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9:14 AM on 02.13.2010

An OCD gamer's average weekend

I was in line at the post office the other day. While I waited for the lady in front of me to run out of expletives to fling at the patient, mildly incompetent clerk, my eye fell on a large cardboard box sitting in a corner and a large question mark appeared over my head. In my long queue-induced torpor, I approached the box and considered kicking it over, yelling "THERE HE IS!". It must've been full of bricks or something, because I hurt my foot and it didn't budge. With the atmosphere of open warfare typical of most post offices, nobody really noticed this act of apparent lunacy. I quietly walked back to my spot in the queue, blaming my lack of common sense. Of course it wasn't Solid Snake. Solid Snake is too pimp to pay his bills at the post office.

After sitting through the lengthy loading time, I finally got my turn. It was fairly routine - I just had to deliver the item along with some gold. I could've used the gold, but I prefer to complete these kinds of quests as soon as possible. There's always time to go mining and stuff. The NPC behind the counter offered me a slip of paper as proof, but I just crossed the quest off my list. I don't need useless items cluttering my inventory, but it was a stupid key item so I had to take it anyway. I couldn't even sell it to the merchant cleaning windscreens at the traffic light.

It took me a while to walk back home; I make it a point to lean behind cover before turning every corner. Too cautious maybe, but you can never be too careful with a single life and no continues. I had a couple of free hours, so I decided to grind a little. I went to the park and ran a few laps. Some people stared when I yelled "YES! MY SKILL LEVEL HAS INCREASED!" as usual. Envious, no doubt.

I got back home and took a shower to replenish my stamina bar. My phone rang and there was a mandatory event where this chick asked me if I wanted to go see a movie with her and a couple other characters. I hadn't raided with this party in quite a while, and I really had nothing to do, so my dialogue options didn't even include a negative answer. I generally dislike that kind of lack of freedom, but in this case I didn't mind. Since I had already taken care of grinding for the day, I decided I may as well devote the evening to improving my S-Links.

On the way to the cinema a pigeon crapped on my new jacket - I almost managed to fend it off with a reversal DP, but ended up trading. Should've focused that shit, but I'm not too good with the matchup - I was afraid it might be two hits. Anyway it was enough to fill my revenge gauge, and I managed to punish the fucker with an ultra juggle. It's good to be high tier. Pigeons are all scrubs anyway, always jumping in on you and spamming those cheap flying projectile moves. That shit may fly with someone who doesn't have a reliable anti-air, but otherwise, what do they expect?

The movie was boring, unskippable, and didn't even have any QTEs. It was rendered completely with the gameplay engine, too - I'm usually all for that but it could've used some particle effects. At least the rest of the evening was good - as usual I ordered a pint of every beer in the pub, including the really expensive ones. It took a while to drink them all but that's something a true completist must learn to accept. It was worth it anyway, as they gave me an extra free one in a sick platinum mug at the end. 100% doesn't come for free, after all, and I'm not the type who can just feel happy with one or two times through the same drink.

I was kinda drunk when we left; the controls got all messy, and the graphics had this weird blur effect. I had to compensate carefully in order to avoid falling over. We were pretty far from my save room, so I had to set my home point at somebody else's place. I was hoping this would result in an AO-rated event with the chick, but people are generally very wary with that kind of stuff. If even it were possible, I screwed up a couple of choices in my conversation tree anyway.

The next day was a Sunday, so we went for some FIFA at a football pitch near my place. Nice server, real grass and all. I felt good; all the status ailments from the night before had gone. We played on amateur level and I scored a couple of goals, though I'm still convinced the game is broken. A couple of guys just had too many invincible frames in their dribbling animation, as well as godly shot ratings. Anyway I must've held the dash button down too much, because I was completely spent at the end. It started raining lightly and a couple of players had a weakness to water, so we decided to just quit early and simulate the rest of the match.

On Monday, as usual, I showed up for duty with my clan. The sessions can get pretty tedious, but my clanmates are all a lot of fun. Plus, the clan leaders are really generous when it comes to doling out rewards. It was a fairly boring day, but I feel I still did all right. I got some points, and even managed to put together a 5x document revision streak, which enabled me to use a free coffee bonus. That really helped my game through the rest of the day. This dude from the IT clan kept spamming the forums to organize a joint session, but I just put him on ignore.

I couldn't wait to get back home to do some side missions, but I still drove carefully - I didn't need any wanted stars to sidetrack me and waste more time. Besides, I'm going for a lawful good run, and that would've seriously hurt my alignment score. Some dude backed out of a parking spot without looking and missed my car's hitbox by one or two pixels. The real bummer was when I was walking from the car to my place - my phone rang, and I missed the QTE and dropped it. It pissed me off, especially since the ensuing phone call was just a random optional event that added nothing to the overall plot. The phone is still equippable, but I could've done without this - it's probably only got a few damage points left before I have to get a new one. I hope I can get one of the same class, because I've amassed a lot of skill points on this thing.

That evening another dude on my friends list hosted a game of poker. For some reason he almost got angry when I checked the chests in his bedroom for items. It was a fun session, although I thought the metal soundtrack didn't fit too well with the environment. Anyway, we spotted one of the players using hax, and the admin just banned him from the server immediately. I thought that was a bit harsh; I know the guy, and he probably just wanted to try that stuff out for fun. We weren't playing ranked anyway.

Eventually, I got back home. It had been some time since I'd last saved, so I headed straight for the bathroom and sat down.

My name is Michael J, and I am an obsessive.   read

9:07 AM on 10.26.2009

Nothing is Sacred: Death

Disclaimer: there’s a pretty big and popular Final Fantasy VII spoiler below, although EVERYBODY IN THE WHOLE WORLD knows this by now.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
--William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II, Sc.2

I know the moment's near
And there's nothing we can do
Look through a faithless eye
Are you afraid to die?
--Muse, Thoughts of a Dying Atheist

The things you pwn end up pwning you.
--Anonymous Internet User

You’re rushing across a cold platform. The tension is through the roof. All sorts of strange creatures zoom past you as you dodge their deadly touch with uncanny agility and timing. You hold your breath as you leap over a large gap – perhaps a split-second too soon – and exhale once you land safely on the other side. Sweat from the strain and pressure patches your clothes, all the way to your plumber’s overalls. Your knuckles carry unsightly bruises from all the bricks you smashed with your bare hands. No time to waste. The final goal can’t be far away; the next castle MUST be the right one. You can see it now – the flagpole appears on the horizon. So close you can almost touch it from there. Just jump – careful now, that winged turtle thing’s leaping over you – now it’s in your face –


Zoom out to a very different world, one that may or may not include a plastic controller flying through the room. Death has been a pivotal component of most games for a while now, so much that the term itself has taken on its own game-related meaning – one that’s about as seminal as “lives”, “level” and not much else. But while those other two examples have become somewhat synonymous with an old-schoolish outlook, dying has always been, more than anything else, a sort of common denominator in games. Like in the real world, death often plays the part of the ultimate enemy, much more so than any final boss. To ease the player’s torment, extra lives were granted, continues became mostly unlimited, energy bars were made longer, and checkpoints were introduced. A few lucky bastards even gained peculiar Wolverine-ish healing powers. But death remained a staple. What else could offer such a poignant representation of extreme failure?

Well...maybe this.

I think it’s safe to say that Gaming Death reaps more but is significantly less grim than its real-world counterpart. Of course, I’m not referring to those instances where a digital life is ended forever – those still make us cry – but rather those when the player hits a premature bump in the road, temporarily halting his advance, causing him to lose at least part of the progress he’d made.

What’s often overlooked is that in games, death itself is rarely “the worst that can happen to you”. That particular honour would go to another mainstay of single-player endeavours: repetition.

Pictured: not the worst that can happen to you.

I find it interesting, at least, to acknowledge how little things have changed over the years in this respect. The biggest difference between two randomly picked games would be the size of the part to be replayed through upon death. Some take you back to the latest save, some to the room entrance, some have checkpoints scattered around. Some, even in this day and age, remain old-school-oriented and leave you with a “Game over, try again” (Ikaruga comes to mind). That’s acceptable; some games are about the challenge more than anything else. Others, however, present a peculiar idiosyncrasy – they claim to offer “immersive experiences”, achieve variable degrees of success, and inevitably proceed to yank the player out of said experiences multiple times during a single playthrough.

Besides the enforced repetition, that’s perhaps my biggest gripe with the trial-and-error system most games implement: game over screens. Many will agree with me that immersion is a fundamental component in most single-player experiences. To have it broken up abruptly by something as cold and uninspiring as a simple game over screen is, to me, one of the most elementary pitfalls that game developers stumble upon. It basically equates to reminding you that you’re playing a game, which in many cases can be rather upsetting. Imagine engaging in some slow, sweet lovin’ with Megan Fox or Eva Mendez. Now google a picture of Maggie Thatcher. That’s pretty much what game over in Metal Gear Solid 4 feels like.

Here, I'll save you the trouble...Snake? Snake!! SNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!!!

2008’s Prince of Persia offered an interesting alternative to the formula: many summarized it as “you can’t die”, although it was a little more complex and less radical than that. Basically, whenever you fell into a pit (or were forced down one by an enemy), your magically-endowed companion would teleport you back to safety. This was done by means of a brief, distinctive shot featuring the character’s hands grasping each other’s. The game received a lot of criticism (mostly from fans) for this choice, coupled with the fact that it was generally very easy to complete. I think it was a step in the right direction. In the end it was mostly cosmetic, but it did effectively eliminate the game over screen; you were still brought back to a previous point (you had to repeat the jumping puzzle from the start, and enemies would regenerate part of their health), so repetition was still a part of the picture. The game had its share of flaws, but the “You can’t die!” line of criticism was the most unfair of the bunch – you can’t really die in Braid either now, can you?

Ironically enough, Prince of Persia’s last-gen predecessors had a much more groundbreaking mechanic. The Sands of Time trilogy provided the player with various powers to manipulate time, the most popular of the bunch being the “rewind” power. By using it, the player could literally rewind the action to a previous point, thus gaining an opportunity to correct the mistake that had caused his or her untimely death. It was exhilarating: get sliced in half by an enemy’s blade, die, rewind time, rise back up, let go, block the attack that was supposed to kill you, play on. Unfortunately, striking a balance between immersion and challenge is a very difficult endeavour, and even the Sands of Time games ended up with the occasional game over screen – there was a limit to the number of times said power could be used.

More of this please

I’ve been playing Metroid Prime 2 for a quite a bit now. It’s a good game. The controls are a bit iffy and awkward for a first-person game (it’s the original Gamecube version), but that’s about as badly as I can criticize it. The atmosphere is top-notch and it really makes you feel like you’re stranded on a deserted alien planet, something which is often cited as one of the series’ strengths. Despite all of this, I’ve been moving at a snail's pace through that game. It’s been in my “now playing” list for a few months; I sometimes play it for a bit on Saturday morning, fall in love with its aesthetics and flow, meet a boss, die, repeat, die again and give up. Dying brings you back to the last save room; in some cases this means you have to replay a long exploration segment before the boss. In the days after that, when I’m deciding what to play, I tend to brush Metroid aside – I don’t want to get up a couple of hours later and realize that I’ve just wasted time. Time is pretty much the most precious thing I have, despite what my choice of spending a significant part of it on videogames may indicate. If you want to create a boss that will abuse me, that’s fine. I will die multiple times, hopefully learn something new every time, and eventually overcome the obstacle. Just don’t force me to replay the same arbitrary, linear chunk of exploration before the boss every single time. I really don’t see the point in that, besides forcefully pulling me out of the beautifully crafted environment you’ve so meticulously immersed me into.

I don’t like games that force you to save, threatening you with loss of progress. Saving, like game over screens, is another extra-game aspect; I believe it should be made as inconspicuous as possible. Being able to save only at specific locations is a perplexing act of cruelty upon the gamer. Samus shouldn’t have to backtrack through hordes of enemies just to “save the game” – especially not now that she has high-capacity storage mediums at her disposal. The game should take care of that for her, and leave her and the player to just enjoy the adventure. I may be off here, but I greatly prefer the GTA/Metal Gear Solid approach of making saving the game during a session irrelevant – saving is only something you do to record your progress once you decide you want out for the time being. And while I’m on the “saving the game” tangent here, let me stress that save rooms also have another annoying implication: it’s the game that decides when you should stop playing, and not vice versa. Is it really just me or is that a blatant absurdity?

Such a clever, groundbreaking idea...and already stale by 1997.

So where do we go from here? Let me take an excerpt from the definition of the word “game”, courtesy of Messrs. Merriam and Webster:

1.activity engaged in for diversion or amusement

2.a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other

3.any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle

The first definition is way too broad, so I'll just conveniently ignore it. The other two reference the basic idea of a competition of some sort between two opposing parties. I’m fine with competitive multiplayer games such as Street Fighter or Pro Evolution Soccer following such a definition; the whole point is that they’re games, with rules, between two or more players, with a clear winner to be defined. A single-player endeavour like the aforementioned Ikaruga also falls into this category: the battle is between the player and the game, but it’s still as pure a test of skill as they come. I’m a bit more on the fence about the likes of Uncharted or Prototype. Sure, these are about the player going against a pre-written set of obstacles. The question is: should they be? This is not some pet peeve of mine about semantics; by their own claim, these products rarely refer to themselves as “games”, preferring terms like “immersive adventure”, “realistic experience” and “endless feast”. Both of these examples, like countless others, use death as the same old tired gameplay device to provide a little challenge through trial and error. It’s OK; not everybody has to innovate. It’d be nice if someone did though, every now and then. Haven’t we grown tired of this yet? Maybe it’s time to reconsider the whole basic concept of what we generically call “games”; maybe we don’t really want these experiences to have be games.

Yeah yeah, I know, MGS4 joke. Go on, say it. It'll make you feel better. Oh, do I have to? Ok then...LONG CUTSCENES!! LOLOLOLOLOL

In case you didn’t know, I played and loved every LucasArts point’n’click adventure from the ‘80s-‘90s. With a few exceptions (early ones like Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken, as well as the Indiana Jones games) these games featured a fairly staunch no-death policy. In the Monkey Island series, death is either a joke or an Easter egg, possibly both. They even had a cute little disclaimer describing this in their manuals, something along the lines of “we don’t believe in punishing you at every mistake, take your time and enjoy the ride”. They may have been helped in this by the genre’s uniqueness, and it may have been conceived as a not-so-veiled jab at their rivals, Sierra (dying was VERY easy in Sierra adventures). But the fact remained that exploring those imaginative environments without the chronic fear of making mistakes was incredibly enjoyable and refreshing. And all those games were still challenging, and still very, very good. They actually encouraged you to look around and try new ideas out, as crazy as they might’ve felt. I feel such an attitude has been progressively fading from the gaming world: the average single-player adventure today is more about teaching the player a set of rules and controls to get from A to B, rather than trying to spark the mind and the imagination with clever puzzles.

Let me just leave you with the last bit of the Merriam-Webster definition:

synonyms: see fun

There’s a simpler answer: the ultimate acid test. Perhaps it is a fitting term after all. Don’t include a mechanic in your game just because everybody else does. Even if it’s the oldest, most hallowed trick in the book.   read

8:08 AM on 10.05.2009

The evils of enforced localization

[Yeah, this thing is still going, contrary to appearances. I've just been spending a lot of time slacking around on the forums and stuff. Hopefully I'll be able to provide new and exciting content more often from here on. I might even write a short one here and there.]

Today I want to spend a few words to denounce a monumental injustice that has been plaguing gamers worldwide for decades, an unspeakable evil imposed on us by the unforgiving laws of capitalism. I speak, of course, of localization.

Now, before you jump to conclusions, let me elaborate. Localization is a good thing, a very helpful thing. Everybody knows their spoony bards or that guy who are sick or how the 360 ruined Final Fantasy XIII for everyone because it's OMG TOTALLY BETTAR with the Japanese voice track (holy crap, did I just make three separate Final Fantasy references in one sentence?). But all in all, you wouldn't even have played those games if there wasn't an English translation.

First of all, let me give you a little background, because the upcoming rant is closely linked to my personal situation. I was born in Italy, where I currently live, from English-Italian parents. I was taught both languages at a very early age, which I consider to be a tremendous blessing and something I am deeply grateful for. A large percentage of modern Western fiction is produced in English, and my mixed heritage allowed me to enjoy a lot of that in its original form – my Italian friends swear they liked Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but I just know it wasn’t the same film for them.

Totally un-localizable.

Translating fiction is always slippery territory. Localization – adapting a product to specific cultural differences in distinct markets – is pushing it until it almost crosses the boundaries of ethics. Human language is a beautiful, complex machine. Is it “right” for someone to take liberties in adapting a work for a regional market, to make it more palatable for people who wouldn’t understand the original? Let me give you a quick example: consider the character of Thorin Oakenshield from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Upon hearing his family name, English-speaking readers will immediately conjure up a very specific image, along with several more abstract ones. Translate all the book except for that name, and that feeling is lost completely. So the sensible way to go, in the opinion of many, is to change his surname so that the intended audience will catch the reference. But even that may not be perfect; take Japanese names, which are generally made up of kanji with very precise meanings. Imagine if they’d changed Mitsuru Kirijo’s name in Persona 3 (as someone explains in the game, the “kiri” in Kirijo means paulownia) to make the reference more direct for an English audience. The Italian translations of the first couple Harry Potter books had “Ravenclaw” inexplicably transposed as the equivalent of “Black Sheep”; this all fell apart by the time the movies started coming out, and I think there even was a note in the third or fourth book explaining that they’d changed the name to something closer to the original owing to a particular scene involving a raven emblem. In the end, it’s a very fine line to tread.

Which brings us to games. Back in the late ‘80s Italian localizations were mostly limited to hideously translated NES manuals, but the core product itself went untouched. The first fully translated game that I remember playing was the brilliant Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. The Italian version was dire, chock-full of stilted constructions and even spelling mistakes. Me and my friends actually believed that was a product of the eponymous Mindbenders' meddling - in the game, alien invaders attempt to enslave mankind with the use of machines that induce stupidity. Yes, we actually believed the characters spoke funny because the aliens had turned them slightly stupid.

Tell me he doesn't look like an idiot.

Then The Secret of Monkey Island came along. A lot of the humour was lost in translation, and the rendition was far from perfect, but at least the prose made sense. Thinking of the jokes that did not make sense, however, actually helped my young mind realize why translations usually subtract from the original. One notable instance is the infamous “red herring” puzzle. Very early in the game, our hero Guybrush meets a troll blocking his path. To get past him, he must offer him something. One of the first items Guybrush had picked up on his quest was a fish. Upon closer inspection (i.e. by selecting “look at fish” through the game's interface) it is revealed to be a red herring. The troll asks for “something that will attract attention, but have no real importance”, which is exactly the figurative meaning of the term “red herring”. This was an absolutely brilliant puzzle, one of many subtle touches that made Monkey Island the gold standard for adventure games. And if you played one of the many local translations, it was completely lost and replaced by something that didn’t really make a lot of sense.

In any case, Monkey Island marked the first time I actually experienced proper characterization in a game. Thus began my lifelong love affair with video game storytelling. (incidentally, it's left me feeling like a betrayed lover most of the time, but it still goes on).

Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation was a masterpiece of writing and voice acting, pushing these aspects to previously unseen standards of excellence. It was a true gem, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of the UK version, by total accident. I eventually got around to trying the Italian version, and I couldn't bring myself to keep listening past the first couple of exchanges between Snake and Campbell. It wasn't exactly bad; it sounded like a Cartoon Network parody of the real thing, so distant from the excellent performances of the original that it almost felt like a joke. Just as a side note, dubs always sound fake in Italian. That's mostly because of the huge differences in regional dialects; foreign works are generally adapted into proper Italian, which is a language nobody, not even the President, actually speaks in real life. Imagine if everybody in MGS spoke with the same kind of accent and expression as a GPS navigator. But it’s also true that the market for localized games is smaller than that of films and other forms of fiction; video game localizations get minuscule budgets, and players have never really experienced the kind of top-notch quality that games like MGS can deliver.

Seems like so long ago.

I recently received Fallout 3 as a gift, and my excitement was considerably marred when I found out there isn't an option to select the language. The game is fully localized, text, menus, voice acting, subtitles, everything. I've encountered this kind of issue several times in the past, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is simply no way to know what you’re getting other than opening the box and playing the game. Most games (not all) will have a little tab showing the manual, in-game text and dialogue languages; this is all very nice, except for the fact that it conveniently ignores when a game is multi-language. In other words, if the box says “Italian” it can mean anything from a full translation with no language choice to a five-language disc that’s identical to what you would get in Germany or in the UK. And that’s when you’re lucky; a lot of games only have a useless “manual and game in Italian” caption which doesn’t even specify if the game is subbed or dubbed, while others have nothing at all (this last category includes Fallout 3). I’ve even tried comparing retail product codes, only to end up more confused than ever. A few Nintendo games like Metroid Prime 3 and Mario Galaxy are blessed with a "5-in-1 multilanguage" label, but this is hardly a dominant trend. Shop assistants will only know whether a game has Italian because, quite simply, that's all 99% of the consumers care about. Shopping online is just as frustrating, unless you buy exclusively from a country which speaks the language you want. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years, spending a few extra quid a pop to get games from the UK.

Not all adaptations are bad. Some are actually worth watching for the dub alone.

It's a strange phenomenon, that pretty much only happens in games. Original-language movies have become widespread, thanks to DVDs and satellite TV. Fans enjoy watching films in their original language, with or without subtitles. Even if they can't understand everything. They like to have a choice. Why, then, can't we have the same choice with games? It's got to do, of course, with the general perception of the medium. I'm not gonna get into another "games as art" debate, but as with any other kind of entertainment, I feel the recipients of the final product deserve a little more respect than just a hack translation job to make it playable. Software houses only care about maximizing profit (fair enough, I should add), which means you only get a localized version when it's expected to sell over a certain amount, and you get multilanguage when it fits on the disc (and while we’re at it: shouldn’t Blu-ray discs have solved that problem?).

As a native English speaker living in Italy, I realize my position is obviously a niche, at best. And yet, I know a lot of people who would much rather have the original voice acting, even if they don’t understand it completely. Be it because they prefer the quality of the acting, or because they want to improve their English, or simply because they enjoy the original product more. Even on the more global level, I know people who like to play Japanese versions. The market simply does not consider these people; if you want the Japanese, you import. That’s OK; my point isn’t that original versions should be made more accessible. Quite simply, it should be made clear what kind of version you are getting when you hand over your hard-earned cash. 99% of the stuff that’s written about games on the Internet (you might have heard of it) is either in English or in Japanese. If I buy a copy from my local retailer, I’d like to know what exactly has been changed. Most people don’t care about the localization; well, I do. It’s simpler on a global scale, because it’s gonna be either English or Japanese, and it’s pretty easy to tell the difference and filter stuff both ways. But in Europe, where we’re all cramped up and people are speaking all sorts of crazy languages just around the corner, things get a little messier. Countries that are closer to continental/northern culture - and, I might add, more internationally-minded - like Norway or the Netherlands get subs most of the time, even on public TV. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I've heard that in Poland dubs are done by a single voice actor, who just reads the lines over the original track, like an interpreter. But is that really a bad idea? After all, they’re just saying “hey, you’re watching a dub, don’t pretend you aren’t”. All-out dubs, after all, are loaded with subtle compromises and affectations. Things can get especially awkward when dealing with material that explicitly references the original language - hence, for example, "Do you speak English?" usually becomes "Do you speak my language?"


I don’t want to bash “minor” localizations. Well, most of the time they suck, but that’s not their fault and it's not the point. It would be nice if everybody could speak all the languages in the world so as to understand every little linguistic nuance in every work of fiction, but that’s not gonna happen. Localizations are useful, even vital; a lot of countries (and I do mean A LOT) don’t even get them. But we’re living in a global age, and we can’t just keep pretending that the world ends around the corner. The point is that producers and retailers should offer a choice, or at least make it clear to the consumer. If it’s not sustainable to sell original versions in local markets, fine; just write it clearly on the box, and I’ll look elsewhere. Is it really that much to ask?   read

3:17 AM on 03.02.2009

Like a Hadoken to the face: The Big Leap

It happened.

I'd been preparing for this for a while, saving up and planning exactly how it would go. I still have a crapload of older titles that I really want to play, but I figured at this rate I'd still be playing 16-bit Zelda in my 40's. Which is a good thing and is still gonna happen regardless, so I decided to just get on with it.

So I went for a drive, brought a pal along to stop me from chickening out at the last second, and by the time I got back home I was carrying a big-ass slab of Bravia, a shiny new PS3 and a copy of the Collector's Edition of Street Fighter IV (somewhat related note: not worth it).

I hooked everything up and gave it a spin. My initial reaction was something like this:

Guess that backlog will have to wait. If games are digital highs, I am OD'ing right now. I still suck at fighting Ken, err, playing online, mostly because I need to get used to lag and the fresh blisters on my thumbs - but if you want to engage in a good ol' fashioned high-def fisticuffs, I'm your man (PSN: Shinryu108). Oh, and I'm on HD Remix too.   read

9:34 AM on 02.04.2009

MMO, I renounce you

I've always been an RPG person. I haven't even played that many, compared to the hardcore enthusiast, but I've always been easy prey for what I like to call the "RPG factor" or "incremental gameplay". Get a sword, kill monsters, get money, gain a few levels, get a better sword, reach a tougher dungeon, kill tougher monsters…you know the drill. Describing it to a non-enthusiast, let alone to a non-gamer, makes it sound exceptionally tedious and nerdy. But those of us who know...just do. People like shiny things; some people don't mind if said shiny thing is bitmap or polygonal.


Like I said, I have to admit to not having played tons of RPGs despite appreciating the genre. Nevertheless, I've had my Diablo, Warcraft and Baldur's Gate sleepless streaks. I've played text-based D&D, as well as old-school PC gems like Excelsior and Castle of the Winds (GITF - you'll thank me later). I wasted way more time on the Ehrgeiz RPG than on the actual fighting game (and I am also a beat 'em-up freak). Besides that, I have an unhealthy tendency towards brand loyalty - I finished Devil May Cry 2, for crying out loud.

The RPG factor kept me coming back for more. It's no wonder that more and more games (Resident Evil and Arkham Asylum just to mention a couple) are attempting to incorporate RPG elements. The RPG factor appeals to the innermost depths of the human mind, reducing every aspect of the world to deterministic figures; the player is at once denizen and god of the fictional world.

Is this why RPGs are so successful? Some argue that most of these games - especially those from Japan - simply use the RPG factor to sweeten an otherwise dull experience. Others claim that JRPGs are really subpar products that rely on collateral appeal - plot, characters, fanservice, whatever - to sell. In any case, the RPG factor has made the fortune of many a game publisher.

The next logical step is the MMO. Multiply the quests, monsters and equipment by over 9000, add in the online aspect: what could go wrong?

I drooled over the possibilities for a while. Then I tried out World of Warcraft and was genuinely unimpressed. I jumped over to Final Fantasy XI (brand loyalty, there it is) and felt it was exactly the same game with a different façade. Although I knew consciously that if didn't have those two magic words in the title (damn you, Squeenix) I wouldn't even have considered it, I made a serious effort to like the game. And I came up short.

Several cakes could be baked in the time it takes you to reach those people in the background

The game world doesn't feel expanded, but diluted. It seems every effort up to slightly slowing down the character's running animation has been made to ensure you spend as much time as possible on the game. And for a game you pay based on a measure of your playing time, that makes a world of sense. Most of the time, in fact, I was running from A to B. Most of the remaining time I was lazily pounding a twelve-inch hare, waiting for it to collapse under my apparently piddly blows and yield that measly XP reward. And to be precise, most of the time I was engaging an enemy both of us were just standing there waiting for our respective turns to end.

When I realized that most of the quests were apparently about killing n specimens of monster A, or gathering y pieces of item B, the obvious question dawned on me:

Why am I doing this?

It's a somewhat rhetorical question when videogames are the issue, I know. But bear with me. There was no plot, no characters to speak of, no storyline to keep me coming back. The grind was stretched out to unreal proportions; even just doing the research necessary to move things along more quickly takes so much time that I simply can't see people with serious commitments - even little more than a full-time job - actually enjoying this genre. I was stuck in an endless loop, spending hours killing the same monsters just to get a better weapon and move on to the next area - where I could find the same monsters as before with a different name and start over.

As a gamer, I've endured some pretty dull shit. I made an Ultimate Damascus Dread Shield in Vagrant Story, and anyone who knows the game knows what I'm talking about. Some of the chores the developers throw in their games are downright ridiculous. But when I started thinking "Man, I'd rather be playing this or that" I realized this was going too far.

brb guys, my beard is becoming aware of its own existence

People I played with, including high-level peeps who were just out there to help the noobs out, kept saying the same thing: it's dull at the beginning, but it gets better. But should I really put up with this? Should I waste my time by the shitload grinding it out just hoping for the game to "get better"? Shouldn't the journey be as entertaining as the ultimate goal? And after all, what am I playing for? Bragging rights for my Lv.75 Monk? So that one day I'll be able to tell my kids that I completed every single Final Fantasy game?

The truth is, I'm not bashing the game or the genre. Well, OK, I have issues with the idea of a game being explicitly based on wasting my time, which is the most valuable commodity I have. In fact, I wish I had the time to play it through. You know, if I could have unlimited IRL lives, I would definitely devote one or two to a couple MMORPG's. The appeal of the RPG factor in them is tenuous, at least to me, and it's unnerving when you remember how much you could get done in one sitting of, say, Diablo.

When we started out, gaming wasn't about achievements. It was about fun. Hell, you didn't even expect to finish a NES game when you bought it. You gladly replayed the same 2-3 opening levels each time you stuck the cartridge in, occasionally shitting bricks whenever you managed to get a little further. Because the simplicity of the gameplay was enough to keep you entertained. Diablo or the Ehrgeiz minigame didn't even need a plot to be fun - load the game and hack away, pure unadulterated RPG goodness.

South Park nailed it

I don't wanna piss off fans of the genre, in fact I'd appreciate it if you shared your views on this. But when you really look at it from an outsider's perspective - imagine the NORP reading that story about those guys spending 18 hours battling some boss - it really looks stupid. For crying out loud, FFXI doesn't even feel like FF - it's closer to WoW remix. And yet, people love this stuff, just ask Blizzard. The bottom line is that the software houses are out to get our cash, as they should, and I can't blame them for it. But until they keep dishing out the same old recycled crap instead of actually attempting to focus on actually original game design, I know I ain't gonna chip in.

So you see, Junior, that's why XI is the only Final Fantasy I never completed.   read

1:05 PM on 10.31.2008

The FEAR: Dark Rooms and Good Ole Captain LeChuck

Finally got this thing up and running, a pleasure to be actively blogging in the community. I thought I'd weigh in on the monthly topic since there's still some time...Just be warned, there are some SPOILERS below about the Monkey Island series. Here goes.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge is one of the best games ever. While it has by now become part of a long-mourned legacy and one of the few rare streaks of pure excellence in gaming (LucasArts' late-eighties-to-mid-nineties collection of point & click adventures), anyone who played it back in the day knows its place among the all-time great expressions of the medium. Its writing is universally lauded for its wittiness, humour and overall brilliance, and I don't think I've ever heard or read anybody talk about it as anything remotely close to a frightening game.

Which doesn't change the fact that back in the golden days of 1992, Monkey Island 2 became the first game to scare the shit out of me..

I was a kid, and as such, rather impressionable. I didn't understand why people watched horror flicks. I hadn't yet developed a taste for layered storytelling or complex characters. I watched, played and read stuff to have fun and see the hero prevail. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was, to me, the pinnacle of hardcore.

In case you're unfamiliar with the storyline of the Monkey Island series, here's a quick recap: it's about Guybrush Threepwood, a young pirate wannabe, who eventually ends up vanquishing the fearsome Ghost Pirate LeChuck. In part 2, LeChuck is brought back from the dead and seeks his revenge (hence the title) on Guybrush, who, meanwhile, is on a hunt for the legendary treasure known as Big Whoop.

At a certain point, Guybrush slips and bangs his head, passing out. In his dream, his parents show up, asking him why he ran away from home. They offer help on his quest in the form of a song. They then turn into skeletons and burst into a hilarious song-and-dance rendition of Dem Dry Bones. Guybrush's facial expression alone is worth the game's price tag:


Soon however, the dream turns to nightmare as LeChuck himself intrudes, scaring Guybrush's skeletal elders away. The change in music, courtesy of Michael Z. Land, is spine-chilling. LeChuck changes his shape to that of a young Guybrush and fires a spray of root beer at our hero - the method Guybrush himself used to dissolve LeChuck's ghostly essence in the first chapter. The Guybrush awakens, screaming.

LeChuck's Revenge is that rare thing: a hilarious trip with unapologetically dark elements. It's comedy, to be sure, but without that safety net of painting its characters as cliché-ridden caricatures. Clichés are present as metatextual joke material, which makes the characters feel more human, almost as if they are alternating between playing a part and honestly reflecting on their role in a way that brings them much closer to the player. LeChuck himself is a beautifully accomplished villain, striking a balance between the parodistic and the downright evil. Later Monkey Island chapters painted him as more of a typecast cartoon character; it may be that as a 9-year old I was more susceptible to LeChuck's dark undertones, but if you compare the box art for the games, you'll see that something definitely changed between parts 2 and 3:

Right: Hmm, I wonder if Timmy would like this for Christmas?

While it would be unfair to say that they distorted LeChuck's character, he definitely felt he had lost that edge from the very outset of Monkey Island 3. The reason may be that LeChuck's Revenge's dated graphics had a less cartoony feel than its follower, or that the introduction of voice acting left little to the imagination. But the REAL reason, of course, is that Monkey Island 2 was the last game in the series to involve its original creator, that genius by the name of Ron Gilbert.

Back to the game. Guybrush's dream was the first instance of a game scaring me. I recall it being rather mild, but the notion of a murderous presence haunting my dreams was one that always made me uneasy. Years before even watching the Nightmare movies, Freddy Krueger was one of my pet representations of fear itself (of course, watching the movies themselves greatly diminished the sense of dread that my rampaging imagination had managed to generate - as with most things). But the real confrontation with LeChuck, and the sheer terror it entailed for me, was yet to come.

In the final part of the game, Guybrush finds Big Whoop and falls down a dark hole. Exploring the black screen with the cursor, the player finds an item labeled "switch". In pure point & click puzzle solving logic, the natural reaction is to "use" it so that the game can move forward. So I positioned my cursor on the black pixels covering the switch, hit "U" for use, and clicked to confirm the action and OH SHIT LECHUCK IS HERE WTF WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH - and in a brilliant Star Wars reference he reveals he is Guybrush's brother, and whips out a voodoo doll of him, and proceeds to torture him - albeit with rather cartoony results - before attempting to banish him to a "parallel dimension of eternal suffering".


The attempt fails, as LeChuck only manages to teleport Guybrush to the next room, but there were two things here that struck me. First, LeChuck appearing out of nowhere to scare the shit out of me, an element that became a staple of horror games, most notably the Resident Evil series. More than that, the idea that he was actually lurking in that dark room, waiting, as I naively hovered over black pixels looking for clues. That was the first time a game had successfully sucker-punched me and made me jump on my seat. The second concept was the idea of a character that evil, that consumed by revenge against one individual. LeChuck shared none of those lazy dreams of riches or power or world conquest: the one desire that kept his rotting corpse moving was to inflict as much pain as possible upon Guybrush Threepwood.

In a landscape where most game villains were little more than mindless bitmap sprites attempting to halt your progress by draining your life bar, LeChuck was, in spite of his funtamentally cartoonish nature, tremendously deep, articulate, dark and, yes, human. In the following game segment - the memorable conclusion to LeChuck's Revenge - the feeling of dread was amplified. The player had to roam a web of mysterious tunnels containing several muddled, disturbing references to Guybrush's adventures up to this point, as well as some rather unsettling imagery - most notably, Guybrush's parents' skeletons sitting on a couch in a medical room. The traditional laid-back flow of point & click adventure gaming was disrupted by the element of LeChuck randomly popping in, ominous music and all, and making another attempt at blasting Guybrush though space-time. The attempt would invariably fail as the player would simply be teleported to a random room, but the feeling of helplessness, the look of pain in Guybrush's animations, and the sheer pleasure on LeChuck's mangled lo-res mug were unsettling to say the least. And most of all, that feeling of some malevolent presence lurking those very rooms I had to explore to complete the game. Like Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, he would jump in when I least expected and disrupt my gameplay. Unlike Nemesis, I couldn't run from this guy, I couldn't turn around and face this guy, and I couldn't stop this guy. All I could do was try to outwit him, try to move, collect stuff and think of a way out as quickly as I could before his inevitable appearance. Point & click games were about taking your time, exploring, thinking. This was as frantic as they could get. In survival horror games, you're not usually forced to think of a way out while running from a murderous zombie; it's mostly about how much ammo you have and how good you are with the controls. Puzzles and combat are generally separate aspects of the gameplay.

Obligatory Pyramid Head nod to break the wall o' text.

The fact that you couldn't die made it, in a way, even worse. It might be just me, but dying, and having to restart from a previous save, breaks immersion and suspension of disbelief. It brings you back to the notion that you're playing a game, a neatly organized array of lines of code. Dying in Resident Evil is more an annoyed "dammit" than a spooked "whoa". As contradictory as that may sound, the safety net of knowing you can't die also means you can't get a break unless you quit playing.

LeChuck's rampage, given the technical limitations of the game, is an extremely tame experience by today's standards. However, the idea of an evil motherfucker lurking in the dark is still one of the few devices that manages to genuinely frighten me. Silent Hill and Resident Evil games employ this aspect with varying degrees of success - all hail Pyramid Head - although I find a major turn-off in a horror game is the use of cutscenes. Nothing kills a good spooky moment like losing control over your character. The best moments in any Resident Evil game are when you believe you're alone in a room, then a camera change, a loud noise or a spooky music piece kicks in to prove you wrong. And you might even be carrying an arsenal of firearms that would humble John Rambo, but it still gives you a jolt. Even more so if it's some unusual monster, someone you haven't yet placed within a clear-cut category complete with knowledge of how to take care of them - who else found the naked zombies creepy as hell upon first encounter? It's got nothing to do with the fact that this monster may kill your character; it's that childish fear of the unknown, that all too human need to explain everything around you, to have a set of rules that reality must abide by. LeChuck wasn't following those rules: he was trying to kill me in a game where I couldn't die, and he was trying to hurt me in a game that was supposed to be comedy. He was popping in at random, interrupting an experience which so far had been under my complete control. Like Charles Widmore in Lost, he'd single-handedly changed the rules. He had the upper hand in a world where I thought I was the only acting force.

It's an age old concept: children fear the dark. Not the dark itself, but the idea that the dark may be hiding something unknown. Fear of believing that somewhere within that darkness, there is something that you can't see, and that can see you.   read

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