Can the JRPG be Fixed?

July 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s no secret that the Japanese Role Playing game, once the provider of some of the deepest gaming experiences around is currently going through a period of stagnation. Like the rest of the Japanese industry – aside perhaps from the looming Nintendo – the JRPG is facing a very quiet and yet very real crisis, trying to broaden its appeal with western gamers whilst retaining what made the genre great in the first place.

There are naturally still games in the genre that are continuing to do well critically as well as commercially. Dragon Quest IX was recently released to a fanfare of praise, even from gamers who’ll admit to never having played a Dragon Quest game before. Persona 4 also found great success recently, with its unique setting and art style that really helped to set it apart from the crowd. Final Fantasy meanwhile, once the king of the hill, fell into something of a critical rut with its thirteenth iteration. It may have sold well, but notable critics such as EDGE Magazine and Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker panned the game for its insufferable hand-holding and lack of innovation.

Most criticisms of Final Fantasy XIII revolved around its length.

When considering how a genre can be reinvented, it’s always very important to keep what made it great to start off with. Storylines and battles of an epic scope have always appealed to the hardcore JRPG fans, and as such it would be wise to keep these features intact when trying to broaden the appeal of the genre. Likewise the emphasis on loot collection and equipping characters with the best possible gear is something that’s made those 100 plus hour saves in Final Fantasy X something to be proud, rather than ashamed, of.

Finally – and I realise this may be a controversial choice here – turn-based battles should remain a part of the JRPG formula. Sure, it may be annoying to have all your battles take place in a completely separate arena in the main game, and many may find it irritating to not have full control of the movement of your characters, but by taking movement control away from the player, a game’s animators can really go to town creating elaborate attacks and moves for your party members. The presence of menus is also a very useful tool to have in battle, without it you’re having to rely on only as many actions as your controller has buttons to perform.

Persona 3 broke new ground in many regards.

With these crucial features ring-fenced, let’s move on to what’s holding the Japanese Role Playing Game back – the problem of assumed knowledge. There’s just too much in these games that the player is expected to work out, with often little to no explanation. Character stats are a prime example of this; I couldn’t begin to explain to you what my character’s ‘Endurance’ or ‘Luck’ ratings do for them in Persona 3, and I’ve been playing that game for fifteen hours now. I just about understand the stats of attack and defense, but beyond that it’s just guesswork, and guesswork does not a fun game make.

A common method of trying to get all this information across is to include a character or shopkeeper with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s battle system. Theoretically the player then has access to all the information they could possibly want on character stats, weapon types, status ailments, and elemental attacks, but in practise these walls of text are uninviting, boring, and don’t deliver the information in a way you’re likely to remember for long.

Other genres have managed to work out how to explain their often complex mechanics to the player. Rather than bombarding the player with information from the outset, most games will wait until a relevant moment before explaining in as few words as possible what’s just happened. A JRPG could likewise wait until the player gets poisoned for the first time before having a character describe what being poisoned entails. Descriptions like this could ease new players in to a complex system, without the need for dumbing it down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. As always, players should have the ability to turn off these tutorial snippets, to avoid alienating the RPG literate. 

Many modern JRPGs really haven’t moved on much from the days of the SNES when you strip away their graphics.

As previously mentioned, a large part of the appeal of the genre comes from their huge storylines, often involving dozens of characters, and a plot that’s global in scope. Whilst these kinds of plots were once fresh and exciting, it’s hard to feel they’ve really moved on much in recent years. Yarns spun around the search for magical crystals or the quest to stop someone’s attempt to take over the world simply don’t cut it in today’s landscape of conspiracy and intrigue.

The same could also be said for the genre’s over reliance on cutscenes as a means to deliver its story. Final Fantasy XII’s story managed to break new ground in the genre by telling the story of a small nation trapped between warring superpowers, but its delivery method was frankly ancient, compartmentalising the game’s story and gameplay sequences into completely separate boxes. If we were to over-simplify the issue, we could claim the world needs to be struck by the Bioshock of JRPGs.

Finally, there’s the length issue to address. ‘Vanilla’ role playing games have, are, and probably always will be, long. This is especially true in role playing games of the Japanese variety, which manage to be long in an entirely different way to Western games. Whilst a player’s fifty hours spent with Fallout 3 likely saw them spending huge amounts of time exploring the game’s world, the same cannot be said for your average Final Fantasy save, made up of hours ‘grinding’ (running around the same areas fighting monsters purely to increase your own characters’ skill levels) as well as the inevitable slow start inherent with nearly every game in the genre.

Dragon Quest 9 is unlike any other game in the series, but this has lead to glowing reviews from the press.

Game length is not in itself a bad thing. Despite rumblings to the contrary, many gamers are still very happy to play a game for upwards of twenty hours. What is a bad thing is poor pacing and time that is for all intents and purposes ‘wasted’. Sitting through the opening hours of a game without getting to play anything is neither fun, nor does it serve any greater purpose. Likewise, having to fight the same monsters over and over again can very easily sour the best of games. Include these things if you must, but please have the courtesy to shield us ‘casual’ RPG fans from them.

The Japanese Role Playing game is a fantastic genre that more people should play. It has the potential to deliver the greatest storylines and battle systems in gaming, which is why it’s such a shame seeing this squandered on what are in many cases the same as what we were playing back in the nineties. A revolution is due, because this one won’t be going quietly.


Could Censorship Lead to a Different Kind of Maturity in Games?

July 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

When I was younger, going to the toilet in the dead of night terrified me. Whenever my bladder awoke me a preparation period of at least five minutes was required before I could summon up the courage to go. It wasn’t the journey to the bathroom that terrified me so much as standing with my back to the room. As far as I was concerned, practically anything could have been waiting there for me by the time I turned around.

This fear, like so many others children posses (and thankfully largely grow out of) is not based around anything physically being there, but rather a fear of what can’t be seen. Monsters will always choose to inhabit bed’s that are too dark to see under or closet’s whose doors are shut; strangely they never choose to set up shop in the open – perhaps for tax reasons?

Our innate fear of the unknown is something that’s been exploited much by horror games. Silent Hill’s fog introduced the possibility of there being monsters right in front of you, and Doom 3 controversially had you hold a flash light independently of a gun, thus forcing you into moments of complete darkness if you wanted to keep your finger on the trigger.

Recently though, this design choice has crept into an action game, namely Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days. Players who get up close enough to enemies before unloading a spray of shotgun shells into their face are greeted with a police-tape style censoring effect over their bloodied head.

The effect of this feature is really quite stunning. Instead of merely seeing a model’s head shaded red with computer generated blood, you’re treated to whatever ghastly images your mind chooses to conjure up. It’s literally as bad as you can imagine it to be.

The human mind is always going to be able to produce something infinitely scarier than anything a developer can show you on screen.

This ‘less is more’ approach is something that’s been exploited in films for quite some time now, though in the past it could be argued that it came about due to a need to beat the censor in certain scenes. In Get Carter for example there’s a scene where Michael Caine stumbles across a piece of pornography featuring his niece. It’s a truly shocking scene, not least because it hardly shows anything of the video itself. Instead we as an audience are treated to her uncles reaction, as his eyes slowly well up with tears, and his rage overcomes his entire body.

Something like a character’s eyes filling with tears is an incredibly difficult thing to model in any graphics engine, and that’s exactly my point. By not showing a crudely animated crying animation or sex scene, we’re not going to be taken out of the experience by laughing at virtual genitals. Instead our imaginations can do the hard work without the game’s visuals getting in the way.

Of course, it’s far easier for a film to selectively choose what the audience sees. In a game this is far more difficult; you have a player in control of the camera at nearly all times, and as such you’re going to need to get creative with how you limit what they can see.

From a quantitative standpoint there’s an obvious benefit here of lower ratings for games with potentially more adult content. Obviously something like Kane and Lynch 2 is never going to be appropriate for children, but it’s not hard to imagine games whose ratings stray far closer to the dividing lines.

More importantly however, is that subtlety could lead a whole new side of maturity to games. Not maturity in the sense of ‘Hey now you can blow off an enemies limbs dude!”, but maturity like a classical piece of music or learning how to drink in moderation. Can video games really be said to have ‘grown up’ when they delight so thoroughly in showing us absolutely everything?

Games on a Plane

July 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Flying with a budget airline seems like a great idea right up until the point you come to actually get on the plane.

I realised my mistake fairly quickly. Almost as soon as my arse entered into its three hour long embrace with the chair my knees started complaining, knocking and scraping against the seat in front of me with every effort I made to get comfortable.

It’s not surprising then that for the duration of the flight my primary objective was to escape, if not physically than certainly mentally. To this end my tool was simple; a Gameboy Advance with a  copy of A Link to the Past secured squarely in its cartridge slot.

The game – as is nigh on every Zelda game in existence – is superb, that much doesn’t bear dispute, and frankly I’m just so glad I could play it legally. I could of course have installed a SNES emulator on my PSP – a path not exactly condemned, but certainly not condoned by Nintendo – but instead I dug out a dated console, paid money to a second hand shop, and got myself a legal copy of the game, without a penny of my expenditure making its way to the people that actually made it.

Funnily enough, the ridiculous state of the legality of retro gaming wasn’t my biggest problem on the flight.

The first indication this wasn’t going to be a pleasant gaming session was the in-flight safety announcements. Then came the shopping cart. Then dinner. Then tea. Finally the gentleman seated next to me decided an hour and a half into the flight to develop a hacking cough which sent a shotgun blast of flem onto the seat in front of him at regular intervals, and combined with the less than stable state of aircraft seating, quite literally shook me to my very core.

I almost began to envy those seated around me having their entertainment delivered to them by the likes of Dan Brown and Tom Clancy. Their ability to switch attention from book, to flight attendant, to the flemalomaniac behind them was something I so desperately craved. Instead whenever I paused to take delivery of a particularly well cling-filmed ready meal I well and truly lost my place. What followed would have sullied the pacing of the greatest of games. In the best case scenario a trip to the dungeon map was necessary, in the worst I had to retrace my steps around the entire place to find that locked door that I now had the key for, or that previously inaccessible cave entrance.

Though I’m at risk here of conforming to a stereotype which has dogged gamers since the beginning of time itself (which by my estimation must have occurred in around the year 1951) I crave solitude whilst I game. In a perfect world I’d be able to sink multiple hours into a single session, plugged into headphones that mute out everything short of a bomb going off in my house, completely uninterrupted by friends, family, or hungry cats.

I came away from my flight not just with an increased appreciation of handkerchiefs (unhygienic they may be, but they’re better than nothing at all), but with an increased sense of frustration at this insatiable demand made by gamers for console experiences on a handheld. A Link to the Past may require a large degree of spatial awareness to enjoy, but it’s nothing compared to modern 3D games.  I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who played through the vast majority of Liberty City Stories and Portable Ops whilst sitting on my bed at home.

The handheld gaming experience is one quite

unlike anything else gaming has to offer. It’s one fraught with distractions, battery life, and a giant burning ball of hydrogen that will guarantee to put your screen out of action at the most inopportune times. Bearing this in mind in mind, rather than graphical power, or second analogue sticks, is what truly makes or breaks a handheld console. I just hope it’s something that everyone remembers for years to come.

Grinding on the names of the Dead in Skate 3

July 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Skate 3 is in my opinion the greatest skateboarding game since Tony Hawks Pro Skater 3. It’s taken everything that was wrong with the previous two Skate games, fixed them, and made pretty nominal improvements everywhere else. Its unoriginality may have turned off many reviewers around the time of its release, but this approach has lead to exactly the game I wanted, after having gotten caught up on the admittedly minor annoyances of past games.

The problem with Skate 3 however, is that it allows you to skateboard around a war memorial. It allows you to grind along the ledges of monuments which in real life would contain the names of those who died in the first world war, and although it’s likely the names on this fictional structure have nothing to do with any real conflict, the imagery is too important to ignore.

Great lengths are gone to to ensure the connection is made in the minds of every gamer. Even if you miss the place name popping up on screen, it’s obvious enough where you are when the rows of red flowers and bronze plaques come into view. There’s even a gap positioned so that if you choose to, you can jump over the statues of three World War 1 soldiers. The ramp for the gap is provided by an angled memorial introduction, classy.

It’s difficult to understand why Caverton Memorial Gardens have even been included in the game. You could argue that it makes Skate 3’s virtual city more realistic; after all most cities have a war memorial in some form or another. There are however literally hundreds of structures that most cities have in common, and as such there’s no pressing need to include this particular one.

You could of course point towards the hundreds of shooters released every year that turn historical conflicts into gameplay experiences. Why is it acceptable for these games to be physically set within the conflict, whilst it’s not all right to even allude to them in a skateboarding game?

The difference is of course one of tone. Skate 3 is a really fun game, and it never tries to be anything different. Most shooters meanwhile will certainly be fun, but will always carry with them a serious tone which will at the very least make you think of the war as something more than a place to set up a cool skate line.

It’s also important that shooters will use the presence of a real conflict to the benefit of the gameplay. Setting your game as a struggle against the Nazi war machine has a huge benefit to player agency as we know how evil the regime was, and so the game has to do very little to make us want to kill every enemy soldier we come across. Meanwhile I can’t see a single gameplay benefit to having a war memorial in Skate 3. Sure, it’s an excuse to put a load of large concrete structures in the game world, but the most you can do with them is skate along their low ledges. You might as well just include the stone structures without the names of the dead on them, which would have provided exactly the same gameplay opportunities.

EA Black Box certainly didn’t set out to insult people, but they’ve been incredibly naïve including a location in which many believe you shouldn’t even talk loudly, let alone skate. It is an offence in the UK to vandalise a war memorial, and although skateboarding is obviously not the same thing, it comes pretty close in terms of disrespect.

Of course, no one is forcing me to skate around the memorial. If I wanted to, I could spend the entire game avoiding that one area, or put down the game entirely. I won’t though, because the rest of the game is so polished, and fun, and allows so much more creativity than many other games. It does make me uncomfortable though, and it’s definitely something Black Box should have given a second thought to before putting it in the game.

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