Friday, May 26, 2017

Needs More

Having watched some gameplay footage for the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of War, I've been pondering over the large number of video game developers who push their concepts out half-baked and, due to poor profit margins, never get the chance to improve on their ideas with a sequel.  I'm not just talking about buggy launch titles or the whole early access scene.  What I really mean is games that straight up need more to them.  Let me see if I can explain a bit further by picking out a few examples from this console generation.

Event[0], if you're not familiar with it, is a first-person adventure game in which you spend the majority of your time interacting with a computer A.I. via text inputs.  The two of you are stranded on a starship drifting aimlessly around Europa.  Over the course of the game it becomes apparent that the crew are all dead or gone, but, as a climatic ending twist, it turns out that one member of the crew uploaded their consciousness into the computer system and is constantly vying with the A.I. for control of the ship.  Throughout the game this dueling of personalities doesn't come to light except in the form of odd little glitches in the A.I.'s behavior.  Too me, it feels like a lost opportunity to inject some real tension into the game.  The player could be put on the spot as they try to unravel the mystery of what happened by forcing them to work with, and compromise between these two competing entities (a "friend triangle" if you will).  There could have been all kinds of tension, deception and outright lies going on, as well as a hefty dose of HAL9000 style paranoia.  Alas, what we ended up with was basically Dr. Sbaitso with better graphics and bit more story.
Another example is the Order 1886.  Critics have rightfully panned this game for it's relatively short playtime, bland cover-based shooting, and bog-standard (not to mention highly anachronistic) weaponry.  Where they really dropped the ball though is in the story department.  The setting allowed for an a lot of interesting possibilities, or at the very least some tongue-in-cheek humor.  Instead, we have a jumbled mess of inconsistencies, nonsense, and plot holes conveyed with the utmost severity - nowhere does anyone smile, or even try to crack a joke.  Ostensibly, the titular Order exists to fight the threat of werewolves (and possibly vampires), but aside from two quicktime event boss battles (the second of which is pretty much an exact repeat of the first) we shoot it out against a bunch of ordinary people packing guns.  Maybe if the game had more adventure elements, or some puzzles, it would have elevated itself above a glorified Gears of War copycat tech demo.

Last up is a double shot, or rather two games which individually are not good, but combined together might have been something special.  Specifically, I'm talking about No Man's Sky and Mass Effect: Andromeda.  The former has a severe deficit of story and player motivation, while the latter boasts it has a whole new galaxy to explore, but only allows the player to land on an handful of worlds.  If these two teams had been folded into one project they might have complemented each other.  The No Man's Sky team would have brought the breadth, while the Mass Effect team would have provided the depth.  As is, both lack what the other has...well, aside from a capable animation team..both were kind of lacking in that particular department...then again so is the Farm Simulator series...

A good perspective to take during the pre-production phase for any video game dev team would be from a place of interactivity.  If the answer to the question, "what do you do?" is ultimately "not much," then I think it would be wise to reconsider the approach.  After all if there isn't a lot of meaningful input from the player then why not just turn the game into a novel or movie instead?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fictional Games

When it comes to video games making cameos in movies and television there's really only two categories; either it's an actual game (such as Shadow of the Colossus in the film "Reign over Me"), or it's a game made from scratch to serve as a set prop.  Obviously the latter is preferable from a licensing standpoint.  However, there are some bizarre instances of these fake games turning into actual games people can play.  The text-parser adventure game seen in the Tom Hanks film "Big" (playable here), and "The Last Starfighter" arcade cabinet are two such examples.  The most outstanding purveyor of this phenomenon though has to be the long-running animated TV series - The Simpsons.

It's a funny thing to think about considering there are numerous licensed video games for the franchise (including a four-player-side-scrolling-beat'em-up arcade game).  While at the same time over a dozen made-up games have appeared on-screen.  Many have just been background decorations, but there are six in particular that are prominent enough to be worth mentioned here.

Kevin Costner's Waterworld (no relation to the actual Waterworld movie tie-in game for the SNES) made a brief appearance when Milhouse gives it a try at the local video arcade.  Apparently, the machine takes forty quarters (10 USD!) to play, and results in a "game over" screen for no reason after a few seconds of the player character walking left to right.  This opening segment is meant to be a one-off joke poking fun at the film's 175 million dollar budget (due to wasteful spending and difficulties associated with shooting a movie off the coast of Hawaii).  The humor didn't work for me, in this case, because I personally think "Waterworld" isn't really that bad, and while it was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release, many summer blockbusters have exceeded the 200 million dollar mark since.

Escape from Grandma's House is another arcade title that honestly feels a lot like a 2D pixel-art version of Alien: Isolation.  The basic premise appears to be avoid the monster (in this case, Grandma) by hiding or using weapons found in the environment.  During the brief time we see the game in action, Bart uses a wall mounted shotgun on Grandma which, surprisingly, doesn't phase the old lady much.  On the plus side it does net him some points (displayed on a scoreboard in the upper right-hand side of the screen).  Aside from grandma, there appears to be other hazards including deadly mothballs hiding in the closet.

Hockey Dad is a one-vs-one fighting game in which the rivals are a pair of bad-tempered fathers.  While watching a junior league hockey match one parent makes the comment, "Your kid sucks!"  Thus, begins the brawl which inevitably ends in one of the two combatants down in a bloody heap on the ice while the winner is hauled off to jail.  It's mildly funny, although the main reason I like this segment is the indirect callback to early hockey-themed sports video games that featured embedded fighting mechanics.

Bonestorm is, as far as I can tell, a parody of Mortal Kombat.  Aside from the fact that it's a 2D fighting game, the biggest similarity is the combatants (they look like Goro clones except with six arms each instead of four).  We only see it in the form of a Christmas advertisement, but sequels to this fictional game pop-up in the background of later episodes, providing a sense of continuity which doesn't normally exist in The Simpsons.

The next title is an unnamed home console game we see Grandpa Simpson attempting to play with his grandson, Bart.  The game itself looks vaguely reminiscent of Asteroids, but the actual gameplay reminds me of Star Raiders.  The humor comes from Bart's frantic attempts to advise his grandfather on how to play the game, a task the elderly man is not up to given the amount of stuff happening on-screen.  That said, it looks like the kind of game I would have totally loved when I was eleven.

Unlike previous examples which are single-scene featurettes, this final entry is the subplot for an entire episode.  The name of the game is Super Slugfest, a homage to Punch-Out!! for the NES with one big difference; A two-player-mode.  The key plot point of the episode involves Homer going to the Noise Land video arcade so he can learn how to get better at the game under the tutelage of a child who has mastered it.  Typically Homer is depicted as being bonehead stupid, but here is a rare exception to that trend because upon returning home he proceeds to thrash his son, Bart, at the game when every time up until then it has been the other way around.  Unfortunately for Homer, the TV gets unplugged before he can deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce.  Subsequently, Bart announces his retirement (as the undefeated champion), denying his father the catharsis of just one victory.

These final two examples struck a chord with me in that I've always had the utmost respect for (grand)parents who go out of their way to enrich themselves in the hobbies of their children (despite not having any person interest).  The common theme of the son surpassing the father is something that exists in virtually every form of competition, but here it highlights a special generational gap.  Baby Boomers didn't have access to games growing up, but Generation Xers did.  Now, with the millennials starting to have children of their own, gaming has become nearly ubiquitous across multiple generations.  Overall, I'd say that's a good thing.  Even so, it's also nice to see a piece of media that chronicles the cultural history divide of video games in it's own quirky way.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lord of the Wasteland

When it comes to certain games I'm a bit behind the times.  Case in point, I've only just got around to finishing the Mad Max game by Avalanche Studios.  Overall I enjoyed my time spent wandering the wreckage-strewn Australian outback, but I can't help think there might have been a better way to approach the franchise.  It seems like when it comes to adaptations of this setting, they tend to come in two varieties; micro or macro.  The former is the more common with examples like the Fallout series, Rage, Wasteland, and The Last of Us.  They're games focused on a single individual or small group of people trying to endure in the aftermath of a global catastrophe.  The latter is the rarer of the two and is a bit harder to find examples for.  There's a Crusader Kings II mod entitled After the End which features a post-apocalyptic North America divided among a number of tribes.  Another game is Atomic Society, an early access title soon to be available through Steam.  In both cases they put the player in charge of a community (or tribe) and give them a bird's-eye view of what's going on.  I guess you could call them part of the RTS genre.  The problem I have is neither of these video game subgenres quite have what I want.  One category has lost it's luster, while the other feels too detached to capture what makes the setting interesting.  I think though, there might be an untapped sweet spot somewhere in-between.

Imagine taking the role of Immortan Joe, Lord Humongous or Aunty Entity.  How did they get started?  Were they once wanderers like Max?  How did they recruit followers, secure resources and deal with potential rivals?  In a post-apocalyptic future basic necessities are almost always in short supply, which means raiding is one course of action, another is trade.  As the leader of a faction how do you go about getting things like drinkable water, eatable food, adequate shelter, life-saving medicine, and a fuel supply for your vehicles?  That final point is especially important since if you have access to it, you can maraud for the rest.  There's always the risk though that you might run up against someone bigger and meaner than you, which places a certain value on alliances (for mutual protection or simple strength of numbers) Aside from the usual itinerary of burn, pillage and enslave, there could be groups within your own collective that have other motives or desires.  Perhaps a cult springs up from within your ranks or some of your members begin to take up cannibalistic practices.  Do you suppress it and risk rebellion or embrace it and become all the more dogmatic?

From a gameplay standpoint, I like the idea of having some kind of "nemesis system" akin to the one we've seen in on display in the upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of War.  Instead of branding individuals though, I think it would be cool to focus on salvaged vehicles.  To begin with the players would only have access to motorcycles and dune buggies, but after obtaining the services of a talented black thumb (black finger?) the repertoire could steadily expand into sedans, trucks and the penultimate vehicle in every aspiring post-apocalyptic conqueror's arsenal, the war rig.  Of course the absolute pinnacle is a flying machine, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.  I like the idea of keeping the gameplay in the over-the-shoulder-third-person perspective because it gives players a chance to not only see their customized rides up close in action, but their warlord and followers too.  As the game progresses he (or she) could go from an unremarkable wastelander to a grizzly-looking cross between a samurai general and punk rocker.  The player's underlings could also have distinct looks with some variation between individuals.  Even the base of operations could have it's own set of "modules" such as gates, walls, garages, cisterns, depots, and armories that make it unique.

Weapons are always important and guns are what everyone wants most.  However, they might not be so easy to come by, the same goes for ammo, so they tend to be reserved for elite units while the rest make due with improvised weapons; pneumatic dart launchers, crossbows, spiked clubs, knives, machetes, and fire axes are just some examples along with armor jury rigged from sports equipment, or my personal favorite - a shield that's actually just an old road sign.  That said, improvised explosive devices such as the thunder sticks seen in Fury Road or molotov cocktails aren't hard to fashion out of scrap.  Grappling hooks and spring loaded harpoons are useful tools for when one vehicle attempts to commandeer another.

Looking back on what I've written thus far, it occurs to me this hypothetical video game I've brainstormed here doesn't have to be an exercise in power hungry conquest.  I've always liked the idea of a post-apocalyptic King Arthur and his knights errant.  Through good deeds it might be possible to form a just and sane government from which society could rebuild.  Good or evil though I think the important thing is to let the player decide how they want to rule the wasteland.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Nintendo Lingo

Whenever a piece of media is translated from Japanese to English (or vice-versa) things inevitably get tweaked or modified to better suit the intended audience.  How exactly one goes about this though isn't always clear, leading to variations between successive translators as well as legacy issues that can crop up in later additions to a franchise.  Nowhere is this more apparent in video games than with Nintendo.

Hypothetical situation - a Japanese and American are talking about their favorite video games and one of them brings up Mario Brothers.  At first there isn't much in the way of communication difficulties since characters like "Mario," "Luigi," "Yoshi," "Wario," and "Waluigi," are basically the same in both languages.  However, when the Japanese person mentions "Kinopio" the American suddenly finds himself at a loss.  "Who's Kinopio?" they might be wondering.  It turns out that Kinopio's name in English is "Toad."  Those small brown creatures that Mario is always jumping on are "goombas" in English, but in Japanese they're called "kuribo."  Interesting aside, "kuri" means "chestnut" in Japanese which kind of makes sense given that the little critters do look a bit like chestnuts with faces and a pair of feet.  The turtle people are "Noko-noko" in Japanese, but in English are "Koopa."  Complicating things further, "Bowser" is called "Koopa" in Japanese, although I can see why his title is "King Koopa" if you interpret that as shorthand for "King of the Koopa."  Other characters such as Princess Peach and Princess Daisy, are pretty much direct translations in either language.  I'm not sure what became of Princess Toadstool though...

The same sort of mystery surrounds the Koopalings.  According to Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario Brothers IP, Bowser Junior is the only actual offspring of King Koopa.  The rest are simply his lieutenants.  Who their parents are, and who Bowser Junior's mother is, has never been revealed.  This kind of bizarreness isn't unique to Mario Brothers either.  Another venerated Nintendo franchise has its own brand of weird.

A great example comes from The Legend of Zelda series, and Link's iconic steed - Epona.  I've heard my share of arguments over whether it's pronounced "E-po-na," or "E-pon-ya."  Turns out, either pronunciation is valid depending on where you hail from.  If you ever played the original Dead Space you probably noticed the planet-cracking starship that most of the game takes place on is called the "Ishimura."  In Japanese and English it's pretty much the same, but in the spin-off game Dead Space: Extraction, for the Wii, one of the british voice actors refers to it as the "Ishimyura."  Phonetically,  "mu" and "myu" are distinctly different sounds in Japanese, but in the U.K. it's just a regional accent - the same goes for Epona.  You might be tempted to say whichever is closer to the original Japanese must be correct, but I'd advise against going down that road.  It's a linguistics quagmire that will get you into more trouble than it's worth.  Knowing which syllable to stress is also a problem.  Are they "bo-ko-BLINS" or "bo-KOB-lins"?  Also, I'm not sure which pronunciation guidelines should be followed with regards to certain nouns.  Case in point, "Hyrule" is "high" plus "rule," but "Hyrulian" could be "hi-RU-li-an," or it could be "Hi-ru-LAY-en" (like the adjective "Hylian").  Typically, when it comes to four syllable words the emphasis is on the second, but there are exceptions (such as "Transylvanian" and "Filipino") where the stress is on the third.

In the past, most of what I've just talked about hasn't been of much importance because until just recently most Nintendo games have been light on the text and dialogue-free.  However, with the introduction of recorded speech in Breath of the Wild I wonder how Nintendo plans on tackling this.  Will they enforce consistency, or will it be left up to the voice actors to decide?  I have a feeling that, much like the original translations, it will depend on who's in charge of the project and what languages/dialects they're familiar with.