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Features Editor of Hardcore Gamer now. You can read my stuff there.

Steambot Chronicles is, without a doubt, my favourite game of all time. In the many years I have spent gaming, I have never played a game quite as massive in scope or rich in detail. The game serves as a window into a massive, living world, one that seems almost as real as our own. It's really quite remarkable, and whenever the opportunity arises to talk about it, I take it.

So, naturally, when this month's musing topic came up, I was delighted. After all, as the 20 something people who've actually played Steambot Chronicles are well aware, the game has a heavy focus on music. In fact, during development, Irem made every gameplay element, with the exception of billiards, revolve around one of three themes: giant robots as an everyday part of the world, character development within that world, and the music played in that world.

I could go on at length about the fantastic score, the busking simulation mechanics, or the surprisingly deep rhythm minigame, but alone those are hardly enough to warrant a monthly musing. Instead, I'm going to delve into the way the music of the game reflects the development of the characters, specifically the main love interest, Connie, (short for Coriander.)

Please Note: MANY spoilers follow.

At the outset of Steambot Chronicles, our hero, Vanilla, awakes on a strange beach, with no memory of how he got there or who he is. Fortunately, he is found by Connie, a beautiful young girl who is picking herbs for her sick mother, and after a series of misadventures the two become fast friends. Alternatively, depending on your choices, she hates you for being dick to her the whole time, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to write this from the perspective of someone who took the nice guy route. Either way, she thanks you for taking her home, and then rushes off to a concert.

You see, it turns out that the charming young girl who you've become friends with is, in fact, the lead singer for the Garland Globetrotters, the most popular band in the nation. Much of the game's plot revolves around your interactions with the band members, and their shared history. That history, and, later on, your interactions with the band, both have a huge impact on the music Connie writes.

Take, for example, the first piece, "In Your Voice:"

In your eyes I see a pond of trouble
You've been hiding from us all the time
But you can't keep it all in forever
Can't you see we're all right here for you?

Seems like a pretty simple pop song about love and friendship and crap, right? Well, at the beginning of the game, you'd be forgiven for thinking that way. However, once, you're a bit farther into the game, you find out about Dandelion, the band's old leader. Dandelion left the band following the death of his brother, Chicory, so overcome with grief that he couldn't go on playing.

This song is Connie's way of trying to reach out to him, to convey to him that his friends are still with him, and that artistic expression, or "singing out loud," is the best way to overcome his grief. She revisits this theme a few times in later songs. She also seems to be rather fixated on the events surrounding the death of Chicory, as is evidenced by her next song, "Impossible."

Where do I
Fit in the picture of your world?
When you're soaring so high
And I am left alone
Here, on the the ground

I can't
Even see you anymore
So high up there
Like a bird
I wish I could fly to you

Again, on the surface, this seems like a fluffy, silly pop song about unrequited love, and when you first hear it, indeed, that's what it sounds like. Again, though, once you know more about the band's history it becomes clear that the song is about more than that. In fact, it's Connie's lament over the death of Chicory. He was carefree, innocent, and he died that way, his soul free to soar like a bird. However, his death took Connie's wings, her innocence, away from her, and she can no longer reach the same heights she once did.

Connie loved Chicory, and in losing him she's lost the courage to trust and love others. She sings of how her only hope is for him to fly back to her, or, in other words, to find a friend as carefree and kind as he was. By going the nice guy route, Vanilla becomes that guy, and allows her to write joyful songs again, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

The third song, "I Cry," is rather unique, because it's a collaborative effort between Connie and Dandelion. She wrote the lyrics, and he provided the sheet music. Not to mention the subject matter...

The rain suddenly stopped when you came
My loneliness abandoned me at once
Oh, but when you spat those words at me
The rain just poured down on me again

When you first meet Dandelion, he asks you to bring Connie a letter and some sheet music he wrote. It's stated that the music forms the basis for "I Cry," the song you play in Neuhafen. Now, here's where this blog goes into speculation. We never actually SEE the letter Dandelion sent to Connie, so we don't really know the contents. I think it's likely that the letter contains an offer for her to join the Bloody Mantis, (an evil organization, created by Dandelion, bent on the destruction of Happy Garland for reasons outlined here.)

The song opens with Connie singing about waiting for him in the pouring rain, in other words, wallowing in the loneliness of having both Dandelion and Chicory leave her. His letter took away those feelings, temporarily, however, its contents quickly brought them back. She is is confused and hurt to find that Dandelion isn't the man she thought he was, that he's so consumed by grief and desire for revenge.

In the song, love is used as a metaphor for revenge. Part of her wants to take revenge alongside Dandelion, however, she decides that she doesn't really need revenge, and instead chooses to rely on herself and her music to help her get through her pain. She uses the song to vocalize this internal conflict.

The next song, "Just Shout it Out," appears as part of a sidequest. However, it is important, as it's Connie's last plea to Dandelion to stop what he's doing and come back to the band.

Pulled down by gravity
The weight of a thousand bricks, on your shoulders
It gnaws right through you, your flesh and bones cannot carry the weight
You can no longer stand it
Hold onto something strong

This song's a bit more clear cut than the others, which is I think why it's hidden in a sidequest. It's pretty obvious that the subject of the song is Dandelion. The thousand bricks represent the grief at the loss of his brother, and the whole "edge of insanity" bit is pretty obviously aimed at his plans to blow up Happy Garland. The "something strong" he needs to hold onto is his friends, and the song returns to the idea that artistic expression is the solution. Of course, you wouldn't be able to figure that out until after you fight him, but it does lend credence to the theory that Connie knew what was up with Dandelion all along.

After spending the entire game fixating on Dandelion and Chicory, Connie finally gets around to writing a song for you, as a way of saying "See You Later" as you sail off into the sunset.

Feels like I've known you for so long, but there's always something wrong
I could never understand, what this feeling was
Searching for its meaning, I went through everything
Every piece of shattered glass, and then I realized

When I saw you, for the first time
Washed up on the shore and lost
I knew that I, had found someone I could call my own

Yeah, the meaning is really obvious, but it still shows depth in its own right. It shows that Connie has finally managed to move past the tragedy that's dominated her life, that she's found someone new to love. Sure, it's sweet and sappy, but above all, it's a good ending to a compelling character arc, and what's really amazing is that a lot of that arc is simply implied in the subtext of Connie's songs, rather than being shown to the player outright. The developers used the music masterfully to convey a beautiful story, and the end result is truly remarkable experience.

As a bonus, I have also figured out what the song "Music Revolution" tells us about its writer, Fennel:

It sucks because he's not a very good musician and it has no depth because he's a shallow moron who thinks he's better than everyone else.

Man, I am an analytical genius.

This started as a thing on the forums, but I figured it was funny enough to deserve a cblog of its own. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

So there's this guy who's a clone of this other guy (but he doesn't know he's a clone yet because he's like spiderman), and he killed the other guy who he's a clone of way back when, after the other guy told him to turn off his MSX2, which would have been totally freaky if the game weren't on the NES. Anyway, this guy who is you goes to alaska to rescue a military base from terrorists who are his old unit, and then you see a dude who looks like your dude only blonde get into a helicopter. Then a black guy tells you about metal gear and dies and your guy stares at an ass for a bit. Then a cowboy shows up and tries to kill you but he gets his arm cut off by a cyborg ninja, and you have to remember that one part because it's really important later. No, seriously.

So the dude who the cowboy was keeping prisoner tells you about metal gear, and you're all "no shit." Also, he dies, and your dude is all "wtf?" and then you have to look on the back of the cd case of the game to find out the phone number of the chick who belongs to the ass your dude was staring at in that one cutscene I mentioned. The dude from watergate contacts your dude, then your dude drops some grenades on a native american shaman in a tank.

After that you find the ninja from before (who is a dude you killed when you killed the guy you are a clone of) terrorizing a weeaboo so you drop a bunch of sparkly grenades that make him flip the fuck out and then shoot him a lot. Your dude and the weeaboo become friends and then you go to a new place and use your ass recognition skillz to find the chick. Then an evil psychic dude in a gasmask possesses her, tells you what konami games you've been playing and moves your controller with his mind, and you have to swap controller ports in order to kill him.

After that the chick gets taken out by a sniper chick so you have to backtrack for a sniper rifle and drugs and an asian chick on your phone tells you to save. Your dude gets knocked the fuck out and ends up being tortured by the cowboy. If you don't mash the button enough you either die or your girlfriend dies, so you better mash that fucking button unless you don't care about her, which is entirely possible considering that you barely know her at all.

Then you're in a cell with the same black dude who died, only he's more deader than before and has no blood. You might think that means vampires, but that's stupid because there are no vampires until the second game which I haven't gotten to in my summary yet. You trick an incontinent retard (who is also really important later on. No, really) into letting you out of your cell by splattering ketchup on your chest so he thinks you're dead.

Then you only blonde shows up in a helicopter and tries to kill the dude who looks like you and is you because he isn't blonde. You with the mullet kills his helicopter (but not him) and then kills the sniper bitch in a big snowfield, and also your weeaboo friend tells you he's in love with her. The shaman shows up with a minigun this time and you kill him too. Then you use a card to stop metal gear only it starts metal gear because the dude who looks like you only blonde tricked you, like, three times. He was pretending to be a different blonde guy who only kind of looks like you the whole time. WHAT A TWIST.

So blonde you tells you that he and brown mullet you are twin clone brothers from a thing with french babies. He then explains to you that the writer doesn't understand genetics and thinks recessive genes are automatically inferior. Also, you are a bioweapon with a deadly virus inside of you and it's what killed the guy captured by the cowboy and the black guy (who wasn't really the black guy but a different guy pretending to be the black guy who stole the black guy's blood for some reason, which made him vulnerable to the genetically targeted virus.)

The blonde guy, (who was the only blonde guy all along so I no longer have to qualify who he is,) then gets in metal gear which is a walking tank that launches nukes with a railgun and tries to kill you. You shoot it with missiles until the ninja shows up and cuts a weakspot in it that you can hit with missiles for massive damage. Then the ninja gets dead and you shoot the weakspot for massive damage. After that you punch the shit out of the blonde guy and then do a car chase with either your girlfriend or the weeaboo depending on if you gave up in the torture.

The blonde guy finally catches you and is about to shoot you but then the virus kills him and the old guy in charge of your mission stops a nuclear strike that was apparently going to happen. You ride of into the sunset with either your girlfriend or the weeaboo (no homo) and then the cowboy talks for a while and totally turns out to be the dude from watergate and also a bad enough dude to work for the president. He stole the plans for metal gear and totally sets things upfor a sequel where metal gears are sold on the black market and that's a bad thing.

Summary of said sequel is forthcoming.

5:09 PM on 04.02.2010

Apparently, if you read the first letter of every sentence in the last two paragraphs of my last post, you'll uncover a secret message from an ancient civilization or something. Check it out.

I am totally and utterly bewildered as to why 2k would want to make a second Bioshock. The first game was near perfect, one of the best games ever made. The story was concluded masterfully, there were no loose ends, and there were some amazing underlying themes. Sure, the gameplay was a little shitty (more on that in a minute) but from a narrative perspective, Bioshock 1 is one of the highlights of the medium. Not only did it craft a compelling tale of a fallen underwater utopia, but it also was a sophisticated satirization of the very nature of video games.

Compare that to Bioshock 2, which basically says "hey, remember all that shit you did in the first game? None of it fucking mattered." and then goes on to basically ruin everything. Adam? It's fucking magic now. Big Daddies? Hulking monstrosities devoid of any humanity? Fuck no, they're fucking ninjas now. The retarded shit goes on and fucking on and fucking on.

I guess, if you were thick, you could argue that the gameplay improvements make it worthwhile. Problem is, Bioshock was never about the gameplay. If it was, the weapons would do much more damage and you'd get more ammo, instead of being in bullshit fights all the time where it's impossible to avoid getting hurt. I mean, talk about shitty game design. But like in survival horror games, shitty gameplay is sort of excusable. It's the atmosphere you're there for, and the shitty combat mechanics contribute to that, as do the monotonous hacking minigames. By trying to improve those things, 2k has ruined the atmosphere in bioshock 2, just like Capcom ruined Resident Evil when they made number 4.

All in all, I'd say Bioshock 2 is well on its way to being the worst game of the year. Pretty much everything they could have done wrong they did. Realy, there was no need to make the game at all. I'm insulted that they think I'm so stupid as to let them milk my hard earned money with this peace of shit sequel. Let's all agree to boycott the inevitable bioshock 3 and put an end to this fucking bullshit.

For serious, guys, this is a thing we need to do for the good of the industry. Originality is being drained from the medium with each passing year. Original, innovative games are almost impossible to find outside of the indy market. Letting 2k get away with this is just another step down a slippery slope to fucking shit like Uncharted becoming the standard. Stop this shit now, before it's too late.

Jim Sterling's latest article got me thinking, and I think he missed one key point in his comparison between fundamentalists and fanboys:

They are arguing about two things that are fundamentally identical

For a very long time, Muslims, Jews, and Christians have been blowing each other up over whose imaginary friend is better. What they often seem to forget is that, aside from some superficial differences, they're imaginary friends are exactly the same. They're both all powerful deities who prefer to speak through prophets as opposed to just talking to humanity directly, even though doing so would be easier and far more effective. They both have the same list of superpowers, and they both hate it when people have imaginary friends besides them. Additionally, they're all based on the word of the same prophet, Abraham, and they all preach essentially the same set of values. For all intents and purposes, Allah, Yaweh, and Jehova are all the same god under different names.

Similarly, despite what fanboys will tell you, the PS3 and Xbox 360 are pretty much the same console. They both have approximately the same horsepower, though one is slightly more powerful and the other is slightly easier to work with. They both play pretty much the exact same games, with most of the exclusives having equivalents on the other console. On top of that, they both have 14 button wireless controllers with a home button in the middle, two analog sticks that you can click, and USB charging function. Despite the fact that the consoles are almost exactly the same, fanboys still claim their respective consoles to be vastly superior based on ultimately superfluous things like disk format or the quality of the online service.

Both fundies and fanboys get in bloody conflicts over which of their chosen identical products is superior, and such conflicts are almost as scary as they are pathetic.

7:51 PM on 12.08.2009

I'm a big fan of horror games, because they are genre that works fine in film, but simply works a hundred times better in interactive form. I can say with certainty that no movie will ever be able to scare me the way Fatal Frame 2 has, and none will be able to create a sense of atmosphere as perfect as that in Silent Hill 2. Oh sure, movies might be able to do better jump scenes, (more on that later,) but when it comes to sheer pants wetting psychological terror, film will never be able to hold a candle to the potential of the interactive medium. It's like a haunted house, but with all the pacing of a horror film and all of the infinite potential of animation. Until virtual reality comes around, nothing will be able to deliver scares as well as video games.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I love the horror genre so much, I happen to be a world class pansy. Horror games and films always freak me out, and frequently keep me up with nightmares. This is especially true of works in the zombie sub-genre, (even stuff like Zombieland sometimes,) which is even more unfortunate considering that I absolutely adore zombie fiction. Now, a lot of this probably stems from the traumatizing events of my first foray into hardcore gaming, (which you can read about in the bio on the right side of my blog,) but there is no denying that even before then I was a bit of a scaredy-cat. When I was 5 I had nightmares about the snow ghost from Scooby Doo, so suffice it to say that I have never been the bravest of souls.

But my crippling, sleep depriving psychological issues are not the only reason I have a love hate relationship with the horror genre. There are also a number of things that flat out annoy me. For one thing, almost all horror games have horrible control schemes. Running around is usually a pain, especially in games like Silent Hill, the old Resident Evil games, and Fatal Frame, and don't even get me started on the combat. I realize these are supposed to be ordinary people, not soldiers, but last I checked most ordinary people don't have parkinsons. Fighting in these games is usually an awkward clusterfuck that makes you wonder how your character can be the only survivor when he can't even figure out how to swing a baseball bat effectively. The only game that gets a pass on this is Fatal Frame, because using an old fashioned camera is about as awkward as is depicted in the game.

Another issue is that a lot of these games rely far too much on jump scenes to scare you. Scenes where a zombie jumps out of a closet beside the main character in a movie work well because they give the audience a good fright and occasionally serve to give the story some progression. They don't work as well in a video game setting, however, because when a player gets jumped by an unseen enemy and it kills him it feels cheap. It's even worse when save spots are few and far between, because then you have to replay up to an hour of gameplay just to get back to the spot where the jump scene killed you. When the game dumps a surprise instadeath on the player, it's not scary. It's not fun. It's just agitating.

The thing that bugs me most about horror games is that most of them are just shit. Not only are games like Siren and Alone in the Dark not scary, they exemplify bad design. With fucked up story progression, horribly confusing level design, and absolutely abysmal play mechanics, most of the horror games coming out these days are simply not worth playing. There is hope, however, as more developers are finally starting to get how to make horror games scary. A perfect example of this is Dead Space, which manages to maintain a fucking scary atmosphere the whole way through while having above average combat mechanics. It's a game where you're constantly paranoid, checking “dead” bodies and vents everywhere you go to make sure nothing gets the jump on you. When the enemies do show up, it feels like a bit of a relief. The developers understand that the scariest stuff is the stuff not on screen, and they frequently fuck with your head to keep you on edge. Of course, the story is a bit of a letdown, but it just goes to show that you don't need shitty play mechanics to make a game scary.

Despite all my gripes about the genre, I still love it, (the big goof,) and I'm gonna keep playing horror games as long as I can. I'll probably lose a lot of sleep, I'll probably smash a lot of controllers in frustration, and I'll DEFINITELY need some spare underwear, but at the end of the day I'll still have a great time. Here's to many years of psychological scarring. WOOOO!