I almost never buy multiplayer-centric games. I don't like playing with strangers because they have a tendency to be assholes, but it's hard to get my friends to play a game too. So I play single-player only games. Then people look at me weird when I say I don't like Call of Duty.
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Recently, Steam had the two Penny Arcade episodes for sale. Being a longtime fan of the webcomic, and never having played them, I figured it was a no-brainer to grab this deal. And it turned out to be well worth my time. The games were funny, clever, with an interesting battle system and fun adventure game-style puzzle solving. It's a shame that Hothead games decided to ditch episode three in favor of doing their own thing in the form of Deathspank, but I'll live.
However, the game do raise a curious question: how the hell are you supposed to make a video game based off of Penny Arcade? The comic strips are gag-a-day, with no overarching storyline. There's no adventure, no combat to speak of. Most of their jokes are based on licensed material. Since the Penny Arcade guys really wanted to make a game, they did the wise thing and figured out what their game would need most would be to feel like a Penny Arcade game. The art, the character design, the dialogue and the rapid-fire jokes...those are all in there. The gameplay makes callbacks to other video games, while still able to distinguish itself. While Penny Arcade will occasionally write a serious storyline just for a change of pace, the game is firmly self-aware and does not take itself seriously in the slightest. You can argue that the comic strip does not feature player characters hitting mimes with a rake, but all in all I think they nailed the experience.
It does make me think about other licensed games I've played an enjoyed, regardless of the source material. Aside from watching the two Batman movies in the last decade, I've never cared for him. Yet I played Batman: Arkham Asylum, and thought it was fantastic. Even for someone unfamiliar with the franchise's lore, I still felt right at home without the need to look up online to see who the characters were, and the gameplay itself was fantastic. A couple other licensed games come to mind, such as Astro Boy: Omega Factor for the Game Boy Advance. I have never watched an Astro Boy cartoon in my life, but that game is one of the most unappreciated gems of the GBA library, because it uses the Astro Boy license as a launching point for the gameplay, not just a tacked-on layer of paint. And of course, back in the day, Goldeneye was one of the greatest games for the N64, because it worked well with the source material.
Of course, there's a clear and obvious problem with licensed games: they're made just for a quick buck. It's easier to sell something with an established name on it, regardless of quality. The result is terrible games based off of movies, rushed out because they're the equivalent of action figures to the marketers. Tie-in merchandise with value only to the brand name. It'd be nice to just say "Marketers need to learn better so their games will stop sucking!" but that's been the advice for as long as games have been around, so this post isn't going to change anything. If anything the general public needs to learn better. I'm still amazed that Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II was so hyped, considering the first wasn't even that good, and the fact that the Star Wars brand has been going downhill for a while now. It's all about getting the name out, I guess. That's why Call of Duty has been outselling each installment, because the simple fact that people are playing it means more people want to play it.
Which kind of leads into my next point, which is Episodic Gaming. Going back to Penny Arcade Adventures, Episode 3 was cancelled pretty much because the second game sold like crap. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. The first episode was just that: the first installment. The idea of a webcomic making a video game was pretty cool, and everyone wanted to see how it would turn out. Episode 2 wound up just as good as episode 1, but sold only a third as many copies. It's an ongoing storyline, and there were supposed to be two more episodes after this one, so Episode 2 just kind of fell by the wayside due to a lack of hype. The gameplay was different, but not radically altered in any way.
This isn't the first time this has happened. Xenosaga was meant to be a six-part series, but after episode 2 bombed, the developers quickly skipped to episode 6 just so they could "conclude" the series properly, which was probably a wise idea on their part. In the same time period, I've got to hand it to the developers of the .Hack series. I've never played the games, but they brought out each new installment on a timely schedule and finished the series the way they intended. Valve managed to avert this problem by distributing Half-Life 2: Episode 1 digitally; it was available to pretty much everyone who played Half-Life 2. Additionally, they packaged a bunch of games in The Orange Box, just so people could play the first games before Episode 2, the latest in the series. Though I have no idea where Episode 3 went...
A novel idea is the way Telltale games have been handling their adventure games lately: offer the entire season for a base price, and put out the games as needed. It worked well for Tales of Monkey Island, and a couple more episodes down the line, I might look into the Back to the Future games they're releasing. It's still too early to say out well this will work, but it's an interesting idea, at least.
Anyone have any ideas of how they would like to see episodic gaming implemented?
Don't worry, this entry is spoiler-free.
If you own a DS and you have not played 999, it is now your civic duty to go buy it. It's one of the best-written games I've ever played, with an excellent cast, a suspenseful atmosphere, and gameplay that really respects the intelligence of the person playing it. The game's little-known, but it's easily worth the $35 price tag. If you've played Ace Attorney, Professor Layton, or Hotel Dusk, you'll have a good idea what you're getting into. It's point-and-click adventure, with lots of dialogue and puzzles to solve. While I was initially skeptical, it earns its 'M' rating, a rarity for the DS. Off the top of my head, the only other M-rated DS game is Grand Theft Auto, which has nothing in common with 999. The story is a little tough and hard to follow, and some of the math in the game really requires that the player know how to think, but I still feel this is a game that everyone who considers themselves gamers should pick up.
That said, it's difficult to discuss the game without blowing all the major plot points. Everything in the story just fits together so damn well. However, there is one aspect of the game that I haven't seen done in a game before, and that's the way 999 handles multiple game endings. They aren't that uncommon in games...Heavy Rain comes to mind first, and I know the Shin Megami Tensei series loves to do it. But in Heavy Rain, I still felt that one ending was enough for me. I beat the game, and it was my own personal experience. Sure, it's interesting to see what happens to other people, and it's fun to read up on how all the different choices you make effect the game...but in the end it's still the same experience for me. In SMT, multiple endings are more of a gimmick. You play the game this way, it ends a certain way. That's all there is to it.
However, the multiple paths in 999 serve a very different purpose. Instead of each ending being a definite stopping point for the player, they serve instead as instruction. The different paths you take reveal different facts about the characters, and depending on what conversations you've had previously, your next encounter may go a lot differently. There are really only two substantial endings, and one only serves as a bridge to the final, true ending (which I somehow managed to get through on my first playthrough, but I lacked the necessary information to actually finish the game). The other endings are basically glorified "game overs", though one in particular is genuinely creepy and unnerving, and worth playing through just to see it for yourself.
It really says a lot that breaking up the narrative structure like this can have such an impact on the game's experience. I felt bored with games like Red Dead Redemption or Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood thanks to that simple "seen it all before" feeling, even if the game is in the wild west. But when was the last time that getting multiple endings told you more about the world? Shadow the Hedgehog? (not recommended you play that one) My biggest complaint with games like Ace Attorney or Hotel Dusk is that they're ridiculously linear, but 999 tells a compelling story despite, and because of its branching paths. Otherwise it'd just be a well-written, but unremarkable adventure game. Pursuing multiple scenarios as if they were all equally important as the last just strengthened my bond with the characters, including seeing what would happen if I decided to just screw everybody over.
Oddly enough, my only complaint about 999 is that I wanted to see even more of it. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger, but the potential for a sequel is there, and the director is fully ready to make another one, possibly for the 3DS. I read a long interview with him, and it pleases me to know that there are people like him who take video game writing seriously. He openly discusses his thought process and discussions, which make me all the more excited to become a writer myself. The thing is, he'll only make a sequel depending on how well-received this game is. So go purchase Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors right now!
Since Christmastime, I've had the chance to catch up on some of the big games from last year. Of course, there's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, an open-world game set in Rome. Time to time I also played Just Cause 2, an open-world game set in Southeast Asia in the present day. And finally I finished with Red Dead Redemption, an open-world game set in the wild west.
It's hard to criticize these games for "ripping off" one another (or at least ripping off of what Grand Theft Auto III did a decade ago), since despite their open-world-ness, they're all actually quite different. Assassin's Creed is all about city building and stealth, RDR is about exploring vast deserts of the southern US, and in Just Cause, you blow things up. Yet despite the drastic difference in gameplay styles, art styles, and general design, I still felt a constant feeling of deja vu going through each of these games one after the other. Go to the dot on the map, talk to the guy. Go somewhere else. Kill somebody. Repeat. But they're all well-designed games with various objectives, great sense of progress and motivation for the player, and intriguing stories (Just Cause has a stupid story, that doesn't make it any less fun).
So why am I so bothered by this? It would be so much less fulfilling to play a bland shooter where you constantly run down hallways shooting guys, following a linear path until you get to the ending, with nothing else to find except to do it all again on a harder difficulty. Open-world games tend to offer a great world to explore, more of a playground than a strict "game". But it's weird to complain about a dearth of this kind of game, because it's hardly the kind of thing a small developer would be able to crank out to capitalize on a fad. Big game worlds are hard to make, and even reusing art assets from Assassin's Creed II, or running the game off of GTAIV's engine is still troublesome. Then again, it's much easier to make the game a second time around. Fallout: New Vegas also falls into the category, and it's superficially identical to Fallout 3.
It's less that I want open-world games to stop, and more that they should be spaced out a bit. Everyone wants to make that next big hit video game, and an impressive looking world is a great way to get a bunch of Game of the Year nominations. But even though Red Dead Redemption looked beautiful, had a great storyline, and is the first wild west game to impress people, it still just felt like I was playing Grand Theft Horse. I found myself a lot more impressed with Super Meat Boy, or even Heavy Rain, as flawed as it was. They gave me experiences I didn't know I wanted from games, while RDR just made me feel dull at times.
In summary, smaller = better. Find a way to innovate other than sticking GTA in the future. Or the caveman age. Though I might change my mind for an open-world Pokemon game...
I recently finished Heavy Rain for the first time, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The game isn't perfect; the movement controls are some of the worst in gaming, and there's a glaring plot thread that goes unexplained, but looking past its flaws, I found that Heavy Rain made me feel tense. Normally when a story unfolds in a game, you're just watching it. Even a game like Mass Effect, with its constant dialogue choices still gave me the security that its choices really wouldn't matter, because I know there's another game on the way, and it's impossible for my every decision to have a huge impact on what's coming next. As a result, responses to my past decisions are less shocking, and more "Oh hey, I remember doing that".
Heavy Rain changed all that.
Simply knowing that my each and every decision could have serious consequences left me questioning what I should and shouldn't do. I left several scenes wondering "what if", but I'm almost too scared to go back through the game again and see. I almost feel like I want the game to be my own experience, one that replaying would diminish the effect. Knowing that I can screw up and the game can go on regardless added much more tension to a scene than expecting a game over screen and trying again. In Mass Effect, you are given as much time as you want to choose any given dialogue option, but in Heavy Rain, many decisions are timed. You have a limited time to decide the best course of action, and not only that, but sometimes your options are intentionally difficult to read and follow, because that's just how freaking tense the situation is.
Some spoilers for Heavy Rain follow. Nothing too major, but be warned.
Alright? Good. For all the negative gamer stereotypes out there, where all we play are constant gore-filled shooters, there is a definite truth to it. We can all accept that games like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Mass Effect 2, and Red Dead Redemption are well-designed games with mature stories, but you can't shake the fact that all three of those games have killing as a common gameplay mechanic. These are nameless, faceless enemies we're gunning down, with no emotional attachment or remorse whatsoever. But Heavy Rain takes death very, very seriously. Right from the start, Jason's death kicks off the game, and Shawn's kidnapping soon after. We're given the options to kill a crazy religious extremist and a shotgun-wielding drug dealer, but in both cases, it's a very serious offense, one the player is encouraged to ponder, even if the people in question aren't what you would call "innocent".
Yet the game is fully aware of that, and a later action sequence has you gunning down nameless, faceless henchmen on the other end of a quick-time event. I paradoxically enjoyed the scene, but the implications of my doing so eventually became very clear. You can play a game like Just Cause 2, which gives you all sorts of crazy ways to torture innocent civilians, but then we see just what it's like when the protagonist is forced to cut off a finger. When I first heard about this scene, I had no idea just how intense it would be. On paper it sounds bad, but still manageable, story-wise. But in the scene where you do so, you have the chance to explore a small apartment. I found a pair of scissors, a hacksaw, and a butcher knife. Obviously, the knife would be the best choice for cutting off a WHY THE HELL IS THIS EVEN A CHOICE HOLY CRAP. The mere fact that I have the option to choose how to mutilate myself just makes the scene crazier. Not only that, but I found a piece of wood to place in my mouth just to have something to grit my teeth again when I actually do the deed. The attention to detail in this scene is crazy. The slightly misleading button inputs caused me to screw up the sequence a few times, but it served to enhance my immersion rather than detract from it. It gave the sense that I was bracing myself for it, only to chicken out at the last moment. You can't get that kind of tension from any other game.
There are plenty of memorable moments like this in Heavy Rain, but I think it speaks for itself. The game has a sizeable list of problems, and I've heard many people complain of its quality. They're justified, but I still feel this is a game you need to play for yourself. It's gritty and dark, and left a huge impression on me.