying an acrobatic plane, swimming in deep waters, fighting aliens, being a thief, a pirate, a rock star, a surgeon) is what I like to watch, whoever made the game. Sharing that power, that thrill to people around is what I like when I watch people play games.

(... Okaaaaaay, watching people suffer while playing games can also be fun. See "Why Doom 3 is rated mature".)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Triforce on MIT Dome

Clara noted this on the web before I did (kudos to Bryan O. '07), despite the fact that I'm currently in Boston and she's in Atlanta. I'm verifying that there actually is a Triforce on the Great Dome on the MIT campus, commemorating the launch of the Wii this past weekend.

For those who haven't figured it out yet, all the contributors to Game Eaters are MIT alums, so hacks such as random sculptures on the Great Dome are part and parcel of our collegiate experience. It's always heartwarming when the prank takes a form related to one's favorite hobby, though!