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Saturday Summaries 2018-04-14: Angler Wrangler Edition

Something you get exposed to on the regular when playing open-world games are fishing mini-games. They're not always present, but they're usually a common avenue for a means of bolstering the range of options you have to spend your time, and have different levels of engagement with the rest of the game: for instance, the rewards you obtain from fishing (mostly fish) can often be required for a different segment of the game, such as weapon crafting or for raising money needed for new equipment.

I could make some sweeping generalizations about how much the Japanese love fishing and how much it's a part of their identity and culture, especially as far as their cuisine is concerned, hence its frequent inclusion in games of Japanese origin or those homaging same, but I feel the ubiquity has built up to the point that even western games include fishing as a matter of course, simply because it's expected now. Instead, I'm going to focus on how fishing mini-games can be developed with different goals depending on the designer's intent behind their inclusion. There's a rich tapestry here, with many variations on some basic mechanics: the (usually optional) use of lures and sinkers, the way you have to guide the fish by following its movements to prevent too much line tension, and how QTEs are often incorporated to help dramatize these epic battles between man and fish.

I'll be talking about two games I've recently played with fishing mini-games in detail, one I feel best conforms to how I'd approach the mini-game given my druthers, and another that is perhaps aiming for realism over convenience, and then some thoughts about a few other fishing mini-games that stood out to me recently.

Never got tired of how smug Adol looked with his fish.
Never got tired of how smug Adol looked with his fish.

So, the first game I want to talk about is Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (yeah, again). If I could describe that fishing mini-game in one word, it'd be "efficient". You set your line by simply indicating where you want to cast, rather than messing around with power meters, and then the mini-game itself consists of reeling in the fish by mashing the action button while completing a set of QTE prompts, like spinning the analog stick or holding left or right when prompted. Most of these little fishing attempts rarely take more than 30 seconds, unless you're fishing up one of the game's four "master" fish which often necessitate a bigger struggle. Ys 8's fishing game is, from top to bottom, marked by a certain approach to player convenience and quality of life: it knows you'll want to fish to complete a few side-quests and fill out a fishing bestiary, but it's not going to force you to sit through the more slow-paced and mercurial aspects of fishing. When I say mercurial, I mean in the sense that fish will sometimes randomly swim away from your casting point, or tear the line after too much sudden tension, or wait entire minutes before choosing whether or not to accommodate you by chowing down on the juicy bait. It doesn't demand you upgrade your rod, or acquire and carefully choose between different types of lures; all you need is at least one piece of bait before going to town. It's quick, it's reasonably fun, and - most importantly for a game like Ys - it doesn't drag the pace.

Of course, sometimes you want the pace dragged down, given the placid nature of the hobby. In which case we have Final Fantasy XV (my general time with which you can read more about below), which tries to go for a semblance of realism with its more-involved but far more glacial fishing mini-game. This one has all the inconveniences you can expect from the real sport: picky and capricious fish, worn and broken lines, multiple types of lure which often only work on specific kinds of fish, much longer battles of attrition where you have to follow the fish to wear it out, and so on.

It occurred to me while moving from Ys 8 to FFXV that while I much preferred the former, I recognized that the games had different priorities. With Ys, the goal is speed: its exploration is fast, its battles are fast, its music is fast (and excellent), and so its mini-games are fast. It gets to the heart of the fishing mini-game and figures out how best to deliver that experience as quickly and efficiently and conveniently as possible, because that's how it handles everything. Hardly relaxing, but definitely preferable in the right frame of mind. Conversely, Final Fantasy XV's entire philosophy seems to be "take it easy and enjoy the journey," with multiple cases of the game slowing down to a crawl so you can crack a couple of cold ones with the boys in lieu of following whatever vitally important story mission demands your attention. I've spent so much of that game passively sitting in the back of a car listening to old Final Fantasy soundtracks and talking about what to eat later that night, and getting rewarded for it. While I have my preference, I can't fault either game for formulating a fishing mini-game that befits their respective aesthetics.

A couple of other recent fishing mini-games I've liked, for wildly different reasons:

  1. Stardew Valley's almost Flappy Bird-like approach of keeping the fish within a certain moving band that adjusts itself to how long you hold down a button is both smart in the many ways a fish's behavior can be adjusted for variety, and the equal number of ways the player can account for same. I particularly like the idea of a risk vs. reward wrinkle in the occasional appearance of a treasure chest, which forces you to choose between staying with the fish and completing the mini-game or risk losing everything by pursuing the chest icon instead. It's a fishing mini-game that's perhaps divorced from an actual fishing experience more than most I've played, but one that still affords its own challenges and design quirks.
  2. Nier: Automata's fishing game, meanwhile, takes Ys 8's pragmatic approach to an absurd level. It's a fishing mini-game designed by and for people who have no patience with fishing mini-games: you simply cast your line, wait for your lure (actually one of the pods, who don't deserve this treatment) to sink, and then hit the action button to reel the fish in. No fighting, no progress bar, no diverting and following the fish; just an instant reward. The only aspect that makes it similar to fishing is how it'll occasionally make you wait a long time before the lure bobs beneath the water. Given Nier Automata's knowing meta approach to a lot of RPG tropes, I can't help but feel its fishing non-mini-game is yet another facet of that.

When I'm not wasting away the days angling for virtual fish I can't eat, I also occasionally try my hand at fishing for compliments. Tell me what you think of the following blogs produced this week:

  • The Indie Game of the Week for the second week of April was The Cat Lady, which was one of the oldest items on my shortlist. A psychological horror adventure game that focuses on depression and human misery doesn't sound like anyone's idea of a good time, but it justifies itself with a masterful balance of traditional puzzle-solving with some good (if macabre) storytelling and visuals that... well, they stick with you. A bit rough, a bit archaic now with the speed that Indie games evolve, more than a bit emotionally draining, but an otherwise worthwhile stop on the tour of Indie adventure games every fan of that genre should take the time to check out.
  • This week I'm also pleased to introduce A Randomized Link to the Past, an LP of the SNES Zelda with the chest contents randomized. This creates all sorts of challenges as you're forced to sequence break in order to progress, or otherwise think outside the box and visit as many bonus chests as possible for the story-vital content they might contain. I'm not too far in just yet, but I'm already loving how much the traditional A Link to the Past experience has changed with these considerations, and it was exciting to find myself get stuck for a while and forced to rethink some things. I've also made it about 30% more ridiculous by replacing Link with Garfield, just because that was apparently an option the randomizer provided. We're currently two episodes in, and the plan is to update this series every Monday from here on out until it's complete. Tuesdays will alternate between my extant SNES Classic Mk. II feature and a second episode of the Randomizer run for that week. No idea how long it'll take, and updates will cover more gameplay at once as I build my arsenal and run into fewer problems, but I'm hoping it remains entertaining without the playthrough either becoming too similar to the core game (and thus boring) or getting too confusing to complete.

Addenda

Movie: Shin Godzilla (2017)

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Since there's something of a Cinematic Kaiju Universe (a.k.a. MonsterVerse) figuratively emerging from the ocean with Gareth Edwards's 2014 take on Godzilla and Jordan Vogt-Roberts's Skull: Kong Island, I was interested to see how some Japanese filmmakers tackle one of their oldest and most beloved global properties with a new reboot, inspired by the above movies. Shin Godzilla retells the classic story of a big reptile coming out of the Sea of Japan to chill in Tokyo for a while, building its narrative largely from the perspective of a group of bureaucrats and government officials deliberating on what to do with this sudden undesirable presence in their midst. Keeping with the theme of the original, which was a symbolic statement on Japan's past experience with nuclear disasters in the form of a certain Fat Man and Little Boy, the filmmakers of this reboot apparently based the movie on their government's response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant incident and the tsunami that precipitated it. It's a mildly satirical movie as a result, one that emphasizes how useless and sluggish the government's bureaucratic chain of command can be in a crisis, yet also venerates a few parties: the younger political figures looking for a more sensible proactive way to govern, and the competent and always-on-standby self-defense forces of the country, who collectively come up with a rational scientific approach to defeating Godzilla that won't involve the desperate last resort of dropping a nuke on another major Japanese city.

I'll say that if you're coming to this movie directly from Kong: Skull Island, you'll probably find yourself at odds with its languid pace and multiple long scenes of people talking about Godzilla's propensity for rapid evolution and nuclear fission while switching between various politicians - each of whom's title flashes quickly across the bottom of the screen when they are first seen, occasionally supplanting a line of dialogue - as they brainstorm solutions to a giant lizard tearing up their shit. If you're a big fan of the original movies, however, I think this particular reboot is very much in the spirit of those classics. Godzilla doesn't spend a whole lot of time on-screen and you don't see any of his extended menagerie appear, but his sudden attacks are depicted well with a combination of CGI, traditional puppetry and stop-motion. It can be unsettling and scary at times in how unpredictable he can be, and that's perhaps the way an entity like Godzilla should be depicted. It didn't surprise me to learn that the background of the two directors was in anime: in particular, the Evangelion and Attack on Titan anime, which evolved kaiju from guys in goofy lizard suits to truly disquieting monsters with inscrutable appetites for destruction and bloodshed.

All that said, I found the movie's pace to be a little soporific. It had some odd choices too, like an American envoy played by a Japanese actress who clearly didn't speak English and had to learn her lines phonetically. Seemed like it would've been easier to find a Japanese-American actor and subbed their lines, since there's a handful of gratuitous English spoken in the movie already. It was nigh-impossible keeping track of everyone, though that's mostly by design: after a lot of government officials are wiped out in a Godzilla attack, an event so predictable I'm not going to insult y'all by marking it as a spoiler, an interim government is formed halfway through the movie with multiple characters doubling up on their roles - this serves to make everyone's on-screen titles longer and more ridiculous. It's a funny touch, but it means that it's hard to grow attached to anyone besides the movie's protagonists - the determined young statesman Rando Yaguchi and his more cool-headed mentor Hideki Akasaka - and the handful of eccentrics in Yaguchi's quickly assembled Godzilla Defense Task Force (paraphrased). I liked the film well enough despite its flaws, but I think I'm going to enjoy these reboots a whole lot more when Godzilla's friends (and simian pen-pal from Skull Island) finally show up in 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Game: Final Fantasy XV

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I've not made too much progress in Final Fantasy XV this week, partly because I've had less time to play it but also because the game suddenly opens up in the third chapter. It does the Witcher (and, honestly, a lot of other open-world RPGs) thing by railroading you through the story for the first few hours in a smaller, contained region with not too much to distract you, before dropping you into the enormous world map (barring a few prohibited late-game story-critical locations), letting you know where the next story mission is and the experience level you should be at before attempting it before taking off the leash. Often, this level requirement eventually mutates from a minimum required level for the sake of your sanity into a reminder not to wander off and grow too strong from side-quests and exploration, lest you disrupt the story's carefully designed difficulty curve. After all, side-quests nominally exist to give players a boost before their next big mission, giving them the levels and extra resources they might need if they're not already confident enough. Often, though, players like myself will simply do all of them as they appear in the vicinity simply as a matter of course, effectively breaking the game's flow in the process. It's that ever-present conundrum of the open-world RPG developer: you can't anticipate how everyone will play your game with that level of freedom on offer, and ultimately you can only design your game for how normal people might play it. That is to say, the ones that would complete side-quests only if they happen to be on the way, not the ones who will spend hours chasing after sick chocobos or bounty hunts they're probably not prepared for just because they're there.

The way FFXV in particular reins obsessive players in is through its equipment system. You only find better weapons by reaching new locations, which in turn have vendors that can keep your gear updated and fit for enemies of a comparative level. If you just go by the level caps offered by the quests/bounty hunts, you'll find that you're doing chip damage despite the stats your enhanced levels provide without the arms to back it up. At the same time, it finds so many ways to reward you for taking the scenic route whenever possible: a stat called AP, used for unlocking new skills and various passive boosts, is usually only provided whenever the player levels up or completes certain objectives, such as little optional events that strengthen the bonds between the protagonist Noctis and his compadres Gladio, Ignis and Prompto. However, you can easily buy passive upgrades that give you bonus AP for long car rides and long chocobo rides (as in, no skipping ahead via fast travel), cooking, fishing, racing chocobos, playing around with the game's spellcrafting magic system, and other side-activities that might not always be worth your while on their own. In acquiring these abilities, you're almost entering a Faustian pact with the game to waste time on its more lackadaisical bullshit for the marginally valuable AP rewards they now provide. It's an already slow game that's made slower through this self-destructive choice. Even so, though, the game recognizes that it's also the smaller moments - the journey, not the destination - that truly matters. Hopping from one story event to the next is all well and good, but hanging out with friends on the open road, getting into dumb conversations about food and video games, and trying to offer each other encouragement through the harder times. I feel like that was the elevator pitch for this game, which tries to personalize the many journeys and adventures a party takes over an RPG's run-time, rather than the more traditional couple of dialogue lines from any given party member about the current situation should you bother tracking down where they're hanging out in your airship or equivalent.

I'm slowly getting to grips with the rest of the game's systems. I still suck at combat, frequently having to take a breather by teleporting up walls or cowering behind cover until my health and mana regenerates before throwing myself back into the fray for the few seconds it takes before my health drops to critical again. The warp-strikes, blindside attacks and follow-ups are valuable tools that I've come to appreciate, as is making careful note of enemy weaknesses and equipping myself accordingly, and I've liked the few dungeons I've tried so far in how they generate a bit of mystery with their initially empty maps. On the whole, though, I think it's rather telling that it's not a patch on either Ys VIII or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in terms of design or enjoyment, which are two of its closest contemporaries around its year of release, despite the enormous budget the Final Fantasy games tend to see. I think in some ways its long development time rendered a few of its systems outmoded by the time of its release, with the Japanese open-world RPG market in particular making great strides between FFXV's 2008 conception as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, its 2012 reassignment and reconfiguration into the fifteenth core Final Fantasy entry, and its eventual 2016 release. I'm impressed it's as stable and competent as it is with that kind of labored history, even if it's not astonishing me right now in a purely formalist capacity. Still, I've yet to drop out of a core Final Fantasy game and I've completed worse ones than this, so I'm going to stick with it to the end. I might decide to lay off the sheer amount of side-questing for the time being though, at least until I reach the next city and hopefully find some gear that'll keep me alive for longer than it takes to say "That's it! I've come up with a new recipeh!".

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