Saturday Summaries 2018-03-10: Generic Edition

I realize we've been saying this for a while now, but the wiki update is almost here. The engineers have been working tirelessly on various site features of late, from a new search engine to the well-received "Giant Bomb TV" 24/7 rerun channel, but their major focus over the past year or so has been what I've always considered the spine of Giant Bomb: its enormous, user-curated wiki of video games and the connections between them. As one of the site's busier editors, and a wiki mod to boot, I'm as excited as anyone to see what the new wiki has in store. However, I've been ratiocinating on a few of the current wiki's weaknesses that might need improvement, and that includes how we currently handle genres.

I'm not going to reveal anything about how the new wiki handles genres - mostly if not entirely because I don't have any idea whether or not it has a new system - but I decided to run a little exercise to see how we might be able to expand/enhance what we have right now. Video game genres have always been the most elusive thorn in the side of any video game historian/archivist, as many games make efforts to subvert existing norms in a race to innovate and be the new paradigm. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom changed shooters forever, RPG and roguelike mechanics have continued to force their way into genres where they would normally not be found such as platformers (in the case of Spelunky or Rogue Legacy) or shoot 'em ups (Galak-Z or Cryptark), and there so many games like Persona or Dark Cloud or Stardew Valley where they attempt to hybridize as many genres as possible. How does one define a massively-multiplayer survival game like Rust with extant genre designators? Or should a new one be created for this burgeoning game type, in much the same way new genres have been invented for every game that couldn't be defined by what we had already? The video game industry, as prone to frequent stark changes as it is, seems to defy easy categorization at every turn.

To keep things simple, I took the first 100 games to be released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1992 - no particular reason, beyond still having my SNES wiki project notes around - to see what gaps we had and how we might get even more specific. I also expanded the exercise to include themes, which are another area in which the wiki is perhaps lacking. The results were curious enough, even with a lot of repeats due to certain genres that were popular at the time:

  • Of the hundred games in the cross-section, which roughly comprises the first eight months of 1992, the most popular genre was easily turn-based RPGs with eleven instances. That particular genre was experiencing a boost due to the success of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy (neither of which actually appeared on this list) and the SNES saw a lot of them as a result.
  • The next most popular genre was driving/racing games, with nine instances. I could divide these further between those that used OutRun's "behind the car" perspective, popular on 16-bit systems as they could replicate the arcade hardware's sprite-scaling required to render them, and the more old-fashioned top-down view. Five and four of each, respectively (including Super Mario Kart in the former group). I could also divide them a different way: games which explicitly used the Formula One license (five), and those that did not (four). The majority of SNES racing games were F1 branded, due to the circuit's popularity in Japan.
  • After that, we have side-scrolling brawlers (six instances), shoot 'em ups (six instances - three horizontal, two vertical, and one - Syvalion - both), platformers (six instances), baseball (five instances), and fighters (five instances, including Street Fighter II). Those were the most popular genres in this particular timeframe at least.
  • Now, speaking of unique genres, I counted thirty-two discrete genre types within this group, including seven we currently do not feature on the Giant Bomb wiki. Those are: Sound Novels, Mahjong, Mahjong Solitaire, Utility (in this case, Mario Paint), Shogi, Pachinko, Mixed Martial Arts, and Dodgeball. (If I had continued into December '92, there'd also be a Volleyball game.)
  • This highlights a certain problem with genres on the site, which extends to some degree into other edge cases within this cross-section: our list of genres lacks specificity right now. However, as genres get more specific, they also become more ambiguous and obscure. I don't imagine everyone visiting the site knows off-hand what pachinko is or how mahjong and mahjong solitaire are different. It's also why I drew the line at delineating certain types of simulation game when determining the above list of unique genres - this list featured three types, one what I could call a "business simulation" (Aerobiz), two that I would consider "warlord simulation" (Zan II: Spirits and Yokoyama Mitsuteru: Sangokushi), and one I could call "vehicle simulation" (Super Battletank). All three require the same general level of dedication to learn how to play them, just with different goals and skillsets. Our wiki currently has genres split between the regular type you pick from a drop-down menu when editing a game page, and more specific variants/modifiers like the above list that are currently assigned to concept pages. (Others include the likes of metroidvanias, roguelikes, etc.)
  • As for themes, I managed to pick out twelve new ones from just this list of a hundred SNES games. Some of these might seem too esoteric to be of wider use, but I know from past exchanges that Jeff and wiki mods would prefer our database to err on the side of being too specific than too broad. These include, with games on the list as examples: Tropical (Super Adventure Island), Sengoku (Zan II: Spirits, Super Inindo: Datou Nobunaga), Mecha (Xardion, BlaZeon, Earth Light), Ancient Greece (Heracles no Eikou III), China/Chinese (Super Shanghai: Dragon's Eye), Isekai (Kouryu Densetsu Villgust), Gulf War (Super Battletank), Future Sports (Space Football: One on One), Three Kingdoms (Yokoyama Mitsuteru: Sangokushi), Ancient Persia (Prince of Persia), Kaiju (King of the Monsters), and Age of Discovery (Uncharted Waters). If pressed, I could think of two or more examples of all of these, so there's enough of an argument to be had for including them. Again, though, filling the drop-down list of very specific themes might lead to a lot of issues regarding overpopulation and confusion over definitions.
  • In conclusion, there's evidently room for expansion to our current genres and themes if a relatively small data sample managed to produce so many new variants. However, we could also consider how we convey those genres and themes, and how the wiki might be used to explain them in greater detail for those who are unsure what they are or if a new game page qualifies. Genres in particular are unintuitive things: unless you know the specific name for what that game is about, you either have to settle for something more obvious ("Well, this spaceship game has action in it, so let's say it's "Action"" or "Final Fantasy VII sure is a big adventure! Let's stick "Adventure" on that genre list") or investigate further by checking similar game pages and seeing how they've been defined. It's not easy, but with the right system and the right amount of support/explanation, we should come up with something that works better and is more comprehensive than what we have right now.

Back to the present day, we have a few blogs to check out:

  • The Indie Game of the Week was Human: Fall Flat, a half-jokey physics simulator that puts a tubby little clay doll through some increasingly elaborate environmental puzzles. I found it amusing enough, but it works better as passive visual comedy than a game you'd want to spend a whole lot of time with, because for every fleeting sense of accomplishment for solving one of the game's puzzles, you have to deal with a lot of frustration getting there. Still, I like that someone attempted to translate Gang Beasts into a non-violent single-player experience about the indomitable will of the human spirit.
  • The fifth episode of the SNES Classic Mk. II took in a couple of isometric games: Bits Laboratory's scaled-down SRPG Monstania and Software Creations's atmospheric action-adventure puzzler Equinox. I wasn't sure what to expect with Monstania, but I was impressed by how much control it gave you over your character and the battlefield, reducing the number of characters and streamlining the controls to make more accessible and breezy than other SRPGs of the era. Equinox, meanwhile, is one of my old favorites: a throwback of a very British kind of isometric action-adventure game that prioritizes puzzle-solving, difficult platforming, and exploration.


TV: Star Wars: Rebels (Season 4)

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I've been hot and cold on Star Wars: Rebels in the past - like most Star Wars media, it skews young and makes its heroes and villains, and its morality tales and adventures, as black and white as possible for the whole family to appreciate. That self-serious lack of depth has kept me at arm's length from the Star Wars franchise as a whole of late, but I still like the universe itself and the imagination it contains. It's less concerned with the hows and whys of its sci-fi focusing more on the fun action stuff instead, and the elaborate worldbuilding of the fiction - compounded by multiple movies, books, comics, games, etc. - makes it an entertaining place to visit once in a while.

While Star Wars: Rebels can be a bit surface-level, I've been watching it since it began and so was particularly invested in seeing how it would eventually end. It's set somewhere in the 15 year gap between the prequels and the original trilogy, far closer to the latter, and because it features two Jedi - known to be extinct by Episode IV: A New Hope - and a group of characters you naturally never saw in the original trilogy, you wondered if they would all go out in a blaze of glory Rogue One style or if the canon would squirrel them away somewhere safe so that they might continue having adventures after the Emperor's defeat in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, possibly even showing up in the new trilogy (or, more likely, the peripheral TV shows and side-movies set in that era) as experienced veterans. While I won't reveal what happens, I was satisfied with how they decided to end the journeys of Ezra Bridger, Kanan Jarrus, Sabine Wren, Hera Syndulla, Zeb Orellios, and Chopper.

The last season of Star Wars: Rebels definitely benefitted from some tighter serial plotting across its sixteen episodes. Instead of random one-off episodes, which were usually pretty bad if not tedious, the entire season was one long chain of events that were connected to one another, as the crew of the Ghost returned to Ezra's homeworld of Lothal first to disrupt the creation of a powerful new kind of TIE Defender fighter, and then with the ultimate goal of chasing every Imperial off the planet. In the process, we learn more about Ezra's unique connection to the Force, some of the well-guarded secrets of the Jedi temple on Lothal, some amazingly choreographed action sequences and starship battles (something Rebels has always done well), and we also see a few of Star Wars: Rebels' recurring characters show up for the finale. We also start the season off with a conclusion to Sabine's arc reconnecting with her Mandalorian people, which was fun: the Mandalore are variously depicted as a samurai-like warrior culture and as a clan of badass jetpack-wielding mercenaries, so I'm always happy to see them take the spotlight.

Overall, the fourth season of Star Wars: Rebels was easily its strongest, and it was bittersweet watching the show end on a high note. I can't imagine Dave Filoni is done making these animated Star Wars spin-offs shows, and since Rebels had a connection with his previous show Clone Wars (a much older Captain Rex, the sole non-Jedi major character in that show, had a substantial role in Rebels also) I'm not sure we've seen the last of these characters yet.

Movie: Baby Driver (2017)

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Like I imagine a lot of people, I've been following Edgar Wright's work since the UK TV show Spaced, since he always injects his projects with a lot of visual flair and humor. He's a director that's never put out a boring movie, even if I like some of his films more than others. Baby Driver's one of his few features like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that he created separately from his usual writing partner Simon Pegg, and is a wholly original - if in concept, not in style - tale about a young man (Baby) with a prestigious driving talent and a penchant for music who has been paying off a debt to a crime kingpin by working as the getaway driver for various heists. Cutting an incongruously fresh-faced figure next to all the hardened tattooed criminals in his midst, he tries to ignore the violence and bloodshed and focus on the job, pulling off spectacular driving stunts to escape the authorities.

I thought that there would be a strong correlation to the music Baby was listening to and the action depicted on-screen, and while that was the case early on with a neat dolly shot of Baby walking down the street to pick up coffee for the heist crew as they count up their spoils, it wasn't quite as all-encompassing a feature as I predicted. Instead, around the halfway point it became a more Tarantino-esque thriller about a man out of his depth and chasing a happy ending for himself and his effervescent waitress girlfriend Debora (played by British actor Lily James, who I predict will have a strong future in the movies) while avoiding the ire of the more vicious criminals he's been working alongside. Speaking of whom, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm are incredible in their roles as Bats and Buddy, respectively, with the former taking a more overtly dangerous role as a reasonably intelligent psychopath while Buddy is the laid-back male half of a Bonnie and Clyde duo pulling off heists for kicks. Their roles go through some changes as the movie progresses, and seeing those changes as events go from bad to worse for Baby is definitely the movie's highlight. It was kind of a bummer to see Kevin Spacey there too, of course, especially as his role involved extorting and threatening a younger male protégé, but I tried not to let that ruin the whole movie.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Baby Driver a lot, even if it seemed to lose a lot of its early promise as the movie continued. The nature of these thrillers, where everything falls apart in a glorious series of trainwrecks, makes them compelling viewing, and the acting and dialogue was overall decent. It could've done more with Edgar Wright's talent with editing and pacing, and the whole connection with Baby's eclectic music tastes through his ever-present earbuds and how that choreographs his life to some extent, but I'm not sure if that particular gimmick could've kept its novelty for the movie's entire run, especially as the dialogue and suspense took center stage. Not my favorite Wright movie by a long shot, but definitely not the first misstep in a shockingly solid filmography so far either.

Game: Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma

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I noticed around its release that people seemed fairly down on Zero Time Dilemma, the third and possibly final game in Kotaro Uchikoshi's Zero Escape series of sci-fi visual novels with escape room puzzles, following Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward. The strength of these games lies in how entertainingly weird its convoluted sci-fi stories have been, couching themselves in pseudo-scientific gobbledegook like morphogenetic fields, time-travel, the many-worlds theory, Ice-9, alternate timelines/histories, and a process the game calls "SHIFTing", in which a person can learn to send their consciousness forwards or backwards through time - or even to alternate timelines - to switch places with their consciousness in that particular time and place. Almost like Quantum Leaping, but with other versions of yourself.

It's through these concepts that Uchikoshi can create some incredibly bizarre and confusing plotlines, with a story that branches multiple times with many "dead ends" after major decisions. The "Decision Game", as the in-game experiment is called, puts nine people - a recurring number in this series - into three groups who are then given a series of choices to make. Ultimately, they can only escape if six or more of their fellow prisoners are dead: a lot of the decisions come down to choosing to sacrifice other teams so that your team may live, and the potential exists of murdering members of your own trio to get down to three survivors faster. This naturally creates a lot of tension in these groups of relative strangers, and many of the branches are the result of one or more people dying as a result of their actions or of someone else's. This is ably demonstrated with a voting game almost immediately after the game starts wherein any team that receives two votes is executed, which subsequently breaks the game's timelines into four major branches: one for each team that gets executed, and a timeline where everyone voted for a separate team which resulted in a tie. Those timelines are then fractured further by subsequent player decisions.

The clever conceit of these games, though, is that even an undesirable dead end where almost everyone has been killed or are otherwise doomed can toss some vital information your way. For instance, taking one of the less pleasant paths to its bloody conclusion might shine some light on the nature of your companions, who are maybe not quite as friendly or as sane as you first thought. A quiet heart-to-heart scene where characters contemplate their upcoming demise might reveal some information about their past that an alternate version of those characters could use. A hint, a password, a person's real name: you might only glean these in timelines which you'd rather abandon, and end up needing them in timelines where the future's a little more optimistic. It's some really compelling storytelling if you can keep up with the temporal shifts, and is once again one of those types of narratives that benefits from existing in the video game format rather than something more linear like a movie or TV show (a book might still work, though, as it would be easy to refer back to earlier chapters). That said, the story of Zero Time Dilemma is a little weaker than its predecessors, in part because of a few literally unbelievable twists that the game hopes you'll just accept for the sake of the narrative, and also because it doesn't spend a whole lot of time establishing the new cast before throwing the player into the thick of it with its multiple branching paths. The writing towards the game's conclusion does feel a bit rushed too; something I've noticed in a few crowd-sourced games where running out of money before the game is complete is a constant concern.

Then there's the escape room puzzles themselves. In order to provide a strong hook to audiences who are perhaps not prepared to drop a lot of cash on what is essentially an interactive illustrated book, visual novels like Zero Escape or Danganronpa tend to include a mode that is more overtly video game like, regardless of whether or not it actually enhances the plot in any way. In the case of Zero Escape, these are escape room challenges where the player must take in their surroundings, find useful items, solve various puzzles, and ultimately find and unlock the exit. Occasionally, these rooms end with the next big "decision game": one memorable escape room ended up with the group discovering a big shiny red button marked with a "do not push" warning. The escape room puzzle was complete at this point, but it immediately segued to a cutscene where the characters ponder pushing the button, leading to a binary choice which splits the resulting timeline in two. Like the story, the escape room puzzles were just a little bit weaker this time around, largely because they were made much easier for the sake of those who were there to enjoy the story - your companions' hints were relentless, for one. That also meant that the escape room puzzles felt more superfluous than usual, and they were frequently built around tired concepts like sliding block puzzles. Several, however, were fairly entertaining: one had you taking pictures of shapes that look like piano keys in a "relaxation room" that had multiple Holodeck-style visual schemes for the room's walls and ceiling (which, coincidentally enough, is also the same escape room that ends with the button scenario outlined above).

Overall, I think I liked Zero Time Dilemma more than most. I acknowledge that it's probably the weakest of the three games - especially if you're playing the updated ports in The Nonary Games collection, which apparently added a lot of convenient quality-of-life features - but I can't see it as the failure that ruined the Zero Escape series forever, even if that's ultimately how it ends up being perceived. If there is indeed a fourth Zero Escape game, I'm sure I'll find the time to play it.