Sunday, July 22, 2018

Adjacent Extremes

Hmmm...needs a guy playing his
flaming guitar on the front...
Frost Punk is an interesting take on the city building strategy subgenre.  In particular, the crazy Victorian era steam technology mixed with abrupt ice age climate shift makes for some very unique visuals.  Even so, the whole time I was playing Frost Punk I had a weird feeling that I had seen all this before somewhere.  The movie "The Day After Tomorrow"?, to modern.  "Steamboy"? not enough arctic landscapes.  "Snowpiercer"?  There aren't really any trains in Frost Punk outside of the opening cutscene.  The same goes for that obscure old DOS game Arctic Baron.  Then it hit me; Frost Punk is the flipside of a Mad Max style post-apocalypse setting.  Instead of everywhere becoming too hot and dry though, the world has become too cold and snow covered.  I could go into more detail, but it's not really the point of this blog post.  Instead, I want to talk about how one might adapt the gameplay mechanics of Frost Punk to a place of road warriors and sun-scorched wastelands.

A plateau rather than a pit would be
more thematically appropriate
 in Mad Max 
Resources are at the center of everything the player does in Frost Punk, so let's look at those first.  Listing them off, we have coal, wood, steel, steam cores, raw food, cooked food, and prosthetics.  The last three are fine as is.  While people probably won't be losing any limbs to frostbite, I can definitely see gangrene being a problem (particularly in cases when antibiotics are not readily available).  As for the rest, it's a bit difficult to map them over directly.  However, I was thinking about something along the lines of scrap, bullets, combustion engines, and gasoline...excuse me, "guzzoline" would be the setting appropriate term.  There's also two other important resources I haven't mentioned yet - heat and people.  Since air conditioning isn't really a thing in Mad Max, I think it would have to be replaced by an entirely different (but equally important) resource - clean water.  Instead of a furnace at the center of the settlement there would be a water well.  As for people, workers are still workers, and engineers could easily be reinterpreted as "black thumbs."  A lot of the structors used in Frost Punk could be adapted with only minor cosmetic changes.  Granted, homes in Mad Max are for shade and shelter from the wind, rather than thermal insulation.  Instead of cold spells there could be heat waves or dust storms.  So no major changes thus far, although I think a lot would have to be modified when it comes to how things are handled outside the settlement.

In Frost Punk the player sends out scout parties on foot or by sled, but in a Mad Max setting that sort of thing would take the form of vehicle convoys transporting groups of people armed with weapons.  Benign or belligerent intentions can depend on the player, but the fundamental goal remains unchanged - they are in search of leftovers from before the collapse of the old world.  Other communities using valuable resources could be a potential obstacle to overcome or the icing on a cake (in the case of marauding slavers).

A red color scheme
to replace the blue one
There really isn't a place for atomotons in Mad Max so I think combustion engines are better suited to the production of Pursuit Specials, V8 Interceptors and (of course) mighty War Rigs.  Gasoline gets used whenever these machines are sent out and bullets are consumed whenever they find trouble.  Scrap is needed to do pretty much any kind of construction, but is also fairly easy to comeby.

The Book of Laws is another area the both functions as is, and could benefit from some tweaks.  Rather than choosing between authoritarianism and religion it might be more thematically appropriate to go with a "predator" or "prey" dichotomy.  Now, I know some people are going to look at that and wonder why anyone would choose the latter over the former...well...going the "predator" route is a bit like turning into Immortan Joe; the threats become internal rather than external.  Meanwhile, going with the "prey" option smooths out a lot of internal strife, but also draws the attention of external threats (a bit like the little community built up around the pumpjack in "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior."

Obviously, in terms of complexity we're not looking at a simple mod here.  Still, I think a relatively small group of programmers and artists could make a desert version of Frost Punk that feels true to the spirit of that game while adding in the aesthetics and vision of a Frank Miller inspired post-apocalypse.  If nothing else you could have a catchy tagline that goes something like "Who runs Bartertown!?!"

Monday, July 16, 2018

Wide Eyes

I tend to miss out on the zeitgeist when it comes to movies, and the 2015 horror flick "It Follows" is no exception.  When I finally did get around to seeing it (which was only just recently), I was struck by how much the main threat in that film reminds me of a variety of video game antagonists.

The first one I thought of was the "Nemesis" from the Resident Evil game of the same name.  Before that though Resident Evil 2 prototyped the concept with the "Mr. X" enemy type.  Going way back there were "Snoopers" in the Macintosh home computer game Colony, as well as "The Ship's Defender" in the early CD-ROM game Iron Helix.  Pretty much the entire Clock Tower series is based around these kinds of foes.  The puzzle/RPG Ao Oni is an indie video game that also likes to terrorize players with a relentlessly reoccurring...well, as the title says in Japanese - "Blue Demon."

I can't say I'm particularly fond of this game mechanic.  Much like "It Follows," knowing that you are constantly being hunted can get pretty stressful.  Even if the intention is to create an intense gameplay experience, such as in the case of Alien: Isolation, I know a non-trivial number of people who don't like having to endure that kind of constant anxiety (vicariously).

So, what's the difference between the titular "It" in "It Follows" and...say...Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger?  Well...those last two horror antagonists aren't really restricted by rules, self-imposed or otherwise.  They mostly operate on dream/nightmare logic, and the thrill comes from watching the bad people get what's coming to them.  "It Follows" doesn't really go down that route.  Instead, it opts to have relatively sympathetic characters.  Additionally, the threat here appears to function under a clearly explained ruleset.  Although it's not entirely certain if these rules are absolute or flexible (i.e. "It" could break the rules under certain circumstances).  The idea of an inexorable pursuer that abides by a slowly changing set of rules has actually been done just recently with the scifi game Echo.  In that setting the protagonist is up against copies of herself.  These clones reset periodically and acquire a move set based on whatever actions the player made during the last interval between resets.  In this sense they are able to learn new abilities from the player, but can also forget old ones should the player choose not to utilize them in the previous interval.  All this is explained in-game and even in one of the trailers for the game, yet you'd be surprised by how many people (including reviewers) wrongly assume certain important details.  I see the same sort of thing in "It Follows."   Yes, "It" always approaches at a slow walk, but that doesn't mean"It" can't hitch a ride, nor does guarantee that "It" can't pause its seemingly inexorable advance.  The rules here are based on observation and guesswork.  There's no arbitrary referee that's going to blow the whistle and say "It cheated, fifteen yard penalty."  Everything "It" does could simply be self-imposed, the way a gamer might do by trying for a pacifist run in PuBG or a no-stealing playthrough of Skyrim.

People of asian descent might be more familiar with this sort of thing, in that it's a common trope in folktales involving ghosts.  The Taiwanese horror game Detention is a great example of this.  Several of the hostile apparitions in the game can be deterred simply by having the player-controlled character hold their breath.  It's never explained why this works, but it does and is one way to avoid otherwise fatal encounters with murderous spirits.

Something else I see people do is make questionable assumptions based on what they already know; usually with the intended goal of showing off how much smarter they are than the characters in the film (and possibly the scriptwriter).  Before curling up into a ball of smug intellectual superiority though, I think it's best to consider how one got to that place.  Thinking you're a badass at competitive online games while using hacks, is just asking for a lesson in humility.  One of the creators behind "It Follows" mentioned in an interview that he was considering the idea of making a sequel if only to show how misunderstanding the rules through flimsy reasoning could lead to some disastrous consequences.  I doubt it will ever happen though because that's exactly the kind of thing that would piss off a certain subset of the audience the same way cheaters get pissed and complain on official message boards after they get busted.

One last game I want to mention is Miasmata.  The player takes the role of a shipwrecked survivor, washed up on the shores of a once inhabited (but now deserted) island.  They are alone except for the presence of some small animals and one large predatory beast.  This creature appears frequently, particularly toward the latter half of the game.  Consulting the wiki reveals a large amount of information about the monster's behavior, as well as methods for dealing with it.  However, the webpage article makes it clear that most of this info is based on what players have discovered through experimentation and as such remains unconfirmed by the developers as to its accuracy.     

Monday, July 9, 2018

Who's this For?

Looking at comments on the Nintendo Labo in places like Reddit and ResetEra, you'd swear some people hold a deep seated grudge toward cardboard.  Personally, I have nothing against the material.  In fact, I made a fake suit of armor out of it (complete with silver spray paint and duct tape) when I was little, and a toy tank (that I could actually climb inside of) when I was a bit older.  Using cardboard to make peripherals for the Switch seems like a fine idea considering the stuff is biodegradable and, as such, easily disposed of.   The thing that does have me scratching my head though is who might the target audience be here?

The assembly instructions that come build into the game are about as comprehensible as one could hope for, but given the inherent complexity and time consuming nature of the designs (seriously, it's like multi-part origami) I have a hard time picturing many youngsters with enough patience to put together anything beyond the simple green insect thing at the very beginning.  Children, whose age has reached the double-digit mark, are far more likely to make anything from the blue fishing pole to the black piano.  That said, the accompanying mini-games are really too simple to hold their interest for very long.  There's also a learning mode that teens and young adults might find interesting but, again, Nintendo made the rather odd decision to write the expository dialogue at a level that really only feels appropriate for children.  So, after going over all that, I still don't have an answer to my question - who's this for?

It's my understanding that the Labo didn't start off as a piece of edutainment; it just ended up that way.  Super Bunnyhop, of Youtube fame, adroitly pointed out in a video of his that putting together one of the devices in the Labo kit might make for a highly practical exam or test.  I especially think so if it were used in a junior high school (or 5th/6th grade elementary school) industrial arts class.  Unfortunately, the price tag attached to the Labo ensures only the most well funded schools could realistically afford it.  So, again - who's this for? 

The best answer I can come up with is affluent families in which one or both parents have enough free time to build this stuff with their kids who, in turn, may or may not engage with it depending on their age level and ease of access to more entertaining alternatives.  That sounds like a fairly minuscule demographic to me.  Oh well...I'm sure somebody is having loads of fun with it...and for everyone else who bought the thing, at least it's easy to recycle...   

Monday, July 2, 2018

Return of the Samurai

One of the surprises to come out of E3 2018 was a trio of big budget video games set in feudal Japan; Nioh 2, Sekiro, and Ghosts of Tsushima.  The first two are being made by Japanese studios, but the third is by a western developer.  If you ever try watching the films "The Last Samurai" and "The Twilight Samurai" back to back you'll probably notice some fundamental differences in approach.  This might seem strange considering both had theatrical releases less than a year apart, both are set in roughly the same in-fiction time period, and both even have the same Japanese actor in an important role (Hiroyuki Sanada).  The reason for the stylistic discrepancies really boils down to viewpoints, the former is looking at the subject from the outside while the latter is viewing it from within.

Samurai, much like their European counterparts (knights), have a long history that dates back nearly a millennium.  What they were, is hard to say in general terms because the nature of samurai changed over the centuries.  A lot of pop culture depictions of samurai tend to be based on the Hagakure, a collection of texts put together during a two-hundred year peace by supposed warriors who had never actually fought in a battle.  Unsurprisingly, it was largely ignored even within Japan until the lead up to World War 2, wherein it was resurrected as a piece of imperial propaganda.  Needless to say, samurai in pre-unification Japan were significantly different to what many typically think of them today.  For one, they were primarily horseback archers, not katana-wielding footmen.  For another they tended to expect immediate compensation for acts of merit.  Concepts such as honor and loyalty were a lot more fluid when the country was divided into numerous factions all rivaling for power.  A common practice in battle was to gather up the severed heads of defeated foes for presentation.  Beforehand, they tended to be washed by women who would also arrange the hair and apply cosmetics as needed.  For convince the heads were often mounted on small wooden boards with spikes sticking up through the center.  Sometimes a name tag would be affixed to the ear for ease of recognition as well.  A warlord who did not compensate his samurai (in cash or rice stipends) for bringing back the decapitated heads of slain foes would not stay a lord for long.  In fact, the collapse of the Kamakura Shogunate was in large part due to a lack of rewards for samurai who fought against invading mongols.

Death before dishonor is another concept that gets passed around a lot, but as numerous historical documents (Hogen, Heiji and Heikei) show samurai would often retreat from battle and live to fight another day.  Ritual suicide (seppuku) was another aspect of samurai that gets more notoriety than it probably deserves.  It happened, obviously, but blatant executions of unruly samurai were sometimes labeled as "seppuku" in order to preserve the status quo...such was the case with the 47 Ronin Incident.  Speaking of ronin (masterless samurai) and ritual suicide, Junshi, or "following one's liege lord into death" was not practiced as much as one might think considering how many ronin there were at various times in feudal Japan.  Some eventually entered the service of a lord and once again became samurai while others found new occupations as brigands, mercenaries and locally sponsored privateers.  Miyamoto Musashi, quite possibly the greatest swordsman in Japanese history, was a ronin who found employment much like a private contractor.  His impressive reputation as a skilled duelist was obtained, by his own admission, in large part because he was willing to fight dirty if it provided a significant advantage. 

There are some horror stories that are the bane of anyone wanting to portray samurai in a positive light.  Mimizuka is one such example...another is Inuoumono.  Test cutting (tameshigiri) conducted on condemned criminals is yet another example, although in most cases the victims were executed before being subjected to katana quality assurance procedures.  The most gruesome stories, in my opinion are about the materials used in the making of certain traditional Japanese musical instruments used to entertain samurai.  The shamisen was made from the skin of cats, while the best material for the otsuzumi was thought to be the horsehide of an unborn foal!  Just to be clear I'm not accusing Japan of being a cruel and barbaric nation here.  In fact, it's not hard to find similarly horrific (by modern sensibilities) parallels in the histories of other countries all over the world.  My point is the things I mentioned above are really only known well within Japan, hence the reason their media tends to favor shinobi, ninja, or ronin in lieu of samurai when it comes to the hero roles.  To a lot of Japanese people samurai were as much arrogant bullies as fearless swordsmen, and not the kind of folks who deserved idolization.

Moving on...I'm curious to see how these three games will differ in terms of mechanics, but also interpreting the historical context from which they are drawing inspiration.  There is a temptation to assume that "made in Japan" is synonymous with authenticity, but that isn't always the case.  Don't get me wrong James Clavell's "Shogun" is way off the mark, but then again so is "Lone Wolf and Cub."  Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised if we see the influence of either (or both) in these upcoming games.  After's not like Sekiro's clockwork prosthetic arm is realistic, nor is a yokai invasion particularly plausible...and yet both can be fun in their own way if handled deftly.