Thursday, August 29, 2013

Urban Legends

In ancient times they called it folklore.  Now, much like then, what tales you've heard (or told) depend on the region, who your friends are, what message boards you choose to frequent, the games you play and so on.  All these factors shape what crazy rumors and outlandish stories you've been exposed to.  Whether or not you believe them doesn't really matter, that fact still remains that they exist.  So, have a seat and listen by the firelight (metaphorically speaking) while I reminisce over a few I've heard.

Art courtesy of H.R. Giger
Dark Seed is a horror themed point and click adventure game.  The protagonist is a rather unassuming man by the name of Mike Dawson.  Oddly enough the character sprite and name are taken from the lead designer.  According to urban legend he had a mental breakdown sometime after the first game came out.  Interesting to consider since the in-game Mike Dawson suffers from hallucinations and bio-mechanical fever dreams brought on by the machinations of an inter-dimensional alien race.  Given the stresses associated with video game development I can see how someone might go insane.  On the other hand the real Mike Dawson denies any such event taking place.

If you have ever played Theif: The Dark Project you might initially feel like the bow is a bit under powered.  Realistically, it makes sense since a compact design means low pull tension, but ease of portability.  After completing about half the game though the player is rewarded with an upgraded sword.  So it stands to reason that the bow would eventually receive an upgrade as well, right?  Well...actually no, but that didn't stop rumors from popping up.  I've heard several version of how you get the bow upgrade, but my favorite has to be one outlandish tale claiming that if you shoot a ridiculous number three pointers with a decapitated zombie head in the basketball court hidden on the tutorial level.

The story for the original Silent Hill can be a bit difficult to understand if you had never watched films like Jacob's Ladder, Rosemary's Baby, or the TV series Twin Peaks.  Much like many players, I just wanted Harry Mason find his daughter and get the hell out of there.  Not long after the game's release a rumor spread that you could do just that.  The method was long and convoluted, requiring the player to refuel an abandoned car and drive it (something you can't actually do in the game).  Needless to say it was a lot of well wishing by PSX users who didn't want to embrace any of the five ambiguous endings to the game that actually exist.

The second most popular NPC in Dark Souls after Solaire of Astora (A.K.A. Sun-bro) is probably Siegmeyer of Catarina (The Onion-bro).  He's a likable character with a tragic story arc.  The player can take steps to keep him alive and in doing so net some rather nice rewards.  However, this knight's fate is ultimately sealed regardless of the player's actions.  For awhile though, a popular wiki for Dark Souls claimed that there was a method to save him from his seemingly unavoidable doom.  I can personally attest that this is not true having followed said instructions to the letter yet still not getting the desired result.  Part of me still wishes it were possible though and I genuinely feel sad for that chivalrous man.  

Possibly the most famous of all video game urban legends comes from Minecraft.  The story goes that people playing alone on newly created online worlds would sometimes encounter strange little pyramid structures or groves of trees completely devoid of any leaves.  Basically the kind of stuff that wouldn't be created by the random world generator.  Occasionally screenshots would be posted by someone claiming to have gotten a fleeting glance at another player using a default skin, but no name tag.  The interloper also seemed to have the ability to appear and disappear at will (similar to the, then as of yet un-introduced, Endermen).  Eventually the name Herobrine started circulating around and when fans asked the game's creator, Notch, he simply replied that it was his now deceased brother's user profile.  From then on every update of Minecraft has included the comment "removed Herobrine" from the list of bug fixes.  In a bizarre case of fantasy becoming reality it's now possible to download a mod allowing foolhardy players to build a special shrine and summon an A.I. controlled version of Herobrine into their game.  Why you'd want someone planting traps and generally terrorizing you in Minecraft is beyond me, but there you have it, an urban legend that turned out to be true after a fashion.

Those are all my stories, but if you have any good ones of your own feel free to post them in the comments section.  Now, if you will excuse me, I'm off to figure out what the pendant does in Dark Souls. *wink*

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Resident Evil Books

Awhile back I wrote about the Wing Commander novels and their relationship with the game series of the same name.  I've decided to revive the topic of video game novels to talk about Resident Evil as penned by S.D. Perry.  Before I begin though, I just want to say that I'm not going to bother with the novelizations of the movies.  Reading bad literature extrapolated from good video games is one thing, but reading poorly written novels of even worse movies is more than I can bear.  I'm also ignoring the comics.

 The Umbrella Conspiracy was the first novel and an adaptation of the first game.  To the author's credit there's a lot done here to lampshade some of Resident Evil IP's more glaring flaws.  The location of Raccoon City is moved to Pennsylvania, which matches the topography a lot better as depicted in the game.  Explanations are also given as to why such a small town has a seemingly excessive S.T.A.R.S. law enforcement unit.  Some of the characters get more fleshed out backstories, namely Rebecca Chambers and Barry Burton.  I'll go into more detail about S.D. Perry's infatuation with Bravo Teams's seventeen year old field medic later.  Sufficed to say this book clings rather closely to the events of the first game.  It is interesting to note that this particular book was written before the Gamecube remake of the original Resident Evil so it lacks the new plot elements introduced in that title.

Caliban Cove was the second novel to be released and the first to feature an original story.  The plot is a bit strange and starts off with Umbrella agents attempting to assassinate survivors of the Spencer Mansion indecent in the first game.  Personally, I found this a bit jarring since none of the Resident Evil games pitted the player up against un-infected humans (at least until Resident Evil 6).  Of course all the ex-stars members escape and we are eventually led to another Umbrella facility located in a sunken ship hidden by sea caves under an old lighthouse.  Setting appropriate, and as you can probably guess by the cover art the main POV character is Rebecca Chambers aided by a few nondescript people exclusive to the novels.  As for unique bio-organic weapons, there are T-virus infected bottom feeders called "Leviathans" and "Trisquads" which are basically like the zombies in Resident Evil 4 minus the Las Plagas parasites.

City of the Dead is an adaptation of Resident Evil 2 and by far the longest book of the bunch.  It's also the most confusingly written.  S.D. Perry seems to have struggled with precise descriptions of locations and where characters are in relation to their environment.  I'm also going to toss this out there...maybe a choose-your-own-adventure style book would have better suited this particular work.  When you get down to it one of the coolest things about Resident Evil 1 and 2 was the fact that you could play as either one of two characters, and depending on which you chose (first) the events of the game would play out differently.  Regardless, the complete absence of Hunk, the fourth survivor, makes this by far the weakest of the whole collection.  If you are at all interested in reading any of these books do not start with this one.

Underworld is the second, and last, original story penned by S.D. Perry set in the Resident Evil fiction.  It follows the events of a raid made against an Umbrella research center located in the American southwest.  Once again Rebecca Chambers is center stage.  If you are familiar with terms like "Special Snowflake" or "Mary Sue" then you have a good idea of how S.D. Perry treats the Rebecca Chambers character.  Despite being situated underground in the middle of an empty desert the setting does have one significant perk in that the facility itself is supposed to be a testing ground for Umbrella's completed bio-organic weapons.  Hence Leon, Clare, Rebecca and a few others find themselves having to fight through a series of gymnasium sized combat testing rooms made to look like dense jungle, steep mountainsides or an urban center.  A few new monstrosities make appearances as well, such as bird-like Dacs, burrowing Scorps, goat-lizard Spitters and a chameleon variant of the Hunter.  The most notable of the bunch though is Fossil, a dinosaur derived version of Tyrant.  Sadly, this Jurassic Park reject only shows up briefly at the very end of the story.

Nemesis, is a retelling of the PSX game with the same subtitle.  It also marks what I consider the highest peak for the Resident Evil franchise.  With the exception of a brief revival in Resident Evil 4, the series has been in a steady decline.  Overall this is also about as good as this collection of books get.  Conversely, it has some of the worst cover art I've ever seen (and that's saying a lot when you look at how bad the previous book covers are).  Thankfully the last two novels after this are a bit better.  Anyway, back on topic!  We learn a bit more about Umbrella's countermeasures unit, as well as how Carlos' ended up a member of this paramilitary group.  There's also a bit of revisionist history altering the demographics of Raccoon City to match the urban density shown in the game.

Code: Veronica continues the trend of video game adaptations.  Having never finished the Dreamcast title of the same name, I can't say with complete certainty whether or not the novel matches up with the game in all respects.  I do want to take this opportunity mention a side character named Trent though.  While only appearing in the books, he's basically serves as a launch pad for the plot of most of the novels.  He's an insider, working with our heroes to bring down the Umbrella Corporation from within.  It's kind of a neat idea...sort of like the G-Man from Half-Life.  The problem is we learn in the opening of Resident Evil 4 that once the United States Government found out what Umbrella was doing they quickly took steps to freeze all corporate accounts and arrest all employees.  Did I mention that the latter novels come with disclaimers on the first page regarding inconsistencies between mediums?

Zero Hour was the last Resident Evil novel I read, and while it wasn't the best, it wasn't the worst either.  Basically a retelling of the Gamecube exclusive, it follows events in the game fairly closely.  The only real criticisms I can think of that hasn't already mentioned earlier is the inherit issues surrounding prequels.  Why aren't any of the bio-organic weapons in this novel in any later games or books?  Why is Rebecca so energetic in Resident Evil 1 considering the amount of hardship she's already gone through by that point in the story?  Why don't we ever hear about Billy Coen again?  These plot holes aren't necessarily the fault of the author, just the kind of difficulties you run into when trying to tell a story chronologically before other already written tales.

I've heard people say that the Resident Evil novels are little better than straight up fan fiction, but I disagree.  The Resident Evil games, while fun to play, were never held in high regard in terms of story.  Don't get me wrong though, the games could also get pretty terrifying in places which is something the books fail to achieve entirely.  That said, I think S.D. Perry did about as good of a job as you can realistically expect.  I certainly don't regret the time I spent with these mass market paperbacks.  Would I recommend them to other people?  No, unless the only alternative were to read nothing at all.  In which case I'd say "yes," if for no other reason than to keep yourself literate.      

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Peace, Land, Bread...and Games

One of the first educational games I ever played was a simple little title called Lemonade Stand.  The idea was you had to earn money by investing in lemons and sugar to make lemonade which you would then sell at a profit.   Of course finding the pricing sweet spot per glass, as well as factors such as tomorrow's weather report, had to be taken into consideration in order to run a successful business.  Early versions didn't have an ending, but later revisions allowed the player to declare victory once they had accumulated $100 in savings.  That might not sound like a lot of cash, but keep in mind this game was meant for children growing up in the 1980s.  So, while becoming a lemonade tycoon might not sound like much to brag about, remember that the real point of this game was to learn what it's like to be a businessman (or woman) and see things through their eyes.

Well, about three decades later I've come across another video game that gives off a very similar vibe, albeit from an entirely different perspective.  Papers Please puts you in the role of a lone immigration officer assigned to a boarder check station for the fictional communist country of Arstotzka circa 1982.  Graphically the game feels like a product of that time period.  Although the sound and especially music are slightly more advanced.  There's also a keep-you-family-alive element to the gameplay that feels straight out of Oregon Trail, another educational title from the eighties.  I could go into more detail about how the game plays, but I think it would be better to just watch a video of someone skilled playing (link), or alternatively simply try it out for yourself.  The free beta/demo version is available for download here.  It's also interesting to note that the game's creator, Lucas Pope, previously made The Republica Times, another soviet era game wherein you manage the government's one and only sanctioned newspaper.

So, why do I consider Papers Please to be an educational game?  Well, frankly I feel like I have a new perspective on what it's like to work in a bureaucracy.  Pretty much anyone who has had to wait in line at an embassy, boarder check, or the DMV knows what it's like to be on the outside looking in.  However, Papers Please allows the player to view things from the other side of the window counter.  Is it fun?  I can't give you a simple answer so I will just say this, In the real world people like to escape to fantasy worlds, but what about the people that live in those fantasy worlds?  Do warriors and mages enjoy pretending to be accountants and lawyers in some dismal labyrinthine bureaucracy?  If the answer is "yes" then I think it safe to say that Lucas Pope has been to that place and he's brought one of the games they play over there back with him.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Total War Woes

Total War has been around for quite a while starting with Shogun in the year 2000 followed by Medieval, Rome, Medieval II, Empire, Shogun II and pretty soon Rome II.  On top of that there are a number of expansions which make up the franchise.  What makes these games special is their unique combination of turn based strategy and real time tactics.  Recently, I've been watching some "let's plays" of Total War games and I noticed a generally low number of views with a lot of lamenting in the comments section about the lack of interest in this long running series.  Well...I hate to say this, but Creative Assembly (the developers) keep doing the baseball of equivalent of swinging three strikes every time they step up to the plate.

Didn't see all of you standing there...twice
Strike one is the artificial intelligence.  Poor path finding during sieges, units which only respond to spam clicking, and boneheaded friendly fire are regrettable hallmarks of Total War.  Worst of all the A.I. always cheats on anything higher than the normal difficulty setting.  You'd think that with all the resources that are dedicated to pretty graphics Creative Assembly could hire a few more code monkeys to improve computer controlled factions.  That's not to say I don't like beautiful battles, but how much time do you really spend zoomed in?  Not all that much I'd wager.  Now, how much time do you spend interacting with the A.I.?  Pretty much all the time.

In Total War games S.P.R.Q. actually stands for
Spacial Perception of Questionable Reliance 
Strike two is the collective long running weaknesses of the strategic layer of Total War.  Schizophrenic diplomacy, a general shortage of common sense, and roving bands of easily defeated single army/naval units don't make for a particularly compelling gaming experiences.  Exacerbating this is the over reliance on classic RTS mechanics for base building and unit recruitment.  Let me put it this way; dark ages France did not muster armies at all like Napoleonic France did.  Yet, in Total War it's more or less the same regardless of time period.  It doesn't help that in-game economics tend to breakdown the longer you play either.

You made me spill my tomato soup
Strike three is all the recycling that goes on.  There are plenty of interesting and largely untapped eras in history that Creative Assembly could be exploring.  For example, instead of rehashing the Sengoku Period again in Shogun II why not let players take a crack at the first Japanese invasion of Korea, the First Sino-Japanese War or maybe even the Russo-Japanese War?  How about the American Civil War or Three Kingdoms China?  Alternatively, ditch historical pretenses all together and make a Lord of the Rings or, better yet, Game of Thrones title.

Creative Assembly gets a lot of flack, but it's because the fans care.  They can see the potential of this series and how it has been squandered.  Granted, the games do slowly improve.  Fall of the Samurai is by far the best game to date, but the benefits of recent refinements have been cancelled out to a degree by crudely handled DLC.  The Blood Pack is fine, but having to pay extra to unlock certain factions and units already in the game undercuts replayability and customization, two of the IP's greatest strengths.  So in conclusion "Step up your game Creative Assembly!"  I know that Total War can be something truly magnificent and you should to.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lost in Transistion

Quite a few games made in Japan never leave the shores of their homeland.  In some cases it's because the game has explicit content (such as excessive amounts of gore or eroge).  Other times it's because the game is from a genre not considered economically viable outside Japan (visual novels, dating sims, etc.).  Oddly enough titles which are especially bizarre tend to get exported overseas simply for the novelty factor.  Although it is important to note that these kinds of games are not well known even in their country of origin.

Regardless, every once and a while a Japanese game will get lost in the shuffle, slip through the cracks, or simply not receive the recognition it deserves.  Just to be clear I'm talking about quality games which for some reason or another have never gone overseas despite having merits worthy of a wider audience.  Off the top of my head there are three recent titles which come to mind.

Boku no Natsuyasumi, or "My Summer Vacation," is a self classified nostalgia adventure game.  The premise is you play an elementary school boy who leaves the big city for the first time to spend the month of August with relatives living in the countryside.  The in-game backgrounds are pre-rendered idyllic landscapes reminiscent of rural Japan in the 1970s and 80s.  Characters are polygonal, which gives the gameplay a superficial resemblance to early survival horror titles like Resident Evil or Alone in the Dark.  There are no monsters, aliens, ghosts or any other threat in Boku no Natsumi though.  Rather, you spend your time doing things such as fishing, swimming, catching bugs and exploring forest covered mountains.  It's very much a recreated slice of a little boy's life.  It might sound lackadaisical to some, but that's kind of the point.  There's no score at the end, no online leader boards, no statistics to compare against, and even mini games such as rhino beetle sumo (the original Pokemon) are more diversion than competition.  How you choose to interact with other characters can affect the way the story unfolds, but it's all refreshingly low key and understated.  So far there are four entries in the series (on PSX, PS2, PS3 and PSP respectively) with a fifth currently being developed (probably for PS4 or PS Vita).  Despite selling well in Japan, there aren't any plans to make it available internationally.

You didn't think I'd make a list like this without throwing in at least one horror title, did you?  Ao Oni, commonly translated as "Blue Demon," is basically a free Japanese indie game developed using RPG Maker XP.  While the game looks similar to a 8 or early 16-bit JRPG, it's really a superficial facade for what is a puzzle adventure title with strong horror elements.  The setup follows the classic slasher flick format of four teenagers in an old abandoned house, but instead of them being the victims of a vengeful ghost, mask-wearing maniac or the Slender Man, they are stalked by an ogre.  You might think his face looks more silly than disturbing at first glance, but trust me, when the teeth come out you'll reconsider initial impressions.  Ao Oni has gone through several revisions since it's initial release, each making enhancements to the story and scares.  This might sound strange, but there is something to be said about horror themed games with simple graphics.  Something about your brain having to fill in the blanks really opens you up to experiencing fear.  If it sounds interesting, by all means hunt it down on the net.  I think there might even be a fan translated version available for PC...but don't quote me on that.

Guran Naitsu Hisutori, literately the Japanese pronunciation of "Grand Knights History," is a PSP fantasy strategy RPG by Vanillaware.  Immediately, anyone viewing gameplay footage will be struck by the beautiful had drawn artwork and painstakingly detailed animation.  There are even some nice little stylistic touches like battlefields having a noticeably spherical curvature to them.  Lavish production values aside, the player is given control over a team of up to four characters each of which can be either male or female as well as one of three different classes; knight, archer, or mage.  Basic tactical considerations are built on a rock-scissors-paper mechanic.  That said there's a lot of other factors that come into play such as character stats, equipment, formation and so on.  There are three different kingdoms the player can ally with too which gives the world an open ended feel.  Grand Knights History also boasts a significant online component.  So, why is it this game never got exported?  Well...I'm not sure what curse hangs over the heads of the development team, but it seams like every game to come out by them is at the very end of their target platform's lifespan.  It happened to Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn, and again for Muramasa: Demon Blade on PS2.  It also looks like the same will befall Dragon's Crown for the PS3.  Essentially, Grand Knights History suffered a similar fate with PSP stepping out to make room for PS Vita.  Personally, I hope one day they will release a Vanillaware complete collection on PSN.  For now though this game is beyond the grasp of all but the most dedicated and determined fans.

Those are my three picks for this blog post, but there are many more overlooked titles; The grand dad of survival horror Sweet Home for the NES, The modern day JRPG Mother (A.K.A. Earthbound) for the SNES, Shining Force sequels for the Sega Dreamcast, not to mention most of Namco's extensive library of games.  All this and more have been denied a wider distribution.  It's a little depressing when you think about it, but at least with the help of the internet people can find out about these buried treasures if they're willing to do a little digging around.