Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

Best/Worst of Show

It seems like every time E3 rolls around there's one game that really grabs my attention.  In previous years it has been titles like Below and Horizon: Zero Dawn.  This year it's the stylized cyber-punk thriller The Last Night.

Very little information has been released about the game thus far.  It's a 2.5D platformer with some stealth elements.  Nothing remarkable, but what makes the standout is its visual direction.  Rainy nights and neon lights are pretty standard fare since "Blade Runner" came out over three decades ago.  However, the use of pixel art mixed with numerous foreground/background layers and enhanced lighting filters gives the game a distinct look.  As far as I know, I don't think any other game has done this sort of thing before which makes The Last Night unique in its presentation.  In other ways though, it might be less outstanding.

My personal hope is, if it doesn't totally vear off in its own direction, The Last Night takes inspiration from the best of the subgenre; namely Flashback and Out of This World (Another World, if you're European).  The prototype version of the game, made in just six days, only takes a few minutes to finish and as such doesn't offer much insight into what a longer version of the game might be like.  Another title the development team was working on, Behind Nowhere, has been postponed indefinitely.  So, with only a few screenshots to go on, it's hard to garner much regarding the studio's approach to design based on that game either.

The head of development, Tim Soret, also has a somewhat checkered past going back to that whole SJW vs Gamergate controversy of 2014.  Tim has since apologized for past remarks claiming that his views have changed since that time.  I'd like to believe him.  People are allowed to change their mind on things after I'm a strong believer in the Death of the Author philosophy when it comes to critiquing any media (not just books).  That said, I doubt I'll ever get a chance to play The Last Night because I don't own an Xbox or a copy of Windows 10.  Oh well...I can alway enjoy the pretty art direction via a Youtube LP or Twitch stream, I guess...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What's in an RPG

Are men imitating beasts?
Are beasts imitating men?
Sometimes video game acronyms can be pretty confusing.  "RPG" is usually shorthand for "Role-Playing Game," but can also mean "Rocket Propelled Grenade."  Add a capital "T" to the front and sometimes it's a "Tactical Role-Playing Game," such as Shining Force, Vandal Hearts and Fire Emblem.  Then again the "T" could stand for "Tabletop Role-Playing Game," which is the one people play with paper, pencils and dice.  I've also seen CRPG written a lot which is supposed to mean "Computer Role-Playing Game."  The opposite of this is, for some reason, "JRPG" or "Japanese Role-Playing Game."  Japanese because it's made in Japan...or is it?

I recently watched a Giant Bomb Quick Look of Cosmic Star Heroine, and while the game wasn't made by a Japanese development team it sure tries to look like it was.  Of course, this brought up a semantics argument.  I didn't bother to get involved in the comment section mostly because I don't think there's really many meaningful distinctions that can be made between the two subgenres anymore.

Back in the 8 and 16-bit era the Japanese video game industry was making RPGs pretty much exclusively for the console market.  Western developers, not wanting to compete directly made their own RPGs available on home computers.  There were some overall aesthetic differences.  I'm not going to get into them primarily because Extra Credits did an excellent three-part series on Youtube about it awhile back (link to part 1 here).  Recently, I feel like whatever distinctions there were though have become blurred to to such a degree that it's hard to point to any definitive differences.  Case-in-point, western made RPGs come out on consoles just as much as the PC these days.  This has lead a few people on the internet to start throwing around the term "WRPG," or "Western Role-Playing Game."  Personally, I don't see the point in splitting stylistic hairs like this when we have more useful terms that can be attached to the front of "RPG" such as "turn-based," "open-world" or even simply "action," all of which do a good job of informing someone as to how the game is played.

I guess if you have some deep-seated love/hate of anime then there might still be some small worth in distinguishing between eastern and western made RPGs, but in my mind the usage of genre terms really should evolve with the times.  Sadly, that would require people to change their way of viewing and thinking as well.  It's a problem that goes far beyond video games and this blog so I'll end things here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Zelda Maker

The sun has set on the WiiU.  Looking back on its library of games, I find myself hard pressed to come up with more than half-a-dozen standout titles (especially when the selection criteria is limited to system exclusives.   Even so, there are a few really great games for the console.  If I had to choose one in particular, I probably go with Mario Maker.  I might be an outlier on this, but that game feels like the amount of play time you can get out of it greatly expands thanks to the creativity of the user-base.  I'm sure Nintendo has a sequel in the works for the Switch.  However, it might not be Mario-themed since there's another IP that's well suited to the format - The Legend of Zelda.

The challenges associated with designing intuitive editing tools for Zelda are far greater, I think, than in the case of Mario Brothers.  For one thing Zelda is potentially much more complicated in terms of layout.  As for eras of play, I think the top-down 2D perspective titles are the most feasible.  Specifically, the original NES Legend of Zelda, SNES Link to the Past, Link Between Worlds on the 3DS and maybe one more (I'm not sure which).  Maps could consist of a bunch of interconnected rooms or outdoor zones that can be filled in with monsters, chests, claypots, traps and other obstacles/challenges.  Treasure should probably be limited to classic items such as the lantern, raft, ladder, bow, boomerang, wands, outfits, as well as shield and sword upgrades.  Consumables can be hearts, arrows, rupees, and bombs.  I'm not exactly sure what the best approach would be for bosses other than the obvious solution of having some customizable templates, such as a dragon that can be designated with a specific weakness or one of several different breath weapons.

Another important point to consider is food.  It played a big part in Breath of the Wild in terms of loot.  Fairies have traditionally been the stand-in for this mechanic, but it might be worth including a few food items (such as apples and meat on a bone) even though though they technically didn't exist in certain earlier iterations of the franchise.

The way levels are shared through the Nintendo network would require a bit of tweaking.  Perhaps the best way to handle it would be a generic central hub area that branches off into user created overland zones with entrances to dungeons (each of which contains a shard of the Triforce).  Merchants should also be included in some way, shape, or form, although I'm not sure whether or not it's best to let their location and wares be defined by the level creators.

Other than that, I can't think of any particular aspects of a hypothetical "Zelda Maker" that would have to be radically different than the format set by Mario Maker.  Not being a developer, I'm sure there's some important things I am oblivious to, but if Nintendo can pull the concept off elegantly then I have no doubt it would be a welcome addition to the franchise.  I've always wanted to craft my own Zelda dungeons and I'm sure there are more than a few fans out there who feel likewise.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Make it a Game

To paraphrase something movie reviewer Bob Chipman said:
There have been eight Alien films at this point and only the first two were good -just stop making them already.
It a comment I can relate to except I don't think it needs to be the end of the franchise.  I'm not talking about reboots here, rather I think any future Alien-themed properties should be in the form of video games.

Aside from novelizations of "Alien" and "Aliens" the books have been mediocre at best (with the possible exception of Aliens: Labyrinth).  The same is true of the comics although there are a few clever ideas scattered throughout them.  Video games have a pretty dismal track record as well, but the most recent adaptation of the IP, Alien: Isolation, has shown potential.  Don't get me wrong, the game is far from perfect.  For one thing it goes on for way too long, and for another there's a lot of pointless side characters whose presence seems to contradict the the title of the game.  Even so, I think a less action focused Alien game is the way to go.  Sure, everyone wants to recreate that classic battle between the xenomorphs and colonial marines, but it's been done to death now.  I'm not just talking about licensed games either, franchises like StarcraftResident Evil, Halo and DOOM have mined "Aliens" for every last piece of usable material.  The later movies have little of value to offer, and the original motion picture has been sucked dry too.  So where does that leave the IP?  As far as I can tell there's really only one place left untapped, and that's the prequels.

Putting it nicely, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are not good films.  The visuals are well shot courtesy of long-time directory Ridley Scott, but other than that the mystery is poorly revealed, the horror bits are cliche, and the plot is a total mess.  For whatever reason the writers chose to ignore most of what the previous movies had established, resulting in contradictions all over the place in terms of the Alien lifecycle and overarching timeline.  I could go on a rant about all the inconsistencies, but I'd prefer to keep things positive here (and more importantly - constructive).

Figuring out the origins of the Alien isn't as interesting as it might seem.  On the other hand learning more about the enigmatic Space Jockey race is worth exploring in more detail.  Unfortunately, in the 2 hours and X minutes running time allotted to films these days, it's practically impossible to do the subject justice.  So instead we're given an abbreviated version with disjointed events and scatter-brained ideas, as well as character actions and motivations that don't make much sense.  The hands of the writers are also clearly visible at times since they want to go from point A to point C without taking the time to come up with a satisfactory point B.  These are all problems that could be solved if both these films had been video games instead; more time for the story to unfold, ideas to be fleshed out, and characters to behave in believable ways.  The player could actually get to explore the ruins of the engineers' civilization, uncover the secrets of their technology.  They could fully read the poems of Shelley, Milton and Byron, gain a deeper understanding of David's fascination with T.H. Laurance, not to mention have branching dialogues with various characters.  Best of all, the story need not be confined to a single path.  Think The Dig meets Until Dawn and you're well on your way to a proper video game adaptation of Prometheus.  Incidentally, it would be pretty awesome (not to mention subversive) to have an alien story in which everyone survives through sheer competence and teamwork.  It might not bet especially true to the franchise, but the simple fact of the matter is xenomorphs are basically oversized bugs with the brains of chimpanzees.  Deadly, to be sure, under a certain set of circumstances.  However, once they become a known quantity they're not an unsolvable problem.  Compare them to to Space Jockey race and suddenly humanity appears to be in far greater peril.  Unlike the xenomorphs, this species of (once pachyderm-like) interstellar travelers has technology far in advance of even what exo-world colonizing humans posses.  What's their culture like?  Their psychology?  Do they have outposts scattered across the galaxy?  How long have they been roaming the stars?  Based on what is shown by the holographic map in Prometheus the implied answers are "many" and "for a long time."  That begs the question though, are there any other planets with engineered life?  If so they must be close to human...maybe that's what the line from Aliens was on about regarding Arcturians...

The Alien franchise has followed a very bizarre course over the years.  It's started off as a very simple, but well thought out (and executed) melding of sci-fi and horror.  As more and more films have been released for the IP though the premise has become increasingly muddled until it degenerated into the brain-dead wrestling match that is the AvP movies.  Then it flip-flopped hard and turned into a bunch of pretentious nonsense.  A video game adaptation could potentially give this franchise some much needed grounding, structure and balance.  Of course, it would still need a competent storyteller which might be too much to ask of the video game industry.  Hmmm...I wonder if John Gonzalez is available?