I meant to post here not long after beating StarCraft II‘s Terran campaign, and to devote an entire post to my impressions of the story and campaign structure, but I got sucked back into Dragon Quest IX so quickly again. Also, I’m a procrastinator.
Seriously, though, DQIX is incredibly addictive. I finally saw the credits roll yesterday afternoon, and though the basic meat of the plot is relatively straightforward and shouldn’t take too long to complete, thanks to all of the other things to do, my beat time was 125:27:02. And there’s still a lot more left in the postgame! However, I’m not even thinking about that stuff right now. For the time being, I’m Dragon Quested out.
"Darlin', when I squint my eyes at you, you better listen."
What else has been going on with me, gaming-wise? As I said before, I beat the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign. The missions had an incredible amount of variety compared with the original and Brood War, but in general, they also felt easier (it must be noted here that StarCraft II‘s campaign has difficulty settings; I played the entire thing on Normal). The easier, more diverse play compliments a story that, while serviceable, lacks some of the raw… je ne sais quois of the previous games. Certain things, most notably Raynor’s relationship to Kerrigan, are less ambiguous, and there is more humor and in-joking than ever before. One minor pop culture reference in particular was, while silly, somewhat anachronistic considering the setting.
Some of this can be attributed to the new structure in place for the between-mission bits. Instead of a dingy briefing room with an android adjutant, where you are a commander working with General Duke or whoever, you are an observer aboard a battlecruiser, with Raynor as your main character, a detached sort of avatar. A more human angle has been given to the story in the form of Raynor’s conversations with his shipmates and others, but in exchange, something has been lost. I’m not sure which approach I prefer.
The character models and voices are also worth mentioning. Raynor still has his smooth Southern drawl and still squints when he’s upset, but his face is no longer lean, but meaty, and he has an equally meaty build to go with it. His hair is darker as well. Kerrigan, in brief glimpses of her old human form, is more fair-skinned than I imagined her to be through StarCraft‘s crude character portraits, and I’m not too crazy about her new voice. Mengsk and Zeratul fare better, and in general, the new characters are well done.
I think I have a pretty good idea of at least some of what the next campaign, the Zerg one, might bring. It doesn’t have quite the same magic as the original (and its expansion), but StarCraft II is still damn good, and I’m looking forward to the rest.
Another thing I played recently—well, more like messed around with: Kingdom Hearts II, believe it or not. Compared to the original and even the low-key GBA spinoff Chain of Memories, KHII felt like weak sauce, dumbed down with a convoluted and contradictory story, QTE-style special attacks, and some Disney worlds that, design-wise, paled in comparison to their Kingdom Hearts equivalents. However, it did have some redeeming qualities, like the improved Gummi Ship schmup sections, a certain visually stunning minigame in the Hundred Acre Wood, and a few great worlds, like Space Paranoids, the KHII home of Tron.
My husband became curious about the upcoming movie Tron: Legacy after we saw a trailer before Inception. Neither of us had seen the original Tron, though I was familiar with its reputation as an early pioneer in the field of computer animated special effects, and so we rented it. Tron wasn’t very good story-wise, but it was a visual treat, and reminded me a lot of its appearance in Kingdom Hearts II. Wanting to show KHII‘s Tron world, Space Paranoids, to my husband, I fired up the PS2 and loaded up my starred save game. Unfortunately, I had forgotten how to travel between worlds, so I did a lot of needless backtracking before finally caving in and looking up how to do it. As I traveled through Space Paranoids—including Light Cycle and Solar Sailer rides—and recalled my experience playing through the story bits, I saw just how much of the movie had made it into the game. In this respect, Space Paranoids is no different from most other worlds in the series, but considering that I hadn’t seen Tron until now, it was neat to gain this new perspective on it.
The last couple of games on my recent agenda have been Plants vs. Zombies and Kirby Super Star. In the former, I killed lots of time in two (successful) attempts to get a couple more Steam trophies. The latter’s last and toughest minigame took me a long time and many attempts, but I finally beat it on the last day of August. I had a good time with both games, though Kirby took a little while to grow on me.
That’s about all for now. The next game I plan on starting is Metroid Prime (the Wii-enhanced version), and after that, Etrian Odyssey II. I’ve also been neglecting my Pokeymans, so I suppose I’ll have to pick up Platinum again as well. Oh, and I’ve added some more links to (where else) the Links page. On a related note, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve also made a few small cosmetic changes to the site over the past couple of months. I don’t know if I’ll do any more such tweaking, but it’s certainly not out of the question, and if you spot anything that looks out of place in the meantime, please let me know.
So, we went home for Thanksgiving, then it was off to the Caribbean for a long-needed vacation; we got back on the 5th and quickly settled back into old routines. My husband brought his DS and some games for the trip, though the only one he touched was the excellent Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. He put some more hours into it over the course of the trip, though he still has yet to finish it.
Me, I didn’t bring my DS, or any portable system. Having been playing a ton of games during my year of mostly-unemployment, I needed a break. Any games I played were of the non-video variety at my parents’ house—the local paper’s Universal Sudoku and Wordy Gurdy, mainly. Also, as we don’t watch TV here, we saw some Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! and naturally, we all played along. Slight non-sequitur: Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek are definitely getting on in years, but Vanna White still looks fabulous.
Neither of us touched games at all once the vacation part of the trip got underway, though I did read more of the copy of Edge (issue no. 208) I’d asked my husband to pick up shortly before we left home at the start of all of this. As is typical, some of the articles were interesting (the TGS wrap-up, also the cover story; the columns and retro features, as usual; etc.), and others just made my eyes glaze over in a “I don’t care about this; why am I reading this?” sort of way (the Ninja Theory interview). The Inbox section concerned one of those topics I totally don’t give a shit about: story in games. This is the sort of thing I generally look upon with eye-rolling, as I do with the “games as art” validation-seekers, because most of the people arguing tend to miss the bigger picture. I still haven’t read the article that sparked this whole brouhaha, but I got the basic gist of what it was about from readers’ letters. However, out of all the mail and forum posts that were printed, I agreed with the last one the most, as its author really seemed to get it. Here’s an excerpt: Also, (Clint) Hocking speaks as if the entire gaming community is composed of MMOG, RTS, and FPS players… (T)he gaming market is broad and diverse, and there are many genres that simply don’t lend themselves to interactive storytelling and some that lend themselves better to linear storytelling. The highly popular Ace Attorney series couldn’t exist without linear storytelling, and yet it provides the unique experience of interactively exploring a set narrative, something that just cannot be achieved with other media. Bravo, Jose Bonilla; I couldn’t have said it better myself, and though you didn’t win Letter of the Month, I’d send you a DSi if I could.
Anyway, we’re back, and have spent the past week catching up on real life, as well as console gaming. Assassin’s Creed II is being played nearly every night by my husband; the meta-narrative gets twistier and twistier, while the controls continue to annoy. Meanwhile, I’ve started Radiata Stories, my first tri-Ace game. It’s one of those quirky types of RPG, and features things like nearly two hundred possible party members and a restricted sort of freedom. Of course, I plan to write more about it later. Oh, and a certain weird “bug” I kept noticing in Tales of Legendia might actually be my controller’s fault, as I think it briefly happened again in Radiata. What happens is that sometimes, usually right after a save file is loaded, my controlled character will just start randomly walking, usually to the right. It’s not bad enough that I feel the need to replace my controller, but fortunately, I have a new DualShock 2 still in the packaging if it comes down to that. Still, as I’m not 100% sure that I saw that same oddity in Radiata, it might really be a Legendia bug after all. We’ll see.
Special Stage: Had a lot of internet to catch up on once I came back, and have read even more since then, so here are a couple of the more interesting links. First off, there’s word of a new, serious gaming periodical on the horizon called Killscreen. I don’t know if I’ll get a subscription, but I love this sort of thing, so maybe. Second, Kotaku isn’t one of my favorite sites, but they do some good posts on occasion, and this time around, there’s two I’d like to share: Achievement Chore, the true tale of a housewife with a huge Gamerscore, and the 2009 Gift Guide, which includes suggestions from the sublime—I very much second the recommendation for the Cloud Strife and Hardy Daytona set, though their description of it leaves much to be desired—to the bizarre.
First off, apologies for not posting in awhile. I had some computer problems to deal with, mixed in with some real-life stuff along the way. On top of that, I’ve also been enraptured by two excellent RPGs.
Serph, the hero of Digital Devil Saga
Right now, it seems like I’m nearing the end of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, and I know that’s the case with Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon (aka Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon: The Labyrinth of Lost Time). I started the former first, taking an initial dip into the one franchise which occupies my backlog more than any other, then the second afterwards, wanting something more lighthearted in tone to balance against the darker game. However, although they are certainly very different games in atmosphere—not to mention style, as Digital Devil Saga is your standard turn-based affair and Chocobo’s Dungeon is a roguelike—I eventually noticed that these two have far more in common than meets the eye in terms of story.
Digital Devil Saga centers around Serph and the group of fighters he leads, the Embryon. They live in the desolate Junkyard where tribes fight one another for the right to go to Nirvana; all this is overseen by the Karma Temple, which is headquartered in a tall, towering structure at the center of the environs. Serph’s world begins to change when a mysterious girl with strange powers emerges from a cocoon-like thing in the middle of a battlefield. He and the rest of the Junkyard’s inhabitants gain the ability to transform into the beastlike Atma, and little by little they start to see their world in a different light.
Chocobo’s Dungeon centers around a chocobo named, er, Chocobo and the group of friends he makes. He finds himself in the idyllic town of Lostime where residents live happily without memories; all this is overlooked by the Bell of Oblivion, which resides in a tall tower in the center of town. Lostime begins to change when a mysterious boy with strange powers emerges from a speckled egg which comes out of the sky. Chocobo gains the ability to enter Mysterious Dungeons enabled by lost memories, and later, change into Job forms. Little by little, the townsfolk start to see their world in a different light.
Chocobo, the hero of Chocobo's Dungeon
It’s important to note here one very crucial distinction between Serph and Chocobo: while Serph begins the game as a part of the Embryon and the world at large, Chocobo is a complete outsider, having been magically whisked away to Lostime during a treasure hunt in a desert. There’s also the matter of complexity, as Digital Devil Saga’s story is a bit more sophisticated and unpredictable than that of Chocobo’s Dungeon. Indeed, the foreshadowing in Chocobo’s Dungeon is fairly easy to interpret for this JRPG vet; I suppose that its overall light RPG trappings have much to do with it, despite the hardcore nature of the gameplay (more on that in a later post). As for Digital Devil Saga, I haven’t been able to figure out what exactly is going on, and am as curious to know more as the characters themselves.
Still, I could’ve never anticipated that these two would be this similar as far as their basic plots go. Much has been said of JRPG plots and how cliched they can get after awhile, but there generally tends to be a significant amount of variation between them (for some reason, this seems to be most true of strategy RPGs, but I digress). In the case of Digital Devil Saga and Chocobo’s Dungeon, the similarities don’t bother me in the least, as the actual meat of the games are vastly different, and that’s what I play RPGs for in the first place. I hope to have Chocobo’s Dungeon beaten this weekend, but will probably continue to play the game afterwards, depending on whatever post-ending content there is. Likewise, I’m going to try to wrap up Digital Devil Saga sometime next week. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see if the plot similarities continue on through these games’ endings.
Chocobo source art from Neoseeker (neoseeker.com).
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I beat Okami late Monday morning. I failed to write down the total completion time when the final stats were tallied, but by taking the timestamp from my New Game Plus file and adding on whatever time passed between that and my previous save file, I was able to come up with a good estimate: 50:10:43. Those fifty hours ten minutes and change took me over six months to compile, and my fellow okamibloggers have pretty much given up on the game (I know this is the case with namatamiku; not sure about CloudANDTidus). Despite its pretty graphics and atypical setting, there was something about Okami that seemed not to click with us, and it’s not the type of thing that can’t be explained either.
One major problem with Okami is how the story is paced. Certain events happen in such a way as to lead one to assume that the game is really and truly ending, but instead it keeps going, and in shorter, less satisfactory chunks; that these latter chunks differ from the main initial one in certain significant ways also feels problematic. It’s as if the whole of Okami is one tangent-riddled, dialogue-heavy game squashed together with its slightly more focused, but also even more haphazardly-paced, sequel. In the game’s second half, certain things are revisited for reasons that make very little sense in the grand scheme of the story, and are more tedious to deal with on top of that. The game doesn’t start to feel coherent again until the final few hours (which also includes one of the single best dungeons, in a game with several decent ones already), and even then, some bits of story come out of nowhere for the vaguest of reasons.
While the pacing is off, this isn’t helped by the fact that Okami can’t settle on an overall tone. While some characters and quests are quite entertaining and well thought out (Issun, the Sasa Sanctuary sequence, and certain canines come to mind), others waffle between the lighthearted and the serious, and some of these changes aren’t entirely convincing. I think part of this lies at fault with the game’s borderline whimsical audio-visual style, and I don’t mean the traditional Japanese elements, either. The characters’ broad animations, particularly the squashing and stretching of the heads used in lieu of lipsynch (as the human characters lack visible mouths), serve the story well in lighter moments, but when it comes to the heavier ones, they’re a detriment.
Let’s move on to the gameplay, which is pretty much the main reason why I play games to begin with. While I enjoyed certain quests, sidequests, boss battles, and what have you a good deal, this was a little disappointing too. Perhaps the biggest letdown of them all was how easy it was in certain respects, and how difficult it could be in others, especially in getting certain brush techniques to work the first time. Getting all the money you could ever need was a fairly simple affair, as was finding items for use in battle without having to buy them, and even then, I wasn’t compelled to use handy items like Exorcism Slips, Steel Soul Sake, and Inkfinity Stones in battle until the second half. Even the health-regenerating Holy Bones saw rather limited use during the first twenty hours or so. In my final stat wrapup for Okami, I found that I had ended up clearing the entire game without losing a single life.
All in all, Okami was okay. Not amazing, not fantastic, and definitely not engrossing or compelling, just okay. The graphics are beautiful, as is the music, and the setting is a refreshing break from those you tend to see in other action/adventure games, but it also contains an oddly-paced, tangent-filled story in an already sidequest-heavy world. A bit more polish and tightening up of the narrative structure, a slightly less forgiving overall difficulty, and a more subdued character animation style to make the serious bits feel more serious while keeping the whimsical ones whimsical would’ve gone a long way to making this okay game into one that is truly great.
Storytelling can be a rather contentious subject in modern video games. Not all games have or need stories, but many of those that do seem to be carefully scrutinized by those looking to justify gaming as an art form. Part of this is due to gaming’s inferiority complex, which explains the film and literature comparisons that get thrown around every so often. However, I believe that the best game stories, the ones which gamers should be holding the most dear, take advantage of the medium in ways unique to it.
The most important thing separating game stories from other types is that they typically utilize second-person perspective. While stories in other media tend to be first-person or third-person, second-person narratives are extraordinarily rare. Games, on the other hand, use second-person all the time: you are the main protagonist, and it is through you that the story takes place. Though third-person perspectives are sometimes interlaced with second-person ones through the use of cutscenes, second-person seems to be video games’ POV of choice.
Seeing as how this is the case, and coupled with the interactive nature of the medium, the types of stories best-suited for games are ones told through the environment and incidental events, with the “you” character left fairly open to interpretation. You play an protagonist who, at the beginning of the game, finds themself in a new and unfamiliar situation. Your final goal, though not obvious at first, can be anything from escaping confinement to saving the world, but when initially presented with your surroundings, the first thing you do is either explore them on your own, or do so while following a guide of some sort. Through these explorations, the world and the characters and things within it begin to tell the second-person “you” the story, and you are drawn in, becoming not only involved in the tale, but central to it.
This approach to game storytelling is at the heart of Cave Story, which begins in a small, nondescript chamber. By opening a door and wandering through caverns, you eventually find your way to a small village, which is where the story begins in earnest. Said story is dripped out in little bits—a mention of the Doctor here, some flower petals there—and relies little on deux ex machina devices and third-person cutscenes. What results is a meaty tale with little fat or gristle to unnecessarily add to the weight.
Environmental second-person storytelling is also at the heart of Portal. Here, the voice of an artificial intelligence guides you along through a series of laboratory tests. However, the real story is told through independent exploration conducted during the process of figuring out the tests’ puzzles. This not only gives the player a break from an otherwise rigid, linear experience, but enhances it as well.
One game which has been held up on a pedestal by the Games As Art crowd is Shadow of the Colossus, and on the surface, it appears to hold to the same narrative structure as Portal. However, there is a distinct reluctance by the game to trust the player. First off, subtext is primarily handled with cutscenes rather than through the player’s own discoveries; the only pieces of the story the player has an active role in is through the killing of the titular Colossi. There’s also the fact that the god-figure will start to offer hints if the player seems to be taking a long time to figure something out (and annoyingly enough, this feature can’t be turned off). The hand-holding at the beginning of the game, in the form of brief control tutorials which come along as necessary, is truly helpful and not too invasive, but the god-figure’s hints take helpfulness to new extremes. These quirks, and the latter one in particular, break the immersion and remind the player that they are not the protagonist but rather a person playing a game, thus lessening the potential strength of the narrative.
Most story-driven games don’t (or can’t) follow the same approaches that Cave Story and Portal do, and instead make use of compromises. These could be anything from a silent protagonist, to branching paths and multiple endings, to an “open world” structure. This is not necessarily a bad thing—some of my favorite games use such compromises to great effect—but to me, an ideal game story is one that can’t be told quite the same way in another medium. A good narrative that relies heavily on cutscenes and handholding is one that might as well be translated into a television show or graphic novel. On the other hand, one that encourages and rewards exploration and experimentation is one that I would be loathe to revisit in a form other than a game.