It continues to be rather quiet here. I’ve been doing this blogging bit both at Ruminatron 5000 and IPVG for almost 7 years. And during that time, I’ve always been approaching it like I would have in 2004, when “blogging” still felt like a new and novel term, and some folks were even calling them web logs. Unless you’re a team of writers, and/or are pumping out many posts per day, blogging (in a singular sense) isn’t a great way for your words to be brought to others attention. Blogging can be one part of success in sharing your opinions, and I’ve focused squarely on it. I intend to keep this blog here for posterity. And, who knows, maybe I’ll continue to pile up posts here sporadically. For now though, I’m re-evaluating how I’m approaching all this.
Silent Hills is no more. Or, depending on who you ask, it never was. But we had P.T. (playable teaser) and it captured a great deal of attention and imagination in trying to solve the game’s puzzles. Learning that was part of something bigger was exciting. Who knows if it could have delivered on the promise of P.T. though. I like to believe that the Kojima, del Toro, and Reedus team could have pulled off something great. Though its difficult to imagine how even Kojima could have pulled Silent Hill back on its feet and revive the series.
Konami has now assured us that the project is off and the team has been cast adrift. It’s the latest in a series of console gaming setbacks for the company. They’ve promised more Silent Hill, but at this point I say it’s time to let the series go out on a high note. Konami has been a rudderless vessel for the series which has experienced some prominent miss-steps in recent years. Most of them during the “Month of Madness” in 2012. One could only conclude that these were games that were being neglected and mishandled. It’s truly baffling.
I can only speculate at how P.T. came together to produce such a confident experience and offer such a promising return for Silent Hill. Kojima has expressed interest in working on Silent Hill in the past, and del Toro is well known to have an affinity for games, and desire to participate in their production. But Kojima is on the way out the door from Konami in a situation where neither party has volunteered to explain what exactly is happening. Regardless of this, P.T. succeeded in reminding folks what it meant to be sincerely made afraid by a video game. It offered a glimpse of what a new generation of survival horror games might be, and showed us just how affective the gaming medium could be.
I hope P.T. can be the end for the Silent Hill series, rather than dragging it on for no benefit other than something for Konami to cash in on. Leave that world in a moment pointing forward, instead of fumbling around in the dark trying to figure out where everything went wrong.
There’s a lot that can be said about a game like Hotline Miami 2 and its predecessor, as well as the audiences that play them. These are very violent games, but in such a low resolution as to merely suggest a more graphic depiction. It’s a very clever method to broadening the vocabulary of the game by sacrificing visual fidelity, while ensuring that more squeamish audiences who would otherwise be interested the game aren’t turned off by graphic violence. These games become a meta-discussion at points where its super-natural characters ask you, acting as the protagonist, if you “like hurting other people.” Those are moments when you might stop to wonder if your avatar is the one being addressed, or yourself. It’s another fascinating angle to the games, which can lean heavily on the fourth wall without actually breaking it.
What I found to be extremely interesting though about Hotline Miami 2 was its world-building, and the messages it delivers through it. It’s world lingers on cold war fear that is taken to a mad extreme. This is an alternative late 80s/early 90s world shaped by that madness, where Soviet Russia sphere of influence readily encompasses Hawaii, and exerts influence over the entire United States via a Russo-American coalition. It’s a world where the over-the-top violence of the American, martial culture of the 80s and 90s is expressed in a way that simultaneously captures the over-the-top action movies of the time and contrasts it against the fragileness of life. While completing a level and getting an S ranking can be very satisfying, the path along the way is littered by countless player deaths, and many more enemy deaths. The message to take away may not necessarily be whether or not you “like to hurt people” but the acknowledgement that this is the logical conclusion of American fear and martial culture of the era. In this same vein of thought, Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2 draws from a similar creative heritage as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
HM2 offers an array of different characters who are in some way entangled or aligned with the events of the original game. These are people who are either driven by their own psychotic need for violence, or by those who feel compelled to coerce others into it to serve their own psychotic ends. While the Russo-American conflict can be read literally as the struggle of a resistance group against oppressive forces, HM2’s non-linear storytelling provides an immersion into the world without getting preoccupied on the high concept. This allows the game to focus more squarely on its character vignettes, which tell the player of the larger conflict indirectly. While all of the player characters engage in extremely violent battles, they are characters that solicit your investment, and to varying degrees, even your sympathy. For those who wish to engage the game on the merits of its gameplay alone, there’s nothing to get in your way. But audiences who find themselves intrigued with the game’s world will be able to piece it together and take in the consequences of all of the involved parties.
It’s not the game I was expecting to play. It is a great game in as far as it’s taken HM’s mechanics and design and expanded upon it. It has a coherent and compelling presentation that stands on its own merits. But it also delivers a world and plot that, while not immediately obvious, is engrossing and nuanced. I enjoyed Hotline Miami quite a bit, but Hotline Miami 2 makes itself a very memorable experience as well in ways that most other games wouldn’t even attempt to achieve. Yes, it captures an 80’s aesthetic, with pumping music, trippy graphics, and action that rivals anything that John Rambo has accomplished on screen. But that’s icing on a cake of the world that Hotline Miami 2 has delivered. And I’d love to dive into more of the reasons why that is, but I’ll reserve spoiler topics for another post. Hotline Miami 2 is an early favorite of the year for me, and a game that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to other video game enthusiasts or fans of the original.
I’m sure this game will some day be remastered, rebooted, or revived to some sort of modern platform. With DuckTales: Remastered being released for free to PS+ members, I’ve finally decided to see their modern take on it. It’s enjoyable, and there are plenty of nods to the original. But when it comes to nostalgia, it’s always the little quirks and imperfections that bring memories rushing back. It would be silly though to assume that game was meant for people like me who played the original so many years years ago. I like to think that limitations on NES games were part of what made them classics, but “quirks” for me are impediments for the kids of today. I was willing to overlook them, because it was the best games had to offer at the time. We don’t have those limitations today, and younger audiences know it.
Little Nemo may be a property with little traction with today’s audiences. Originating with a comic strip that itself ended almost 90 years ago, it’s surprising to me that Nemo found the success it did on the NES 24 years ago. I certainly had no reference point to the comic strip, but it’s fair to say that fantastic spirit of the world of Little Nemo shaped the world of the game. It only had eight levels, and relied on making you replay them as you got game overs, but for myself those levels were so refined as to make a long lasting impression. Each level distinct from the last, carrying a memorable soundtrack, and leaving plenty of nooks and crannies to be explored. They are classic spaces in my mind. It was at a time where Mario sported platforming stunts, and Sonic offered flash and speed. Meanwhile, Nemo was a plodding, almost puzzle-game, explorer.
It was a relatively simple game. Nemo’s not very capable of navigating the levels himself. He must coax animals into assisting them by offering them candy. And then he…crawls inside them? (Remember what I was saying about quirks?) No matter, it’s a small part of the emerging Metroidvania genre of titles that opens up levels to you as you obtained new abilities. It’s not as sprawling as a Metroid or Castlevania, but every inch of the screen was rewarding. “Remastering” these games, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how much attention is given to detail, robs them of their original voice. I’m comfortable leaving this game right where it is in history and letting younger audiences enjoy it, warts and all, or watch over someone else’s shoulder via a “let’s play.”
With only one interruption, I’ve been firing up Terra Battle on a daily basis. I’m certain I still have a great deal of battles to go, but I’ve been enjoying collecting and building a small army of characters in my “deck.” The game offers you a drip feed of resources to do this: each day you login results in acquisition of money, “energy”, and items. It’s been enough to continue farming for experience points and tinker with the game’s mechanics. The core mechanics of clearing the game board of enemies by arranging your party with a single character each turn results in quick, snappy battles that let you quickly iterate on strategies. It’s not an incredibly deep system; you won’t be building layered strategies as you would in a game like Final Fantasy VII. But there’s enough here to keep you engaged. There are options to quickly power-level your characters, farm items to expand your character’s jobs, and to continue growing your ranks.
Terra Battle compels you to simply try to turn over all of its stones. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. And it continues to grow as Mistwalker adds cooperative play, battle items, and more which retains the game’s audience and helps to bring new players in. I’ve still not invested any money in the game to purchase “energy.” It does make me wonder how Mistwalker will make money from it, but it’s not difficult for me to envision other players who are ready to play the game for longer sessions, or wish to collect characters more quickly than the game’s daily offerings allow. It’s certainly kept me coming back, and if I were playing this game 10 or 15 years ago, I’d want to get more out of it, more quickly. But today, I’m perfectly happy playing the game in slow motion, and continue putting my money into games that are known quantities to me, right now. But I’m not the target audience here. Terra Battle, for a company with a heritage reaching back into some of the biggest jRPG franchises in gaming history, is an acknowledgement of how the video game industry and community has grown more diverse. I hope the game continues to grow and lead to more interesting future projects from Mistwalker.
I’ve been playing LISA for around a month now. I’ve been taking my time and soaking it in. I’ve held off on writing up my impressions of it up until now, because it’s a tough game to nail down. It’s a game where I’ll probably have more to say, and my comments today may be somewhat brief. I’m making my way through the final third of it, and I’ve been consistently challenged the entire way. This isn’t a game that you chew up and consume without thinking, or else you’re not getting the full experience. It’s a game that will linger in your mind and have you rolling over what you’ve done time and again. It’s not a game that ends when you quit out of it. It’s uniquely the message of Austin Jorgensen, and he’s not simply repeating back to you what other games have told him.
LISA’s strongest quality is its ability to leverage the vocabulary of jRPGs to deliver its message. On its face, you could be forgiven if you thought this might be a parody of jRPGs past, given it’s outlandish and absurd qualities. In reality, it asks you to participate in jRPG verbs, spaces, and impressions, and then squeezes your pressure points with them. LISA will make you contort in gaming pain, and force you acknowledge the true value of what you invest in these games by weighing it against moral choices. It is constantly asking you to compare and contrast the value of your inventory, your party, your abilities, and your own narrative of the game. This is not an easy game to be a good guy in. If you make it far enough to reach some of these harrowing choices then these will not feel like artificial, or trivial dilemmas. It’s what makes the game interesting though – you are trying to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation. It offers a conciliatory and surreal sense of humor to take some of the dismal edge off of the atmosphere surrounding these challenges. The world is well realized and begs to be explored, and it dares you to try and explain it.
LISA has been affective in ways I’ve not seen very often. And really, the one example that comes to mind that it reminds me of is the immediate aftermath (spoilers?) of Final Fantasy VI’s world of ruin. LISA knows despair, and conveys it well. It can be challenging to consume the game’s message, yet rewarding in completing it. This may not be a game for everyone, as it includes some rather sensitive themes, but it’s one worth taking note of in any case. And it warrants a much deeper discussion within our community.
Over four years ago (!?!?) I wrote a post concerning how games do and don’t account for ambivalence in their pacing, which boiled down to the point that sometimes the player doesn’t want to fully engage what the game has lined up next for the player, and it should give them the space to decide when to engage it. It’s a topic that’s come back to mind as I consider how I choose to engage Dragon Age: Inquisition. I haven’t invested enough in that game to really judge one way or the other in its specific case, but it’s led me back to a train of thought about how games are structured around player preferences to maximize engagement.
This question of how and when to engage the player is a matter of achieving player consent to engage (e.g. when to begin the final battle with Lavos in Chrono Trigger.) While this is not something that should be employed at every turn in a game (there’s got to be some room for surprise) the experience must first begin with soliciting and confirming the user’s consent to engage in what the game has planned. It’s easy to see how this makes sense in cases of user experience design (allow players to skip dialogue, allow them to save at critical points before proceeding, etc) but it becomes more complex when applied to the “text” of the game itself. “Text” meaning the content of the game itself rather than how the game and player interface with one another. The player must first choose to listen to what the game has to say before it can successfully proceed in conveying its text. Anticipating the player’s desires and navigating their preferences would appear to be an insurmountable task. But this is something that is worth consideration in evaluating critically successful games.
Following from consent, the game must next instill a sense of responsibility in the player to respect the game’s rules. When the game chooses to speak, the player must understand what is being said in addition to consenting to hear it then accept responsibility for its consequences. And only when after this process of acquiring consent and accepting responsibility can the interaction follow. For instance, in the very beginning of Super Mario Brothers, World 1-1, we can safely assume consent is acquired being so early in the game. And responsibility is instilled by creating a coherent set of rules to determine what the game means when it speaks. Not jumping over the goomba results in failure. Failure results in restarting the level. Jumping and maneuvering is required in order to navigate the spoken hazards of the level. Thus, the game instills in the player a sense of responsibility to protect Mario against those hazards. Failure comes at the cost of the player’s time. This creates anticipation and tension, but if the cost is too great, then the game will lose the player’s consent even if they understand and accept responsibility for its rules. World 1-1 mitigates this by only increasing the cost of failure by what it knows the player is capable of. They cannot proceed to the ending of World 1-1 without demonstrating they are capable of understanding what the game has said.
How do I tie this back into Dragon Age: Inquisition? I think many times, when a game makes grand promises, I meet them with greater scrutiny. I have less time to play them now, and I’ve played enough of them that I want early assurance that what I’m doing is novel or new. I’m also a tad bit overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of this game in particular. I don’t have confidence I will play it well at first and, as a result, I don’t fully invest myself in it while I learn its systems. I’ve consented to the game, but haven’t accepted full responsibility for the meaning of its text. And that’s because it’s got so much to say! I’m not really sure what to make of it yet or why I need to care. So, I joke around, play with the systems and wait for all of this noise to coalesce into an experience resembling what I think the designers had in mind for me. At that point, they’ll have my full buy-in and I’ll fully play the game “in character.” Games like Walking Dead and Saints Row IV accomplished this for me, and Dragon Age may yet as well. In the mean time, this will be my experience: