Saturday, September 29, 2018

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Deeper Meanings

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the official worldwide name for From Software's upcoming release.  Obviously the last three words in the title are a reference to the revival mechanics found in the game.  Personally, I feel like everything past the colon mark sounds more like a James Bond film than a successor to the Soulsborne collection of videos games, but there are a few interesting little details that can be gleaned from the word "Sekiro" provided you know some Japanese.

According to the collector's edition box art, the kanji used to write "Sekiro" are 隻狼.  So...what does it mean?  Well, it's the name of the protagonist, a shinobi, which is obvious enough.  However, if we look more closely there's actually a deeper meaning.

The first kanji character, "seki" is rarely used in modern Japanese.  So much so high schools in Japan will sometimes skip over it despite it being part of the jōyō kanji (a collection of roughly two-thousand characters deemed for everyday use in Japanese newspapers and periodicals).  When used by itself "seki" means "lone" or "single" although it appears that the kanji is almost never used without being combined with at least one other character.  If we look at examples of such combinations then we get words such as "sekiwan," meaning "one-armed,"  "sekigan" or "one-eyed" and "sekishu" which translates to "one-handed" in English.  In all these cases it doesn't mean that a person in deliberately refusing to use part of their body.  Instead the connotation is that part of the body is missing or entirely in the person suffered a severe injury, illness or birth defect.  In Sekiro's case it is the first of the three.

The "ro" part of "Sekiro" is also intriguing.  The kanji simply means "wolf," so our shinobi's name literally translates into "Lone Wolf."  When you think about it wolves usually operate in packs, which means finding one all by itself is kind of an oddity...something is missing...where's your pack?  One wonders if this also factors into what we currently know about the story, in particular, the part about a shinobi who lost their master and an arm in the process.

One other interesting combination is "sekigo" or "of few words."  Perhaps this applies to the protagonist as well.  It's apparent from the trailers that Sekiro speaks, but From Software games have never been known for lengthy dialogues or especially chatty NPCs.  It's also important to note that the Japanese versions of Dark Souls I, II and III, all placed a fair amount of careful thought into their naming conventions and item descriptions.  In fact this was done to such a degree that some of the more subtle details were lost in the English versions (a number of examples can be found in this video as well as many others around the internet on the topic).  Hopefully, whoever is handling the localization has the talent and drive to maintain that level of depth without overdoing it in terms of word count. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Gardening Game Development

I've heard that the best kind of artist is a starving one, a lean wolf who's highly motivated because they have little to lose and a lot to potentially gain.  However, when it comes to video games and the studios that make them, I prefer to think of it a bit more like houseplants - water them, fertilize them, make sure they get the right amount of sun and you'll see new shoots...and maybe even some flowers.  That might sound like a strange analogy, but what are game development studios?...corporations.  And what are corporations?...organized groups of people working toward a common goal (or goals).  Now, if you'll indulge me I'm going to go on a brief tangent that might seem like a nonsequiteur of sorts.

When the feudal warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally succeeded in uniting the Japanese isles he found himself surround by a multitude of clans.  In many ways these social constructs were precursors to corporate entities, it just happened that their business was warfare rather than commerce...still he had the idea that the best way to manage all these factions was to turn them into bonsai plants...not literally, of course...bonsai are tree saplings cultivated in small, shallow pots and carefully pruned to create a stylized version of real-life in miniature.  Bonsai aren't people.  Figuratively speaking though Tokugawa Ieyasu limited the growth of 16th century Japan by various means in order to cultivate the best of what the country had to offer.  Generally speaking, his plan worked surprisingly well - there was relative peace and stability, infrastructure improved and the arts flourished.  I know...I know...comparing bonsai to video game companies is a stretch, but what are video games?  Aren't they, more often than not, stylized version of real-life in miniature?

This might come as a shock to ecology lovers, but virgin forests aren't always healthier than forests open for public use.  The reason stems from untouched forests becoming overburdened with deadwood and other natural detritus to the point that new trees can't sprout and even deer can't live there.  Eventually, wildfires will clear everything out, but it's not a pretty sight.  Unregulated, game companies will expand in ways that are detrimental to the industry.  As is, it's not easy for even long-time enthusiasts to enjoy this hobby of ours.  Corporations such as EA and Take 2 Interactive might not like being stuffed into a small pot and pruned by the Belgium government, but the way I see it unless other countries follow suit, sooner or later there's going to be an out-of-control wildfire that burns everything down.

Saturday, September 8, 2018


I just recently finished playing through Dark Souls 3.  Long overdue, I know, but it turned out to be fortuitous timing considering the first gameplay details for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have been emerging.  It sounds like the developer, From Software, has been taking fan feedback to heart by addressing long standing issues (some of which were becoming particularly annoying in Dark Souls 3).

Take, for example, the fact that enemies can attack longer and faster than ever before in the series.  Unlike the player, these foes aren't limited by stamina bars or focus points.  Worse still, the player no longer has the mobility that was once available to them in Bloodborne.  Couple that with the fact that parry timing is more demanding than ever and the overall experience is one of frustration when it comes to this kind of defense.  The degree of precision needed to reliably pull off a successful riposte has always been beyond my ability, so like a lot of fans I often rely on blocking with a shield.  Flailing enemies seriously limit this kind of defense though, and when you get down to it at some point you're going to have to make a counterattack.  However, since poise is also less effective than it has ever been previously, it's very easy to have the player's attack animation interrupted and wind up stun-locked (at which point the only recourse is it roll away like a hyperactive acrobat).  Additionally, I've found that certain large or powerful foes have attacks that, even when blocked (with enough stamina to absorb the hit), still cause the player's character to slide back in a momentarily paralyzed state.  Thankfully, Sekiro dispels nearly all these issues with the introduction of a new posture system and a more agile (than ever before) character, who is also unrestricted in terms of a stamina bar.  Conversely, brute forcing through obstacles by power-leveling isn't an option now that most of the stat-driven RPG mechanics have been removed in favor of a more Zelda-like progression system.  Enough about mechanics though...let's move on to athstetics.

Transplanting the setting from an increasingly drab gothic Europe to a more vibrant feudal Japan is a welcome change of scenery.  At some point after the release of Dark Souls 2, I feel like From Software decided that a suppressed color palette mixed with nauseatingly disgusting environmental design was the order of the day.  Granted, that has always been a big part of their games look and feel, but the original Dark Souls had places and enemies that were more haunting than hideous, which helped vary the experience.  Blighttown and the Valley of Defilement were the only swamp zones in their respective games, yet in Dark Soul 3 there are four such areas.  Again, I'm sure ash and sludge were prevailing themes during the development of Dark Souls 3, but they become so ubiquitous that it gets old long before the game ends.

Speaking of endings, From Software has developed a reputation for opaque storylines and cryptic conclusions, but that wasn't always the case.  Demon's Souls actually had a fairly comprehensible plot, although it was easy to miss out on little details due to the weird world tendency system employed by that game.  One wonders if Miyazaki Hidetaka (the mind behind much of what you see in these games) can tell a compelling story without having to depend on item descriptions to convey the lion's share of the details.  I should clarify that I'm not asking for Final Fantasy X or Kojima length cutscenes here.  I just would like to see more than an eight second clip that typically marks the finish of a From Software title.   

Don't even get me started on the ridiculous
number of mimic chests in Dark Souls 3...

Saturday, September 1, 2018

A Good Thief

Back in 1998 Looking Glass Studios released a game entitled Thief: The Dark Project.  I picked up a copy soon after trying out the free demo and played it to completion over a period of a couple weeks.  I want to say I enjoyed the game, but in truth I didn't really know what to make of my experience.  Thief is a weird game that defies easy explanation.  Sure, there are labels one could attach to it (such as steampunk, first-person, stealth-action-adventure, etc.), but much like the environments in the game itself these tags are little better that faint lights, pushing back the shadows in places, yet never giving a clear picture of the whole.

The inspiration for the game comes from a variety of sources.  The creative director, Ken Levine (who later went on to make Bioshock), has mentioned several noticeable influences.  Initially, he was intrigued by the idea of taking a game like Castle Wolfenstein or Diablo and fusing a strong narrative arc to it.  Originally, he played with the idea of a Cold War era parody involving zombified Soviet Russians, but soon ditched that in favor of a subversive take on the Legend of King Arthur entitled Dark Camelot.  The plan was to make it a first-person sword combat game, but while fiddling with some proof of concept designs the development team quickly realized that the stealth segments were by far the most exciting thing they had come up with.  Lavine particularly liked the idea of integrating certain aspects of submarine warfare into the overall design.  Namely, sound playing a key role as well as the concept of being very powerful when hidden, but extremely vulnerable when exposed.  Most of the game's 3 million dollar budget and two-and-a-half-year-long development was spend fleshing out the above elements along with enemy A.I. routines and line-of-sight mechanics.  It was truly a frankenstein creation, made up of disparate elements, that only really came together during the final few months before launch.

Calling Thief: The Dark Project a moody or atmospheric game would practically be an understatement.  This game oozes style and makes virtually no effort to explain its lore to the player in a clear or coherent way.  The closest it gets is with Garret, the protagonist, who delivers monologues that help bring context to the players actions.  They are useful, but the unreliable narrator trope is in effect here.  Everything we hear from the titular Thief is bent and blurred by his perspective on things.  Despite the player filling his shoes, very little is revealed about the character's life outside thievery.  He's an orphan, and was raised by a secret society (which he latter had a falling out with).  Again, like the world itself, the details are largely shrouded in darkness.

Cryptic in-fiction quotes appear at the beginning of each mission intro and offer hints as to what's going on, but they too are skewed.  The wider world is also a complete mystery.  The unnamed city in which everything takes place bears a lot in common with early victorian London.  However, there are paradoxically unremarkable bits of magic that pop up from time to time, whether it be undead or arrowheads infused with elemental energy.  Even "Burricks," burrowing theropods that belch noxious clouds of highly flammable gas, are treated with surprising aplomb.  As one poster put it on the official Looking Glass forums, "I have no idea what's going on, but it's awesome!"

If there's one place Thief does not shine, it's in the graphics department.  Technically speaking, the polygonal models were crude even by the standards of the day, and the load time could be atrocious for systems that only met the required settings.  To this day I find it really silly how guards always walk around with their swords about an accident waiting to happen...If I had to choose a game most deserving of a HD remake it would be this, especially when compared to the amazing visual work of games with a similar setting (i.e. Bloodborne and Dishonored).  Thief has three sequels, each of which marks a noticeable step down in terms of overall quality compared to the original.  That might sound like a controversial stance to take (after all, I'm sure Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows have their fans), but for me the first game was a vast and terrifying mystery akin to discovering some colossal abyss.  Rather than plumb the depths further though, the sequels chose to fiddle around with what had already been revealed, only making perfunctory glances down into the dark and shadowy places that lay beyond.  What treasures of the imagination remain hidden in those unexplored places?  A good thief would find out.