Loot of a Different Color

Greetings fellow virtual treasure hunters. While it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that almost every video game attempts to scratch that itch of pursuing material gain, if only peripherally, it seems the past few games I've played have really emphasized the whole "find and collect" central tenet of loot, looting and other miscellaneous forms of grand lootery. However, what I've discovered is that many games have different ideas on what constitutes a truly desirable commodity for a player to want to hunt down and accrue. As with female protagonists last time, I'm going to detail some distinctive ways that video games I've recently played have compelled me to run around and collect shiny things. I'll readily concede that it doesn't take much to get me and my kleptomaniac tendencies invested in that sort of affair, but it's a curious disparity of design philosophies all the same.

Points

Fuck you, Diana!

Primitive games, or games attempting to deliberately evoke a primitive era, would have loot lying around that simply added to a point total, with the idea being that you would seek the highest score possible before eventually dying. Occasionally the entire point of the game is to collect every item on the screen: Pac-Man, for instance, would happily wakka around that maze forever unless all the pellets were consumed. But for many others, it was largely there to tempt you into getting yourself killed.

However, the "random jewels and bullion as score" was a ubiquitous fixture during the 70s-80s era of Arcade games and the Atari 2600 et al, where absolute victory was often unattainable (games rarely had a "game complete" state that far back) but your mark could be chiseled into virtual rock for all to see after a particularly legendary run. Some holdover of this archaic reward system still exists in online leaderboards and score-based achievements, but it endures largely because of the power of such a notion. You could laud it as an elementary realization of that oft vital "risk vs reward" paradigm of game design, but ultimately it's not really about the gold bars or the diamonds or the Yashichi: It's about risking one's life over and over for a shot at immortality.

Mega House of Dead Ninjas was better. Here I am in my cool Sega treehouse.

Showcase: Super House of Dead Ninjas! I'm once again bringing up the remastered edition of that Adult Swim flash game because it's the purest form of this idea, at least among the games I've recently played. While bags of cash lie everywhere in the tower there is no actual currency in the game - rather, items unlock based on a merit system. You might acquire a new weapon after a decent run, but it'll be because you killed a tough boss or survived for a long period of time or pulled off a particularly sweet bit of ninja mastery. Rather, the score was simply there to demonstrate your prowess to others. Sure, there are a few unlockables linked to one's final score, but it's largely there for show. Once you've beaten every boss, seen every story cutscene (there aren't many) and unlocked every item, what else is there to strive for besides the highest score among your friends?

Currency

Gold! Thanks random stock photo source!

The earliest loot-driven games broke down the whole loot idea to its most common denominator as an exercise in wealth acquisition. Most items are simply there to add to one's bank account, regardless of how dissimilar to actual currency they might appear. Gold can then be put towards upgrades (equipment, skills) from traders, effectively removing the extra step of having to sell all that junk to them in the first place.

Games like the Bard's Tale reboot and Smash TV - both of which have somewhat of a subversive satirical streak in general - will actually even instantly convert items into their cash value upon pick-up in a semi-cynical plea for convenience, because who really cares about valuable relics of an ancient native people or fifty state-of-the-art toasters? Cold hard cash is all that really matters. Most games that focus entirely on cash, though, usually do so to keep the player's interest focused elsewhere, such as the deeper gameplay mechanics or an elaborate narrative. In a sense, it's not all that different from earning points like the above category, though being allowed to actually spend them on boons you need does increase the drive to seek them out at whatever risk.

Rogue's legacy is to always get typoed as "rouge".

Showcase: Rogue Legacy! I still don't own Cellar Door Games' "Rogue-lite", but I did play the demo some time before it came out (I liked it before it was cool! Just... not enough to pre-order it?) and meant to write about it before it kind of took off as yet another widely-beloved Indie game success story. Rogue Legacy isn't particularly interested in acquiring loot - the focus is simply on gold, and to gain as much of it as possible to give one's offspring a better chance than you did. While that is sort of a universal imperative for parents, I'm not sure sending your children to conquer the same malevolent shape-shifting fortress that took your own life doesn't considerably undermine the otherwise compassionate parenting trait of providing for their future.

Collectibles

Some glowy golden gewgaw, yesterday.

A pursuit of collectibles can be a divisive focus to build a game around. Many of the first 3D platformers would have you scouring each of the well-realized open-world stages in search of some glowy knick-knacks, with the secret hope that you stop and take a good, hard glance at the aforementioned well-realization of these virtual playsets before deciding there was nothing shiny in the area that deserved your attention and it was time to move on. 3D platformers have more or less moved away from that idea since that era, instead focusing on the adventure first and foremost once again. More frequently these days, 3D games are built like their 2D ancestors were, with a semi-linear run to the goal and a lot of carefully designed incidence between you and that destination. There are still golden whoosits to collect at the end of them, with a certain total being necessary to unlock the next part of the game, but there's less of a drive to run around and search them out. 3D platformers have very much moved on from 500 multi-colored bananas per level, though collectibles still remain a presence in open-world games in general.

While I sort of miss that era, I can understand a desire to give players a little more reason to care about achieving objectives than having another glittery tchotchke to throw on an equally radiant pile that becomes harder to care about as it continues to grow larger. Collectibles are thus relegated to optional side-content in most modern games, but designers still occasionally find a way to give you a reason to seek them out despite their inherent worthlessness. Take for instance Katamari Damacy's item checklists: Every item you can ever roll up is stored here and the King of All Cosmos lends his infallible wisdom to help the Prince identify what these items are and their purpose in the human world. For me, the goal of a Katamari Damacy game inevitably switches from building the best Katamaris to finding objects that I have yet to roll up - with that endorphin-releasing rainbow text to signify its newness - in order to fill out that catalog and see what our sagacious King has to say about them.

Fittingly, The Lonely Island's "I'm on a Train" didn't do as well as its predecessor either.

Showcase: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks! Recent Zelda games include collectible "treasures" which are often required for upgrades, or can be sold for a bit of useful spending money. Most Zelda games treat these random treasures as optional, and the items you can earn from cashing them in are completely inessential for beating the game, but it does provide a little incentive to seek out challenges and mini-games for which only simple rewards like Heart Container pieces and large rupee payouts had been previously given. Spirit Tracks' in particular can only be spent on one thing other than a mass of rupees: customizable train parts for Link's chief form of conveyance. While a full set confers a useful durability bonus to the train, it's not exactly vital to deck your ride out with dragon decals or a Halloween theme. Xzibit has yet to grace Hyrule with his unerring sense for the practical and the aesthetically pleasing in the field of vehicle customization, and it's unlikely he'd accept Stalfos skulls and bee larvae as payment for his services regardless.

Colored Equipment

"The green thing confers more bonuses, but clashes with my orange thing."

Perhaps the first thing most gamers think of when loot is brought up, the various technicolor pauldrons and greaves of Diablo and its many imitators are the result of years of tweaking the formula of how we are able to judge one piece of medieval haberdashery from another. That we've managed to narrow these vital comparatives down to the color of its text is something of a coup and a disappointment both. I don't suppose I need to explain how these color-coded systems tend to work, given you've all probably played far more World of Warcraft and other MMOs than I have (I can't stand the things), but with the recent Diablo III the color scheme seems to go: white (non-magical vendor trash); blue (mildly magical, like a medium rare steak dinner); yellow (moderately magical, like watching a sunset on a tropical island); orange (extremely magical, like a Harry Potter Blu-Ray boxset that someone sprinkled glitter all over); and some mythical color that I'll never see because it only drops 0.001% of the time (absurdly magical, like the inter-dimensional pocket into which David Copperfield stuck the Statue of Liberty for a few minutes. It's why it sometimes talks in tongues during Walpurgis Night. True story).

Anyway, games like Diablo III and Borderlands and Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest and Darkstone and Revenant and Torchlight and Nox and yes, I believe I've made my point that there are a lot of these and Sacred and Dawn of Magic and Darkspore and Hellgate: London are all built around this mindless lootlust with the action RPG gameplay often a distant second in the list of design concerns. If story is also on that list, it's probably hiding in the margin somewhere as a hastily scrawled "plot?!". There's nothing inherently wrong with this either: the dungeon crawler genre has long been known as a safe haven in which to indulge in one's inner-avariciousness. However, it is possible to build a game around finding things in dungeons that will get players to become even more invested in these junk spelunks. How? Keep reading. (Please?)

Quickly, we must stop the dread lord before he can... wait, did you check that corner back there? I thought I saw a chest. Yes, check it anyway. I'm sure I'm sure!

Showcase: Diablo III! I've been playing a lot of Blizzard's latest non-MOBA of late, but I don't see myself sticking with it forever. It's easy to get addicted to the rat race of ever-better treasure, and it's not like the game has much of a draw with its story (with every last twist cleverly telegraphed by the vast amount of in-game challenges and achievements) or randomized tileset level design (who designed Bastion's Keep? Clooster'fakk, the heretofore unknown demonic Lord of Obfuscation?). It's bashing things and bashing things good and hoping it drops half the armory of the mystical elven city of Rivendell when it collapses. And, again, there's nothing wrong with that format. For 20-30 hours anyway. After a while I just want my virtual axe swings against polygonal monsters for imaginary lucre to actually mean something, dammit.

Story Morsels

"Dear journal: AGHH! THE TEETH! Over."

Most people kind of dismiss audio logs, journals, books, memory spheres and whenever they come across them in games. Often it's because they're focused on the adventure at hand and don't want to waste time standing around listening to some unfortunate dolt write about how they're in the excruciating but somehow explainable process of turning into a zombie robot demon. I'd end that statement with "delete as appropriate", but I think I'm good.

Honestly, if it's well-written a nice piece of narrative context is always appreciated. I can even overlook the incongruity of leaving one's journals in a hundred different places, and occasionally in other people's houses. The key issue is with that "if it's well-written" condition and how infrequently it's addressed. This is in part due to how players rarely bother to stick around and listen to them, thus not exactly justifying spending a whole of resources in order to write them with any degree of quality, which then leads us to this vicious cycle of apathetic "man, so today sucked" diary entries listened to by equally apathetic players who would rather be stabbing the hideous monster our erstwhile Pepys turned into shortly after retiring his quill for the last time.

It's entirely possible to build a game around hunting for gaps in a narrative. Beyond documents which simply explain what's going on, a game can be packed with seemingly irrelevant texts that include subtextual clues, hints to passwords and code numbers or even the extraneous short stories that can be found in books all across the world of The Elder Scrolls' Tamriel. It's good world-building, it can be entertaining in the overwrought or sardonic way genre fiction can often be and it's helping you better understand characters which either play a significant part in the story or are just minor NPCs with their own novel perspective on the events unfolding. It's unfortunate that very few games really bother to do this outside of the prerequisite "itchy, tasty", "yo, maybe we shouldn't have opened that portal to hell, whoops" and "oh hey, this underwater city full of greedy jerks wasn't such a hot place to raise a family" commentary.

I won't argue that it might send the wrong message with a title screen like this...

Showcase: Gone Home! The latest Indie darling, from Steve Gaynor's The Fullbright Company, is absolutely all about searching for narrative clues and little else. The game lets you explore the Greenbriar manse: an immense home paid for by writing blurbs about VCRs and looking after trees. The player, as the concerned and intensely vapid Kaitlin, is searching for the reason why her family has apparently vanished leaving their mostly furnished palace intact. Rather than basing the game around fighting monsters or escaping same, the mystery of how the humble Oregonian chateau came to be deserted and the location of her family members takes center stage and the goal is to simply piece together what happened. It's a heartfelt and well-narrated story and the game is packed with all sorts of curious items worth exploring for the sake of getting a sense of the place and time, even if most of them do not aid towards filling in more pieces of the puzzle. I still think the inclusion of Elebits could've really made it "pop" though. Just me?

In all his incarnations, never did The Nameless One ever not brood.

We actually have a second Showcase of sorts in Planescape: Torment too, which I also played fairly recently. Due to the unique nature of its protagonist, any source of information about his past or about the multiverse of Planescape in general is likely to translate as a direct experience point boost, as he edges ever closer to the nigh-demigod he once was as more memories return. It is a fascinating method of developing a character, because really you aren't so much watching him grow than watching him reverse engineer himself. It's also a genius move for compelling people to become immersed in your story: Even if you're playing solely for the exploration and combat (and I really wouldn't recommend that approach), there's a strong case to be made for reading every note you find and talking to NPC you meet. It might mean a whole mess of XP or a permanent stat boost, depending on what you discover about yourself.

Characters & Buildings

How rebuild this quaint fishing village... people like that game Simon, right?

Perhaps the most intriguing example in recent years - though I believe this sub-sub-genre of dungeon crawlers began with Quintet's Soul Blazer way back in 1992 - is the idea that you're heading down a deep dark dungeon not just for gold or glory, but to revive the world. A handful of games begin with the world as you know it being utterly destroyed, but with the absence of life and architecture comes a fresh new canvas upon which to rebuild civilization. Heading into dungeons allows you to recover the people and structures that were once lost, to restore homes and families and to occasionally even bring back continents or reconstruct a future timeline.

It's a hell of a thing to find a way to get me invested in looting a dungeon for reasons beyond the materialistic. I'm not just running through dungeons for my own benefit--to line my own pockets--but rather to help others in a more direct fashion than killing some big evil apocalyptic shadow god at the end of it all. Dark Cloud, Dark Chronicle, Soul Blazer, Terranigma and to a lesser extent our showcase game all provide a more compelling reason than gold or a rare Embossed Gilt Codpiece of Ferocity to want to jump back into the fray, as homesteads populate, NPCs with personalities and hero-assisting vocations emerge and the world returns to being a bright and lively place gradually in front of our eyes due to our actions. Sometimes a game can be more powerful when it focuses as much on emotional investments as it does financial investments.

So these games are great - just as long as all these peons have monetary rewards for bringing back their homes and family members, that is. I ain't running a dungeoneering charity here.

Chibi Lego people can only look so intimidating.

Showcase: AWAY: Shuffle Dungeon! I started playing this weird DS curio due to its pedigree (though Mistwalker's pedigree is perhaps up for debate) and found a novel take on the old dungeon crawling format that re-purposes an overt action RPG into something closer to a puzzle game, in a similar fashion to what Half-Minute Hero does. All the trappings are there: the player character levels up, can buy new equipment and can hit things with a sword, but the way the dungeon shifts around quickly and in different patterns means you're concentrating on solving switch puzzles and running around like a loon before the walls close in on you and send you flying back to the start. I dunno if I'll stick with it - it's already getting quite frustrating with its shifting rules and awkward fighting controls - but I certainly appreciate it taking the Soul Blazer route of having an NPC to rescue as the final goal of each separate dungeon, and then being able to choose where they get repopulated. Something about all that just appeals to me more than gold or shiny new equipment.

The Bit at the End

"Dear Diary, this blog about looting seemed quite innocuous at first, but it's grown to a ludicrous three thousand words almost overnight! I dread to think what will happen if this were to continue any longer, as... Alas! The forum isn't happy about being tasked to read the video game blogging equivalent of War and Peace! They're advancing towards me, I can hear the drums! Those hideous dru-

*the rest of the journal appears to be covered in blood.* "

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SoundTreks: Illusion of Gaia

I've always wondered what it is about VGM that rates it so highly in my estimations, to the extent that numerous music playing devices I have owned were invariably filled at least halfway with tunes from video game soundtracks. Yet a bunch of bleepy-bloopy instrumentals through the limited medium of a video game system's sound chip can't really compare to professional studio-recorded material by any metric one might use to critique a piece of music, at least in theory. This recent trend of chiptune music might beg to differ, but I think the appeal of all that comes from the same place.

This appeal, I've come to understand, is due to how evocative video game music can be. Not just of an emotional state - sadness, panic, exultation, etc. - but how they're able to nostalgically tap into buried memories of enjoying a game and experiencing its story and gameplay for the first time. A song might remind you of a particularly hard fight, or of a poignant story beat, or of an impressive vista - it all depends on how strong an impression the game and music both have left on your psyche. It's a rare case when both are so high quality that they stick with you, with one helping to recall the other in the mind's eye. Or mind's ear. Stupid expression.

So anyway, what I'm doing here is starting a new feature where I explore a game through the lens of its soundtrack, discussing each part of the story as it pertains to the track currently playing and how effectively said track establishes the scene or ably embellishes a game's quirks. I hope to prove that each tune tells its own story without saying a word.

Just to drop the essayist pretensions for a moment to state that I know absolutely nothing about music from an academic perspective. I'm more of a "don't know much about X, but I know what I like" type in this particular field. So this blog will focus more on the game itself than the actual music, because I won't have much else to say other than "this track is pretty damn pretty, damn", which I can't imagine is the most concise and illuminating commentary out there. It also probably goes without saying, then, that these features will be very heavy on spoilers for the games they pertain to.

(So it turns out SoundCloud isn't compatible with this site. Great. Everything is now YT links - click the titles - until I fix all this with an alternate music-playing service.)

(Oh wonderful, the YouTube videos that all of these were linked to got taken down. Just... here. That's the whole playlist in SoundCloud. Until the site lets you embed the little SoundCloud whoosits, that'll have to suffice.)

Illusion of Gaia

Yasuhiro Kawasaki doesn't seem to have much renown outside of his composer work for Quintet's Illusion of Gaia (or Illusion of Time in Europe or Gaia Gensouki in Japan). This is almost criminal, since Illusion of Gaia's soundtrack is top notch. Both it and its semi-sequel Terranigma opt for an enigmatic ambiance with many of their tracks, presumably to complement the games' bizarre philosophical approaches to the RPG story format and their relatively heady themes of rebirth, slavery, enlightenment and death. Illusion of Gaia's in particular can be chirpy and upbeat one moment and then dark and mysterious the next, and it can also be downright eerie and melancholy in equal measures as well. It manages to rise to the occasion whenever the story requires it, which is no mean feat given the game's eccentricity and frequent mood swings.

Let's just jump in with the title theme:

Age of Exploration (Main Theme)

The rousing main theme sets a few precedents with recurring musical tics we'll be hearing again and again: specifically, the juxtaposition of light flute music with heavy percussion. The flute is a very important element of the game's story, as it is Will's (the protagonist) main weapon and also a tool used for a few music-based puzzles reminiscent of Ocarina of Time (and the subsequent Zelda games that featured a similar system). It's odd to think that a Zelda game borrowed what was a major element of a game that is itself not too dissimilar to Zelda - a kind of friendly borrowing back and forth between two contemporaries, I'd like to imagine.

"Age of Exploration" is, as its name attests, a theme meant to get you invigorated for the exciting adventure ahead. It's sort of a deceptive first impression given what Illusion of Gaia eventually becomes tonally, but the whole world-trotting element is right on the mark at least.

South Cape, the Town by the Sea

Similarly, the theme of the innocuous starting town of South Cape is a pleasant if irritatingly chirpy track. Even the name "South Cape" is so benign you wonder what malevolent events are going to happen to it before the end of the first act. Nothing out the ordinary here, though: really, it's to help accentuate that false first impression that this is another mostly cheery cartoonish JRPG like Dragon Quest. You do get the sense those seagulls in the background are driving everyone who lives there crazy, so there's a small suggestion of "I can't wait to leave" - isn't that always the case with every kid in a small town?

Dark Space

Dark Space is the first hint that the game might have a bit of a subversive streak. An otherworldly hub for saving and exposition purposes - a bit like Persona's Velvet Room, or Chrono Trigger's the End of Time - the first few Dark Space portals appear without fanfare and are something of a jarring surprise to a new player. The ominous ticking of a metronome, the whistling and the ethereal oddness of the track in general help punctuate the strangeness of a place where time has frozen and the spirit of the planet is talking directly to you on matters too significant to properly process right now. However, there's nothing in the music here to suggest any sort of malevolence either: this is a mysterious realm, but it's also a sanctuary.

Lola's Melody

Lola's Melody is the first of several tunes that Will learns on his flute and must laterplay to solve puzzles involving the Itory tribe - the game's obligatory mystical race of seers who seem to have all the answers. In that sense, it's sort of the game's version of Zelda's Lullaby, and how anything involving the Sheikah tribe (the Zelda universe's own tribe of mystics) will respond to it in some way. See what I mean about the odd back-and-forth comparisons to Zelda? Aw, dang it... forgive this conspiratorial tone I've suddenly adopted. Next I'll be talking about Tingle leaving chemtrails behind him as he flies around in his balloon.

Start a Journey - World Map

The World Map music is a little more laidback, with some light guitar, xylophone and flute music - it's relaxing travel music rather than the same kind of rousing overworld map theme most RPGs would elect to use. This is largely because it plays over what are essentially automatic level transitions. For the first half of the game, the player isn't really given much of a choice of where to go: you either head to the next destination in the story or remain where you are in case you missed something. There's a little more freedom towards the end of the game, but nothing like, say, Final Fantasy's airships. It's an entirely node-based travel system and not one that's had a whole lot of thought put into it, simply on the basis that Illusion of Gaia has no interest in being non-linear - rather, it has a story it sorely wants to tell and doesn't care for the player getting distracted and wandering off to do side-quests and revisiting places that have run their course in a narrative sense. I do appreciate that the map looks like an aged parchment though, with towns and dungeons represented as sketches.

The song also plays on the pause menu too. The slight malevolent tone towards the end of the loop is curious, because it's unlikely you'll ever hear it while playing the game - the time spent in the menu or world map is usually very short.

Edward Castle

The castle sounds like a RPG castle ought to sound with all the pomp and circumstance that royalty commands. Another illusion, as it were, since the castle is a hostile place and you spend very little time there. In most RPGs, you head to the castle to get directions from the King - in this case, the King is a greedy tyrant who is of no help whatsoever. Instead, your quest is relayed to you as you sit in the dungeons beneath the castle. I know the cliché of getting tossed into a castle jail for no reason is about as common as having to get the King's approval to start a quest, but it throws you for a loop all the same.

Fanfare

A little Zelda-ish fanfare whenever you acquire a valuable item. Just one of many similarities between this and Zelda and a demonstration that it's not a one-way street between those two. Fair enough, though: if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.

Danger Abounds

Danger Abounds is an odd one. Most of the game's important dungeons - that is, the ones that hold one of the game's statues - have their own unique theme, but Danger Abounds is used several times in later levels as either the default dungeon theme for areas of less importance - like the castle's prison or the mushroom forest - or as a sting during a particularly perilous moment in the story. It becomes so common as a sign of trouble that at occasional points it will play for a few seconds until it suddenly cuts out and the game reveals that the party wasn't in any real danger. It's an effectively tense theme, what with its ominous percussion and theremins. Or a SNES approximation of theremins, at least.

Phenomenon

This odd noise is a telepathic signal sent to and from Itory village residents like Lilly. It makes full use of stereo sound to create the effect of it flying through your head via a doppler effect. It's also the sign that something involving that tribe or just something odd in general is happening. It's possible that it sounds like a garbled signal to Will because he's only half Itory, which would've made for an interesting revelation.

Itory, the Hidden Village

Itory's village theme is similar to South Cape's, though a lot more peaceful. The squawking seagulls are replaced with songbirds, and the song is led by its flute - a symbol of the Itory people and a signifer that this place is more on the light side of things than the shadowy. The music definitely makes Itory a pleasant place to stay a while, even if it's a little sad in spots too.

Signs of the Past

The far more mysterious Moon Tribe - the Itory's phantasmal neighbors - is used chiefly by the game whenever it goes full-on mysterious melancholy. Some of the game's most disturbing sequences are set to this music, such as the moments when the party is faced with death (the mummified remains of the Aztec ship of gold), slavery (the carpet makers of Dao) and how the world is basically circling the drain due to the effect Dark Gaia - the game's cosmic antagonist - is having on the planet. The Moon Tribe will often appear out of nowhere to dispense "wisdom" after these scenes of desolation, like a bunch of ghostly Oompa-Loompas, though really they're just making things even more confusing and dark. This is not the happy and bright game its theme music intimated it to be.

Larai Cliff ~ Where the Wind Doesn't Reach

The music for the first real dungeon of the game, the Larai Cliff is a vertiginous trek through a cave network built into the side of a cliff that has traces of an ancient Aztec civilization. Keep in mind that isn't "Aztec-like" or "some fantasy RPG equivalent to the Aztecs" but the actual Aztecs. The theme of each dungeon reflecting a real-life ancient civilization continues throughout the rest of the game as well. It's an exciting and bombastic theme with a strong hint of danger, in a sense signifying that the game is finally deciding to get serious.

Melody of the Wind

Cleverly, the piece of music you need to progress further into Larai is a distilled version of the area's music. This tune affects the winds in this particular area, making it possible to reach new places, but doesn't have any purpose outside this one dungeon. It just kind of sits in your inventory after that.

The Guardian (Boss Battle)

The normal boss music. I believe it plays for every guardian boss fight in the game. It's a fairly standard boss theme as boss themes go, but very heavy on percussion. I've thought a few times that the percussion was supposed to represent the game's dark half, with all the game's enemies marching to its demonic beat. When that beat is all the more pronounced, like it is here, it suggests you're in a place where the powers of darkness are at their strongest. Or I'm just imagining things. Probably the latter.

Reversion

This little twinkling effect plays quite a few times, usually whenever a new statue (the game's six McGuffins) is added to the inventory. It's really more a sound effect than a tune, though.

Will's Dream

At one point Will is knocked unconscious and has some disturbing prophetic dreams. Like Signs of the Past, this is meant to be a very enigmatic and melancholy tune. It also plays during a certain scene in a village full of starving villagers, which might be the darkest and most depressing scene in the entire game. Although the pathos in many early JRPGs can often be a bit too much, Illusion of Gaia's one of the few that gets it right often in spite of its clunky localization.

Adrift ~ Raft Theme

The game goes for an odd little detour after the Aztec dungeon, with a scene that's very strongly reminiscent (though, of course, Illusion of Gaia did it first) of the scenes in Final Fantasy VI when Celes (and the player) are first coming to grips with the World of Ruin - a world where the natural order of things has been thrown into disarray by Kefka's madness. The carefree music plays while Will spends some time adrift on a piece of flotsam while conversing with the only other (apparent) survivor - Kara - and catching fish while the hours and days pass by...

This whole sequence is a bit odd from a mechanical perspective as there's not a whole lot to do but click on things until the game lets you progress to the next story beat, but it helps to establish Kara and Will's relationship which becomes important later on. I have no idea what it is with JRPGs and catching fish, either. It'd be easier to list the ones that don't involve fishing at some point in the story.

Freejia, City of Falling Petals

Freejia, a picturesque European city that evokes Rome or Paris, is where the party meets back up after their ordeal on the Aztec ship and has the same cheerful theme as South Cape - though thankfully without the seagulls. It takes a moment to register the difference. Freejia, like many of the cities to come, has both a friendly facade that immediately greets the player as well as a dark side that can be discovered if the player prods around a bit by walking around back alleys and talking to NPCs. Protip: It's probably related to slavery and human trafficking. There's a few more cities after Freejia, and they all use this theme or the South Cape theme depending on whether or not they're on the coastline.

Melody of Memories

The third and final tune that Will learns on his flute is a little tune that is meant to jog people's memories. Naturally, it's meant for a few puzzles involving forgetful NPCs, though doesn't have much use outside of that. A bit like the other two melodies then. Cleverest of all, the Memory Melody is very similar to the music in a much later dungeon: Ankor Wat. This is because the slaves that teach it to you were originally from the same region. By the time you reach the dungeon in question it'll be several game hours and possibly many real-life days later and so it's entirely possible you might recognize the music but not remember where you heard it. Pretty sneaky for a melody about remembering things, right?

In the Earthen Womb

Perhaps the game's most famous piece, In the Earthen Womb plays whenever the game is at its most overtly spiritual. It's also what plays if the player opts to stop playing their adventure when prompted after saving - an option many early RPGs (and many recent ones too) gave the player if they wanted to unwind a little before turning off their console, or were somehow paranoid about losing their progress if they didn't "save and quit". It's a very peaceful theme, but you didn't need me to tell you that.

Sky Garden

The Sky Garden is the second unique dungeon theme and plays in a dungeon that is hovering miles above the Nazca Lines. The Nazca Lines have befuddled archaeologists for centuries and have remained more or less untouched during that period due to the absence of any wind in that arid region, and the game kind of riffs on the mystery and suggests that they're some kind of code that points the way to a mysterious floating garden, which is itself an allusion to another archaeological wonder: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Sky Garden is a verdant, shiny and somewhat precarious dungeon due to its many pitfalls. Elegant beauty and precarious danger intertwined, hence all the violins and percussion in tandem.

The Ocean Palace of Mu

Mu is a headache for a lot of Illusion of Gaia players. Many of the dungeons of Illusion of Gaia operated like Zelda dungeons - there's a lot of backtracking as activating switches and solving puzzles and learning new skills would frequently open up paths in earlier areas. This is at its most convoluted in the Ocean Palace of Mu, which also had a water-level raising gimmick to complicate things even further. Odd that Ocarina of Time borrowed that idea too, given how little people cared for it at the time (and would continue to not care for the Water Temple it eventually evolved into). Like many of the dungeon themes, it's tense and percussion-heavy. Mu is one of the major mysteries of archaeology, akin to the disappearance of Atlantis, or at least it was until it was largely debunked by modern technology and understanding, and its lack of a real-life location is why it doesn't have any markers to suggest a regional musical style - unlike many of the other dungeons that are based on ancient buildings and areas with verifiable geographical locations.

The Great Wall of China

Take, for instance, the game's next dungeon within the Great Wall of China. The track is unmistakably Chinese in style. The dungeon was one of the few to be "2D"-inclined - though these dungeons had a depth to them, they were mostly left-right, up-down affairs which departed from all the multi-directional top-down dungeons that had come before. While I'm reluctant to invoke Zelda once again, dungeons like this were more "The Adventure of Link" than "A Link to the Past". It also made them a little less exhausting to explore than Mu, at least.

Russian Glass

Simply a sped-up version of the Danger Abounds theme, this plays during a particularly tense game of Russian Roulette with poisoned wine. Though there is no way to lose the contest - Will has a psychic premonition if he happens to pick up the poisoned glass to warn him in time - it's a dramatic scene for a number of reasons. It's actually a little messed up that Will cheats at it, but then there was no way of predicting that the opponent would down the last glass despite knowing it was poison either. It's a very strange sequence, but an unfortunately necessary one if the player wants to continue on.

Anyway, just wanted to throw this in here because it does something interesting to an extant track and is a good example of how odd this game can be at times.

Ankor Wat

Ankor Wat's theme is, as previously discussed, built around the "Melody of Memories" tune. Ankor (or Angkor) Wat is a real place deep in Cambodia and is visually stunning to look at: an immense ancient temple that had in parts been reclaimed by the jungle that surrounded it. It's also a very tough dungeon, though fortunately not so much due to any disorientating mazes or water raising puzzles. The end of Ankor Wat is where Dark Gaia's venomous influence on the planet becomes apparent to the group, and builds towards the game's most insane (but somewhat hinted towards) revelation.

The Great Pyramid

The final true dungeon of the game, the Pyramid is where Will finally unlocks the powers of his second alter-ego Shadow. Shadow's unique powers to blend through floors made with sufficiently porous stone to accommodate his gaseous form makes the Pyramid a very curious, vertically-inclined place to explore. It's also, like the Great Wall of China, largely a 2D affair. It's also where Illusion of Gaia wraps up a plot thread that had been left dangling since the very beginning of the game. It's effective when it happens, because the game counts on you forgetting after so much time had passed - much like it does to a surprised Will. As with the other regional dungeons of the game, the Great Pyramid's track is unmistakably Egyptian. I also have no idea what that echo-y effect is meant to represent, but it's certainly ominous and therefore fitting for a tomb full of monsters.

Clash of Light and Shadow

The final boss theme is traditionally where a JRPG's soundtrack is at its most bombastic and up-tempo, and Illusion of Gaia is no exception. The final encounter with Dark Gaia is truly astronomical - you're fighting on top of a comet above the planet - and the culmination of the game's most prevalent theme of light vs. shadow, as intimated by this track's very name. It's also frantic as hell. Hard not to get pumped up by the sheer spectacle of it all.

However, in all honesty the final boss fight itself is something of an anticlimax. It's unusual in that it plays like a shoot-em-up - you can move left to right, but the only weapon you have is a powerful ranged attack. It becomes a matter of dodging projectiles and then moving into a position where you can damage the boss. An odd departure, but given all the other weird shit in the game I guess it's germane enough.

To the New World - Ending Theme

The bittersweet ending music reflects the end of a journey and the resurrection of the Earth as it was always meant to be, free from Dark Gaia's influence. Despite Will and Kara's journey deepening what was once a burgeoning friendship to a devoted love for one another (which seemed a bit too sudden for my liking, but whatever), the two must now be separated forever as the world returns to a point before its malevolent visitor started messing everything up. This results in the world's chronometer rewinding a few hundred years to let the new history play out - effectively erasing the cast of characters and the entire game's journey from existence, if not its result. That the theme is so utterly emotional on top of everything else means I have trouble keeping it together whenever I hear it.

The game's stinger suggests that Will and Kara might well meet again someday...

Around the World - Staff Roll

A part cheery and part sadly reflective track that features a piece from the game's signature Age of Exploration theme, Around the World - the longest track in the game by quite a margin - plays during the credits to leave the player on a high note. An adventure's been had, a story's been concluded and the Earth has been saved. I believe the end credits track is customarily meant to be evocative of the time spent with the game, as well as another bittersweet reminder that your game is at an end (at least until you restart, anyway). The Super Mario 64 staff roll theme is another excellent example of this.

The Bit at the End

Which is where we end this blog. Illusion of Gaia is perhaps the best known of the Soul Blazer trilogy, but its sequel Terranigma (by all accounts even stranger) is what receives the most acclaim from JRPG fans. Illusion of Gaia is a game that deliberately made itself approachable with its simple gameplay systems and straightforward linearity to tell its story to as wide an audience as possible - an idea not a million miles away from what story-driven games are doing these days with the likes of Dear Esther and Gone Home.

I sorely hope both it and its two brothers make their way to Wii U's VC and join EarthBound in what could be a burgeoning retro market of classic Nintendo RPGs. I suppose that all depends on who owns the rights to Quintet's games these days. I figured it would be Enix, the publisher for IoG and the other Soul Blazer games, but they separated from Quintet some time ago back when the latter developed The Granstream Saga - the fourth and final game in the Soul Blazer series (depending on who you ask). No point speculating on the wheres and whys of all that though, I just want to see it happen. Is that too much to ask? Probably, you say? Tch, you're no fun.

Supertember will continue... dun-dun-duuun?

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The TurboMento-12: Bloody Wolf

I gotta hand it to user @polyesterkyle, he suggested a real banger for this month. Data East's Bloody Wolf is a Commando style run-and-gun that gained notoriety in the arcades for its wonderful Engrish before settling on home consoles with a far more intelligible TurboGrafx-16 port. It's the spiritual successor to Data East's earlier hit Heavy Barrel, but takes inspiration from all sorts of games in this genre - the aforementioned Commando, Ikari Warriors, Guerrilla War, Contra and so on. Despite evoking a great number of Vietnam movies too (Rambo specifically) I don't think it's set anywhere in particular. "The Enemy Base" is about all I got from the story. Screw it, we're heading into Vietnam to rescue P.O.W.s (Presidents of War). Let's keep it simple.

Bombin' the NAM with No-Scopes and the Bloody Wolf

Welcome to Bloody Wolf! We have a tough decision ahead of us in choosing one of these two extremely different characters as our protagonist. No doubt their motivations, personalities and combat style are all- ah, screw it, I'll go with the bald guy.
It's his defining characteristic after all. Still, it does seem a bit harsh.
Here we go. Because who can say for sure, really?
Wait, how am I supposed to remember all this? I hope there's an in-game journal.
Awwright, we're off. The game very quickly introduces its jumping mechanic. Or rather, it sets up this invincible barricade of barb wire to stymie you until you find the jump button.
Here are some green goons, the disposable troops of The Enemy Forces. They've taken cover behind some red barrels.
Y'know, the type of red barrel usually filled with explosives. Didn't work out well for them, but then it's not like they have video games here in Enemystan.
You can enter buildings, and you'll usually see sights like this: A few guards, an item crate and a prisoner.
I didn't capture it earlier because those soldiers got blown to shit, but if you shoot one of these guys they have these awesome little Platoon death sequences. Look at that lil' guy cursing his misfortune to an unfeeling creator. So cute!
Bald? wants first dibs riding this box around like it's a truck. You make your own fun in wartime.
Prisoners usually just say "Thank You" (as seen in the left screenshot, where he says "Thank You") but will also occasionally dispense advice and hints.
Some prisoners even give you items. For the most part, you don't need to rescue every single one (so it's not like Shinobi, say) but the free stuff makes it worth it.
See? I can be appreciative. This is a good game for teaching manners to your children.
Dude refuses to jump up on trucks, but you can still climb up.
And he we go! Motorcycles work like the tanks in Ikari Warriors: Lots of firepower and you're invincible, but it will eventually run out of fuel/health. Once it starts flashing, that's your cue to get the heck out of there.
Also you can jump with them whenever you want. Take that, gravity! Screw you, Steve McQueen at the end of the Great Escape! Go to hell, Evel Kine... oooh, wait.
I'm just going to park this here while I check out more buildings. No-one steal it, please.
Oh sweet, some steroids and another motorcycle. I love the 80s!
The game's not shy about throwing a thousand enemies at you. Fortunately there's not much slowdown.
Oh, yeah, sorry dude. Did I wake you up?
"Check out these sweet donuts!"
Why, thank you. I try to take care of myself.
The deeply-layered character of "Shotgun Man" is the first of the game's many human mid-bosses. For the first half of the fight, it's a matter of keeping your distance from his blasts and sneaking in close for a few of your own.
Eventually he calls in some goons to help him out.
These guys are armored, which means bullets don't work. But knives do. For some reason? The game advises that you use your knife (it's automatic whenever you're in melee range) but I prefer grenades.
Like so. Less messy (well, more messy) and less chance of getting ganked as you close in.
Eventually, Sleepyhead decides he's had enough and the rest of the stage continues behind him.
I've got a prisoner and a bike to emancipate up here, but the guy shooting near the ladder makes it precarious.
That's some oddly specific information, thanks man! Eight miles, so... what's that? Three more stages?
Oh hell yes.
Each of the bazooka's projectiles explodes like a grenade, taking out groups of enemies at once. Both your guns and grenades can be replaced with stronger pick-ups that eventually run out, like this bazooka and that shotgun from earlier.
The first stage boss is this submarine. It's probably not the one from the Kelsey Grammar movie "Down Periscope".
It has stages too: After losing two blocks of health (these actually translate to several dozen bullets), it'll dive and torpedo the embankment thing you're on.
It's very easy to accidentally wander into the broken parts and drown instantly. The game doesn't have lives, but it will checkpoint you frequently. I generally find that I like this system way more - Ninja Spirit did the same thing.
Down Periscope really wasn't all that great.
Yes. You heard that prisoner. Do you need the guy from Jackal to show you the map?

All right, that about wraps up part one of this episode of TurboMento. I'll go into more detail once I'm done, but Bloody Wolf is pretty good. I mean, I don't know if it's necessarily better than Contra, but it's certainly less challenging. I'm absolutely down with that. I like playing games I can beat.

As always, the story continues in the comments below. If you guys could squeeze in some manner of bon mot whenever you see one of my double posts, that would help a lot. Stupid anti-spamming rules. Thanks for watching me machine-gun a bunch of dudes! You're all accessories now.

The TurboMento-12
January - Ninja SpiritMay - Bonk's AdventureSeptember -
February - Dungeon ExplorerJune - Gekisha BoyOctober -
March - The Legendary AxeJuly - Genji Tsuushin AgedamaNovember -
April - NeutopiaAugust - Bloody WolfDecember -
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Mainlining Heroines

Female Protagonists!

All right, so before we begin in earnest, some ground rules:

  • This blog is in no way meant to support or counter the arguments of a Ms. A. Sarkeesian. Lord knows the internet's full of that (as well as being just full of it in general) already. I know how threads on the topic of the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video series tend to snowball into avalanches, so this is the last time I'll be mentioning it.
  • For that matter, this is a Mento blog. If you wanted an earnest, well-researched, serious social studies piece about feminism in the games industry this is probably not the place to find it. Not that I'll be calling everyone 'skirts' and comparing and contrasting their ability to make sandwiches either. The reason for this is similar to the above: I lack the knowledge and expertise to make any sort of decisive case for feminism and attempting to shoehorn that argument in is likely to turn this innocuous observational blog about female main characters into a poopstorm. I'd become the Ark of the Covenant, in that I'd be the target of every dude in a fedora. Yeah, I'm a wuss.

So rather than actively deciding to jump on board the whole "more women in the industry" train to internet infamy and misfortune (though I'd be very much on their side should this conflict escalate beyond its already irrational current point) this blog came about due to a simple observation I've made about the games I've played so far this year. Specifically, the five games I've beaten that came out in 2013. Each one, without exception, had a female protagonist.

Of course, it gets a little more technical than that on closer viewing. Which then lead to a secondary observation: Each of these games employs a female protagonist differently, with a different approach to garnering interest in a feminine main character, and in one case was entirely by my own decision via a character creator. All the same, I've inadvertently hit upon five very disparate approaches to building a game around a female protagonist.

Tomb Raider - "AAA Asininity"

"With Lara, you'll want to revise how marketing departments for major publishers operate."

Tomb Raider might be the most interesting case, as it is the only 2013 AAA game I've currently played this year. I plan to play more, of course, but circumstances are such that I tend to focus on games I can buy as well as food, rather than instead of food. As an AAA game, Tomb Raider had the biggest challenge to overcome in presenting its female heroine - the perennial Lara Croft - as a worthy protagonist to the millions of male teenagers and dudebros the industry's tunnel vision continues to be inexplicably fixated on. A hot topic of many a recent Jimquisition, the core publisher-led industry is losing traction to the no-longer-really-burgeoning Indie market because it seemingly no longer cares about anyone that sits outside of what it perceives to be the chief target demographic of 14-25 year old males. So we get games like Fuse which are focus-tested to mediocrity and games like Remember Me which almost couldn't get off the ground with its female hero Nilin in case her heterosexual advances towards male characters made male gamers "uncomfortable".

I find all this endlessly fascinating. I've long since grown out of concerns about cooties or how women are these inscrutable, unpredictable creatures or how straight I might actually be really. But more so than that, how much of a kerfuffle Tomb Raider's pre-release marketing made of its main character despite her long, well-established legacy. We're all familiar with the "you'll want to protect her" gaffe, but that really just came about due to a producer - one who was presumably involved with many earlier Tomb Raiders - being suddenly informed that he had to justify why anyone would want to buy a game where you play as a girl. Specifically, one that wasn't overly sexualized and featured in a far more grounded story (well, until the samurai mummies) about survival. The ludicrousness of that situation was presumably what lead to that regrettable, inexplicable reason we were given for why gamers should want to play a Tomb Raider game. Because "you shoot stuff and collect treasure and solve puzzles and have fun" no longer cut it, for whatever reason.

Anyway, the barest of research into the Tomb Raider franchise would tell you that the reason Lara Croft isn't Larry Croft is that the original designers thought it would be a neat change of pace for their new kind of action game. They placated the squeamish publishers by giving Lara Croft unnecessary conical bosoms and convincing them that her sex appeal would sell copies, which it did. Obviously that approach couldn't work as well today, with everyone on edge about sexism and sexual objectification, which is why we got the far more insidious form of "she's too vulnerable" sexism instead. Hooray for progress.

In all seriousness, this is but one of many concerning issues AAA games are having right now with regards to their marketing and design decisions. Those million dollar games have been losing out to the smaller types on Steam and XBLA/PSN and iOS and what have you for a while now, and so we see them desperately trying to grasp onto male adolescents like a creepy uncle. It's probably only a matter of time until the next wave of mascot platformers with attitude show up.

Project X Zone - "Ensemble Cast"

This game was such a glorious mess.

Conversely Project X Zone, for better or worse, doesn't give the slightest care about how it intends to reach as wide an audience as possible. The game is happy to get as esoteric as it likes to appeal instead to a smaller extant fanbase familiar with the many games featured, rather than attempting to branch out and focus on any kind of accessibility. Unfortunately, this means the game can get awfully pandering at times, especially where buxom female characters are concerned.

It does have a female main character though - Mii Kouryuuji is the scion of an influential family to whom the game's big MacGuffin dimension-hopping stone belongs and is the character most often at the center of the frequent battles that drive the plot forward. It's hard to make a case for Project X Zone having a central protagonist, given it has a population of around 60 playable characters that are added and removed from the party at various intervals. Mii and her ninja bodyguard/tutor Kogoro are unique in that they were specifically created for the game, whereas everybody else is a guest from the respective ludographies of Japanese publishing giants Capcom, Namco Bandai and Sega. The game jokes about her "fan service", but she's integral to what little story Project X Zone has and she does eventually awaken to a power that allows her to save the day. Jiggling animations and revealing costumes aside, the game does at least acknowledge that a female lead character can be a courageous and competent hero in her own right.

But I really can't make the case for Project X Zone being socially progressive. There's almost enough PG-rated lasciviousness in there to make a body pillow enthusiast throw up their hands in disgust. It's all done with a certain sense of goofy fun that doesn't go out of its way to diminish its female characters as weaker or less intelligent than their male counterparts, excepting a particularly guileless princess or two, so it's almost excusable in that regard. Yet both it and Dragon's Crown are facing the same kind of criticism here: though clearly no offense was meant, it's hard to continue to exonerate this sort of behavior. For women, it feels exclusionary, like they're strangers in a strangely pneumatic land. For men, it feels too pandering, like someone decided the tight gameplay and wonderful artwork alone weren't enough reason to want to play a game without a pair of anime boobs bouncing around in our face to seal the deal. It's a tad insulting to both genders, frankly.

Shadowrun Returns - "Blank Slate"

I don't think I talk about the actual game at all in this bit. It's like the Matrix meets Lord of the Rings? Maybe it's better I don't say anything.

Shadowrun Returns, like a great many other Western RPGs, allows you to craft a character out of the ether, choosing every element of their composition from scratch. This is ostensibly to allow the player to project themselves into a different universe, creating a facsimile of themselves (or how they choose to perceive themselves) that makes decisions on their behalf. I've never appreciated that approach to creating a relatable protagonist. There is, of course, a second school of thought on tabula rasa characters: That we simply invent our own narrative heroes, possibly ones that couldn't contrast with the real us any further, and let them wreak havoc on a world that never anticipated them. This is the approach I find I greatly prefer.

But then I have trouble being evil in games. This is in part due to how game writers equate "evil" with "lunatic". Sure it's fun to be an unpredictable psycho, but only for a limited extent in a game rich with dialogue and NPC interaction which you're missing out on by killing everything. After all, you can only derive so much enjoyment from Law of the West by shooting everyone in the head as soon as they start strolling across the screen. Sneaky and selfish are better applications of an evil temperament, where the goal is to blackmail people and earn money and power by being generally underhanded, but even that wears out its welcome as you cease to be sympathetic with the "hero" and the decisions they're making. So I usually stick with the do-gooder archetype more often than not. It means being sent to every corner of the globe and going out of my way to help people, but then it wouldn't be much of a game if you just told every quest sponsor to "deal with it".

So what this is all leading to is the revelation that I usually pick a female character in games where the player is expected to generate their own protagonist. I wouldn't be so patronizing to say it was because of the novelty, or so chauvinistic to say it's because I like having a pretty lady front and center to stare at as she goes about saving the world. Rather, a female hero is one that I'm always going to have trouble relating to, but no problem emphasizing with. (Or maybe vice versa?) She's not me, since she's a completely different gender (or a different gender construct at least) and so it's easier to give her motivations and desires that occasionally run completely perpendicular to my own. She feels more like a fictional character I've helped create, rather than some self-insertion clone. I can absolutely understand why gamers would choose to go a different direction with their generated characters, but I've personally never felt comfortable projecting myself into my video game adventures and I've found that switched genders is the easiest way to distance the player from the creation in that respect. I figure it's all fine and dandy as I don't go all Pygmalion on one of these heroines some day.

Super House of Dead Ninjas - "Just Because"

Sure, there's a creepy skeleton that hits on you a lot, but there's barely any mention of the heroine's gender.

This relates more to the old Tomb Raider than the new one, and games like the original Metroid, where the hero was chosen to be female simply because. With Super House of Dead Ninjas's Crimson Ninja, who might as well be a non-entity in terms of character and motivation right up until the ending, the decision to make her a woman seems like an entirely superficial one. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this approach either.

In fact, I'd go so far to say that creations like the 8-bit Samus Aran and Ms. Pacman and the Crimson Ninja - old school video game heroines who were women for stylistic reasons as frequently as narrative ones - are why modern resistance to female main characters is all the more baffling. The key, I believe, is in how little plot these older (or deliberately old-fashioned for nostalgia's sake) games tend to have. Players don't have to deal with detailed motivations and love interests and dramatic moments and it's far easier to relate to some mute badass out for gold or fame or revenge regardless of their gender. As the game industry tries to evolve its narrative elements and create more meaningful characters with deeper backstories, we see more and more people who are apprehensive about stepping into the shoes of a female protagonist and adopting her views and wants. Which means this problem isn't going to go away any time soon, unfortunately. Not unless we all decide to do away with big story-focused games at least, which may not be such a bad idea depending on your view.

Gone Home - "Empathy"

You can't Gone Home again. Though I might if they add that eagerly anticipated "Elebits Mode" as a New Game+ option.

This leads us to Gone Home. There's a dichotomy here, as the two most important characters are a very well developed (but not in that way) female character and another female character who might as well be a voiceless cipher for the player. We experience the travails of the younger Sam Greenbriar through her diary entries which unlock as the player, as older sister Kaitlin "Katie" Greenbriar, comes across various notes and items of interest around the conspicuously empty house her family had moved into during her time away.

Sam's the real star of the game. The entire plot, such as it is, is focused on her and the developments in her life in the year since Katie left home. The secret behind her disappearance becomes gradually clearer as more of what's been happening is brought to light. This is a game that absolutely requires you to be involved with the story she's telling through her journal entries, as the exploration gameplay is built towards aiding your understanding of her situation. It is the motivation to continue searching each room of the house and instills a purpose behind checking every drawer and looking at every scrap of paper. That the game is so contingent on the player caring about a teenage girl and her problems is amazing for a number of reasons.

It's actually kind of interesting how much of a non-entity Katie is in comparison. Though most of her belongings are still taped up inside boxes from the move, you find the occasional personal artifact that suggests little more than a well-behaved, straight A student. It does help flesh out the little sister character by providing this shadow she's had to live beneath, but it seems like a conscious decision was made to make Katie as uninteresting as possible; to shift the game's spotlight onto Sam instead. It's one of many curious inferences you can make in the game from the large amount of subtext it packs inside its many documents, such as finding two identical pieces of sex education coursework about the menstrual cycle and discovering how the two sisters independently approached it.

It's been curious to see the reception this game has gotten since its release. As much as I enjoyed it, the critical acclaim almost seems hyperbolic in scope. I do think it breaks new ground in this continuing trend I've noticed with Indie games that are discovering how little gameplay they can get away with including in order to emphasize their narrative elements, but I wonder how much disappointment such a novel approach is generating as well, especially with that moderately high price tag and short duration. I don't doubt it'll remain a divisive game.

The Bit at the End

Lara and Samus as WVGCW's "Chozo Raiders" tag team. Though given their disastrous PR of late, that tag team could've easily been called "You'll Want to Protect the Baby".

In conclusion: Fuck Jerry "The King" Lawler. "Russian hands and Roman fingers"? What the hell is that about, seriously? Stop drooling over Table-san while you're at it, weirdo.

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The Comic Commish - August '13

Toms, Doms and other assorted Bombs, welcome to another charmlessly garrulous Comic Commish. The penultimate picks for this petard-based premium program pageant are dedicated, as always, to Gold sponsor @omghisam and the fine folk of this establishment who are tirelessly creating quality subscriber content as we speak - that after today we'll have had three new pieces of premium content this week alone is a testament to how hard they're working on entertaining us paying plebes. I'd have run off cackling with a big sack with a dollar sign on it were I in their position. (Past Comic Commishes are here: Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun and Jul.)

Premium Content For Your Premium Contempt

"The Klepick"

Patrick's absence in the San Francisco office is felt most keenly during the Bombcast and by the lack of Quick Looks he would've captained. However, he always brought something novel to Unprofessional Fridays by drawing from an indefatigable library of bizarre Indie titles he'd find during the week. Oddities like imscared, the entertainment factor of which really relied on everyone's lack of knowing what the hell was going on. "The Klepick" is simply Patrick sending the crew a link to an Indie game that defies both a straightforward description and reason - the crew plays it and tries vainly to figure out what its deal is. Though Patrick won't physically be there on the couch, his presence would be felt with every inscrutable browser game or Steam curio.

"Engineer Day"

A variant on that perennial cliché of the workplace comedy, Engineer Day switches the editors and the engineers for a single day, allowing the Top Men and Women to let their hair down and play a bunch of games on a live stream while the staffers discover what life is like knee-deep in front-end scripting and site diagnostics. I've no doubt it would be an interesting stream, were there still a site around to watch it on.

"Salty Scrubs"

Salty Bet dot com meets Scrub League: GB employees stream themselves betting on Salty Bet fights with an initial pot of something like $1000 each, and prior to the stream going live the GB users can bet on which GB employee will earn the most money during that period. The stream would be set-up in such a way that we'd see what everyone is betting and their current totals. Betting on betting - infinite recursion insanity.

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Sunshine, Salt, Storage, Snikt and Sufferin' Shinobi

No big unifying theme for the blog this week, besides maybe "sibilance", but rather a whole smattering of odd things I got up to. It's this point in the summer when things start to get weird as the various TV shows, video game releases and even podcasts (my bad movie lampooner of choice, We Hate Movies, is taking a month-long hiatus right now, and the McElroys' hilarious more-harm-than-good advicecast is putting up the occasional clip show) take a break because it's simply too hot to think let alone to comedicate, or even conjugate a sensible verb construct for that matter. Any plans I had to get through a whole mess of these sidelined adventure games has gone out of the window, because there's no way I can concentrate on them in this ongoing heat wave. Instead, I played a weird collection of brain-free action games. So much for any aspirations I had to clear up some of my backlog before the big late August game rush shows up.

Strap yourselves in (or on? SRIV is right around the corner...), this is going to be a weird one.

Sun, Sea and Mariogaritas

So the Game Grumps started playing Super Mario Sunshine for no better reason than it being a joyous and simple game they could goof around in while they discuss lugubrious Japanese salarymen and Mr Wilson's abortive rapping career. I wasn't particularly a fan of the Grumps for the longest time - I tend to favor the equally rambunctious mayhem of Two Best Friends - but I'm finding that Danny "Sexbang" Avidan is a much more engaging co-host than the hyperactive JonTron was. Contentious point of view perhaps, and a largely digressive one since I didn't intend to start talking about daft LP duos.

What I did intend to talk about is how their enthusiasm for Sunshine's trademark tropical trickery rubbed off on me and I've spent a large part of my gaming time during the past week scouring Isle Delfino for Shine Sprites once again. Sunshine is a surprisingly solid game, given its reputation as a Mario also-ran. Also-jumped. Whatever. Maybe it's a symptom of living in an age where we now get near-annual iterations of the very by-the-mushrooms New Super Mario Bros format, but Sunshine is actually quite innovative in its playstyle and setting, if not particularly in its fundamental game design. It is essentially Super Mario 64 with a graphical update and a "Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian" style geographical transplant, right down to the fact that there are exactly one hundred and twenty glowy collectibles to find across a bunch of disparate settings that are all magically connected to a single hub world with a few secrets of its own.

GameCube HD remakes seem to be de rigueur right now, so how about this one? It was definitely one of the prettier games on the system.

Beyond this, though, there's way more modifications to the Mario 64 formula than what first meets the eye. What does first meet the eye is FLUDD, of course: Mario's mechanical water-squirting accessory is a resourceful companion that seems very much based on a certain backpack-inhabiting bird companion of the only N64 platformer franchise to rival Mario's own success. It dispenses advice, has its own stance during conversations with NPCs and most of its abilities are engineered towards enhancing the hero's mobility and firepower. The game finds lots of avenues for its water squirting mechanics, from washing stains to powering machinery to dousing flames. it's endlessly inventive in that respect, but there's also a few other neat twists on Mario 64 that I actually forgot about in the intervening years since I first played the game. That each "Shine" mission will actually move forward a region's chronology, so that the NPCs refer to what happened previously in the stage and how certain elements have changed permanently as a result. The way the game sparingly uses Yoshi in odd, fruit-powered ways. How the hub world steadily grows brighter as more Shine Sprites are recovered and new events occur once certain goals are met in such a subtle manner that you either marvel at the seamlessness of it all, or despair that such milestones aren't communicated to the player whatsoever. Equally enigmatic are the Blue Coins - a secondary set of collectibles that can often be too well hidden for their own good. Almost as if Nintendo were pining for the days of the Graveyard Duck and the Nintendo Power guides of old. There are the occasional hints from visual cues and NPC quotes, but the Blue Coin Search primarily favors experimentation.

For a kid, I have no doubt that Super Mario Sunshine is an exciting series of discoveries; for adults, it means a quick trip to GameFAQs to avoid hours of fruitless searching for some of its more obtuse secrets. I had the misfortune (I suppose) of never playing this game through the eyes of a child, as I was already heading out of my teens by the time the GameCube rolled around. I've no doubt everyone who gave it its fair but not incredible reviews at the time were in the same bewildered boat. But honestly? If I ever have kids or nieces or nephews and wanted to introduce them to Mario, Super Mario Sunshine might well be the game I opt to use as a demonstration. That mix of accessible gameplay, bright and colorful visuals and emphasis on exploration and experimentation was always meant for them, ultimately.

Never Bet on DBZ, Except When You Ought To

I'd wager - so to speak - that a great many of you are now familiar with the black hole of time and dignity that is Saltybet.com. Originally devised as a way to make EVO more interesting by introducing a fake gambling element, its current incarnation as the Dream Cast Casino is troublingly addictive. Players bet on matches between computer-controlled MUGEN characters and watch them duke it out, with prize money based on odds generated by the number of respective bets laid on each combatant. As an elevator pitch, it's fairly straightforward, even if you do have to explain a few things like what MUGEN is or that the money is fake or how this is something you could potentially spend hours interacting with.

Fall before Alter Amiba's Baraka Bomber!

What's less easy to explain without going there yourself are aspects like how the gambling system is set up in such a way that the chat will often try to psyche out newcomers into gambling on the wrong side of some very one-sided battles. MUGEN is hopelessly unbalanced, due to the result of thousands of imported characters from almost as many sources with wildly varying levels of competency behind their AI and stats. More often than not one of the two characters will always vastly overpower the other - though it's not until you've put some "Salty Bucks" down and the overwhelming odds for the opponent show up that you realize that you've been bamboozled by the curse of MUGEN. The community then laughs in your face for your imminent return to "the salt mines" - that accursed state of dropping back down to a small minimum stake which is very difficult to raise back up to a respectable stockpile once again. As with a lot of recent internet fads introduced to me by Jeff Gerstmann and others, the VGCW being the standout, the appeal is really in the interaction with the other empassioned audience members - psyching out the new guys, joining in the with the rare happenstance of a "real fight" between two evenly-matched randomly-chosen fighters, laughing at another beatdown by perennial overpowered oddballs Alter Amiba or Hato Sabure (an enormous bird-shaped cookie), being a dick despite yourself when an upset happens and you celebrate making a small fortune with your sagacious decision to back a tiny, glitchy, artifact-filled Goku sprite over someone reliable like Ryu or Iori.

The appeal of Salty Bet is ultimately in its execution, and thus many people have found themselves befuddled by all the vain attempts to explain its appeal until they visit the site in question and finally notice how many hours have ticked away while they wait for a Touhou character and Fat Albert to finish sizing each other up across a misappropriated Marvel vs Capcom stage.

Never bet on DBZ, always bet on sword-users and never, ever listen to the chat.

One of the most powerful fighters in the world.

Storage Wars Without the White Trash Altercations - Still Good?

I acquired a game named Pickers from a recent Groupees bundle because it seemed to be the odd merging of a hidden objects game and A&E's Storage Wars. Perhaps not the strongest reason to buy a game, but considering how little these bundles cost I figured it was worth a shot. At the very least it could be grist for next year's Steam May Madness feature to tear apart. However, my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up trying it out several months before schedule.

Pickers is an interesting game from the stance of a virtual kleptomaniac like myself. While the game does introduce the whole well-worn "Hidden Object" formula as a series of lucrative mini-games, it's not the game's core: Rather, you find objects lying out in the open and haggle their cost with the owners before turning around and selling them for a profit at your antique store in the big city. Antiquing and those who make a career of it tend to be less focused on finding treasures and rare collectibles and more about digging up something that's trendy and selling it to oblivious hipsters and yuppies while the proverbial iron's still hot. Thus, each day begins with a "hot category" - be it sports memorabilia, archaic machines or literature - and you spend the first part of each stage of the game checking all the accessible haunts to see if they are willing to part with their junk for far less than you'll wind up getting for it. Sticking to the hot item theme awards bonus money on top of what you earn from selling them off at inflated costs, and this is the crux for succeeding at the game. Buy low, sell high, be followed by a lingering musty smell that takes a few showers to wash off.

Many decisions in this game seem to boil down to treasure vs tetanus.

What you really have here then is something like Carpe Fulgur's Recettear with less dungeon-crawling (though there are a few dank, dark basements) and more hidden item searching. Items can be appraised to raise the value, but paying to do so might result in spending more on the item overall than you can make by selling it off. Some items come in sets, so looking for each piece across the various markets and crafting the much more valuable complete set can pay off. You can also choose to play against AI opponents or not, and their inclusion allows the game to take on that ruthless competitive element so often at the forefront of the Storage Wars type TV shows the game evokes. It's actually a far better application of the otherwise banal "Where's Waldo?" searches that most games of this genre bother attempting. Certainly more engaging than whatever that REO Speedwagon thing was all about.

It's oddly apposite, now that I think about it, that I came across this game in the middle of nowhere, bought it without realizing its value and serendipitously discovered that I'd found something rather special. It's not going to make my top ten for this year or anything, but it was certainly less egregious than I was dreading.

Bub Bomb

Time to get all non-game related for a moment to discuss The Wolverine - the titular erstwhile X-Man's Japanese excursion based on a Claremont-crafted arc where amnesiac mutant Logan wanders around Japan for a spell. I didn't read that storyline back in the day - most of my X-Men knowledge comes from the 90s cartoon, which I think only briefly summarized the arc - and there's a few liberties taken with the kunoichi Yukio and Wolverine's relationship with Mariko and Shingen and the elderly Yashida, whom he saved during the Nagasaki bombing and the imminent demise of whom is the agent that gets the movie started. Regardless, I thought this movie was excellent.

I've always liked Hugh Jackman's interpretation of what I imagine must be an exceptionally difficult character to play in the same sense as how difficult it must be to express your less than glowing opinion of Dragon's Crown - that is, how tricky it is to do so without managing to aggrieve all of those who have, for whatever reason, emotionally invested too much in the fictional construct you're attempting to approach. Jackman's approach here, whether as a downtrodden soul still tortured over his decision to stab that one psychic lady in a film I choose to forget existed or as the rampant warrior clawing, skewering and muttonchopping his way through Yakuza and snake mutants, is still as thankfully decent as its ever been despite the two dire movies he was in between now and X2 (excepting that one marvelous cameo in First Class). There's some fun action set-pieces too with the highlight being a high-speed bullet train sequence, some really great set design and picturesque cinematography of Japan, some decent supporting roles by Japanese actresses who had never acted in an English language movie before but seem to have acclimatized quickly enough and Hiroyuki Sanada might well be my favorite working Japanese actor today. Him or Tadanobu Asano anyway, the latter of whom I hope has more to do in the next Thor movie than stand around and help reverse Valhalla's traditionally poor ethnic diversity standards.

Sword/claw fights make everything better.

I suppose what I appreciated most about The Wolverine, though, was how it crafted a standalone story that didn't depend heavily on continuity, or on setting up continuity for the movies to come. It didn't try to explain Wolverine's origin, at least beyond some flashbacks of an earlier misadventure, and it didn't really build on or change the character beyond letting him get over some baggage and restoring his status quo as a wisecracking defender of the weak rather than some mopey hobo that's sworn off violence. I've seen a lot of great movies this summer - Pacific Rim and The World's End are both highly recommended - but The Wolverine might just be my favorite as of now, if only because it demonstrates that Hollywood can put out a decent little self-contained comic book movie if it really tries.

Super House of Dead Mento

Time to sign off now with a brief rundown of Super House of Dead Ninjas. The site has already graciously provided a Quick Look, so you don't need me to tell you that it's an action platformer that requires twitch reflexes and a constantly quick pace where the goal is to descend as many perilous floors of an enormous ninja castle as possible in one go. In many respects it's a cross between one of the NES Ninja Gaidens and Spelunky - the stages are randomly generated, there's a whole lot of shit that can kill you instantly (though you do have a few extra lives to fall back on) and progress comes in fits and starts as you crash and burn repeatedly only to discover that you did enough to unlock a stronger weapon or a conducive upgrade, thus making the subsequent run that bit more successful than the previous.

That's actually become a familiar but appealing design philosophy I've noticed of late in "roguelikelikes" all over, from Dark Souls to freeware endless runners on Kongregate et al, where a game will absolutely grind you under its heel the first few times you try to play it but will incrementally dole out a few boons to make future playthroughs a bit less painful. Rather than a difficulty curve dictated by the level design or the aggressiveness of the AI (depending on the genre), the game sustains a completely fair if initially cruel difficulty plateau and rewards the player for their perseverance as frequently as for their skill. What this results in is a video game that is appealing for both the skilled and the unskilled - the former can avail themselves to the many challenges the game has in store for them on their own terms, while the latter can struggle along until they have - by their own agency - made it a little easier on themselves. It's an interesting approach to the "how do we make our games fun to the 'hardcore' crowd and the casuals alike?" quandary that many companies now face as our medium grows ever outwards and reaches ever more people.

This'll definitely tide me over until I finally snap and buy Rogue Legacy.

Currently, I have the curious dilemma of either attempting to beat the Hard Mode (rather than increasing enemies and traps, Hard Mode simply removes all shortcuts and continues) or trying to unlock even more items and upgrades by attempting the various weird unlock challenges that would be far easier to accomplish on the kinder Normal Mode. It should theoretically be possible to beat Hard Mode with what I currently possess, but passing through the entire game on one continue is obviously a lot more challenging. It might be best to try and unlock a few more helpful additions by specifically aiming for some of these arcane requirements - goals like staying alive for fifteen minutes (which is easier when you deliberately wait until the last second to pick up the timer refills) or killing a number of enemies with bombs (it's doable, but I usually just rely on the faster melee and projectile weapons).

At any rate, I want to thank @sparky_buzzsaw for kindly putting it up on Steamgifts and for the Random Number God for allowing me to be the one to win it. I've no doubt it looks like the result of some malevolent collusion between the two of us from the outside, given how often we post on each other's blogs and the like, but the chips just fell as they did in this particular case. With this and Shadowrun Returns, it's been a good time for me and random freebies.

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Madule Modness

While everyone else was having needlessly overwrought conversations about a single review from a site no-one seems to particularly care for considering they only ever get brought up once they've displeased the Gamer Collective Consciousness (with perhaps a few additional discussions about a certain irascible Indie game developer for flavor), I've been pontificating with GB PCRPG aficionados @sparky_buzzsaw and @arbitrarywater about the wide world of adventure modules and how they relate to video games. Adventure modules are simply the self-contained quests that are sold in stores alongside various other table-top texts and paraphernalia with the idea that you would take the singular adventure within and use it in lieu of anything created by your hands from scratch for that week's adventure with your pals/victims. It meant you could relax and enjoy a well-designed if short adventure using the tools and rules you were already familiar with, and for the publishing companies it meant creating and selling a great deal of these relatively easy/quick to produce ephemeral sojourns from the talented game designers and authors in their employ rather than trying to constantly come up with entire new rulesets and worlds that would require balancing and all sorts of time and expense. Everybody wins.

So why, then, has it taken video games so long to adapt this idea in earnest? I mean, adventure game modules have been around from the 70s, back when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were penning standalone quests for this interesting new take on fantasy miniature wargaming they had devised. Setting out the basic rules with a Player's Handbook (and, of course, a separate DM's Handbook for the player assigned to run the campaign), any number of adventures could be created with that template and the ruleset would only need an intermittent sprucing up to maintain interest and troubleshoot the occasional rule imbalance. Doesn't sound a million miles away from having a solid game engine and building a series of adventures to play on it, does it?

SSI Assassignments

Back then, all you needed was a glowy pond and a big dragon guarding it.

Obviously, while my time spent with Shadowrun Returns provided the basis for the subject of this blog, it's hardly the first time I've played or seen a game that was ripe for a module-based content system, or had even adopted one of its own. You could see this as far back as the Gold Box era: Each of SSI's Gold Box games were functionally identical in how they interpreted the AD&D ruleset, with their first-person exploration and third-person strategic turn-based combat. The only difference between the releases, beyond a few mechanical and graphical updates, were the classic D&D modules they presented: Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Champions of Krynn - these were all extant table-top modules set in various different campaign settings (the Krynn series were set in the world of Dragonlance for instance; a setting perpetually in a high-stakes war of good vs evil. Most of the others are set in the far less tumultuous Forgotten Realms) that were all adapted for a singular video game engine. Because each module was such a well-packed adventure, they were all released as separate games. Hardly a module-based format, then, even if that was what the Gold Box series ostensibly was in practice.

Neverwinter Nodes

Represented here: My bleeding retinas after hours spent staring at the Aurora toolset trying to tell elves and goblins what to do.

A better example of a purer module-based game might be BioWare's Neverwinter Nights. While it had the benefit of a publisher and a considerable budget behind it, a lot of emphasis was spent on the game's Aurora Toolset editor. Clearly the creators had the same intention of Shadowrun Returns's developers Harebrained Schemes, though not quite as much out of necessity.

While Neverwinter isn't the only RPG that came with a user-friendly creation tool, it does hold some significant personal meaning as I would eventually use it to create my final year project in Game Design school. My proposal at the time, as I recall, was to demonstrate the versatility of the Aurora toolset by how it was possible to single-handedly generate enough content to substitute almost an entire game in and of itself for the single semester sequestered for the project, which was in some way a compromise for the lack of actual assets (coding, art, etc.) that I'd have to personally create. The module itself is lost to time - which is just as well, since it had a heavy influence of referential in-jokes about a certain internet forum I used to roll with and is therefore somewhat inscrutable - but the relative ease in creating a 10-15 hour long adventure, complete with in-game cutscenes, multiple areas and the ever-requisite and fairly interminable period of time put aside for testing and balancing, was quite remarkable and really demonstrated how capable a decent mod tool could be for creating content. Ultimately, Neverwinter Nights didn't need its user mods and heavy modding community to be a major hit in its own right, but it certainly didn't hurt. This has pretty much been the case of many a PC RPG to follow as well - take Bethesda's recent games, all of which have been heavily modified by their passionate communities and are often improved immeasurably as a result.

DLC Destinations

DLC... well, it eventually managed to canter to where it needed to be, despite the additional weight.

However, some gamers will never be happy with anything short of developer-generated content direct from the source. It's all fine and well to delve into the sticky mire of fan-produced content, as would often be the case with a session spent with LittleBigPlanet and games of that ilk, but it's unlikely to be as engaging and entertaining as something created by a professional game designer or author with some legitimacy under their belt.

The rise of DLC in recent times is an affirmation, if one was even needed, that players are all too happy to purchase more content for a game they enjoyed. They also tend to be slightly less satiated by multiplayer and arena type DLCs that don't include any additional story, going by the reception to the recent BioShock Infinite announcement as well as some of the less well-regarded DLC for Borderlands and Saints Row: The Third in the past. A proper module should be a self-contained adventure with the gameplay and setting we've grown to appreciate, which most of the best DLC packs tend to be. The only issue is that every DLC is - by design - going to be significantly smaller than the core game. If it's anything more than a few hours in length, the chances are it'll become the basis for a sequel, or at the very least a standalone curio like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Just to digress briefly, I'd have no particular objections if more games like Blood Dragon were to emerge: briefer adventures using extant engines that can produced (and sold!) far more cheaply.

Episodic Excursions

Avadon, the only Spiderweb game I can claim to have played, wasn't episodic like its brethren. It had the potential to be, though. Especially considering how darn lengthy it was.

Another curious and fairly recent development is the emergence of episodic RPGs. Episodic adventure games have been making the rounds for a while now, thanks to Telltale's pioneering of the conceit. I should say re-pioneering, if that's even a word one could conjugate without contradicting the original word's definition, since Sierra beat them to it by several decades with Quest for Glory. Similarly, Quest for Glory allows you to take an RPG character that you've developed with virtual blood, sweat and tears (the latter is often especially the case with the characteristically merciless Sierra adventure game library) and import them through each of the many adventures in the series. One didn't need to do that with Roger Wilco, since the erstwhile space janitor maintained a persistent level of incompetency throughout all his adventures, but the creators of Quest for Glory's new RPG-Adventure paradigm clearly felt that they needed to reduce the amount of grinding whenever possible while also giving fans who bought the previous games a gratitudinous boon.

Spiderweb Software, a smaller RPG development studio that deals exclusively in downloadable turn-based PC RPGs, has been experimenting with an episodic format as well. Born from necessity, because as each chapter is released the revenue generated from that adventure is seemingly then added to the budget for the next and thus does the full game gradually emerge. This system has the added benefits of giving players some breathing room between each chapter of the game as well as letting players purchase the first chapter as a demo for the rest to follow, though these advantages seem serendipitously incidental in hindsight.

It's hard to say whether either of these episodic formats are truly a module-based system. Each Quest for Glory game is set somewhere new, but are - like the Gold Box games - fully-priced games that are all but independent from one another. Being able to import your character from game to the next seems more like the developers throwing a bone to players who spent a long time (much longer than they perhaps needed to) developing their character for the few inescapable fights between the usual inventory puzzles. On the other hand, Spiderweb's respective Geneforge and Avernum series are clearly meant to be multiple chapters of a singular epic tale.

Player's Troika Peregrinations

In a super cool alternate universe, this was the first in a whole series of (reasonably priced) Gold Box-esque modules. I hear it's always healthy to dwell on What Might Have Been.

From games that use a module-based format to games that could've really benefited from same, we move now to Troika's trilogy of promising if ultimately flawed projects. Troika created three games in three very distinct worlds: Arcanum, set in a steampunk-infused fantasy world; Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, set in White Wolf's gothic depiction of a modern world in which vampires and other monsters peacefully (and not-so-peacefully) co-exist with humans; and the Temple of Elemental Evil: A Classic Greyhawk Adventure which took a leaf from the book of the Gold Box series of old by recreating a classic D&D table-top module within the framework of an incredibly in-depth RPG game engine based on the 3.5 Edition D&D ruleset.

Any one of these projects could have had their longevity extended for years with a module-based development cycle. Troika always seemed to bite off more than they could chew, because what inevitably followed with the release of each of these very distinct projects were a litany of game-breaking bugs and issues that caused the games to be panned by critics and shunned by consumers, despite the vast amount of potential and promise hidden behind the glitchy veneer. Troika could rival BioWare and perhaps then some in sheer world-building innovation, if not necessarily in world-building finesse.

I sometimes wonder what the PC RPG landscape would be like if a single one of Troika's games - Temple of Elemental Evil in particular - could have been elaborated upon instead of summarily abandoned for the next fascinating and broken universe to pique their interest. If additional modules were built on ToEE's or V:tM's painstakingly comprehensive foundations, with each one perhaps taking some amount of time to improve the core engine's many programming foibles and enrich the experiences of those yet to try those games. If their publishers or poor reception or any number of unknown factors that forced them to constantly move forward actually stood aside and allowed them to revisit their past projects in that manner. Yeah, and maybe we can all dream of a universe where the Last Guardian and Beyond Good & Evil 2 actually exist.

The Bit at the End

Shadowrun Returns is a semi-unique case, in that the developers didn't have enough money from their otherwise highly successful Kickstarter campaign to produce both a worthy game engine and a fully-fledged single-player campaign to go with it. What they have instead is that worthy game engine and a rather barebones adventure to introduce it, with an accessible editor to allow other Shadowrun content creators to go nuts. Ideally, the amount of content from regular modder folk (as well as future content from the developers themselves, once the game brings in enough Steam money to fund them) will raise the game's status from potentially worthy purchase to a must-have for fans of story-driven, turn-based RPGs. It's a curious experiment and one that I could see catching on with development teams of a similar size to Harebrained Schemes in the future; a system that might eventually become as commonplace as episodic structures and DLC addenda. I guess we'll wait and see.

Phew, a particularly wordy nerdy outpouring from me this week. No worries, I'll be back to talking about video game butts or godawful TurboGrafx-16 games or ice creams that I like in next to no time. Thanks for stopping by!

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The TurboMento-12: Genji Tsuushin Agedama

Welcome everyone to the Underground Railroad of Turbografx-16 retro-gaming. I'm your host Harriet Turbomento and this... is a horribly offensive way to introduce a feature. Let's just all pretend this intro never happened. Nope, stop reading.

NEC's Genji Tsuushin Agedama - our game for July - is a bizarre take on a run-and-gun in that you are actually constantly running throughout much of the game. It combines something like the fast precision platforming of Sonic with a horizontal shoot 'em up like Gradius, complete with all sorts of curious power-ups and waves of enemies homing straight towards you. Apparently it's based on an anime or something. I have no idea, the whole thing's in Japanese and I'm not going to make any sense of it. What do I look like, a polyglot? I'm not even the slightest bit amphibious.

Anyway the game is pretty interesting, if a tad too obscure for our own database even. But don't take my word for it? (This game also features rainbows.)

Run and Gun Fun in a Bun, With Mento-kun

Time for a super exciting intro movie. What could that dastardly Dr. Wily be up to? In his flying castle? From the far-flung future of over 13 years ago?
Whatever it is, knock-off Mega Man and Roll aren't too pleased to see it. You can tell by the number of action lines.
"I saved up for months to buy this bluescreen, and he just tore straight through it with his Guts Tank! How will I pretend to be in a car chase now, or flying through the sky?" (translated from the original Japanese kanji, via EUDict)
Both breath- and pantslessly, he dives across the room to activate this rabbit robot. Named the iHop. It's probably not called that. It's probably "rabbot-chan". This is probably an anime. This is probably my life that is slowly and irrevocably ebbing away.
Welcome to Genji Tsuushin Agedama! Those are all words that mean something in a different language. Except Genji and Agedama - those are names. That guy up there is Agedama. The Not Mega Man guy. Him.
And this is the game itself. Agedama will constantly run forward and the screen auto-scrolls as a result. It's all you can do to not just run into everything. Fortunately for such a little guy he's packing a lot of firepower with which to clear a path.
As you can see here with this Wingull and a sentient orange, the idea is that enemies fly in and are then promptly blown to shit. This is where the shoot 'em up comparison comes in. (Telephone pole guy is apparently just background dressing. My guess is that he's hiding from all the evil oranges.)
This is the other part of the shoot 'em up equation - power-ups. They basically seem to come in three flavors: The red magatama (the yin/yang half moon things) are health - you can see seven of a possible eight at the top right. The blue magatama are, well, shoot 'em up options. In that it summons one of the friends you saw on the title screen and they help out by circling the hero (like one of those shields), adding to his firepower (like a regular option) and occasionally turning the hero indestructible. Seems largely randomized which one you get. Or there's an order I'm not spotting because WHOOO CA-
Here's invincible mode. He just has this goofy expression and plows through everything. Just as well, as those bouncing logs (from Blammo!) are hard to shoot down in time before you run into them. They're more for dodgin' really.
Some axes someone just decided to throw at me. Here I'm demonstrating the only defensive move: the roll. The roll only seems to work some of the time, and the animation is short so you need to use it with precise timing, but it's handy when you're in a jam. Things have to be flying towards your head for it to actually work, though - which means those tiny satsuma beasts are still a threat. As much of one as they were previously, anyway.
The game does have platforming in it. Failure to land on a series of these classic waterfall rocks results in a loss of a single hit point, which isn't too bad. It's an extra challenge but it's not something that will just insta-kill you for the heck of it, which I certainly appreciate in a game like this when you're constantly sprinting at full tilt.
This is the first mid-boss, most of which are lion-themed for some odd reason. It's during mid-boss/boss fights that you finally stop running and can move left like a regular person for once.
Flamemane (not his real name) constantly hops around, so you need to make use of both sides of the screen to keep tabs on him.
He also has a laser cannon on his back, because being on fire and also being an apex predator apparently wasn't sufficient.
Anyhoo, to complete a half-explained thought: The third type of power-up drop unlocks special attacks. You can see a bunch of symbols under the score that go from red to blue to green (and eventually purple and yellow) and each correspond to a stronger attack like the powerful green waves you see here. However, to use them you have to charge them up. It's sort of like Cyan's (from Final Fantasy VI) Bushido attacks - the longer you charge up, the more powerful the eventual attack. It does mean not shooting at anything for a while though, and that can be pretty dangerous.
A bunch of apple treants (what is it with this game and fruit? It's nature's candy!) and that green rabbit robot from the intro. Touching it brings you to...
...this weird little intermission where Strawberry Shortcake here dispenses some manner of moonspeak wisdom and sends you on your way.
No idea what all this is in aid of, but I think it refills your health and lets you restart from this point if you croak later on. The rabbits aren't often this easy to reach, though.
This is the first boss. I have no idea what it is or what it's dressed as. Pretty intimidating bow-tie on his banana suit though.
The way to beat Mr Bananagrabber is to shoot the crap out of him, just like everything else. Hey, if you want strategy try Shin Megami Tensei IV. You do have to be careful with the dodging whenever he charges with his spear like this though. In true 16-bit era style, once he turns red the battle is all but won.
Remaining life is added to the score at the end of each round and that just about covers the first stage. Yay! We're ganji shoeshine aggy-something or other. The present tense verb of that. That's what we're doing.

As usual, the continuing adventures of whatever the heck this kid is can be found in the comments below. It's only going to get stranger, folks. Just... don't expect this one to go on as long as some of the others. It's pretty straightforward. Fun, though! Sort of like an endless runner but with an end point, and thus a reason to want to play it.

The TurboMento-12
January - Ninja SpiritMay - Bonk's AdventureSeptember -
February - Dungeon ExplorerJune - Gekisha BoyOctober -
March - The Legendary AxeJuly - Genji Tsuushin AgedamaNovember -
April - NeutopiaAugust -December -
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The Comic Commish - July '13

Howdy peeps, creeps and Sweeps to another The Comic Commish: that regular feature where I propose a trio of exciting premium feature ideas for the site's owners to roundly ignore. But it's less a genuine attempt to spruce up the site's content than a way to thank them in homage for all the excellent subscriber content they create, as well as thanking my good inter-pal @omghisam for allowing me to watch said subscriber content for another year. Onto the stupidity! (Past Comic Commishes are here: Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May and Jun.)

Premium Content For Your Premium Contempt

The Bombastica Bum-Rush

Rather than a new feature, this is just a handy means to combine the irregular Bombasticas and that of those old console streams the group would throw together just before Xmas or on some other notable occasion. A console is chosen, everyone brings in/chooses a favorite from that console's library and they play them in order while explaining what it is about their choices that they like so much. The archived stream can then be hacked to pieces as separate Bombastica videos, in much the same manner as that Vita launch game stream or the Kinect stream. I know, it's probably blasphemous to include more than one person in a Bombastica, but squeezing a whole bunch of them out in one go like this has to be an enticing prospect. For them and us.

Transcontinental Left 4 Dead

I'm still chuckling at "Frisco Vinny" from that Ryan Memorial video Drew put together. That is not a good nickname for anyone to have, except maybe Gene Wilder. It is kind of crazy that Giant Bomb currently has agents all over the US, even if Matt Kessler isn't technically one of them. Yet.

The Cold Shoulder Buttons

I've tried this. Mind over matter doesn't work, especially at the sort of temperatures where one's mind is no longer operating at full capacity. Freezeasy Peak can go screw itself with its own icicles. But seriously, I've never heard of North England hitting 90 before.

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The Man Who Cannot Die (and the Man Who Did)

Hey friends. We've all been profoundly affected by Ryan's passing as evidenced by the sheer mass of obituary blogs, artwork, video compilations and well-wishers from Twitter, NeoGAF, Reddit, Hollywood Life (for some reason) and other places too numerous to mention. Before and after hearing the news I was playing a little game called Planescape: Torment - an Infinity Engine RPG far more story-driven than its contemporaries that focuses on an immortal seeking his past and, eventually, a way to end the constant cycle of death and resurrection. As you might suspect given the events that transpired in real life midway through the playthrough, what began as a fascinating and amazingly imaginative journey to solve a mystery took on something of a melancholy edge. I shouldn't let external matters factor into my appreciation of a game, but it was a little hard to avoid it in this instance.

I've already said my piece about Ryan. I wrote a list that I felt represented the man I knew from the window through which he allowed us to enjoy and appreciate his outspoken voice, the wisdom acquired from over a decade in the industry and his bellicose sense of humor: his video content. The larger than life figure in those videos is how most of us knew Ryan Davis, with the exception of those fortunate enough to encounter him at an expo or some such event or had worked alongside him and could count him among their close friends. As such, this won't be another Ryan obituary blog - we have plenty already and many are able to talk about him with far more grace and poignancy than I am able to muster. I just wanted to acknowledge his passing in the first few paragraphs because such a topic is hard to avoid right now. Rest in peace, duder.

With all that said, I'll be discussing Planescape: Torment in a little more detail below.

What Can Change the Nature of a Man?

The Nameless One does have something of a zombie reggae look about him. "No pulse, no cry"? No, wait: "I Ate the Sheriff (but I Did Not Eat the Deputy)".

It's quite difficult to collate my thoughts on Planescape: Torment. I have so many; the game is incredibly dense in that regard with the questions it poses and the themes it explores. There's the nature of redemption and regret, of pragmatic evil and passionate good (and, indeed, of pragmatic good and passionate evil), of companionship and loneliness, of a man whose total lifetime seems to exceed that of entire worlds.

However, as much as I'd love to talk about what a fascinating character the Nameless One is, or his many adventures across the extra-dimensional planes of the Planescape setting or even his ragtag band of recruitable companions, to do so would in some partial way detract from someone's enjoyment of their first trip through Planescape: Torment. As such, I've split this appraisal blog into two parts: One meant for those who have never played the game but might one day intend to, to whom I can describe why I liked this game so much without spoiling a thing; and another for those who have reached the game's conclusion with whom I can discuss some of the finer details of the game in a setting where spoilers are acknowledged.

"Hey Chief." (Novices)

So what is Planescape: Torment? Well, the Giant Bomb wiki page I highlighted will probably fill in many of the minor details: It's a D&D PC RPG based on the Planescape setting, a particularly esoteric campaign setting for the D&D universe that kind of ties all the other settings together. It was made using the Infinity Engine - the same isometric RPG engine that begat the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games. Your character wakes up on a mortuary slab in a massive city that sits in the center of the known universe and, initially, your only companion is a garrulous, wisecracking floating skull named Morte. It's with this opening that the game presents both its main mystery and the driving force for all of the quests to follow: Who are you? And why can't you die?

Your home away from home. Also, I guess the tortured souls of someone or another. All shall be explained.

It's a little difficult to get used to Planescape's world initially. The Planescape setting has had the benefit of decades of writers and game designers working at it constantly: building its worlds, its characters, its ideologies and its rules. The detailed workings of the various planes are very rarely delved upon to many players of the table-top game on which this RPG is based. For the most part, the Planes outside the Prime Material (which would just be the normal world with kobolds and elves and the like, which houses almost all the other D&D campaign settings like Forgotten Realms, Birthright and Greyhawk) are considered suitable only for high-level players: the sort of late-game destination a party might head into when - and often only when - the DM decides they're powerful enough to survive the journey. If you've played games based on Forgotten Realms before, you might be familiar with a region known as the Underdark: a great subterranean land full of dark elves and tough monsters that a game might take the party after it hits something like level 8 or higher; there's a reason you only head there in Baldur's Gate 2 and not the comparatively low-level first game. The Planes are considered even deadlier territory, and require a considerable amount of wisdom and knowledge to explore competently without finding oneself completely lost or, worse, unceremoniously dumped into a Hell dimension (of which there are actually several, but let's not get too bogged down in details here).

The Planes are endlessly fascinating however, and because most of their mystique was a conscious design decision during their creation the game itself won't deign to explain much of what you see: only the vague general understanding of them from NPCs who know a little more about the planes than you do. This is particularly true of the enigmatic Lady of Pain: The de facto leader of Sigil and the blade-maned woman that adorns much of the game's art. Part of the enjoyment of Planescape: Torment is witnessing all this weirdness for yourself and reading what little amount of information is available on them. It's an extremely text-heavy game but rarely do you find a world this immersive, either due to its alien charm or its very well-written exposition. If you played Mass Effect because you heard how well-defined its sci-fi universe was and how well written its characters and story, you owe yourself a playthrough of Planescape: Torment at some point for similar reasons. ME's excellent worldbuilding feels like it was based somewhat on the lessons learned from developing Torment (though most of Black Isle's developers went on to join Obsidian Entertainment, as is my understanding), yet all the same is merely standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Planescape: Torment could've used a Codex as deep as Mass Effect's, but then there's no real ultimate authority on the planes. Unless you believe Morte when he says he is it.

As for the game itself, well. It's a lot like all the Baldur's Gates et al, though certain liberties are taken with how you develop your character and how little emphasis is placed on combat. For the first part, while your companions grow stronger and gain new abilities, The Nameless One doesn't so much grow stronger as remember. He remembers past lives, past careers and past decisions his previous incarnations took. Subsequently, anything that jogs his memory tends to include a hefty experience point bonus as he edges closer to the person (or people, really) he once was. The rest of the game's unusually large XP boosts come from solving quests and choosing the wisest dialogue options: experience gained from killing enemies barely registers as a blip in many cases. As such the game is heavily weighted towards discussion, contemplation and exploration. While there definitely is combat, it all seems rather perfunctory. You kill things because they're in the way between you and solving a mystery, or because you weren't smart or charismatic or sneaky enough to escape a conflict. It's a brilliant subversion of what is generally the norm for a video game RPG and, I can only surmise, is a big part of why the game is endearing to so many: There aren't many RPGs out there that actually try to engage a player's role-playing tendencies, rather than follow the usual cyclical blueprint of combat and loot and leveling up.

This sort of game has actually been something of a theme with me recently. I also played Troika's Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines not too long ago and it, like Planescape, is a game that rewards players more for engaging with the story it has set out for you rather than unconsciously batting down every foe that comes your way and clicking your way past the talky parts to get back to fighting. Both games have combat, but they're easily the weakest element of their respective game and it seems like the designers made the lackluster combat almost intentional so you'd avoid it as often as possible in favor for the cerebral option. As such, I can't say that either game is perfect, but both are extraordinary in the sense that they respect a player's intelligence; that they address the player as a fellow avid reader of fiction who wishes to consume new tales in a format that can offer unique storytelling opportunities. The designers seem far more interested in how it can use the format of a video game to tell a story in a novel way than trying to challenge the Diablos and World of Warcrafts by building a mechanically-appealing experience of tactical combat and pursuing ever bigger numbers. Personally, I can see plenty of room for either approach in this medium.

Bloodlines' immortals are a little more pleasing to the eye, at least.

So, to summarize: If you keep in mind that Planescape: Torment doesn't offer much from a mechanical perspective, and that it is actually quite dated in many ways regarding its mechanics, combat and graphical prowess, it's a truly novel game and absolutely worth your time. It's fantastically written and the plot and setting never skimps on wonder or intrigue. It's also relatively short which, to me, is actually something of a benefit these days with what little time most people either have or are willing to spend on a game before getting everything they want out of it and deciding to move on. If you're on the fence and have been in the decade+ since it came out, I maintain that it still holds up. Plus there's really nothing much else like it out there.

"I Think Therefore I Am. I Think." (Experts)

This is the spoiler-filled area. You have been warned. There's nothing much else to read after this, so feel free to head to GOG and buy yourself a copy of Planescape: Torment if you don't already have one. Or wait until that D&D Pack with all the Infinity Engine and Neverwinter Nights games is back on sale. That thing is such good value.

Since I want to spook away any remaining neophytes, let's move right onto the ending of the game. If you had the mental wherewithal (or a FAQ open) to have that Brass Sphere in your possession come the final encounter with the Transcendant One, the Nameless One becomes something of a demigod as it finally recalls the memories of the first incarnation. I love how many questions this raises: This original incarnation is by far the most powerful, but is also the one who was a mortal human being. In order to become as strong as he was, he must've done a hell of a lot of leveling up in his relatively brief lifetime. Coupled with this is the knowledge that whatever he did has damned him for all eternity with no chance of extra-planar parole raises an even more interesting question. Given that every ending bar the ones where you entirely negate yourself out of existence drops you in one of the Hell dimensions to continue the Blood War - that endless battle between lawful evil devils and chaotic evil demons - makes me wonder if there wasn't going to be a sequel at some point. Yet my dude was around level 25 all told, which is often when the DM takes you aside politely requests that you roll up a new character, because there's not a whole lot left he can challenge you with short of the fantasy equivalents of Satan or Yahweh, and even they wouldn't be particularly confident to come out of that fight as the victor. So I kind of loved the conclusion for this and other reasons, as much of a downer as "being dragged down to Hell to serve eternal punishment for one's crimes" was (which is apparently the "best ending" too).

Still my favorite. He reminds me of Chibi Robo's friend Telly Vision too.

I didn't bring Ignus along, since I was a Lawful Good character for most of the game and couldn't really see how an irredeemably malevolent arsonist wizard (sort of like the Inhuman Torch, if a certain recent Futurama episode hadn't made that joke already) would be on board with what I was going for. I also didn't have room for Vhailor and couldn't come back to where he was, so I just unmade the poor guy by presenting him with a logical paradox. From all accounts, he's a good meatshield and a horrible discourse companion. Which means I had all the rest: The ever-loyal comic relief Morte, of course. There was the love interest tiefling Annah who I was always a little guilty about courting/not-courting given her obvious affection towards the Nameless One and how I knew his journey would end in a way that would make a coupling impossible. I picked up Fall-From-Grace because I needed a healer and while a friendly succubus isn't that unusual a sight in video games - given Morrigan's occasional acts of largesse - Fall-From-Grace is unique in that she has very few means with which to defend herself. As a fiend, she hates touching cold metal and is more or less a pacifist besides. She has a few unique touch-based powers based on her demonic origins and that's about it. She's clearly there as support and to enhance the story, but not so much as an extra fighter to make battles easier - only in a game like Planescape: Torment could you get away with a character like that. Dak'kon the Githzerai is an interesting character, but apparently you need to take the mage path to get the most out of his development. And, finally, I bothered to track down Nordom because why wouldn't you do that? He was damn difficult to reach, but he was worth travelling through every one of those 64 rooms of high-level robot enemies. I ought to add him to that list of fun robot companions I have around here somewhere.

I'm not sure what else is left to be said about the game that hasn't been said already in the fourteen years since its release. It's a game that can be both difficult and easy, because it challenges your wits rather than your strategic combat prowess. It rewards paying attention and developing your character in a way that leans towards the intelligent, wise and charismatic than strong, durable or deft. It's especially great for people like myself who play way too many D&D games, because of how it subverts so many of their common traits - like the way your experience total might skyrocket after an innocuous conversation or examining an item that is vaguely familiar, or how you'll pass through a nondescript door and find yourself at the edge of space and time. That you have a game in which death is not only meaningless, but is actually a preferred option at times. That your character's alignment will shift due to your decisions: not just along the good/evil axis, but also to chaotic if you play with a toy figurine instead of getting on with a quest or to lawful if you keep choosing neutral, non-jokey answers to inquiries.

Planescape is paradoxically both a game for RPG fanatics due to how off-kilter it is as well as a game that a person that has never played an RPG before can still enjoy because it simply requires a basic level of literacy and comprehension won't challenge them in areas of gameplay mastery (such as being an effective magic user with all those spells at your disposal) that they have yet to hone. I guess, then, it's a game for everyone for different reasons. You can't really ask for anything more than that.

Still so many adventures to be had in The Great Wheel. I hope another developer rises to the challenge someday.

Um... Has Anyone Seen a Floating Sarcastic Skull Around Here?

So that's that for Planescape: Torment. I'll be discussing Project X Zone too at some point, once I'm finally done with the game. That'll almost certainly be a review, though, rather than a whole mess of unfocused musings like Planescape above. I'll be doing my usual Comic Commish at some point next week as well, so I'll see you all then. Thanks for reading.

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