Monday, January 27, 2014

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Saga of Nausicaä (Part 3 of 3)

Now we finally come to the purpose of this three part feature.  I apologize if it felt like too much time was spent on story and setting, but I think that it was important to cover all the elements in order to establish a clear picture of what makes Nausicaä special.

So what genre of video game would capture the look and feel of Nausicaä best?  I'm pretty sure more than a few people would choose a RPG format.  Not a bad choice.  Nausicaä does have a lot in common with certain JRPGs like Skies of Arcadia or Final Fantasy.  However, there are a couple of major problems.  For one RPG gameplay depends heavily on leveling up by killing foes, particularly monsters.  This necessity of the genre doesn't mesh well with the setting since, in Nausicaä, slaughtering lots of people would be antithetical to the message of the source material.  Plus, it's made abundantly clear that killing the giant insects of the forest is at best extremely risky and at worst tantamount to suicide.

The other major problem is the dependency of RPGs on magic to keep things interesting.  For better or worse though there is no magic in the world of Nausicaä, only relatively rare psionic powers such as telepathic communication (used more for narrative expedience rather than visual flare).  Even the younger of the two Dorok emperors, who is said to be a powerful psionicist, could only perform limited forms of astral projection and telekinesis.  An alternative that some RPGs embrace is to make sci-fi technology so far in advance of what exists in reality that it is functionally the same as magic.  Again though this wouldn't jive with the setting since the advanced technology of the old world is no substitute for natural human ability.  The elder Dorok emperor wears a special helmet that allows him 360 degrees of vision, but he still fails to spot Kushana's coup d'état until it's more or less over.  The God-Warrior can spew forth fiery death, but is difficult to control even by the one it thinks of as its master.  Even the prized secrets of the Crypt of Shuwa are the kind of technology that only extends life or creates "Heedra" (basically a kind of troll), often with body horror inducing side effects.  Any attempt to directly harness the power of the Sea of Corruption results in the "Daikaisho," a rapid expansion of growth brought on by swarms of irate insects carrying Toxic Jungle spores.  Even the Master of the Garden (arguably the single most powerful character in the manga) is only able to restore Nausicaä to health by having her rest in a special pool for an undisclosed amount of time.

For these reasons I don't think a RPG is feasible, but obviously other options exist.  How about a flight-sim or point-and-click adventure game?  Well...both capture certain aspects of Nausicaä but completely leave others out.  Side scrolling platformer or RTS are ideas that come to mind as well, but again, any such game would be so far removed from the source material it might as well be its own IP.

I think that there's really only one kind of genre capable of adequately encompassing the world of Nausicaä and that is a third person open world game.  Now this is where things get really tricky.  Unlike other titles in the genre such as Red Dead Redemption, Just Cause, or Saints Row, the gameplay would have to emphasize exploration, character interaction and survival over combat.  That's not to say players should be unarmed.  Far from it, even in the peaceful Valley of the Wind they use flash bombs and siren shell rifles to confuse and pacify giant insects.  Not to mention "fire wands" (basically toned down flamethrowers) to burn away toxic spores.  Ceramic blades are also used for a variety of utilitarian purposes.  Of course everything doesn't have to be non-violent either.  Nausicaä herself slays all of her father's murderers in the film and in the manga kills the brutish Dorok soldier, Ogil, in self-defense (not to mention several other Doroks responsible for the capture and torture of a baby Ohmu.  She even agrees to participate in a cavalry sortie with Princess Kushana in exchange for the release of Dorok women and children taken prisoner by Tolmekian soldiers.  That said, killing shouldn't be necessary for the most part, and when it is required it should be only a few for the lives of many.  Freeing slaves, saving refugees, or preventing further bloodshed are the kind of thematic actions seen in Nausicaä.

I want to stress that this need not boil down to a bunch of boring fetch quests and tedious escort missions.  For example, how about this?  The player pilots (or guides) a bumblecrow past clouds of giant insects and poisonous miasma to a crash site in the Toxic Jungle.  There the player must find survivors, salvage engines and negotiate with wormhandlers who have also staked a claim on the wreckage.  Rather than a simple pass/fail state, greater degrees of success nets more resources for the player to draw on in the form of better aircraft, new equipment, safe havens, recruitable followers, and fresh supplies, not to mention renown.

There are a huge number of interesting places to visit both old and new; the Tolmekian Capital of Talos, the Colony City of Nosimo, the Westernmost City of Epo, the necropolis beneath Pajite, the "mining" town of Semo (actually cannibalizing the hulk of a derelict starship), or the River Taria which flows deep within the Sea of Corruption.  Then there are the various locals in the Periphery too like the Valley of Sand and the Sea of Salt.  The latter of which provides fresh winds that keeps the Toxic Jungle spores at bay.

Visually, I'm thinking Valkyria Chronicles meets Journey, with moment to moment navigation similar to Zelda: The Wind Waker (swapping out sailing for flying, of course).  Rather than reducing characters to the level of cut-scene driven quest givers, I think dialogue trees with multiple outcomes and major consequences would serve the setting better (in the same vein as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Nausicaä's final confrontation isn't a generic boss battle, but rather a duel of wits with the Master of the Crypt at the end of the manga).  Much like Red Dead Redemption which eases the player into the game at the MacFarlane's Ranch, I think the Valley of Wind would be an great place to let the player learn the ropes.  The young and inexperienced wind-rider Tepa would make an excellent proxy for the player since she, like Nausicaä, can read the soul of the wind.

As for sources of inspiration, there are a number of literary works that Hayao Miyazaki himself has cited; the original Foundation trilogy by Issac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin's first trio of Earthsea novels, and Dune by Frank Herbert.  The influences of Dune are especially apparent with regards to sandworms and Ohmu, as well as Fremen and The People of the Forest.  Some of Mr. Miyazaki's own works such as the animated film Castle in the Sky or short manga Journey of Shuna are rich with concepts that could be re-purposed for a Nausicaä video game.  Of course really history works as well.  It's easy to see Nausicaa as a Joan of Arc, or Kushana as Elizabeth the I of England.  Perhaps Chikuku is a Gandhi figure, encouraging tolerance and nonviolent resistance as a tool for change.  

Ultimately the best part of making Nausicaä into a game is the chance to explore the setting and characters in more detail.  Everything from the statesmanship struggles of Kushana and Chikuku as they try to rebuild their respective nations shattered by war, to the ultimate fate of Nausicaä herself.  Did she eventually make the journey to the pure land?  And what of the proverbial gatekeeper, the Master of the Garden, whose ark-like residence lies hidden in the Goss mountain range?  Nausicaä set people on the path of reconstruction, but it is still up to each and every one of them (including the player) to restore the world to its former splendor (hopefully this time they'll be a bit wiser too).

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Saga of Nausicaä (Part 2 of 3)

The big factions in Nausicaä are two warring empires. On one side is the Doroks, a collection of 51 principalities each with its own tribal leaders. These "Holy Ones" pay homage to a pair of brothers who rule jointly as god-emperors. The father of these two established their dynasty by usurping the previous imperial family. Until that time Dorok society had not been an imperial cult, but rather less fanatical believers in an ancient prophecy:
"And that one shall come to you garbed in raiment of blue and descending upon a field of gold..."
It's also worth noting that the messiah of this prophecy is often depicted with wings of white in addition to having a small animal perched on the shoulder.

Meanwhile, the opposing side is a smaller, but more centralized classical monarchy referred to as the Empire of Tolmekia. At the head is the "Vai-Emperor" along with his mad empress, three princes and a princess. It is the ambition of the Tolmekian princess, Kushana, that acts as a catalyst for the story. Like many characters though she changes over the course of the tale, and is in no small part influenced by another princess, Nausicaä.

So, let's turn our attention to Nausicaä since she is the main character of both the film and the manga. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of Nausicaä as a kind of Mary Sue at first. After all she is an excellent pilot and fighter, as well as quick witted and wise for her years. However, it is important to stress that she is not perfect. Nausicaä is very proud and has a fierce temper. Her outlook on life also changes over the course of her adventures. When we are first introduced to her she is a reluctant soldier heading off to battle out of a sense of duty for her homeland, The Valley of Wind. Once she witnesses the horrors of war first hand though she quickly takes on pacifistic leanings and increasingly engages in altruistic acts to save the lives of those who yet remain. Nausicaä's selfless actions eventually earn her renown among the Tolmekians, and a messianic status among the Doroks. Our heroine does not eagerly embrace her new-found prestige though, in part because she is plagued by nihilistic thoughts in addition to fear over whether or not she can avoid the tyrannical tendencies that come with power. Ultimately Nausicaä is forced to make some morally ambiguous decisions in addition to concealing the truth for what she believes is the greater good.

None of the themes explored in the manga or movie fit into a simple ethical paradigm such as "Good vs Evil" or "Paragon vs Renegade." Even notions of purity vs corruption are subverted when it is revealed that the Toxic Jungle isn't actually toxic, The Earth is. The poisonous miasma is actually the byproduct of a slow cleansing process meant to eventually purify air, water and soil over a period of about a thousand years. In the film, Nausicaä believes this to be a natural evolutionary process, but in the manga it is shown that the Sea of Corruption was, in fact, engineered by humans as a last ditch attempt to save to planet. This revelation is part of a much larger overarching theme in the story that humans aren't evil, they just sometimes need to be guided in the right direction. Nausicaä is a guide for many people who encounter her and, in turn, many try to copy her example with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is the God-Warrior.

The fossilized remains of these nuclear powered bio-mechanical monstrosities are actually quite common throughout the world of Nausicaä.  They are also the direct cause of The Seven Days of Fire.  Over the course of the story it's revealed that one (possibly faulty) God-Warrior remains in a deactivated state beneath the industrial city of Pajite.  When Princess Kushana gets word of the weapon's existence she gathers a contingent of soldiers and invades Pajite seizing the war asset for herself.  In the film Kushana simply wishes to use the God-Warrior to destroy The Sea of Corruption as a form of revenge for severe childhood injuries suffered from a giant insect.  Of course the attempt is futile and the God-Warrior disintegrates shortly after activation.  On the other hand the manga has Kushana follow a much more complex path.  She was not mutilated in her adolescence and desires the God-Warrior not for revenge, but as means of securing a firm grip on the throne of Tolmekia.  Her brothers have long seen her as a threat because of her popularity among the soldiers under her command.  Kushana's father, the Vai-Emperor, shares a similar view and makes several attempts to eliminate her as a political adversary.  The Empress suffers from irreversible dementia as the result of a misdirected plot to poison Kushana.  Worse still the Tolmekian princess's aide-de-camp, Kurotowa, was secretly charged with her assassination.  Wisely, he decides to play double agent instead, fully realizing that the Via-Emperor will have him disposed of once his task is complete.  It's all very Game of Thrones, just swap out "King's Landing" for "The Viper's Nest" (an euphemism for the Tolmekian imperial court).

The God-Warrior has a much larger role in the manga as well.  Nausicaä gains dominion over it by way of an ancient device know as a "Control Stone."  Once she begins to communicate with it she learns that it is of very simple mind and purpose.  It's easy to interpret the God-Warrior as a personification of nuclear weaponry, but there's actually more to it.  Although not obvious from the manga (because it's in black and white) the God-Warrior is a dark red in contrast to Nausicaä's deep blue.  I believe that this juxtaposition is intended to work on more than just a visual level.  The God-Warrior is an immensely powerful arbitrary dispenser of justice.  It cares only for Nausicaä and has no qualms toward killing anyone else.  Compare this to the physically diminutive, but compassionate-to-all Nausicaä and you have two opposites.  More so when you consider that for all its might the God-Warrior is rapidly dying.  Rotting flesh fall from its body and the teeth (fuel cells) drop out one by one as it uses energy to fly and fight.  Worse still it emits a "poisonous light" that causes sickness and death to any living thing that lingers near it.  Nausicaä, on the other hand, is in the prime of life and gives of hope and healing to others.  Together these two feel much like a different flavor of the dichotomy of the black knight and white knight.

Kushana is an opposite to Nausicaä as well.  Not in the diametric sense, but rather like the flip-side of a coin (both are princesses after all).  Kushana is very much a creature of habit, determined to make the world a better place through righteous endeavors.  She makes enemies, but she's also pragmatic and plans ahead.  Nausicaä on the other hand is an idealist loved by all, but lacks any particular agenda save to stop what she sees as the colossal waste of life caused by hatred and violence.  Which is the better path to tread?  Well...both and neither which is what makes the characters of this story so compelling.

Stay tuned for part three where I actually talk about a video game adaptation!

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Saga of Nausicaä (Part 1 of 3)

When it comes to anime one of the premier studios in Japan is "Ghibli."  This might sound like a strange name, but it's because the word is derived from an Italian noun meaning sirocco, a warm dry Mediterranean wind that blows up from the Sahara Desert.  According to the studio's founder, Hayao Miyazaki, the name was chosen to signify a change (or hot new style) he brought to the industry.  Interesting to consider when you take into account that Hayao Miyazaki's final film before retirement was entitled The Wind Rises.

So what does any of this have to do with video games?  Not a lot sadly...brilliant as he is, Mr. Miyazaki is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to video game adaptations of his works.  But, now that he has stepped down an opportunity exists for his wonderful creations to thrive in an interactive medium.  And what better place to start than with his very first feature length film, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind.

Technically speaking Nausicaä has already been made into no less than three video games which you can read more about over at hardcore gaming 101.  However, as even the quickest of glances will reveal, these titles were pretty unremarkable and made for pre-8-bit hardware to boot.  As such I will not be discussed them in any further detail here because I'm more interested in contemplating what a modern take on a Nausicaä video game would be like.  To begin with let's examine the various elements of the setting, story, and characters.

First off, time and place.  The world of Nausicaä is set 1000 years after an apocalyptic event know as "The Seven Days of Fire" which brought an end to the "Ceramic Age" and left the earth a depleted and polluted wasteland.  While never officially disclosed TV Tropes claims that the locations seen in Nausicaä are in fact North and Central America, but based on my own research I think that the evidence points to events taking place between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.  The Valley of Wind, in particular, is situated near the boarder of what is modern day Turkey and Georgia.  How did I reach this conclusion?  Well, if you only watched the film then there's not a whole lot to go on, but thankfully there's also an outstanding multi-volume manga of which the movie covers approximately the first quarter.  I encourage anyone who thinks otherwise to look at the maps, take note of the ethnicity and languages of the cultures, as well as consider Hayao Miyazaki's previous works (especially his very first comic "People of the Desert").  Of course you can dismiss everything with the excuse that it's all fiction anyway, but such a stance is reductive to making Nausicaä into a video game faithful to the source material.

So now that we've established time and place let's examine the setting more closely.  The single most prominent feature is a vast swath of foliage known as "The Sea of Corruption," or in less poetic terms "The Toxic Jungle."  The air is clogged with a deadly miasma and giant insects which defend their habitat from any perceived outside threats.  Despite the risks, there are people who don masks and enter the Toxic Jungle in search of resources such as the molted skins of colossal pill bugs called "Ohmu."  These discarded shells are more resilient than any man-made material and are used to craft everything from armor and weapons to dwellings and aircraft.  Even the eye lenses of the Ohmu are used to make windows in lieu of ordinary glass.  Because the Sea of Corruption is in a constant state of expansion it inevitably encroaches on human habitation leading to a stead dwindling of usable land.  The result of this is reoccurring wars over increasingly sparse resources and territories.  Open conflicts are prosecuted by a mixture of traditional weapons and more modern ones.  Because Ohmu shell is capable of deflecting small arms fire it's quite common to see soldiers armed with both guns and swords.  Artillery, cavalry, tanks (actually self propelled guns), and fortifications exist in a kind of equilibrium, each having a viable role on the battlefield.  The most important asset of all though is huge aircraft capable of transporting men and material over great stretches of uninhabitable wasteland.  Additionally, avoiding prolonged exposure to miasma is desirable because people who spend too much time in the Sea of Corruption have their bodies invaded by a "hardening disease" that slowly petrifies the flesh.  It is incurable and generally fatal within a year of diagnosis.

The "Bumble Crow" (based on the real life Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant) and "Air Monitor" (basically a flying dreadnought) are the workhorses of their respective nations, but there are lesser flying machines such as gunships and even Nausicaä's "Mehve" (German for "Gull").  The key to flight is special engines made before The Seven Days of Fire.  These relics of the Ceramic Age can no longer be manufactured and their inner workings are a mystery, although it seems that they use water as fuel and have a hard limit on how much power they can produce.  For example The Valley of the Wind gunship had a top speed of around 340mph (not all that fast for an aircraft) and Bumble Crows travel even slower!  Regardless, pre-cataclysm engines are extremely sturdy and are regularly salvaged from wrecked aircraft or buried ruins of ancient cities.  The classification of aircraft seems to be based on the number of engines used:
  • Barge (no engine)
  • Gunship (one engine)
  • Brig (two engines)
  • Armored Corvette (four engines)
  • Bumble Crow or Air Monitor (six engines)
  • Dorok Flagship (eight engines)
Nausicaä's Mehve uses an engine as well, but it appears to be a smaller type of demi-engine.  As mentioned in the comic Nausicaä's  father, King Jihl, had a cloud climber with similar characteristics in addition to wind-riders of the long ago engulfed kingdom of Eftal.  Other aircraft, such as the Dorok "flying jars" handle similar to helicopters, yet have no apparent means of propulsion.

Much like horses in medieval history, engines and the aircraft built around them are a sign of rank and status.  In the Periphery each kingdom's ruling family posses at least one gunship or in the case of the Kingdom of Pagase, a battle-worn brig called "Old Soldier" (an apt name considering it has seen around two centuries of service).  Rather than face conquest by the neighboring and much more powerful Tolmekian Empire, the various Kingdoms of the Periphery have sworn oaths of fealty, vowing to commit their aircraft and crews to periodic imperial military service in exchange for nominal independence.  It's very much a feudal system mixed with World War 1 style notions of knights of the sky, except in a somewhat different tenor.

To be continued next week....

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Controversial Opinions

Well, it's 2014 and I thought it would be good to start things off with a bang.  So, what better way to do that with some manufactured controversy.  Rather than settling for something current (like everyone else) lets turn back the clock to previous generations of hardware.  So, here we go...three opinions about games; each increasingly older than the last.

First up, "Xen is the best part of Half-Life."  I think most people were hoping for an orgy of shoot and explosions like what we eventually got in the sequel, but instead had to do a lot of difficult platforming mixed in with a few tough combat encounters.  Yes, it could be frustrating to get through, but that's kind of the point.  The player is supposed to feel helplessly out of their element, trapped in a bizarre alien world filled with incomprehensible flora, fauna and topography.  It's also great because we get to see what's behind the curtain.  The "Boarderworlds" resourcing operation, war machine and command structure are all revealed.  More interesting still the alien commander, "Nihilanth," say a number of interesting things which have yet to be fully explored in the setting.

Going back to the days when a triple speed CD-ROM was considered cutting edge there was a western a western CRPG by the name of Betrayal at Krondor.  It was an innovative game in a lot of respects; 3D open world with a day/night cycle, story driven dialogue trees, and best of all no random encounters. Characters improve via actions taken in-game which is tied to a percentage based skill systems rather than some abstracted leveling up sphere grid.  Locked riddle puzzle chests containing valuable loot are a common reward for exploration.  Combat has some interesting features too in the form of a two tier hit point system.  Characters have a layer of stamina which can be lost without penalty although it cannot be fully restored barring magic or a rest in an inn.  In close combat players have the option of making a weak accurate attack or a powerful inaccurate one.  Ranged combat is also possible thanks to a tactical grid

So, what's wrong with this game?  Simply put...the graphics are terrible, and not in a Dwarf Fortress use-your-imagination kind of way.  The character sprites are poorly animated, badly pixelated scans of pictures taken of really life people wearing what appear to be cheap Halloween costumes.  Cutscenes are mostly text sprinkled occasionally with static character portraits or jerky three or four frames of action (which only serves to underline the wasted potential).  Even the CD-ROM version only improved the quality of the music score without doing anything for the visual presentation.  Conclusion: "Betrayal of Krondor is a great game ruined by awful graphics."

Lastly, is the arcade classic Dig Dug.  This cartoony little action game seems harmless enough, but conceptually "Dig Dug the most horrifying title ever published by Atari."  Think about it...the player's onscreen avatar is a miner exploring the dark, cold and claustrophobic underground by way of a handheld drill.  He can tunnel vertically or horizontally, but has to be careful because certain chunks of hard stone will collapse if undermined.  Resulting in our hero becoming crushed or trapped by cave in.  Worse still there are underground chambers inhabited by monsters which will kill poor dug with a touch or in some cases fire.

So how does he confront these horrors?  With a bicycle pump!  Yes, you read that right.  When Dug comes face to face with some nightmare from the depths he harpoons it with a pump nozzle and proceeds to inflate the creature until it explodes.  In this way Dug can defend himself, but it's very easy for him to get overwhelmed by multiple foes.  Did I mention that if Dug spends too much time underground the monsters will leave their lairs by passing through the earth via some form of osmosis only to reconstitute themselves inside Dug's tunnels.  You might think the danger and dread is worth it if there are enough gold and gems to be found, but that turns out not to be the case.  The only treasure Dug can hope to find is fruit.  Why?  I have no idea.  It would at least make a little bit of sense if it were potatoes or some kind of eatable tuber...I can only conclude that the stress Dug is under has caused him to go insane.

So, there's the three statements I wanted to make.  You might think the last is talking things a bit too far, but I'm not the only one who came to a similar concussion (link to a video containing some harsh language).  Besides, They're just my opinions, controversial as they may be.