Friday, May 22, 2015

Of Babies and Bathwater

It probably doesn't come as any surprise that there are piles and piles of paperback novels with the potential to be adapted into interesting video games.  The Witcher series is one of the most famous examples, but for most works of fiction, nobody has even bothered to snatch up the rights yet, let alone make a video game adaptation.  The reasons can vary a great deal, but usually it comes down to some sort of obstacle that would keep the property from having anything more than niche appeal.  Allow my to illustrate...

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson was written way back in 1907, but is set in the distant future.  The sun has burned out and on the surface of the Earth the atmosphere has all but bled away.  What remains of humanity has gathered together in a colossal four-sided pyramid structure located at the bottom of a deep vapor-filled chasm.  Inside "The Last Redoubt," as it is known, are lower levels dedicated to agriculture and infrastructure (some of which is well below the ground).  The middle portion contains a number of "cities" on different levels, while the top is occupied by a scholastic order dedicated to observing and recording all that happens outside in great detail.  The protagonist of the story is, of course, one such individual, but is special in that he is gifted with a rare form of telepathy that allows him to get in contact with a similarly gifted girl living a "Lesser Redoubt" far to the north.  Sorry, but the princess is in another castle.  Worse still the smaller pyramid's power source is failing.  Barring extreme circumstances though, nobody leaves The Last Redoubt because of its self-sufficiency combined with the fact that it's constantly besieged by all kinds of monstrosities, including six monolithic "watchers," which maintain a constant vigil.  Previous Nintendo jokes aside, the setting feels more like a sci-fi version of Demon's Souls or Dark Souls than anything involving Mario.  People who do leave the safety of the great pyramid don armor and wield a kind of melee weapon called a "diskos," basically a cross between a rotary saw, battleaxe and lightsaber.  Once players rescue the damsel in distress though I think gameplay would shift to something more akin to Ico or The Last of Us.  So, why hasn't this fictional property ever been made into a game?  Well, aside from geothermal activity such as erupting volcanoes, The Night Land is pretty dark.  Metaphorically that isn't a problem, but literally speaking, it is.  The frequent mention of sporadic fire-pits and fire-holes in the text gives the impression that the landscape of this world has more in common visually with a starscape than anything else.  Imagine a vast open world like Skyrim, but with the lighting level of the Tomb of Giants.  Personally, I'd be down with exploring ancient ruins and wrecks lost to time in pitch-black dried up ocean beds, volcanic badlands, or forests of moss and fungi.  However, I think most people would quit playing the moment they realize that adjusting the brightness on their monitor does nothing to improve on-screen visibility.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay is a low fantasy novel set in not-Italy.  I'm serious, the name of the peninsula where everything takes place is "The Palm," because the topography looks vaguely similar to a hand print (you know...just like how Italy looks kind of like a boot...).  Anyway, this fictional landscape is being fought over by two sorcerer-kings and one of the provinces falls under a powerful curse designed to slowly erase the culture of that region from living memory.  The pseudo-medieval trappings combined with a lack of elves, orcs, or hobbits might invite comparisons to Game of Thrones, but the truth is Kay has a somewhat different focus than G.R.R. Martin.  Sure there's a big bloody battle at the end, torture devices called "pain wheels," a fair amount of intrigue, and a sex scene or two, but all that plays second fiddle to relationships between the various characters and the thoughts running through their heads.  Pretty much all of Kay's fantasy works are similar in this regard, placing emotional spectacles over physical ones.  This might seem to make his work well suited to an adventure game.  Especially since attempts by Telltale Studios to incorporate action into titles such as A Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead have had less-than-stellar results.  So, what's the hang-up?  Simply put, the prose in Tigana are largely dedicated to complex feelings and emotions that don't translate well to a visual medium.  Certain paragraphs could be boiled down to a carefully animated facial expression or particular kind of body language, but much of what makes his works interesting would be lost in transition.  Perhaps more could be retained by resorting to internal monologues.  However, I don't think that's a very elegant solution to the problem.  Stories told one way don't work when told another way if they're unable play to their strengths.  In the case of Tigana, too much would be lost, or perhaps I should say, forgotten.

La Horde du Contrevent or "Horde of the Counterwind," when translated to English, is a French science fiction novel by Alain Damasio.  Published in 2005, it's supposedly regarded as one of the top twenty sci-fi novels written in that language.  Not being fluent in French, the particulars are a bit difficult for me to fully grasp.  Based on what I can gather though, the story takes place on a desolate windswept world.  Gales can (and often do) become so strong that getting from "point A" to nearby "point B" is oftentimes a major endeavor.  In order facilitate ease of movement, people travel in formations that help break up the force of the winds (somewhat similar to how migrant birds travel in an aerodynamic delta-V over long distances).  It's actually a fairly intriguing idea that could lead to some unique gameplay experiences.  Apparently folks aren't quite sold on the concept though because, unlike the previous two examples, there was an attempt to Kickstart a video game based on this particular IP.  The title was Windwalkers, and it failed to even make it halfway to its funding goal.  I think the lack of support was understandable given the unfamiliarity of...well...everything.  The original novel has only been partially translated to English, and starts off in-media-res with a large cast of characters using jargon unique to the setting (there's a glossary of terms which is nice, but still...).  Talk of a movie and comic book adaptation in the works strikes me as a case of trying to do too much too quickly.  The property really needs to establish itself with a proper paperback/Kindle release of an English version of Alain Damasio's novel before attempting to migrate to other forms of media.  All the same, I wish the creative team behind the game all the best.  Hopefully they will find success in their future endeavors before the concept is blown away by someone else's derivative work.

Normally, I'm the kind of guy that thinks art should be done for art's sake, but in the case of the three above examples the practical part of my brain has to acknowledge that some obstacles are either insurmountable or so effectual that to "overcome" them would ruin the appeal of the IP in the first place.  That is, unless somebody can come up with an exceptionally clever solution.  What?  Don't look at me!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Silence of the Hills

It appears that Konami is making its exit from the video game industry so I'd like to take a moment to talk about what once was one of their premier franchises, Silent Hill.

Most fans of this long running series consider the second installment to be the best of the bunch, but (having played them in chronological order) I consider the first to be the most interesting.  That's coming from someone who has played the first, second, third and fourth mainline entries to completion (plus I even got a number of alternate endings).  The fifth, I only watched an LP of on Youtube and while it wasn't very good overall there were a few bits I rather liked.

The original Silent Hill on the PSX was kind of a shock for me.  Having been used to Resident Evil style survival horror games, I was caught off-guard by the way the game was presented.  The story was also quite cryptic, and difficult to follow, since I wasn't familiar with a lot of the design influences at the time such as the films "Jacob's Ladder" and "Rosemary's Baby," the TV series "Twin Peaks," or the Steven King novella "The Mist."  Only after I had read a plot FAQ by the aptly named "President Evil" did I really start to get an idea of what the game was all about.

Silent Hill 2 took the series in a somewhat different (although not unwelcome) direction.  The scorched and mutilated imagery of the first game was replaced by feelings of decay and atrophy.  Little did I know at the time that this vibe would be emblematic of the sequels as a whole in terms of quality.  I get that the environments and enemies were intentionally designed to reflect the inner psyche of the protagonist (and that cool).  However, I felt the moment to moment gameplay suffered slightly for it.

Silent Hill 3 was an attempt to meld the design philosophies of the first two games into a single entity.  The result was unfocused and, while it had some good ideas, things failed to gel into a cohesive whole.  Take, for example, the premise of the original game (find your daughter) or the second (find your wife), and compare it to the third.  It doesn't seem to be a fully realized concept by comparison.  The player spends the first half of the game wandering around a shopping mall and subway without really having a clear goal.

Silent Hill 4: The Room was an interesting new direction for the series.  The fear factor was amplified considerably for me because I was living in an apartment nearly identical to the protagonist's in the game at the time.  The references to films such as "Event Horizon" and "The Cell" were nice touches, but the presence of ghosts felt out of place to me.  My understanding is The Room was originally intended to be an entirely separate horror game that got re-purposed as sequel for the Silent Hill franchise.

From there on out, I've pretty much lost touch with the IP.  As far as I'm concerned there isn't much more that can be done with that small town (which has an obscenely large hospital for some reason...) by the lake.  Also, a big part of what makes horror effective is fear of the unknown.  At this point Silent Hill is a far too well understood property to really surprise fans, and any drastic changes to the formula would render the result no longer a Silent Hill game.  So while part of me laments the cancellation of Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima's joint venture into the pluralization of the game's title, I think these two talented individuals have other (and probably better) outlets for their creative energies.  Still, it's a bummer that P.T. got de-listed from PSN....

Friday, May 8, 2015

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

I'm a big fan of the dark fantasy action RPGs collectively known as the Souls series.  So much so I even went so far as to earn the platinum trophy for Dark Souls (no easy feat, I assure you).  As you can imagine, when Dark Souls 2 came out I was very interested in playing it.  However, I knew the game had DLC in the works, so I withheld my enthusiasm.  You see...I made a mistake with Dark Souls.  I played it so much that by the time the DLC for that game finally became available, I didn't have the heart to go back again for yet another playthrough.  Hence, for Dark Souls 2, I've only recently started playing it.

Scholar of the First Sin, as this definitive version of the game is called, has a lot to see and do.  Then again, for someone who already played the original PS3/Xbox360/Dx9 release and DLC as it came out, I doubt this new PS4/Xbone/Dx11 version is worth the price tag (unless you happen to be a truly obsessed with the series).  For someone like me though, who has yet to go adventuring in the world of Drangleic, it's a blast.  The only problem is I'm not sure that I'll be able to really enjoy Bloodborne after I'm done with Scholar of the First Sin.

That might sound like a strange thing to say considering that Bloodborne is very much an evolution of the Souls formula, and thus generally superior to previous entries in the series.  The thing is though, despite being a "next gen" title the loading sections are ten to twenty times longer and the frame rate is cut in half.  this sounds like nitpicking, I know, but Bloodborne is a faster paced game than Dark Souls 2, with a great deal of emphasis on dodging (something I find a lot easier to pull off at 60fps than 30).  Not to mention the inevitably frequent deaths associated with From Software games means exacerbated aggravation brought on by spending an excessive amount of time staring at loading screens.  Forget the character, I'm the one who's about to max out their frenzy bar!  Jokes aside, there is one other fundamental issue I have with Bloodborne in it's current state it has a certain lack of content.  Don't get me wrong, what there is in the game is of the highest quality, but everything (from art assets to NPC storylines) feels a bit slim either in terms of breath or depth.  Granted, From Software is a relatively small developer  with limited resources to draw upon.  Then again, for pretty much the same reason, I think there will be DLC down the road.

I have two swords.
One for each of you.
What I'm really hoping for though is an eventual PC port.  I don't think it would be particularly hard to pull off given the similarities between the PS4 and PC architecture.  Plus, having to buy a PS4 and PSN subscription to fully enjoy Bloodborne feels a bit scummy...yes, I know both are a good deal, but not everyone has that kind of money to throw around.  In my case too, a PS4 is a bit redundant given I have a mid-range PC more or less equivalent to the PS4 in terms of processing power.  The online play is free to boot (which is good for me because I often go months at a time without playing games multiplayer).

A lot of folks on the internet keep saying that Bloodborne is going to stay a PS4 exclusive, but I think there's a decent chance that it will find it's way to other platforms eventually.  After all, in Yharnam they say blood is more intoxicating than alcohol, but in the game industry I think money trumps them both.    

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Long Time Ago...

...I stopped caring about Star Wars, and when it comes to video game adaptations of the property there's far more garbage than gems.  Even well regarded entries in the franchise such as Knights of the Old Republic never really grabbed me.  I did enjoy some of the Atari 2600 titles though and there is one Star Wars game in particular that stands out in my mind as being exceptionally good - Tie Fighter.

Before I continue, I should mention that Tie Fighter is actually a sequel to X-Wing (which in turn was based on a series of WW2 flight sims also made by LucasArts).  Both of the Star Wars games aimed to capture the feel of the space battles seen in the movies, but while X-Wing barely managed to emulate the Battle of Yavin, Tie Fighter was able to push things closer to the Battle of Endor.  Tie Fighter also improved on its respective genre in many fundamental ways; a special hotkey to target threats to a particular ally greatly improved situational awareness, matching speeds with targets at the press of a button made dogfights a lot more exciting, and the ability to call in reinforcements at any time gave players a kind of level-by-level easy mode option.  The last, in particular, was something X-Wing sorely needed.  Personally, I hit brick wall with regards to the infamous "Redemption Run" mission about halfway through that game, but had no such problems with Tie Fighter.  Partly, it was because of better mission design, in addition to the fact that the Galactic Empire has the numbers and firepower to make friendlies genuinely useful in combat.  Sure, I would always get a disproportionately large amount of kills, but at least half of the total enemy ships destroyed on a mission wouldn't be by me.  In X-Wing, and most other flight-sims for that matter, the player always has to be the big damn hero, which really just means wingmen are useless.  Not so in Tie Fighter, you're a cog-in-the-warmachine (it just so happens that you an especially important one).

The audio/visual presentation was also quite impressive for the time.  Music changed dynamically based on the ebb and flow of battle.  Sound effects matched those in the films quite well, and provided important feedback to the player.  The graphics engine also boasted a Gouraud Shader that allowed the crude polygonal models used in the game to appear much sleeker than they actually were.  Compared to X-Wing the number of flyable fighter craft doubled from three to six (not counting expansions).  This put the game on par with all time greats such as Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi.  Although even Tie Fighter would one day be surpassed from a technical standpoint by Freespace 2, I always had a soft spot for the design of spacecraft in the Star Wars setting.  Here too Tie Fighter is no slouch, having an impressive variety of different vessels ranging from rarely seen precursors like the Z-95 Headhunter to late model classics like the B-Wing.

I'm sure there are some folks who will read this blog post and disagree with my assessment of Star Wars video games.  That's fine.  My tastes in genres tend not to jive well with the mainstream.  Unfortunately for me, that also seems to be true for the people who make Star Wars games.  Case in point, there's a new Battlefront in the works, but the space combat element seems to have been remove entirely.  You'd think some developer would be coming out with a Star Wars themed space combat flight-sim especially given the popularity of the newly released Fantasy Flight tabletop game entitled "Star Wars: Armada."  Alas, nothing has been announced.  Compared to others perhaps my interests, when it comes to Star Wars video games, are in a galaxy far, far away.