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Author: RKasa

Game Progress: Reaching for the End

Last night I beat Klonoa (or rather, the Wii remake of Klonoa: Door to Phantomile if you want to be pedantic). As is the case with other games in the series I’ve played, I managed to get a lot of the extra level goals, but not everything, especially since the last three Visions cranked up the difficulty a good deal. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with such narrow platforms as Klonoa, and the later Visions, and the next-to-last one in particular, had them in spades. Despite being spoiled for a mid-game plot point before I’d even bought the damn thing, I enjoyed it, though I think I prefer Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil, just a little bit more. It was my first Klonoa, which I think might explain my preference. Now I just have to get a cheap copy of Dream Champ Tournament…

Yeah, I'm still playing this damn thing.
Still plugging away at Okami as well. The story took a very odd turn about twenty hours in, and the pacing and gameplay structure since then makes it feel like I’m playing a different game altogether. I’m not sure if the changes made in this arc are an improvement—the chase bits are a little off-putting, actually—but considering that I’m now one brush short of the full set and have most of the world map explored, I think it’s safe to say I’m pretty close to wrapping this up. My overall opinion of Okami hasn’t changed much since I last wrote about it, and I don’t think it will. It’s very pretty and occasionally charming, but it’s also quite dull in bits and can’t settle on an overall tone.

Pokemon Ruby continues to be awesome. Right now I’m coming off another round of battles against Team Magma, and something very bad has happened. There’s still some stuff I have to take care of before challenging the trainers at the eighth gym, but hopefully my team can handle it. My regulars and alternates include Marshtomp, Mightyena, Absol, Tropius, Zangoose, Tentacruel, Swellow, and others.

Right now, I’m hoping to wrap up Okami sometime next week, and maybe beat Ruby as well. As for what I plan to play next, Secret of Mana definitely, and I’ll probably also delve into Rogue Galaxy, which is the game which has sat in my backlog the longest, IIRC.

Source image from Bits, Bytes, Pixels and Sprites.

The Greatest Game of All Time?

Last week over AIM, I said something to namatamiku that he didn’t expect to hear from me. In discussing my current addiction to Pokemon Ruby, I said that Pokemon “may just be the greatest game of all time,” later adding, “in all seriousness, I think the series as a whole is a strong contender for the title of Quintessential JRPG.”

A little bit of background first. Pokemon Ruby is the first game in the main series that I’ve ever played, though I’ve been familiar with the franchise since Red/Blue initially hit the States. Back then, I was in college and didn’t do much gaming myself. One of my classmates had gotten Pokemon Red and brought it into the studio one night. A handful of us watched her play, captivated by it. I’m not sure we knew why this was the case at the time, but clearly Nintendo was on to something, as Pokemon has since become one of the best-selling RPG series of all time. Since then, I played some rounds of Pokemon Stadium at another friend’s place, was exposed to the anime series (the only episode I clearly remember seeing all the way through was “Island of the Giant Pokemon”), and even acquired some jelly jars (though my Clefairy one broke, sadly). However, it wasn’t until last month that I started a main-series Pokemon game. It was between buying Pokemon Platinum, which had just come out, and borrowing my husband’s copy of Ruby; not sure if I would even like the series, and wanting to save some money, I went with the latter option. Now, here I am, over sixty hours in, with 80+ completed entries in my Pokedex and just one more gym badge to go, impressed by the game’s complexity and elegance.

At its heart, Pokemon is a traditional turn-based RPG in the vein of Dragon Quest coupled with a simple plot pulled straight from the pages of Shonen Jump. Ruby starts you off in a small town in the Hoenn region, a world where everything revolves around Pokemon: work, play, shopping, travel, everything. You are a young novice trainer who sets off on a goal to become The Best. Along the way, there are wild Pokemon to capture, other trainers to challenge, and the overzealous Team Magma to deal with. All battle in the game is conducted by the Pokemon, up to six of which can be carried at a time, and just like playable characters in any other RPG, they can be level up, suffer from status effects, learn new abilities, and have their stats tweaked. There are two crucial differences however: Pokemon can only “know” four abilities total at any given time, and on top of that, many of them can also evolve into higher forms. Given that there are several dozen types of Pokemon in the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and ranging in presentation from the cute to the badass, party management is perhaps the most important skill a Pokemon player must develop.

It is in this depth of variety, in the Pokemon species scattered across a handful of class-types, that the genius of Pokemon lies. Not only does the “gotta catch ’em all” aspect appeal to one’s inner collector, but just as the set limit on abilities forces hard decisions at times, so too does the collection itself. By making each Gym Leader—the game’s equivalent of bosses—a specialist in a certain type (or types) of Pokemon, balance in one’s party is (gradually) encouraged, and learning what’s super effective and what isn’t is often the most satisfying part of a successful match.

Which brings me to my next point: for a game series which is largely aimed at children, it is incredibly respectful of them. While there are hints and such given by NPCs throughout the game, there is no hand-holding, and challenging battles are handled the same straightforward way as easier ones. Additionally, the NPCs speak naturally, never talking down to the preteen protagonist (and by extension, the player), and fill a wide range of personalities, occupations, and ages. I believe that this honest, authentic approach is one major reason why the series is not only a big hit with children, but accessible to adults as well; Pokemon is best labeled an “all ages” series rather than a “kids” one.

I could go on. There’s the lively and exhilarating soundtrack; the Harvest Moon-esque berry cultivation; the subtle puns present in the names of several Pokemon species; the Pokemon Contests, clearly styled after dog shows and the like; the options available for Pokemon to learn abilities, evolve, and even level up outside of battle; and so on. Amazingly enough, somehow it all comes together in a tightly-packaged whole. I imagine that the multiplayer aspects of the series open it up even further, and from what I’ve seen in Ruby, this does appear to be the case. Still, it is one of those rare games with a heavy multiplayer bent where the single-player experience doesn’t suffer because of it.

From my experience thus far with Ruby, I feel that Pokemon is a game series that everyone should experience at least once. It takes the best aspects of Japanese RPGs and pulls them all together in a unique, engrossing way. Sure, it has a reputation for sameness between installments, but for most people one title should be plenty, and if there’s ever an urge to pick up another, then I see no harm in that. After all, this is what my husband did not long after I started Ruby; getting nostalgic for the game, and unable to create a second save file on the cart, he went out and got Platinum instead. His Pokedex numbers and Gym Badge collection still have to catch up with mine, though!

The Spirit of Exploration

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.

Scrap Brain Zone

Welcome to my latest project, Brain Scrap House, built (somewhat literally) on the heaping remains of okamiblog and named after a short-lived column I wrote for the similarly defunct Fantasy World XD. This blog is something of a continuation of that column, with random thoughts about video games and the culture that surrounds them.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say for this initial entry, but in the meantime, feel free to check out my regular blog. There’s also the original Brain Scrap House columns, which can be found via the “Archive” link above.

‘Til next time…