Friday, November 6, 2009

Still Going

Ugh! It's been three months since I last wrote an entry on thisyuh blog. I sort of apologize if you're a reader, and I sort of don't. I did say this would happen, and it's not a sign that I'm going to stop blogging, but it is a sign that there are lots of big things going on right now.

Really, almost everything I've done since my last post has consisted of adjustment: adjusting (still) to being a parent, adjusting to being in the new apartment, adjusting to balancing the responsibilities of parenting with those of being a grad student and a college instructor. Yes, I am a stay-at-home dad, and yes, it is difficult to finish up a dissertation and teach a class (even just one) when I'm also trying to do take care of the little guy. Most recently, I've been adjusting to being on the job market: I've been learning, all over again, what it's like to present yourself to people who have a great deal of say on the course your life will be taking for a significant period of time. The last time I did this, I applied to teach Contemporary Civilization at Columbia, and I was accepted, but that was a two-year position. This new thing could be, you know, a thirty- or forty-year gig. I mean, I'd love it if that would work out; I'm ready to feel like I've gotten where I'm going, like I can settle for a while, maybe for good, and do some real work. This grad school thing, this perpetual state of being about to leave for somewhere else, just isn't for me. But the application process is time-consuming, and there's a lot that goes into those applications, as I had imagined before I started, and as I'm really learning now that I've started to send a couple of apps out.

I didn't mean to pour out quite so much there, when the idea here is to tell you what I've been up to since August. The thing is, this is a busy and an important time for me. I do think that, if you're still reading this blog, I do kind of owe you that apology I mentioned earlier. I am still playing games, and I'm still thinking about them a lot. I'm trying to learn to write shorter postings, because I know that the length of my usual posting is making it harder for me to post regularly, and I'm sure that it's something that deters readers from time to time, too. If I can get the planets to align, if I can find a little bit of time here and there and also sort of cut back the length a bit, then you'll be seeing a lot more from me on Nuclear Houseplant.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ドラゴンクエストIX: Doing this thing the right way


It has been so long since I've updated. Look, I'm not an interesting person, and I hate to talk much about myself, even on my own blog, but I think I should explain. This won't be one of those "Oh, I promise I'll keep writing, because I love this so much" things that goes up and ends up being one of the last few posts someone ever writes; on the contrary, I do love this blog, but I anticipate that there are going to continue to be intermittent interruptions in my posting schedule, and anyone who cares to keep reading in spite of that has my sincere gratitude. My grad school career is, I certainly hope, coming to an end this year, one way or another, and that means one more big life change: going on the job market. In an economy like the present one, this process may feel like playing musical chairs with about half as many chairs as there are players. Yipes!

I say "one more big life change," because the second in the trilogy just occurred. Carrie and I just moved, which was a process that took, all told, maybe a week and a half—remember, one or the other of us is taking care of Alan most of our waking hours. Paradoxically, it is often necessary to move because of a new baby's arrival, but the arrival of a new baby is just about the worst thing that can happen to you if you want to effect a move that's anything like efficient. We're not that picky, so...

That's where I've been. I have been up to one big gaming thing lately: I've been trying to play Dragon Quest IX. The problem is that I do not speak or read Japanese. Not at all. I know both sets of kana blah blah, but really, my Japanese is nonexistent. I am not lacking in groundless confidence, though, and so I've thrown myself at the game in the hopes that the language will start clicking somewhere along the way. This is sometimes how language acquisition works, believe it or not.

If you have any experience with this sort of thing, you're probably thinking yeah, so how's that turning out? And you're right. It's not turning out so well so far. On my first attempt, I tried to use an online dictionary, which ended up being a decent idea except that it's impractical; a lot of the point of a DS game is enjoying it, you know, in contexts where you might not have access to the internet. I guess places like that are becoming fewer and fewer, but I don't really own a portable internet-capable device that will work on the bus or anything, so that's not such a good option. On my second attempt, I tried just playing through, saying screw it, forget the language. That defeats a lot of the fun for me; I still do want to learn Japanese, and while DQIX is, so they tell me, a job class-type game with lots of interesting mechanics, the early game requires actions of the player that aren't immediately obvious without text and context. It can be done, but it isn't fun for me; plus, what's going on while I'm skipping the text looks intriguing, and I really do want to follow along.

So here goes attempt number three. I have a good kanji dictionary already, but I don't want to count strokes, and DQIX has all the furigana your heart could desire, so I thought it made sense to get a phonetic Japanese dictionary, and that's what I did. The early verdict? My God, they're playing my song. It's like sitting down with a Latin dictionary and Cicero or Virgil, only this time it's for me, not my professor, and I'm playing a goddamn video game. I like this. Wish me luck!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Rose-Tinted Twenty-Twenty Hindsight, Part 2 of 2

(If you're interested, you can have a look at the previous part of this posting)

So yeah, Final Fantasy II.

I find myself caught between revulsion and admiration for this bizarre game. The leveling system, combined with the glacial rate of advancement, almost invariably led players to stop living in the game and to start treating it like an SAT math problem. At the same time, the game also went to some trouble to try to make leveling something that made sense and mattered to the player, rather than just something that happened all at once after you'd killed a few hundred goblins. The problem wasn't that FFII's system was a bad idea to begin with, not really; it was that FFII's system went a bit awry.

What made me want to look more closely at FFII is that I think Jeremy Parish has been feeling the same way lately. He's been writing recently about the Game Boy in honor of the 20th anniversary of its launch, and one of the series he's talked about a bit on Retronauts and elsewhere is Final Fantasy Legend, the American version of a series called SaGa in Japan. These games are renowned for their obtuse and bizarre (much more bizarre than FFII) mechanics, and guess what? They were directed by Akitoshi Kawazu, who worked as a designer on FFII.

Parish has pointed out the spiritual connection between FFII and the FF Legend/SaGa games, saying that the original Final Fantasy Legend is essentially Final Fantasy II-2 (cf. Retronauts episode 69 and, I think, 71). The oddities in the designs of FFII and the SaGa games (which I can't get into here) seem like annoyances in the abstract, but putting a face to this work, and acknowledging the obvious links among these arcane RPG systems, begins to show that though this be madness, well, you know.

This is interesting, of course, but it's Parish's observation, not mine, and for the sake of this post, I was just as interested in Parish's change of heart. In the past, Parish has been as cool towards FFII as everyone else—in fact, I just happened to listen to episode 1 of Retronauts a few days ago on the way to work, and the scorn he heaps on FFII and the SaGa games there is the stuff of legend. But one of the secrets we keep about being worthwhile human beings is that no one is perfect, and as a result, we all get to change our minds from time to time (hint: don't tell your kids about this). And somewhere among the Retronauts podcasts and the GameSpite posts of the last month or two, Jeremy Parish has slightly redacted his old take on FFII, acknowledging the game's strengths without reversing his previous position on its overall quality.

This got me thinking: what if we'd gotten FFII back in the early 1990s? We very nearly did: if you ever tried to emulate FFII and FFIII for the NES/Famicom back in the day (back before we all knew that emulation was immoral and illegal and something none of us should ever, ever do), you might have noticed that for some time it was impossible to find an English-language FFIII ROM, whereas it wasn't nearly as difficult to find one for FFII. That's because FFII was actually translated into English (not to a finely polished sheen, but...) for a North America release, but guess what? FFI came out in Japan in 1987; it wasn't released here until July of 1990. The SNES came out a year and a month later here, and at that point, do you really think Square was going to release another Final Fantasy for the NES? Leave that to Enix, who would publish Dragon Quest III in June 1991 and Dragon Quest IV in October 1992! Not to mention that there were huge problems in adapting FFII into an English-language game, as you can see if you look at the Lost Levels feature I've linked to below. No, Square held out a bit and gave us Final Fantasy IV instead, in November 1991. Granted, it wasn't the real Final Fantasy IV, and it was relabeled as FFII, but that's another story.

Anyway, my question is this: is Final Fantasy II such a horrible game that, if we'd ever gotten it, we would hate it as much as we do now? We look at FFII with the advantage of critical insight and an increased sense of self-worth, after all. We know we're better than games that waste our time like this. I mean, I can remember early in my NES career playing games that, in retrospect, I realize are complete crap, like Deadly Towers, Hydlide, and Dragon Power (Dragon Power...shudder) and realizing there was something off about the whole experience and, because I was a naïve seven- or eight-year old, blaming myself for the games' failings. A few years later, I would be able to play even worse games and shrug off the experience with the help of those three valuable but now overused words, "this game sucks," and life would go on. But there was a time when I would slog through even the worst game with the worst mechanics and the worst design sensibilities, to the best of my abilities, never realizing it wasn't my fault I didn't like this particular game.

This meant that I finished a lot of games that were sometimes challenging, sometimes not, but which certainly wouldn't persuade me to waste more than a minute or two of my time on them now. It's just easier as a more seasoned gamer to see the difference between good and bad.

However, this sort of no-taste approach to gaming also meant that I put more time into games that, if I were to play them for the first time now, I might give up on as poorly designed. To be honest, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is almost certainly of this kind. I honestly like that game a lot, but it's a bizarre, often idiotic game that expects leaps of intuition from the player that are just not going to happen. You need the Nintendo Power with the scary cover; you need your (weirdly knowledgeable) elementary school buddies' help. When a game expects you to fight even ridiculously difficult enemies for too-gradual increases in power, that's okay, I guess. When a game expects you constantly to check walkways for invisible pitfalls, that's annoying. When a game expects you to guess that you're supposed to crouch next to a lake for several seconds, that's ridiculous and unfair, and it doesn't make for an interesting game, it breaks the game. If CVII hadn't had the twin advantages of 1) coming out during gaming's (and our) youth and 2) being part of an important franchise, we'd all hate it now, I suspect.

Several other games fit this mold, too, I think. Zelda II might well be one; I love it, but think of the problems: inexplicably, you receive three lives, even though the Link is supposed to advance like an RPG character. Doesn't this mean you should have either no extra lives (like a FF game) or an infinite number of them (like any other Zelda game)? If you lose those three lives, it's back to the first section on the world map with you, even though all you'll have to do to get back where you left off is walk a while and maybe suffer a few monster encounters; that gets annoying over the course of an entire play-through. Still and all, I love Zelda II, but come now, is that because it overcomes its faults and ends up being pretty good in the final reckoning, or is it just because it's a Zelda game and it's one I loved as a kid? I honestly can't say.

You know what else fits the mold? Sad but true: Metroid. Gasp! But yes, it totally does. Granted, Metroid kept things much more in moderation than Zelda II or Simon's Quest or FFII, but there was no way to play through the game just intuitively and get all the stuff you needed; you'd have to bomb all the walls and floors you could to find it all. Or you got lucky and got a map somewhere.

And yeah, as I was saying, if we'd all had to press through FFII as little kids with lots of free time and little else to do with it, would we be so unanimous in our scorn for it now? Or would it be another one of these borderline games that are obviously pretty wonky but we just can't help loving? The old Famicom version of FFII is hard as hell, and it takes forever to level anything, but do you remember what it was like trying to save up the gold for spells in FFI? Or what it was like trying to learn how to survive act 6-2 of Ninja Gaiden?

I'm just saying.

FFII screenshot from The Lost Levels (www.lostlevels.org, and please also see this excellent feature on the canceled translation of Final Fantasy II). Metroid screenshot from Strategywiki's Metroid section. Ninja Gaiden level map swiped from The Video Game Atlas' NES section.

Rose-Tinted Twenty-Twenty Hindsight, Part 1 of 2


I'd been playing Final Fantasy II for all of thirty seconds when what's pictured above took place. Of course, this is a scripted total party kill, and it will happen to everyone who plays the game; it's part of the story. Everyone survives, but you start with four characters and lose one in this fight; he doesn't show up again until a good deal later. The point is, though, a game that kills all of your characters off as its first narrative act—that may be, as the saying goes, nature's way of saying "don't touch."

And Final Fantasy II is almost universally reviled. I did a little research before I wrote this posting, and I noticed that, well, reviewers' remarks about FFII are rarely bland. Here's a small sample:

"plagued by a fundamentally busted experience system that encourages you to attack your own party members
in order to beef them up. Truly bizarre." (from Shane Bettenhausen's EGM/1UP review of FFI/II: Dawn of Souls for the GBA)

"it is a terrible game, forcing players to attack themselves in order to increase their stats and bombarding them with
evil deities that could melt faces at the beginning of the game if they dared to accidentally wander too far" (Ashton Liu's RPGFan review of FFII Anniversary Edition for the PSP)

"Final Fantasy II - arguably the most messy and directionless game in the series ... originally Final Fantasy II was an utterly unforgiving experience, where hours of levelling up could be required just to prevent your characters from falling off the game's power curve" (Rob Fahey's Eurogamer review of FFI/II: Dawn of Souls)

The annoying thing about FFII is its advancement system, which implemented a bit differently could have been its greatest strength. I'll explain: unlike other FFs, FFII levels characters' individual stats based on what sorts of actions they take in the game. This plays out just a little bit like advancement in the old Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory games, though FFII's skill set is directed towards combat while QFG's is directed towards puzzle-solving. The hero in QFG, for example, might try climbing a tree ten or fifteen times until his climbing skill increased and he managed to get all the way up; a character in FFII might fight with an axe repeatedly until his/her axe skill increased.

This is actually kind of neat when it comes to casting spells. Unlike FFI and FFIII, where even spells belonging to the same family are purchased separately, or FFIV, FFVI, and so on, where spells are gained arbitrarily with levels, FFII features spells that level up with use. So if you have a mage who knows Fire, she only has to cast the spell a certain number of times until it becomes more potent, the equivalent of one of the other games' Fire 2 (or FIR2!) or Fira. This really does feel right in context, actually; a spellcaster should become more powerful with practice.

The problem is that FFII is a cruel, cruel game, and it requires a LOT of repetition of the player before it begrudgingly doles out rewards. It's no better for fighters, since they can't specialize in broad groups of weapons but must specialize in narrow weapon categories like staves, spears, swords, and axes. It can also be hard to have a combo weapon user/magic user, because intelligence and strength, the abilities that determine black magic ability and fighting ability respectively, are treated as opposites: one will deteriorate gradually with use of the other. Perhaps worst of all, FFII gives out health rewards based on the net amount of damage characters have taken over the course of a battle. This means, first, that a character who takes 100 HP of damage in a fight but receives 70 HP of healing will only get the benefit from the 30 HP of damage that is left unhealed; worse, this system encourages the kind of exploitation the reviewers above noted, where players would have their characters attack each other to boost the amount of HP gained at the end of a battle.

At its best, this makes for an intricate system that a player can really get to know and play with and (perhaps) enjoy; at its worst, it creates an obtuse mess of a game that favors the worst sort of power gaming, which is the death of all fun when it comes to RPGs. I think a person with a real love for game systems can't help but feel a mix of excitement and disgust when she looks over the various nuances of FFII's system, which HCBailly has more or less exhaustively detailed in his impressive and lengthy series of Let's Play videos on Youtube.

Layered on top of this weird system is a kind of cool dialogue-based mechanic which requires the player to learn certain words and phrases in conversation and repeat them later in the game to other characters to accomplish certain tasks. So, for instance, accosting an old man early in the game prompts the bizarre response, "I'm just an old man." Mentioning a certain password, though, gets the old man to reveal that he is actually a legendary blacksmith who will help the player by fashioning powerful items.

That's probably enough for one posting, so I'm going to call it a day. In the second half of this posting, I'll bring up a question that's been bugging me about FFII's reception since its first North American release (2003's Final Fantasy Origins for the PlayStation) and how that reception might have been completely different if we'd gotten the game much sooner.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Oh! It is harder! Or, Has anyone actually finished this damn thing?


So, as I posted a couple of weeks ago, I've been playing lots of Dragon Quest IV DS and Final Fantasy IV DS so far this summer, since portable gaming is easier to do with a new baby in the apartment than console gaming. I've branched out a bit since then, but it's still a bit more convenient to squeeze in the DS and the PSP between the other things I've been up to.

ANYWAY, I complained at some length about the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV before backtracking a bit and saying that the game wasn't "that hard." Well, I take it back. FFIV DS is hard, and it isn't just me, as I learned when I read these old 61FPS posts by Bob Mackey and Nadia Oxford. "Medieval brick shithouses" or not, Cecil and Kain, as well as their various sometime accomplices, have a crap-ton of a tough quest ahead of them in this version. Several days ago, my 40ish-level war band of Cecil, Kain, Yang, Rydia, and Rosa stomped into the Tower of Babil (sic) only to be repulsed by a rabble of high-level random monsters and one sonofabitch Flamehound. I'm still not sure why, but the Flamehound really gave my party a tough time, and they found themselves making an unplanned retreat in response.

This was just the bottom floor of the tower.

Yeah, I haven't quite made it to the moon yet, and in light of Mr. Mackey's column, I think I'm completely justified in quitting at that point, but I'm starting to think that maybe the writing's on the wall already: this FFIV is a tough bastard, and maybe I should just go back and play some FFIV Advance. I do like those old FFIV sprites, and I want to get started on FFIV: The After Years (though maybe I shouldn't). Also, FFIV used to feel like comfort gaming, and I guess that's sort of what I was in the mood for with this one, though Square Enix can hardly be blamed for changing things up and adding a bit of variety to this classic.

But I'm sort of a glutton for punishment, and it would be cool to know that I've finished the hardest possible version of this game. I mean, what else do I have to do this summer, aside from parenting and finishing my dissertation?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Join the Nintendo Fun Club Today! Mac.


My wife just bought me the new Wii Punch-Out!! for Father's Day. Let me just say at the outset that what you're hearing is true; it is brilliant. The thing is, the genius of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, which was not a particularly long game, was that it forced you to learn its secrets through frequent repetition. It didn't take long to get to any given point in the game once you knew how, so it was always easy to summon the determination to go back and repeat a section that had you stuck. And some things, like punching King Hippo in the mouth, you could learn at the playground or explain to someone fairly easily, but many things, like how exactly to dodge and block to knock out Piston Honda or when to hit Bald Bull, were lessons much better left to experience.

The beauty of the new Punch-Out!! is that it works exactly the same way, and in fact, it rewards even a veteran's experimentation, since some boxers are just a little different from their counterparts in the NES or SNES versions, just enough that you'll need to work a few things out for yourself.

At the same time, it adds a beautiful new coat of paint to the old game. As Scott Sharkey points out, those fighters from the NES game aren't nearly as large as we remember them being. True, every last one of them, even wimpy old Glass Joe, towered over the 107-pound (!) Little Mac, but even on a 4:3 display, which was the only way to play the old game, there was lots of ring space they didn't fill. That's no longer the case, as all of the fighters, particularly the big guys like King Hippo and Bear Hugger, take up a good deal more of the space on even a 16:9 display. The camera also bucks around with Little Mac's actions, making it feel like there's much more for the camera to take in. One of my favorite touches in the game is the noticeable step up in atmosphere from circuit to circuit; that Minor Circuit ring looks shabby indeed, and the gradations to Major Circuit and World Circuit arenas make the corresponding upward trajectory of Little Mac's fame much more tangible than it's been in the past.

Anyway, naturally I thought I'd check out the old strategies to see if they worked on the slightly re-tooled versions of Punch-Out!!'s characters. Glass Joe and Von Kaiser are still pretty pathetic, at least at the beginning of the game, and I didn't feel any need to deploy any well laid strategy against either of them, so I skipped straight to the details on King Hippo, who now comes a couple spaces earlier in the progression (click to see the full-size, readable version):

Yep, that checks out, though if you don't uppercut the new King Hippo when he pauses after the two hand squish-move, you're wasting a lot of crucial opportunities for those tummy-punches. In fact, he'll be a much more difficult KO if you don't.

And what about Piston Honda, or "Piston Hondo," as he's (I guess) less actionably called these days?

Okay, that works too, I suppose, though the explanation's a bit more awkward than the more straightforward advice needed to get past King Hippo. As I said, for the most part, this was not a game that benefited much from playground shop-talk the way, say, Castlevania II did.

Ah, the olden days. Going back to that old Official Nintendo Player's Guide, the source of those hint sections above, made me want to look through the whole book, and so that was what I did. It got me thinking: there was once a time when I didn't know what Mother Brain looked like, when I didn't realize that registering your name as "Zelda" in The Legend of Zelda would allow you to start a completely different game from the one that most of us were playing. But it would:

See?

As Bob Mackey pointed out in a great column on 1UP recently (and see this post for an index to subsequent entries in this series), not all of us think too often about strategy guides anymore. Why spend fifteen or twenty bucks on a physical thing when you can just go to Gamefaqs and download someone's pride and joy, an obsessively compiled guide to anything and everything in a given game?

But there was a time when we weren't really thinking all that much about strategy guides simply because we weren't yet aware they were out there. I think that, with a few exceptions (some modern games need guides, because they really are just that hard or that vast), strategy guides had a brief floruit from the late eighties to the late nineties, a short period of time sandwiched between the dark times, when game hints were passed from master to pupil through a solely oral tradition, and the point at which the internet became the universal resource for gamers in trouble. Though it was hardly the first strategy guide published, The Official Nintendo Player's Guide nevertheless set an example that would eventually be followed by almost every console game guide published, at least in America. It may also have been one of the earliest, if not the earliest, examples of the screenshot-mosaic level map that remains such a memorable feature of classic Nintendo Power issues.

Thanks to the ONPG (as most people like to refer to it¹) and presumably the popularity of gaming magazines like Nintendo Power², the large trade paperback format, which was well suited to printing lots of screenshots and game-related art, won out over the, um, fun but somewhat less apt mass market format of such books as Jeff Rovin's How to Win at Nintendo Games or the Metal Gear and Castlevania II novelizations "created by F.X. Nine."

Anyway, this isn't an exhaustive history of the genre, though I'd love to see something like that, so enough with all that. The ONPG, which had somewhat in-depth coverage of twenty-four games and capsule summaries of fifty-six more, was, to this seven-year-old, a revelation from God. The God, yes. You see, there was obviously an omniscient being behind this Nintendo Player's Guide thing, because not only did it know how many missiles it took to beat Mother Brain and what she actually looked like (this, incidentally)

it had also apparently beaten goddamned Ghosts 'N Goblins.

The one thing the ONPG didn't have going for it was an entirely sound grasp of the Queen's English in all its idiomatic splendor. Not that there were too many real howlers, but the text was a little funny in some places. Ghosts 'N Goblins, for example, is described as "a very torcherous adventure." To be fair, there is a torch weapon in GNG, and trying to make it through the game with that piece of crap is an even more, ahem, torturous experience than usual, so maybe this was just a particularly witty turn of phrase, but I doubt it. Towards the end of the book, a capsule summary for Excitebike does a particularly good job of showing the book's flair for dipping into strange English as it grows nearly poetic in its dramatic intensity:

Your objective is revenge against your old adversary, Arch Rivale, who humiliated you at the last Excitebike race. You can still hear his taunting laughter as he rode over your foot, flattening it like a road bunny. Will you finally have your revenge? Or will Arch Rivale have the last laugh? Again.


I guess someone got bored and decided that Excitebike was in desperate need of a plot? Interesting choice.

Evidently, only the most glaring errors were cleared up in the ONPG's translation from Japanese to English, leaving quite a few oddities. The intro to the full-length review of Castlevania is pretty good (and I swear the following text, capitalization and all, is precisely copied from the book):

"You are the hero of this game! The Whip is your constant companion. Power-Up to Level Two and knock down the Monsters. Inside the castle you'll find Candles. Strike them with your Whip and important Items will appear."


For great justice! By the way, is "to knock down" a euphemism for "to murder" in Japanese? That would certainly explain that old line from Final Fantasy.

Some of the other fun bits are the frequent scare quotes in other games' capsule summaries that make it sound like the writers were choking back disdain at having to commit this stuff to paper:

"To defeat Ganon, you must find the eight pieces of the 'Triforce of Wisdom' which are scattered throughout the land."

"The cruel King Ligar and his soldier beasts have stolen Argool's 'Door to Peace' and have established an evil reign of terror."

"The pirates have hidden this 'Metroid' deep within the fortress Planet Zebes where they plan to make it multiply, and use it to destroy galactic civilization."

"Pick from three levels of play depending on your 'b-ball' skills, when playing the computer."

It's a fun book, moderately useful (if only half of the "in-depth reviews" didn't cut off halfway through their respective games!) and certainly an amusing read in places, and now it's a fun antique, pre-dating even the first issue of Nintendo Power. Wikipedia thinks it's in a direct line of continuity with those Nintendo Power Strategy Guides that came out in 1990, the ones that covered Super Mario Bros. 3 and Final Fantasy, you know, and that's kind of cool to know, considering that the more recent line of Nintendo Player's Guides, which covered almost everything and included the deservedly famous NES Atlas, ran almost twenty years, from the early 1990s to 2007. At any rate, The Official Nintendo Player's Guide is one of the really early examples of the form, and if there's such a thing as a strategy guide enthusiast, and if you happen to be one of those, the book really belongs in your library. And hey! There are fun stickers!

[While this week's pictures are mostly my own scans, I've also grabbed an image from Sydlexia.com's hilarious essay on memorable NES quotations; there's also a great article on how inferior the SNES Super Punch-Out!! is to its predecessor (and, I'd imagine, its new successor); that seems pretty topical. There are run-downs of the top 100 games on the NES and the SNES. In fact, many of Syd's articles are great, and it can be hard to stop reading the site's content once you've started, so you've been warned.]

¹Yes, I am being facetious.

²And it's worth noting that Nintendo Power published four "Nintendo Power Strategy Guides" as part of its print run in 1990, focused on SMB3, Ninja Gaiden II, Final Fantasy, and various four-player games for the old NES, with several sports games, Gauntlet II, and (ugh) Swords and Serpents.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Pair of Fours

In the breaks between diaper changes, baths, mostly baby-related housework, and entertaining a few guests over the past four weeks, I've actually managed to get in a fair amount of gaming, almost all of it portable. I've particularly been focusing my time on the Nintendo DS remakes of Dragon Quest IV (Dragon Warrior IV, as the graybeards may still know it) and Final Fantasy IV (or II to the same crowd), both of which, yes, came out last summer and both of which I'll admit to having chipped away at gradually over the past several months.

It struck me as I switched over from FFIV to DQIV, and back again, and so forth, how very different these two games are, how different are the designers' intentions and the strategies required of the player, and I thought it might be worthwhile to put together some of my thoughts on how this has shaped my experience of these two games. I will warn you that this is one of those long posts. Sorry!

I should say at the outset that the two games do bear a certain family resemblance to each other. At the most basic level, these two games are both Japanese RPGs, which is actually a sub-genre unto itself. In general, the more "Japanese" an RPG is, the most it's like driving a train: the tracks are already in place, the train's already there; it's just a matter of moving that train from point A to point B. The alternative to a Japanese RPG is a so-called Western RPG, the most extreme example of which would be a game that is largely customizable and essentially non-linear. I guess that if we stick to the transportation metaphor, a Western RPG is sort of like setting out to go somewhere on foot. You have a general idea of the destination, though that could always change, and maybe you'll decide to turn evil before you get there, though maybe not, and you always have the option to buy a car or hitch a ride or ... okay, wait. Maybe the transportation metaphor doesn't work. To put the whole thing in its proper historical context, the Western RPG model, which came first, grew out of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, where all that's set in advance is the rules, and the experience is meant to be as much a product of the players' creativity as a product of the game leader's (Dungeon Master's) imagination. Japanese RPGs were sort of a natural response to this model that took the elements of RPGs and anchored them to a pre-written story. Some freedom was sacrificed in favor of an ideally more fully realized narrative.

That's kind of a lot to take in, but I promise there's a reason for my bringing it up, and that's basically to point out how particularly Japanese, or not, DQIV and FFIV happen to be. Both games came out of franchises inaugurated in the 1980s (1986 and 1987, respectively, in Japan); both franchises were progenitors of the JRPG model, and both of these fourth iterations were released (again, in Japan) in the very early 1990s: 1990, on the Famicom/NES, in the case of DQIV, and 1991, on the Super Famicom/SNES, in the case of FFIV.

The basic difference, which is probably what gives rise to the other differences I want to talk about, is between the two games' styles of storytelling. Final Fantasy IV is more straightforward in this respect: the player controls an adventuring party of, at most, five characters at a time. Throughout the game, the focus is primarily centered on Cecil, a knight from the land of Baron, who uncovers an evil scheme to steal the world's magic crystals and, well, you can imagine what else. In his journeys, Cecil meets up with a number of other characters who are fighting for the same cause who will join him and leave the party, sometimes multiple times, for various reasons, usually fake death. All of these characters are elaborations on basic character classes that had either already appeared in prior Final Fantasy games or would appear in Final Fantasy V.

Cecil starts the game as a Dark Knight, basically a fighter with a few special powers and abilities, and he later becomes a Paladin, a fighter with healing spells and other white magic. Cecil's girlfriend Rosa eventually joins; she's a White Mage. An old man named Tellah, who is essentially a Black Mage and can cast various destructive spells and curses, also joins in.

In the original game, at least, the player has no control over what characters are in the party or what their abilities are. Really, the player's only option is what sort of equipment to give any one character. Otherwise, the story knows right where it's going, and the player gets to come along.

Dragon Quest IV is pretty similar at first glance. A good half or more of the game focuses on a nameless (well, named by the player) Hero who is involved in a quest to keep demons from ruling the world or something. Like Cecil, the Hero meets several other characters, each with her or his own skills, who can join the Hero's four-person party and assist in the quest. The difference, though, is this: Final Fantasy IV plays out entirely from Cecil's point of view, with other characters' experiences outside the party left to asides made upon their (re-)joining the party. After a brief introduction, the first big chunk of Dragon Quest IV is divided in four pieces, each piece dedicated to telling the story of characters from one of four different regions of the world and establishing their interest in seeing the Hero's quest to completion.

Here's where my opinion comes in: I think that this unique approach to the game's narrative, which was completely innovative for a console RPG in 1990, both suggests and encourages a much more individualized experience than FFIV. First of all, the idea of seeing the game from four, or really five, different perspectives in itself opens up the range of experiences the player might find in the game. Yes, the focus is on the Hero for half of the game or more, but since some of these other characters will spend most of this span of time in the Hero's party, the player may find herself more vested in the story of one of the other characters. This is all the more likely considering how colorful each of these characters is, whereas the Hero is a blank slate until quite late in the game.

Secondly, by the time the player has found the other characters and assembled a full eight-person traveling party, she will find herself faced with a choice: she must pare down this group of eight to a smaller attack group of four; only these four characters will delve into caves and castles and fight with monsters. This is where DQIV's similarities to FFIV really begin to work well. Like FFIV, DQIV offers an array of useful character types. There's a seemingly frail old man who at higher level casts devastating ice-based spells, a pair of sisters who function as a healer and a fire-flinging mage, a powerful warrior who can use nearly any suit of armor and any weapon in the game, and a few more. There's even a bizarre fellow who rarely follows the player's commands but often blunders into critical hits or steals high-level weapons from unsuspecting monsters. Unlike FFIV, DQIV allows the player to select any three of these characters (as well as the Hero, whose skills are a balance of offensive magic, healing spells, and fighting ability) at any time in the game, tailoring the entire experience to her own tastes and skills.

And this mechanic is much, much better suited to the flavor of Dragon Quest. DQ games are not necessarily easy, but then, they are also the last games anyone would think to call sadistic. In DQIV, there are some mid-level random encounters with monsters that can cast spells that cause instant death, and a group of two or more of these can whittle down even a capable party in no time. But the worst that can ever happen if a fight goes wrong is that your characters lose half the gold they were carrying at the time.

The Final Fantasy games have always, um, gone a different route. In FF, a Total Party Kill is a Total Party Kill: the game is over. Hope you saved. This can be a source of real frustration, too. Whereas I don't suppose I've lost my party more than once or twice in DQIV, FFIV has some damned devious villains in it that will never go down if the player hasn't learned exactly how to kill them. DQ seems to work differently: hard work will always pay off in time, and usually just a few levels' difference can make an impossible enemy (even one with a bag full of tricks) into one that's only moderately challenging.

I'll give a couple of examples. At the end of Chapter 4 in DQIV, the player's 3-person party encounters an eight-legged lion-demon thing called the Marquis de Léon (Keeleon, old people).
The Marquis will kill the party every time during this confrontation; the average party will probably be around level 10, but the Marquis can and will kill any group of players that shows up, I think. But DQIV is the kind of game where it makes perfect sense that, about ten (quick) levels later and a bit further in the story, the Marquis goes down with surprising ease. DQIV's system makes the whole process feel rewarding; a turnaround like this becomes an incentive, and best of all, the player has several options for building a party that will be able to handle the Marquis, which makes the experience that much more rewarding.

FFIV, though, sometimes uses the player's party too much as a set of tools for advancing the story it wants to tell—to be sure, a hallmark of the JRPG model. About halfway through FFIV, Cecil and his crew confront Golbez, the villain who by all appearances is behind the shenanigans that our heroes are trying to stop.
Golbez is too strong for the party, just like the Marquis in his first appearance. However! Tellah the old wizard casts a spell called Meteor that apparently consumes both Golbez and himself. However again! Golbez isn't dead, and he shows up sometime later. In this second appearance, Golbez is ask-your-friends-for-help-at-the-playground tough. After the heroes have inflicted a little damage, he calls up a black dragon that casts an instant-kill spell on the whole party; only Cecil is spared. And although Rydia, a character who'd apparently died earlier, shows up more powerful than ever, she turns out to be useless unless you keep another character free to check Golbez' weakness, which changes after every hit Rydia scores. Attacks that don't target Golbez' weakness will actually heal him rather than damage him!

Now, this wouldn't be so bad, it would in fact be sort of fun, if that were all there was to it, but it isn't. In the midst of all this, you see, Golbez is inflicting devastating hits with his spells, including one that sucks out hit points at a ridiculous rate and another one that steals tons of magic points, rendering Rydia powerless. So you almost need three characters, Cecil to detect Golbez' weakness, Rydia to attack him, and Rosa to keep the other two alive. Of course, Rosa's already dead from the dragon attack, and while Cecil has items on her that can resurrect her, she only comes back to life with a few measly hit points, and if Golbez hits the whole party with a damage spell (and he seems to do this more often than not), Rosa will go down before she can be pulled back up to a decent level of health.

So fighting Golbez the second time is a lot like that old commercial with the cowboys trying to herd cats: every success begins to feel like a prelude to the next failure. Of course, if the player can get this system going, Golbez turns out to be fairly easy to kill, but getting to a point where it's possible to keep the party alive while juggling those other two spells turns out to be not the least bit easy, and FFIV pulls no punches to give you a chance to get to that point.

It's typical of FFIV, too, that when the player finishes this nasty, demoralizing, soul-crushing fight, she finds out it's time to slog straight to the enemy's fortress—conveniently located on the other side of hell. And guess what? FFIV's version of hell is filled with tricksy monsters, including these chameleons that can and will turn your whole party to stone. You lose when this happens, by the way. Really, FFIV reminds me of a story my mom once told me about a guy who lived on her street when she was a kid. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him and liked him, but there was this one kind of cruel thing he used to do: when all the kids on the street were out playing, he'd call them over to his front lawn and offer each one an Atomic Fireball. He'd challenge them to hold the Fireballs in their mouths until they'd dissolved all the way; any kid who could do it would get a prize. He made this challenge several times with no successes, until one day, one plucky little guy finally pulled it off. Guess what the prize was? Another Atomic Fireball. Yeah.

To be fair, I'm overstating my point a bit. Final Fantasy IV isn't that hard, but you get the idea.

So DQIV and FFIV are both JRPGs; both have a narrative you're tied to, and both are there to tell you their story the way they want to tell it. Still, DQIV gives the player just enough freedom to work through the game's challenges the way that works best for her; FFIV wants the player to approach challenges just so, and diversion from that method is strenuously punished. In this sense, FFIV comes off feeling much more old-school, in its way: you play and replay through a section until you figure it out, and then you advance and do the same thing again.¹ Anyway, this isn't to say that one or the other is a better game or that one or the other is too hard or not hard enough. FFIV is a classic of the SNES era that many players have fond memories of, some of those stretching back almost two decades; it may in fact be the standard that really defined what a JRPG should be, which would explain a lot about how this post came about, I guess. For its part, DQIV is one of the longest, richest console RPGs of its day, an innovator at the time and today still a superlative and wonderful game. Nevertheless, speaking from personal experience: man, I break into way fewer cold sweats when I'm playing DQIV!

¹It bears pointing out here that Americans' first experience with Final Fantasy IV, which back in the day we all thought was actually Final Fantasy II, was far less challenging than a playthrough of the new DS remake. That's because "Final Fantasy II" was actually a much watered-down version of the original Japanese edition. A later edition published in Japan, called Final Fantasy IV Easytype, was easier still. The real FFIV has always been a damn hard game, as console RPGs go.

Image credits: Final Fantasy IV logo: OMG Nintendo; Golbez battle: Gamespite; Dragon Quest IV logo: posted on the Dragon's Den boards by user Woodus; Keeleon sprite from Lord Yuan Shu's Dragon Warrior IV walkthrough (lordyuanshu.com); picture of FFIV party, um, stock photo from an online store.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dunt Dunt Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt Dunt (Pshoo) Dunt Dunt


At a dramatic juncture in the almost completely missable Alien 3, Ellen Ripley tells the film's dog-like alien creature, "You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else."

I have some aliens in my life. While I certainly can remember other things—unlike Ellen Ripley, I do not suffer from suspended animation-induced selective memory, you see—it is true that there really is not a time in my life that I can remember when these particular aliens were unfamiliar to me.

The aliens I'm talking about, though, are almost the opposite of the nasty horrors from the Alien franchise, which are menacing, unpredictable, decidedly uncute engines of destruction. My aliens are—well, I guess they are little engines of destruction, after all, but the similarities extend no further. My aliens try to be menacing, and I'm sure there's no cuteness in their intentions for us earthlings, especially when you're talking about those creepy arcade cabinet versions of my aliens:

But in their real (by which I mean digital) representations, darn it, my aliens are adorable! And it's this form of my aliens that's important, because nowadays the images that live on aren't those hulking brutes from the cabinet but the little guys on the actual game screen. Rather than awful little eating machines, they look like wonderful little machines for eating. Hello, lemon juice!

And man, are they ever predictable! But they're predictable in the best possible sense. You know, methodical. Witness Threadless' brilliant "A Simple Plan" t-shirt:

I'm talking about the Space Invaders, of course, the ones from the eponymous arcade game and its many sequels and reworkings, the video game characters I came to know earliest in life. My first introduction to them was in the lovely Atari 2600 port, but their classic arcade look is the one burned indelibly into my otherwise non-eidetic memory.

And if you've read this blog at all, you can imagine that I can't wait to ramble on nostalgically about the game, but I do have an ulterior motive in bringing up Space Invaders. If you read this blog regularly, first of all, God bless you, but secondly, you've noticed that I've been away for some time. Well, the reason for that is that three weeks ago, my wife and I had a son, Alan Roberts.

Since Alan was born, my sleep has suffered quite a bit, but my gaming hasn't, really. It's not too difficult to spend some time with the DS or GBA while he's asleep, so I've been playing several times a day. Specifically, the first bit of gaming I managed to get in came on the day after Alan was born, when I finally recovered from the previous day's excitement and exhaustion enough to turn on the DS and play a new game I hadn't previously had the chance to try out. The second day I was at the hospital, while his mom took a much-needed nap and Alan did the same in his little hospital basinet, I pulled out Space Invaders Extreme 2, the excellent follow up to last year's Extreme, both of which I recommend highly. And I got to thinking about how the old Atari port of the original had been one of my first games and certainly my first favorite game (its competition was basically Combat and the misbegotten 2600 port of Pac-Man).

Space Invaders was a great game for a little kid. It's easy to pick up and play, what with its one axis of movement and its single attack button. I can remember quite clearly how befuddled I was by the controls to Combat, which are not bad at all in retrospect but also not perhaps entirely intuitive, particularly not for a three-year-old. "My" 2600 was at my grandparents' house, a thing bequeathed from necessity by my aunt to my grandparents when the former left for college the year I was born. Grandma and Papa weren't really too good at diagnosing my Atari problems, so I could only really play Combat when my mom was around to orient the controller correctly in my little hands and remind me how to make the tanks move.

That Atari joystick used to give me fits. Since my earliest video game experiences preceded my earliest reading experiences, I wasn't aware that the arcane symbol on the top of the joystick was actually the word "UP," and anyway, there were arrows on each of the other three edges of the joystick—so which way was supposed to point towards the TV?

But Space Invaders was blessedly simple: so simple, in fact, that its original arcade cabinet employed not a joystick but a pair of buttons for movement. Current iterations on the Nintendo DS can be controlled with Taito's dial-looking paddle controller, a Japan-only throwback to the old NES Arkanoid controller.

Sometimes simplicity in a video game is just the first step on the path to monotony. But simplicity is often at the heart of elegance, and I think elegant is exactly the right descriptor for Space Invaders' deceptively simple gameplay, actually. A few stages into the game, after all, the player's focus shifts from shooting any old Invaders at all and just dodging their shots to shooting particular Invaders and avoiding being crushed by the lowest row of their attack formation! This charmingly vintage how-to video illustrates my point perfectly. Space Invaders is the kind of game that shifts quickly from leisurely to frantic, forcing the player to give up the freedom she's enjoyed so far in the game and adhere really to one specific pattern of attack that presents her with her only hope for survival as the game wears on.

Oh, yes, those aliens are still with me, twenty-five years or so on now. And though no one else was aware it was happening at the time, I truly treasured the chance to share, in a way, my favorite hobby with my new son. I'm glad Space Invaders got to be there.


Space Invaders screen shot from Laura Berry's blog, musings (lauraberry.wordpress.com); Space Invaders bezel art from the Arcade Art Library at www.localarcade.com; Taito paddle controller from playasia.com.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Space and Structure in the Super Marioverse, Part 1


Since it was released, I've been trying to decide what I think of Super Mario Galaxy. I know that it's at least a very good game, and it exhibits the usual creativity and quality of the Super Mario games, but is it maybe even something more? Is it actually a revolution in the platform genre, as a number of reviews have said—and as the game's Famitsu (38/40), Metacritic (97), and Game Rankings (97.4) scores may suggest?

If you follow this blog, then you know that I'm probably not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about Super Mario Galaxy without first discussing its aged forebears, so I'll dispense with the pretext right now and get on with what this essay is really about, which happens to be Super Mario Bros. SMB certainly wasn't the first platform game—the first, um, good one was Donkey Kong, which followed a couple of less remarkable pioneers—nor was it actually the first scrolling platform game (and let's just leave it at that), but it was the game that happened to popularize the genre, and it has the added distinction of making it obvious to the American business world that home console gaming was a viable, permanently marketable, um, thing. As much as I do love the VCS, it's important to note that Atari had not managed to convince people of this by 1983.

I've written about this before, and I've said that I think a lot of this had to do with the way that early NES games distinguished themselves from the arcade experience in crucial ways, though admittedly I focused more on aspects of play control than the trajectory of gameplay. But let me reiterate that what post-SMB console games offered was not the arcade model, the iterative, short game with levels that the player experienced repeatedly and, most importantly, with no end to the procession of levels, unless it was a hardware-imposed kill screen. SMB was the catalyzing agent that popularized a new model of game design: games with actual goals. We might as well call these teleological games.

As is completely appropriate for an early representative of this "paradigm," SMB exhibited the marks of where video games had been as well as where they were going. While SMB had thirty-two distinct levels, grouped into eight worlds of four levels each, it is true that the levels were only slight variations on five basic types: simple outdoor levels, underground levels, high outdoor levels with advanced platforming challenges, water levels, and castle levels. As such, there was some repetition, but it was not the same precise iteration seen in titles like Donkey Kong or Gorf. And whereas these games would simply repeat the cycle of levels without any resolution (DK did have a minimal storyline, but this only played out in the first two levels), SMB was plainly over after the last of its thirty-two levels were completed. There was even a mechanism that marked the final castle level out as something different: rather than the Mushroom Retainers who appeared seven times before—and my six-year-old self, clueless as to the number of times I'd have to find out that the Princess was in another castle, came to hate these guys—Mario discovered Princess "Toadstool" herself, and that was that.

This became, I think, the prevailing paradigm for game designs throughout the console's life, and I think it's safe to say that, for the most part, this has been the case ever since. The titles most often associated with the NES, including the Castlevania, Mega Man, Legend of Zelda, Dragon "Warrior," and Super Mario Bros. franchises, as well as Final Fantasy and Metroid, followed this design model.

What this meant, though, was that games had to show not just the distinction between beginnings and endings but the whole spectrum of locales in between these two endpoints. SMB might only have had five distinct level types, but it used those types in ways that suggested change and progress: outdoor levels were often given a black rather than a blue background, suggesting a transition from day to night, and level 6-3 even changed the color of everything including the bricks, the tufty raised platforms, and the castle at the end, to shades of white and light gray, suggesting a thick snowfall; levels 3-1, 3-2, 5-1, 5-2, and 7-1 had trees with white-colored tops and white pipes that suggested, I guess, a lighter dusting of snow. All of this made levels seem more distinct during the experience of gameplay, and it gave context to the consistent four-level cycle that always culminated in a (futile) attempt to save the Princess from another castle.

For me, then, the move from "world" to "world" felt like a progression from region to region (province to province?) within the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario traveled gradually through the four stages of each "world," and when he reached each castle, always inexplicably in the "world's" most remote location, he discovered that, yes, he had to keep moving. The large castles that always appeared at the beginning of levels numbered 1 (excepting 1-1 for obvious reasons and, bizarrely, 5-1) gave a sense of continuity to the proceedings, and it reinforced the impression that Mario was on some sort of quest that, for all its repetition, was advancing in some sense.

So Super Mario Bros. was something of a tenuous first step. Only minimal differentiation existed between levels, but there was nevertheless a great deal of difference between Super Mario Bros. and earlier level-based games like Donkey Kong. Super Mario Bros. also distinguished itself from its few earlier competitors in the side-scrolling platform genre, like Pac-Land, by exploiting a repetitive pattern in such a way that its ludic and (admittedly thin) narrative qualities appeared to blend seamlessly.

Still, the world that Super Mario Bros. took place in was a product of cooperation, a construct of the player's mind just as much as it was a part of the game's program. It would still be some time before the Super Mario Bros. games managed to present a world that made sense on its own terms, and it is the progress towards this point, and the movement away from it that I think has occurred since, that I've set out to explore throughout the present series of essays. The next part will continue with the next two games, and there are a number of other issues I'm looking forward to bringing out, too. Please anticipate it (and, in honor of Chris Kohler's wit: bow).

All images come from Ian Albert's brilliant webpage, where the author presents several video game maps created from in-game graphics. Just like Nintendo Power, only all nice and stuff.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Alienation Effect? Part 2


Forewarned is forearmed: this post does connect pretty closely to what I wrote the other day, so if you haven't read that one yet, you may want to have a look. This will still be here when you get back!

Okay. If I told you that I thought part of the reason these old games, and these, well, these new but old-fashioned games, have such a hold on me, was that there's something to them that reminds me that they are games, what would you say?

Would you think that that was weird? Would you say that you prefer an "immersive" or a "realistic" gaming experience?

Well, hear me out.

1.

I think more often than not we're conditioned to think that an entertainment should be involving, so that when we come to a game, for instance, we expect something that's simply going to engage us and make us forget that we are just playing a game, whether it does so with mindless action or gripping drama. Some people, maybe most people, think gaming is a hobby or a distraction, and what they demand from gaming proceeds from that assumption.

There may be another way to approach games, and I have an acknowledgment to make at this point. You probably know that this "alienation effect" thing isn't my term. It was actually coined by Bertolt Brecht (Verfremdungseffekt in Brecht's native language). It refers to the distancing Brecht thought ought to occur during the production of a play.

That's not really the usual deal. The classic Aristotelian theory of drama from the Poetics—the only part that's left to us focuses on tragedy—says that the aim of a play is to engender an emotional response in the audience, something that can't happen unless the audience is drawn in, its sympathies taken over by the events displayed on the stage.

This seems like a natural direction for Aristotle's theory, considering that some of the most famous plays from the century or so before he wrote were the intense tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Not to belabor the point, but one of the primary concerns of these plays, and one of the elements you'll remember longest from reading them or seeing them performed, is the degree of suffering in them.

Aristotle said that we could sympathize with this suffering by watching it take place, and this experience would then cleanse us of our own negative emotions: this is the effect of catharsis you always hear about with respect to Aristotle.

Anyway, to get this thing moving back toward video games, Brecht (who fell in the midst of a whole gaggle of like-minded playwrights, though he's the best known of them) disagreed that this was the most appropriate way for drama to operate. He believed that a detached, intellectual response was preferable, and so he and his colleagues created what is usually called epic theater, a form of drama that acknowledges its artificiality and tries to keep the audience aware that it is watching a play. This involves dispensing with the whole pretense that the play is a series of actual events that the audience is watching unfold. Actors break the fourth wall continuously, addressing the audience and making use of the entire theater; sets appear just a bit unnatural; summaries of or comments on events are often read out or projected as text.

You can imagine how this eats away at the suspension of disbelief! Brecht worked to cultivate a sense of disbelief in his audience.

And so the audience is detached, alienated, distanced, estranged from the actors. Or the actors from the audience. Either way, this is how the alienation effect works.

2.

A game like Left 4 Dead or Gears of War shows that the search for the right kind of immersion in video games continues, by and large, to coincide with the search for the right degree of realism. Games of their ilk, I think, are the inheritors of the Aristotelian theory of artistic products. Now, I would say this model has become less monolithic than it used to be, but it's still the dominant paradigm. Console games—console games!—now display in resolutions up to 1080p. 3D rendering is the standard approach to video game graphics. Many (maybe most; the statistics aren't crucial) games are presented in a first- or limited third-person perspective. All of these methods of presentation, I think, are employed in order to make games feel more realistic and thus immersive. These qualities aren't inherently connected at all, as I'll show, but I think that designers have both of them in mind when they produce the usual modern game, or at least the usual triple-a blockbuster game.

It really bothers me that I'm oversimplifying so much when there are perfectly good examples of games that don't fit on either side of the artificial dichotomy I'm setting up at all. Madworld will probably be one of the more important Wii releases of 2009, for better or worse, but it's presented in highly stylized black and white graphics that aren't all that "realistic." Games like Super Mario Galaxy push for something approximating the same sort of high-res beauty that games on the more powerful consoles achieve, but they bear only a passing resemblance to anything in the real world. But I still think games like that belong more in the big-budget category. And I love games like this. Still, I always find myself drifting towards games that don't uphold the same aesthetic standards, whether they're just too old to compare, like Zelda II or Ghouls 'n Ghosts, or deliberately out of step, like Mega Man 9 and Super Paper Mario. The latter aren't just games that try for simple or even archaic graphical styles, they are also two-dimensional platformers (more or less, in the case of SPM): they're breaking away from the more prevalent philosophy altogether.

And it's these older design values I really want in a game, I think. I still want to play games cast in the newer mold, but, all things being equal, I'll always take the original-looking indie side-scroller over the new big-budget 3D game.

I thought the reason for this might be nostalgia. These were, after all, the prevailing design values of the games of my childhood. And you know, nostalgia is almost right.

But it isn't quite right. It's really the alienation effect I want, and something extra.

3.

Though games of the 8-bit era seemed adequately expressive at the time, playing through one now can create overwhelming levels of what might be considered the video game version of the alienation effect. The NES displayed at a resolution of 256 x 240; the Atari VCS displayed at 192 x 160! Under typical circumstances, the NES displayed up to 25 colors at a time. Real 3D graphics were a generation away, and they wouldn't become really popular until the mid-1990s. This meant that the 8-bit games I came to know before any others had few colors and simple graphics. They had two-dimensional worlds—and the games that didn't were usually disasters. They were immersive, sure, but only on their own terms, and in ways that I suspect are hard to appreciate for newer gamers raised on newer games.

For example, try to imagine playing the game pictured above, Haunted House for the VCS, if you're too young to have had the pleasure. According to me, Gamespy and, I think, Retronauts (episode 29), it's a forerunner of the survival horror genre. In 1985 or so, when I was playing it, it was terrifying. That may be partly because I was a small child, but it was also because my experiences with the VCS had taught me to think that this was what video games were supposed to be like. Without anything more refined to compare to it, I bought into the illusion and became a willing participant in the VCS' blocky charade.

But early console games had a lot of what Alexander Galloway, drawing on the language of film criticism, calls non-diegetic elements, pieces of a game that exist outside its narrative, pieces that theoretically could detract from a game's illusion. These games were still incorporating the conventions of the arcade, where the point of a game wasn't to grant players any sort of closure but to extort as much money from them as possible. In the early 1980s in particular, home games were making a gradual, often clumsy transition from this arcade-like gameplay model to a more teleological one where the player had a clear goal to work toward. As a result, many games had score counters in one corner of the screen, and some, like Street Fighter II, still preposterously invited you to enter your initials, as if you were going to leave your console on all day and have hundreds of people over to marvel at your skills.

Even as some games moved away from the arcade gameplay model, they shed or adapted at least some of their now extraneous non-diegetic elements. Score counters became less common, certainly in the action and adventure genres; abrupt transitions between levels were phased out and replaced with more natural overworld/underworld systems and world maps; even the conceit of multiple lives was dropped in favor of a single life in some genres. Some fairly recent games have continued these trends to such an extent that what non-diegetic elements they retain have withered like vestigial organs: the Grand Theft Auto games repackage the older level concept as small missions that take place across a single city or geographic swath; Shadow of the Colossus has restricted its non-diegetic information to a compact, unobtrusive lifebar and health meter.

I'm making a big deal out of this process because I want to make completely clear what sorts of things I think are being removed or minimized in games at the one end of this spectrum I'm creating. And yes, creating this spectrum is my way of misrepresenting the way designers think about games. I'm telling this lie so that I can make a broad point, but every artistic theory is a shoe that doesn't quite fit.

4.

So what I've been trying to do all along is to point to two groups of elements in video games that contribute to this special kind of alienation effect. One is the narrower category of non-diegetic elements, and the other is the less defined category (more like a misshapen, taped-up cardboard box) of "obsolete" game parts, things like 2D perspectives, level-by-level structures, and outdated aesthetics. I can't think of many games that can be made without using at least a few parts from these two boxes, but the more of these parts a game uses, the further it gets from the "realistic" ideal, and the less the game maintains the illusion of a perfectly, naturally, and consistently realized world—the more, in other words, it "admits" to being a game.

Voilà: there's the alienation effect, the deliberately provoked sense the player has that she or he is playing a game. It doesn't—doesn't!—preclude a sense of immersion, but it is an intellectual rather than an emotional response. It is a moment where your involvement in the game is disrupted, even slightly, while the designer pulls back the façade a little and reminds you, again, that this is a game.

Because games aren't a, I don't know, a technology, like computers, that move off into the future, always improving, always advancing. They're pieces of art. Get the hell off my blog if you disagree ;) As such, they have a history, and there is no reason they can't dip into that history for inspiration. In fact, I think what I'm discovering about myself as a gamer, the reason that I like old games and old-style games, is that I'm a little more interested in games' history than their future. I'd rather experience games that are either a part of gaming history or, even better, that situate themselves in that history and express their appreciation for it openly.

What I want is the intertextual games like Braid, with their Donkey Kong homages. I want the 2.5D remakes of sidescrolling classics, the Bionic Commando: Rearmeds and the Castlevania Dracula X Chronicleses. I want games that are almost too retro, like Bit.trip Beat. I want the Paul's Big Adventures, the games that exist just to subvert and parody the medium (though it would be great if they could be more interesting than the coconut-gathering minigame in No More Heroes). I want to play video games, and I don't just want to play video games; I want to play video games that are about playing video games.

That's the alienation effect: that feeling you get that you're in on something with the designer, that the two of you have something in common that this game is a way of getting at. The sense that the two of you are participating, almost, in a dialogue about what games are. And ultimately, it isn't about the mechanics or the aesthetics, though those retro stylings almost invariably help. It's about games presenting themselves as games. I know there are going to be some mistakes. But this is what I want.

The Pong screen is from Screen Play, a blog at theage.com.au. The Haunted House screen comes from videogamecritic.net. The Braid screen is from MTV's Multiplayer blog. The Bit.trip Beat screen is from WiiWare World.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Alienation Effect? Part 1


So, today's malarkey comes from an old post I never finished up on my (not very developed) 1up blog. About a year ago, I finished a play-through of Super Paper Mario with my wife, and a few things occurred to me during and after that experience that I thought I'd discuss here.

So, my wife is not a huge video game fan. Certainly she enjoys them. And damn, is she ever good at some of them. She worked up perfect 100% ratings on every single level in Yoshi's Island back when that was a "current game," which really is no mean feat. The Mario All-Stars saves left over from her junior high years tell the tale of a person who once racked up some 70 (!) extra lives in between levels of Super Mario Bros. 2 before finishing the game. When asked about Super Mario World, she nonchalantly claims not to remember having gotten very far in it, yet one of her saves from that game preserves a completely (yes, 100%) unlocked world map. She's been all the way through A Link to the Past and gathered every item, even the ones you don't need and have to really look for. All four bottles! Everything. I just mean that she doesn't lack for skill, and when she starts a game, she finishes it—all the way. But I think the angle she comes at video games from must be a bit different from mine.

Ugh, now that's going to sound like an awful pun. The thing is that she just doesn't always react well to real 3D games. When The Wind Waker came out, she gamely played along with me up to the Forsaken Fortress, where of course, after countless moblin run-ins, she swore off Zelda games forever, until I played past that and let her try her hand at the Forest Haven. She found the little interior area around the Deku Tree completely disorienting, and at that point her patience really did run out. Fair enough. For someone who's never really adjusted to 3D games, that is a confusing, monotonous area, filled as it is with water, branches, lily pads, floating lights--not the easiest place for getting your 3D sea legs.

"3D sea legs." What does that remind me of? Oh yes! It reminds me that my wife has played and loved Escape from Monkey Island, as well as Grim Fandango and Eternal Darkness, and she's perfectly adept at those games. She's also pretty good at Grand Theft Auto III, and she sort of likes that one. Maybe the problem lies in the constant (and sometimes drastic) shifts along the height axis in games like The Wind Waker? I mean, it is true that Eternal Darkness, Escape from Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango work from a fixed perspective, so that might explain those, but what about GTA3? Maybe the driving is intuitive.

Anyway, I'm on the other side of the spectrum. I'll play almost anything if I have the right console/hardware and enough time (guess which of those is more problematic). I was playing King's Quest II with my mom when I was still pre-literate, really before I had enough of a mental visual dictionary to translate the blocky graphics into real objects in my head. I mean, I did okay for the most part, but there were some things on that KQ2 screen I could not comprehend. Trident? Seahorse? Cauldron of chicken soup?

(Okay, I'm being disingenuous. That's not chicken soup.)

I've played lots of stuff from almost every genre that's arisen since then, and I'm at least okay at most of them. Well, I love, but absolutely suck at, Civilization. But I don't have a fundamental inability to play this or that type of game.

Well, my wife definitely has a preference for old-tyme side-scrollers (and top-down adventures). Super Paper Mario was like a dream come true for her. She is thrilled about Fez, and I can't wait to see if she likes Cave Story when it comes to Wii (I haven't tried her on the desktop experience, though perhaps I should). I'm also going to play Braid when it comes to PC, and I think she'll like that, too. And I love side-scrollers and other 2D games too, but I've played and loved so many other kinds of games that I would have thought I had no particular preference for the older style.

But you know what? I think I might.

When we bought our Wii a year and some months ago, I logged lots of time on Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy and Resident Evil 4 and all that, but I really found myself spending just as much time—probably lots more time—playing Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts, Super Metroid, Super Mario Bros. 3, Zelda II, and other mostly 16- and 8-bit games. I played those games for inordinate, embarrassing amounts of time. Then I bought a PSP and, between that and my DS, I've barely been able to claw my way out from RPGs and Metroidvanias (sorry!).

So before I close this first installment out (I have much more to say, as well as an actual theory to posit, in part 2 and, if it comes to that, part 3), I'll just pose this question: what's going on here? Am I giving in to nostalgia? Have I spent so much time playing games with my wife that I'm picking up her preferences? Or is it something else entirely?

And of course I could just be reading too much into this. It was huge for me just to be able to play old games on a real TV screen again.

Today's top image (a dizzy bokoblin to represent my wife getting dizzy from playing WW) comes from wiiconsumer.wordpress.com. The KQ2 image is from adventureclassicgaming.com.