“Limit”, “Limitation” and “Obstacle” – words you can look up on the dictionary (or so I hope) and concepts whose value tends to be seen on a more negative light, given their existence as obstructions to the emancipation of the human being as an entity gifted with potential. “Your only limit is yourself, destroy your obstacles, take down those barriers” are phrases we may read and listen when going about our daily lives as a way to empower people and to push them towards a more optimistic outlook on life.
Although I absolutely understand the nice intentions of these sayings, with what I’ve learned and my ideas related to life in general I want to observe this from another perspective: namely to look at those limitations and obstacles as crucial elements of human development, and that it’s important to value them in a more positive fashion. As such, I’d like to talk to you about my experience with a videogame called Shin Megami Tensei IV.
For those that may not know, Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) is a videogame dynasty with its origins in the early 90s, which has a plethora of spin-off titles besides the mainline ones. Shin Megami Tensei IV, the fourth in the mainline series, was launched for the Nintendo 3DS in 2013, in Japan and America – Europe only got it by the end of 2014, because ATLUS. Some will get the joke.
To give you some context, the third chapter, SMT III, was launched for the PS2 in 2004 and in 2009 SMT: Strange Journey came out for the Nintendo DS (and was not localized for European territories). According to the team, this one was supposed to have the “IV” in the title but they ended up changing the name. This happened because, unlike numbers 1 to 3 which occurred in Tokyo, the setting for this one was Antarctica, as a way to try to appeal to a worldwide audience. Some fans, however, assumed this had to with the fact of it being in a “less powerful” console – the DS, in relation to the PS2 – and that the next one would certainly be for the Playstation 3, for example.
Not that Strange Journey was considered a poor game, mind you. Far from it; it was vastly acclaimed for keeping the spirit and quality the series is known for, “despite being in a portable console”. But in reality there were some design choices which were obviously influenced by the console’s capabilities: the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games are RPGs, which had gone from a 1st person perspective in tight corridors and with somewhat static battle animetion, to wider sceneries able to be transversed in 3rd person and more dynamic battles. And in Strange Journey's case it was considered almost as more of an “homage” to the original games, than a continuation.
And that evolution, in a sense of having wider and more expansive settings as well as a step up in the graphical department, was what was expected of the fourth SMT game; and that was somewhat compromised when it was announced for the Nintendo 3DS. I admit, I shared these worries (at least in the very beginning). How “limited” could this game be, in relation to my expectations? That possibility of an open world and impressive landscapes that would hardly be possible in a portable system? Note that I’m not undermining the value an artistic potential of portable consoles – far from it. I just intend to show the objective technical potential that sets consoles apart and that may influence the type of experiences we expect from each one. And although I thoroughly enjoyed Strange Journey, from the fourth one I expected something akin to SMT III.
But after playing through the most recent chapter in the series, and loving it immensely, there was something that the team at ATLUS did specifically and that I was really appreciative of, and I feel that it only had to happen due to the specs of the console. But before, that I’d like to talk about the way the game, well, “plays” with those expectations I mentioned before. When the game starts we’re mainly navigating through menus, when we move, interact with other characters and so on. When we get to the battles and dungeon exploration, the game introduces sections played in the 3rd person, having a balance I do appreciate between more static and more dynamic moments.
And it’s essentially in these environments experienced in the 3rd person where what I want to talk to you about is. First, the developers had to choose “which places are going to be static images with menus, and which ones can be explored in the 3rd person”. As I mentioned briefly, in the beginning of the game besides one or two dungeons, with different floors, the rest is basically entirely menu based. It’s only when you get to a certain moment in the story that the game “opens up” in every way, with you now having towns to explore in the 3rd person. This not only works as a way to show progressive development of the game mechanics, but also as a way to connect it to the story. There were moments in which I just wanted to play the game to stroll through town, to breathe the place. Not because they are absurdly big, or full of people to chat with – none of that. But they didn’t have to be like that because the focus is clearly in the intricate detail that makes each area different enough from the others. And, to me, that is saying a lot when it’s a game in which the population is dispersed and almost annihilated, left somewhere doomed to eternal darkness.
Then, there’s the interface with that game world. What SMTIV does is put a ciruclar holographic image around you, and when it comes in contact with something in the environment, holographic icons appear due to the device the character has in his arm. It's just a little touch that, for me, really adds to the experience. Once again, the game manages the story, the game mechanics and the player experience in such a way that, to me, feels simply fantastic, because this management makes it something unified and coherent. All of this makes even more sense when you think about how one of the series’ main themes has to do with technology – and religion and philosophy as well, but that’s for another time.
Something that was probably incorporated due to “limitations”, was so well thought-out that, to me, becomes an integrated aspect of this world. Not to say that the team wouldn’t have done this if they were working with a more powerful console, but it seems to me like one of those ideas that come up as a way to deal with objective parameters that can’t be changed. And if there’s something that videogame history is full of is works that try go beyond the limits set by the hardware they’re developed in. Stories were still told even if characters had no facil expression or no voices; there’s a reason you could even, in a way, outline personalities in the ghosts of Pac-Man from the way they moved. And what about the fog that’s such a staple in the Silent Hill games and contributed so much to its atmosphere, and was put in do to system limitations? It’s almost unanimous the way fans feel between the original and the remastered version, where they removed said fog. And I love that "PS2-vibe" that the graphics and presentation the games of that era have.
Basically, those concepts that I presented initially are, to me, not something we should “destroy”, but something we should work with because they’re some of the biggest stimulants for creativity we could have. We all have limitations, we all face hardships, so I consider that what matters is not the simple fact of these existing and of things coming down to “you either have them or you stop having them”, but instead what you do with them. And there are some amazing things that can emerge not “despite” these limitations, but because of them.
What's your take on this subject? What games "had" to change or do something due to console limitations that you've really enjoyed? Please tell me your thoughts, your complaints, your favorite kind of sign post and whatever else you feel like. I post weekly on my blog (https://themaninthegarage.wordpress.com/category/turbine-philosophy/) as well as other guy's who are the project as well, so come check it out.