Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Too Spooky Shopping Trip

This article has been written as part of the Critical Distance October Blogs of the Round Table. It can also be read at Digital Heaven Entertainment, here.

The scariest moment in gaming I've experienced? Accidentally saving over a near-endgame file of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I've not really played any horror games. Not because I don't want to, I've just never really gotten around to it.

Hopefully not having played the first 3 Silent Hills won't invalidate my opinions as a Person Wot Writes About Games; but until I eventually play them, there are a few times where a game has been successfully unsettling. The one that's still stuck with me is from Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.

As a series, the Shin Megami Tensei games (this is excluding Persona and other spinoffs, mind) are very thematically similar. You, a lowly human have been gifted with the technology to summon demons to fight by your side, while a ridiculous catastrophic event goes on around you. Depending on how you react to certain story choices, you gain a Chaotic/Lawful alignment (intentionally not just 'good/evil', though often it pans out to be the same).

Where Strange Journey differs is its setting - a series of twisted worlds called the Schwarzwelt. Created by demons, it represents the ills of the human condition. You play as a soldier of a global army, investigating the Schwarzwelt in an attempt to destroy it; though you quickly find yourself unable to escape.

Welcome to Sector Carina

Up to a point, each location in the game plays up a problem with humanity, with a surreal twist. A lot of these areas don't have the impact they should (which I will discuss later), but the third area, Sector Carina is meant to represent humanity's greed, being a gigantic demon shopping mall.

And you know what? It really creeped me out. Sadly, not entirely due to the game's aesthetics, but at least partially! Sector Carina was clever in being uncanny. At first look, everything does look like an ordinary shopping mall (through the filter of low-quality textures on a DS screen), but then you talk to the first NPC:

And then you look at the posters and the shop windows:

And then you pay attention to the slow, militaristic waltz used as background music:

And it settles in that this is a shopping mall with all of the pretence stripped away. Everything you could ever want is within these walls (along with a whole lot of stuff you don't), and your only company are towering urges to BUY, EAT, and CONSUME.

Relevance in a Riot

I was playing Strange Journey in August 2011, and reached Sector Carina during the time when the England Riots occurred. For those who aren't familiar, a riot broke out in Tottenham, a district of London, on the 7th of August. What had started out as a protest against police corruption and brutality in the area took a turn for the violent once someone decided to throw a bottle when the police arrived to suppress the protest. Things escalated quickly, with shops smashed and ransacked, and arson attempts. Once it started, similar riots sprang up all across London, and then into other, unrelated cities of England.

On the day they had started, I happened to already be in the centre of town, watching Croydon slowly go up in flames on BBC News. Had I not gone home when I did, the underground and bus services would have closed, leaving me stranded on Tottenham Court Road. I get home by sundown and find through Twitter that even my local high street had rioters.

While the area where I lived wasn't especially wealthy, it didn't have economic and police problems as severe as the ones in Tottenham. As I found out more about the event, it became woefully apparent that the majority of the rioters weren't causing anarchy for any kind of cause, other than their own pockets.

In a way, even though what happened is incredibly sad, I empathise. People riot in pursuit of aspirations, and ideally you'd want those aspirations to be political. However, many of us (and I'm including myself here) have aspirations that don't extend too far beyond our economic status, the next pair of shoes, the next luxury meal, the next tablet computer.

That some of us are willing to go to the lengths of destruction just to get it (along with the vague promise that you won't get caught) is actually pretty scary! It weighed on my mind, as I progressed through Carina, being told that the area was run by the demon Horkos, a glutton so dedicated, it ate an entire space craft, filled with the protagonist's comrades. Drawing a parallel between materialism and violence is heavy-handed, but it's not exactly incorrect.

It is later implied through some side-NPC dialogue that the layout of the Sector was based on a human shopping mall. This kind of M. Night Shyamalan twist made me roll my eyes, but then, the Westfield shopping mall in Stratford opened.

Retail Therapy & Theming Consistency

It's hardly likely to be the largest shopping complex out there, but I felt dwarfed by Westfield Stratford's size when I visited in its opening week. It had a casino. It had a 10-screen cinema. It had a food court that took up almost a third of the whole complex, with every kind of regional cooking speciality. It's the kind of place that would get anti-capitalists and anti-consumerists feeling violently ill, but I actually, honestly enjoy that kind of thing.

As I walk around, I recall Sector Carina and suddenly feel awkward. I make a realisation. For once, the moral soapboxing in a piece of media is about me. Funnily enough, by being very faithfully tied to the rules of what makes an Atlus JRPG, Strange Journey keeps its theme and its gameplay woefully separated. It hamstrings the entire game, really.

While I couldn't get emotionally invested with the themes of war or lust, if they'd taken the time to do something to make those ideas relevant to the player, they'd have more impact. It makes Sector Carina's effectiveness something of an accident. While the stage itself didn't do anything to make you think about greed via the game mechanics, materialistic greed is something that I can admit to having done in the past, way more than bloodthirstiness or careless environmental destruction or (sadly) wanton hedonism. Sector Carina was effective because the setting has (at least for me) some real-life parallels; not just a strawman argument of humanity.

While my experience with Strange Journey is very much down to circumstance, the aesthetic and theme of Sector Carina could still be used in other games. Commerce as Horror is something not really explored, unless you count Dead Rising (you shouldn't) or one of the stages in Illbleed (which does use greed as a mechanic, impressively). No one should experience their neighbourhood being torn apart in the pursuit of goods in real life, but they can damn sure could see it done in a game.

N.B.: You can read about the finer details of the 2011 riots at the Guardian here. The information is surprisingly extensive.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

10 Features More Games Should Include

This feature can also be found on Shadowlocked, here.

Everyone has their personal likes and dislikes when it comes to game design, and when making games for the public, a developer can't possibly please everyone. That said, there are often trends and fashions when it comes to putting features in a game, and there are definitely some features that I wish would start appearing more often in current releases.

As a small disclaimer, these personal preferences aren't at all objective. There is a long time yet before I'm crowned Ultimate Overlord of Game Design. And I'm not saying all games have to include these features - they are the sprinkles on top that could make a solid game even better.

1. Local Multiplayer
Local Multiplayer on Mario Party N64...
I grew up playing games designed for 'friends on the couch' style gaming. My childhood was filled with many evenings of Snowboard Kids and Mario Party on the N64. These days, because online play is incredibly prevalent, playing with strangers on the internet takes precedence over anyone in the room with you. It worked well for Journey, but when there are games like SSX that don't offer Split-screen play, something is horribly wrong.

2.The Non-Violent Option
Sure, breaking ribs is great, but must we always revert to violence Batman?
So you're a paragon of virtue, and being attacked by thugs. Sure you could just impale them with three feet of steel, but you're 'the good guy', so simply cracking all their ribs and leaving them to the elements is the obvious humane choice. Batman: Arkham City and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both do this, and it's a little unsettling. If I'm to be given the option of non-lethal force, I'd like to not have to hospitalise half the population, thanks.

3. Theming With a Meaning
The upcoming Watch Dogs concerns internet security. Should more games have fixed meaning?
With the push for video games to be considered an art form and not just entertainment, games are going to have to be 'about' something. Not just "This is a game about being a cool guy with awesome powers", but actually discussing something relevant to real life. Better yet, let the player interact with a meaningful topic through the game play. The soon to be released Watch Dogs is very much about Internet security. By placing you as a character who's job is to hack into other people's lives, you're going to think a lot more about how you handle your real life internet affairs.

4. Beautiful in Any Body
Feeling a bit dog-rough? Well Saints Row allowed you to show that through your character customisation...
A popular inclusion in many games of this generation is character customisation. On paper it's a good idea - you can immerse yourself in a game even further by having a representation of yourself - but often the options are rather limited. Which isn't really a problem if you're an average-looking white dude, but it can be a bit disappointing for everyone else. The Saints Row series is very notable for how it accommodates all body types (and genders!) to a ridiculous extreme, and it's something other games with customisation should really look into.

5. Gotta Collect 'Em All
You just HAD to have them all. Damn you Pokemon...
I never grew out of my Pokémon phase. It's sad, but true. What kept me coming back was the immense number of team combinations I could come up with, and the effort put into all of the monster designs. It's the same traits that has me hooked on Magic: the Gathering, too. Collecting and customisation is a tried and tested way to hook an audience, and it's way less insidious than the Skinner Box techniques that games like World of Warcraft employ to keep you playing.

6. A Grey Matter
It's so stale when a game tells you that your actions are either unquestionably just or pure evil. It's a weird illusion of choice when really a better story can be told without forcing such Black-and-White morality. Catherine does a good job of having a personality quandary without it necessarily being about morality. Better yet, NieR is a title that at its very core is about subverting your feelings as to what's right or wrong.

7. In With The New
CoD: Modern warfare 3 was the 8th installment of Infinity Ward's Call of Duty series. How much is too much?
It's something that plagues all media, not just video games, but endless sequels feel really restrictive and stagnating. Some of the best games have the benefit of not having to be tied to a canon. Platinum Studios (the guys behind Bayonetta and Vanquish) have deftly avoided making proper sequels to their own Intellectual Property; and it lets each game speak for itself.

8. Mytholo-VG
Shin Megami Tensei - full of mythological fun
Very circumstantial, but I just love it when, if a game has to source from world literature and culture, it goes all out in its adaptation. The menagerie of mythological beasts and deities in the Shin Megami Tensei series keeps me coming back game after game. Of course, shallow or lazy insertions are not favoured. More Okami and less Smite, please.

9. Micro, not Macro
Games like The World Ends With You proved that games don't have to have realistic sizing to work
Sandbox games with large explorable worlds are definitely popular ('Skyrim' will show up in the Oxford English Dictionary at this rate), but I've always found them a little unsatisfying. For all the landscape, the inhabitants - especially ones that aren't plot relevant - feel weak and soulless. I'm not easily immersed in my video games, but the game worlds I hold the most dear aren't the largest, but put loving detail into every inhabitant and the lives they lead. One of the many things that made The World Ends With You my favourite game.

10. Vampires
There's something about the blood-suckers that are so...appealing. Castlevania taught us that.
For real. Way cooler than zombies. You can't argue with Castlevania.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (3DS)

This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.

As I've said in the past, the Kingdom Hearts games are a slave to their narrative. Regardless of your opinions on whether the plot of the series is any good or not (It's not very good); there are now 7 games all part of the same story - of which Dream Drop Distance is the latest in terms of both release and chronologically. To properly appreciate a new game in the series, it almost requires a working knowledge of the previous entries. And that's a bad thing.

©Square Enix

KH3D tries to mitigate this with in-game reference material and flashbacks to the game's past events - but to the newcomer, the convoluted path that leads plucky anime teens Sora and Riku to an all-important quest that involves 'diving into the dreams of sleeping worlds' is confusing, and ultimately feels irrelevant. It's almost as if Square Enix want you to ignore the overarching plot altogether, which may really be for the best.

See, it's not the narrative that has made the Kingdom Hearts series so enjoyable, it's all about spectacle and satisfaction. The spectacle of exploring bright and detailed worlds, and the satisfaction of weighty and involved combat.

In regards to the spectacle, Square Enix definitely took the time to use the 3DS' graphical abilities as effectively as possible. The 3D is strategically used to be more noticeable in cutscenes than gameplay, so while battles do benefit from the depth-of-field, they won't strain your eyes.

The series staple of exploring multiple Disney franchises is of course present, and although they all have shared design aspects to get everything looking cohesive, they're also incredibly distinct through set-pieces and colour use. The clean, geometric and faintly pulsing landscape of the Tron Legacy world caught my interest in ways entirely other to the soft golds, rich purples and towering buildings of the Hunchback of Notre Damme world.

In regards to gameplay satisfaction, every sequel to Kingdom Hearts series has improved on the base mechanics of the original in some way. To those who have played Re:coded on the DS or Birth by Sleep on the PSP, you'll already be at home with the basic setup, but KH3D adds three new (notably huge) features: Parkour, Pokémon, and Narcolepsy.

The opening stage quickly introduces parkour - or 'Flowmotion' as the game insists on calling it. This allows you to slide along rails, swing around poles and spring yourself off walls, all of which gives you incredible freedom of movement and new context-sensitive attacks. The wall-springs work out to be rather imbalanced in the long run, as you quickly find you can use it to scale walls of any height, and you can accidentally trigger it if you try to dodge roll too close to a wall.

Instead of classic Disney characters assisting you as party members, you can summon friendly versions of the enemy 'Dream Eater' monsters you battle throughout the game. The Dream Eater system is very robust. Every monster has its own abilities and AI patterns; they unlock special abilities for you via simple 'skill trees'; and there are even Nintendogs-style minigames for the cuteness factor. The part of me that never grew out of loving Pokémon adores this addition, but it's a shame that because of this system, I can never fight alongside the main characters of each world.

To keep with the theme of 'sleep and dreams' beyond just the plot and the game title, sleep even affects the player characters. The protagonists Sora and Riku are playable in tandem - both exploring the sleeping worlds, but in separate realisations. However, they (for vaguely explained reasons) cannot be awake at the same time. As you play as one character, you'll see a 'Drop Meter' that acts as a timer until they spontaneously fall unconscious, and he counterpart takes over. This can happen literally any time outside of menus and cutscenes. Bosses suddenly become a lot more harrowing when it's against a time limit.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance makes some undeniable design faux-pas. The ability to scale any surface trivialises platforming. Raising Dream Eaters eventually becomes more time consuming than the main combat. The idea of using theming as a limit on you feels just... wrong. And yet, that it keeps the gameplay of the series solidly intact, and still dares to try new ideas and push things even further. And I've gotta give it props for that.

Don't be a stranger - gaming with new housemates

This article can also be found at the Yorker, here.

Dealing with new housemates is difficult. They probably won't clean, they're going to keep you up all hours with music you hate, and lord help you if you let them borrow anything of yours. But unless you can bank on getting your daily dose of human interaction elsewhere, you'll probably want to get to know your housemates better.
And what better means than with video games? (Well, there are lots of better means, but I digress.)
It's very easy to default to FIFA, Call of Duty or similar when thinking about multiplayer household gaming, but those options are a rather limiting - not everyone has a taste for football or first person shooters, so here are a few suggestions to add strings to your friend-making bow.

Mario Kart - Multiple Nintendo Systems

An obvious suggestion, but a good one. Available on any and every Nintendo console post-SNES, you'll struggle to not find it in one form or another. The quality between games is variable (Mario Kart DS is the best one), but in the context of just playing with friends, it matters little. As a bonus, it's incredibly easy to turn it into a drinking game! Personally I like this rule set (should work with all incarnations, works best with Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and onwards):
  • Start a multiplayer race, with 4 tracks picked at random.
  • While racing, any time you are hit with a Red Shell or better, take a drink.
  • At the end of the race, the person who came first (out of the players, computer racers don't count) does not take a drink, 2nd and 3rd place drink once, and 4th place drinks twice.
  • Repeat for all races in the set. At the final standings, 2nd and 3rd place drink twice, 4th place finishes their drink.
  • Drink responsibly. If you end up throwing up I have lost all respect for you.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 – PS3 & 360 (Or just fighting games in general)

Fighting games work out to be perfect group entertainment (since it's interesting to watch as well as play), but player skill can be a problem. Two good players competing is dramatic, and two beginner players competing is a great laugh, but if a skilled player is pitted against someone new, the inevitable curbstomping is satisfying to no one (unless the skilled player is a sore winner). MvC3 is a good bet for its easily recognised cast, bright, frantic aesthetics, and a 'simple mode' control scheme for those who aren't confident in their fireball-throwing ability. If it's a game with a large cast, select characters by theme (and take suggestions from those watching to be inclusive!) Some suggestions:
  • Pick a character who went alone to the high school prom.
  • Pick a character who has less than £50 in their savings.
  • Pick a character who has a low tolerance for alcohol.

Kirby's Adventure Wii

Yep. The cutest video game mascot to ever exist is entirely made for Co-Op play, and Kirby's Adventure Wii is the most recent and splendidly made addition to the series. While not a difficult game, it's built around being played by 4 people of any skill level - so anyone can have a blast. And if you're so inclined - enough means to be an evil dick to the other players (not recommended for friend-making). Plus, Kirby is both super cute and super violent in equal measures, so everyone has something to love!

Borderlands & Borderlands 2 – PS3, 360 & PC

If you absolutely must play a game where you ventilate everyone you encounter, Borderlands is enough of an accessible and unusual choice where you can rope in those who would be less likely to play a shooter. Taking on concepts of stats and skills from RPGs, you can work your way across the wasteland with a good weapon, even if your aiming isn't up to snuff. The sequel (released September 21st, just in time for the start of the University year) even has a 'Best Friends Forever' mode that offers skills and special abilities to aid those who are new or terrible at the genre. Personally, that's a godsend.

Free-To-Play Online Games

Okay, hear me out. In situations down the line where you don't have the space at your place to host a gathering, your schedules don't often sync with your friends, or you just don't feel like getting dressed; online gaming is a great way to unwind and still connect with your friends. You need not play a game so demanding of your time and money like World of Warcraft (not that it needs saying); there are plenty of easy to download and play free titles to play in a weekend or a week of free time. The gaming service Steam has a range of free-to-play games (my personal favourite being Spiral Knights), but there's always some cheerful, freshly translated Korean title to try out; and if you can co-ordinate a few friends to join you on your safari, you're bound to have some memorable experiences. MMO Grinder does in-depth reviews on free-to-play games if you need detailed info.