Archive for April, 2014

As a longtime Star Wars fan, this was a bit of a blow.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan for a long time, and with that comes moments of great art and moments of sheer ugly disappointment, not only in the films but in the wide variety of other forms of media that have told stories in the Star Wars universe:  books, video games, animated TV shows, comic books and more. This collection of stories told in other media outside the films is known as the “Expanded Universe”, and it’s told stories across the Star Wras timeline. Years before the films, right before episode 1, in between the films, directly after episode 6, and even years in the future, the expanded universe has covered all of it with some incredible stories and some big honkin’ stinkers.  You’ve got Timothy Zahn’s inspired novels that introduced characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, and then there’s Barbara Hambly’s garbage that was almost impossible to read.  For every great Star Wars game out there that told incredibly compelling stories like the Dark Forces series and Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic games (in terms of story alone I’d include SWTOR in there as well), you have quite a bit of junk like some of the games that came out after Episode 1 was released.  You’ve got novelizations of films that actually told the story in a manner that wasn’t terrible (meaning: all the prequels) and tie-ins that actually close up plot holes.  And then you have comic books that introduce green space rabbits. Seriously.

My point is: I get that the Expanded Universe isn’t perfect. There’s crap out there in it that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. But there is also some very good works in there as well, and for anyone who likes Star Wars, I’d had it over to them in a friggin’ heartbeat and say “read/play/watch this”.

Well, in light of the revelation that there will be a Star Wars Episode 7, I’ve been extremely curious to see just how they were going to handle that. Would they adapt one of the EU stories to the big screen?  Or would they try to find a time period that wasn’t really explored yet and set the film then?  No answers were forthcoming.

Then we got the announcment that a division within Lucas was being formed to “set official canon”. In other words, these guys were going to review the whole of the expanded universe and make selections as to what was canonical to the Star Wars story and what was not.  Hell yes, I thought. Now we’ll get to weed out all the garbage and maybe get some better stories into this universe we all love and enjoy.

I figured this surely had to be the approach they would take. Others expressed fear that the whole EU would be declared non-canon, citing statements made by George Lucas himself that he only considers the films the “true story”. But this had to be untrue, I thought. Surely, they wouldn’t be that stupid. After all Lucas owns the division that publishes Star Wars books and games, of course he’s not going to be so stupid as to kill his own sales by doing that. I mean, really, are you going to buy books or games that suddenly contradict the new films or have a little blurb calling them “An alternate universe Star Wars novel/game/etc.”

Well, guess what. I was wrong. They really are that stupid.
http://starwars.com/news/the-legendary-star-wars-expanded-universe-turns-a-new-page.html

Everything but the films and the Clone Wars cartoon effectively “didn’t happen”.  Everything good and bad tossed out the window.

So now we begin the hard question of what does this do to the value of all the Star Wars EU stuff that we might still have. Is it devalued to you because it’s not the “real” Star Wars story? Or because it’s a great piece of storytelling or a ridiculously fun game anyway, does it still retain the value it had anyway?

To me, it all feels like it’s worth a bit less. Yes, in and of themselves they are great games/stories/whatever. But the fact that they were a part of a bigger universe that I loved as a kid and an adult, that made them even more special. Now, they aren’t. And now I’m less inclined to pick them up on that merit.

I’m not going to suddenly go out and sell off every piece of Star wars EU that I have (most of the video games are digital anyway) and I’m still going to see Star Wars episode 7, but I think Disney and whatever’s left of Lucasfilm has done themselves an incredible disservice here. They were all too happy to let the EU continue making profits for them when movies weren’t around to do it, or when they actually made the craptastic prequels make sense (seriously go read the novelizations of the prequel films, you’ll be amazed how much less they SUCK compared to the movies) but now it’s not convenient for them, so out the window it goes.

It’s just disheartening to see something I care about get mangled by the people who created it and in theory should be taking better care of it, all for the likely sake of money. As a geek, you’d think I’d get used to that sort of thing. Still sucks every time tho.

My own perspective on gaming, in reply to my best friend.

Howdy folks. This post will be a bit unusual. It’s a response to a post written by my friend Josh over at jdhjanus.wordpress.com in which he outlines his perspective on gaming and why he likes the things he does. So before continuing any further with reading this, I invite you to read his post first, otherwise this probably won’t make a whole lot of sense.

All good? Kay. Welcome back. Let’s do this.

I think Josh makes a very key mistake in his opening premise, that American (and most Japanese) gamers don’t share his mindset of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. That mindset, I find, gets thrown about a lot by people in life and work by people where it’s not true. It may very well be the case that something isn’t broken and works just fine. But there’s absolutely no reason why it can’t be improved and made even better. Did the older games work? Absolutely. But they also represent the best that could be done with the technology at the time. We’ve improved on that tech tremendously. To not iterate and improve on what you can do with gaming would be a waste.

Now let’s look at each of his individual points, and I’ll provide a sort of rebuttal to it based on my own experience.

 

1.  Traditional Gameplay

In a lot of areas of life, I’m like Josh in that I stick with tried and true and don’t experiment much. You ask me to cook; I’m going to ask where the directions are. Ask me to do the laundry, I’ll ask for directions on what should be done normal, what on permanent press, and so on. I’ll read directions on how to assemble, use, or repair stuff.  I’m not really the type who will just “wing it” and see what happens, because if it doesn’t work, then I’ve wasted materials, time, or both, and that’s not something I’m terribly fond of doing. Actually, it outright scares me.  For a long time, I had that approach about gaming as well. It’s only been more recently that I’ve been able to branch out and try new things, and I’ve had an absolutely amazing time playing some truly fantastic games as a result.

To Josh’s point where he says that storyline is a very important part of a game for him, that I can and will heavily agree with. But I do not agree that gameplay should fall as far short below on the priority list as I think he’s making it out to be.

Josh, I direct this quesiton to you. You say that you don’t want to spend a ton of time learning a new gameplay system because sometimes the battles or other gameplay detract from the story. I have to ask then: why are you actually playing a game at all? It sounds to me as though you would much rather be watching or reading the story rather than interacting with it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, I just wonder if perhaps you are looking for what you really want in the wrong art form entirely.

Video games are, by nature, an interactive medium. We take on the role of someone or something and take a journey with/as them. The experience of that journey is just as important as our capability to interact with the world of this journey. If you aren’t excelling at both, then in my mind, your game is not complete.

And yes, at the time, with the limits of the technology being what they were, the original turn-based RPG systems and point and click adventure titles were absolutely great. They were a natual evolution from the tabletop RPG games and text-based games that pre-dated them.  Why should the evolution stop there? Why get to one point in the design spectrum and say “Yeah, this is good enough for every single thing that will come after this”.  Sure, we absolutely will see some mistakes along the way (Final Fantasy 8’s magic/leveling system was gawdawful), but just because we might have some stinkers doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and we, as gamers, should NEVER be afraid to try something new that’s been shown to us. If we don’t try the new, we’ll never know what we might be missing out on.

I will definitely agree with Josh that we don’t necessarily NEED revolutionary innovation with every game release, and I definitely think there’s a place in the market for an old-school RPG that has a defined class system and turn-based combat. Like he said, it definitely works well and will appeal to some segment of the gamer population (myself included). But we should not leave games at the point they were 10-20 years ago, by no means. Those gameplay systems were a product of the technology of their time. The technology of today allows us to do much, much more.

 

2. The focus on Action Elements

Again, let me preface this by saying that, like Josh, I don’t “like” to make decisions quickly. I like to consider various options, weigh pros and cons, and decide based on that. Sometimes I can be impulsive with purchasing decisions, and I would say approximately 50% of the time I end up regretting not having “done the research” and found something more to my liking. This goes back to my earlier dislike/fear of “wasting” things, in this case, money.

But that’s something that has a real-world consquence. In videogaming, you (usually) don’t have that issue to worry about. If you make a bad call, you can work to amend it or try again on the next go-around, depending on what you’re playing.  So, unlike Josh, I have no issue with it and in many cases, I actually prefer it.

One of the biggest draws of gaming is to immerse yourself in situations that you likely would never encounter in real life, be they playing in “the big game”, mowing down hordes of zombies, exploring the far reaches of space, or exploring life with superpowers, either as yourself or as a part of someone else’s story. The repeated term I just used there is “you”. You might be playing someone else’s role, the role of you in this situation, or a completely different role that you choose, but the point is, it’s you, somehow or some way.  You’re having this experience that you (probably) can’t have in the real world, thanks to the medium of video games.

Of course, it’s impossible (for now) to completely translate the experience of taking cover, popping out, and unleashing torrents of gunfire against invading aliens. You’re divorced from most of the physical requirements of such situations, as well as most of the fear, because your own life isn’t on the line. But as technology has advanced, games can give us incredibly realistic environments, AI programming that not only has gotten smarter but now adapts to your actions, and the capability to have our avatars do things that were previously not possible, allowing us to develop different strategies beyond “watch for patterns and attack the weak spot”.

And that sort of realism, to me, is so much more satisfying to play through. You not only have to rely on your own ability to strategize, but also to think on your feet and adapt as the situation changes, just like you would in reality. Of course, you could always make the wrong decision. That’s the risk. But the consequences? Not terribly severe. You can simply try again, and this time you’re armed with the experience of your previous attempt. You don’t really die, and the world isn’t really overrun with zombies, killer robots, or shambling horrors that defy all attempts to even comprehend their biology. Your brain is even better for it, because the more you force yourself to think quickly and respond to new situations, the better it will be for other situations where you need to do so in the future.

So, my dear friend Josh, I challenge you to not only find a game with a fantastic storyline and action sequences, but devote yourself to completing it and make your brain work better! I’ve got some recommendations for you, too. We’ll talk 😉

 

3. Preference of linear and straightforward plots

Josh builds his arguments around 2 points here that I have to disagree with

  1.        Western RPGs are filled with nameless characters that have no personality compared to their Japanese counterparts
  2.        Said games do not have a strong linear plot and are instead open worlds full of sidequests where the plot takes a backburner.

For point 1, I would point you at pretty much any RPG that BioWare has made just as a single example from my own perspective. If someone is going to sit there and try to tell me that the characters (including the player ones) from the Dragon Age series or the Mass Effect series do not just as much personality development as anything in a Japanese RPG, then I just have to walk away and let them wallow in their own ignorance. Yes, you do customize part of that character, but said character has a defined voice, personality (though you can alter it with your choices in these cases), and personal story. And I’m certain that there are numerous examples that I simply don’t know about because I haven’t played them.

With regards to point 2, I have to take issue with his dismissal of side quests. I have played a not-insignificant number of eastern RPGs in the past, and I remember all too well a common element to all of them: grinding. Whether you needed to grind out some levels to be up to par with where you were supposed to be, or you had to grind out some cash to be able to buy a new set of gear from the nearby town’s armor shops, or grinding away whatever other arbitrary points the game had to boost your abilities, at some point you were wandering around waiting for that little flash or change in music that meant a random encounter had just happened and it’s time to fade to the battle screen!

Side quests are that, but with additional little nuggets of story to go with them.

Instead of mindless monster killing and boring wandering around, you have a clear objective, a little piece of story, and you get to explore certain areas while you do it. And what’s even better, in many modern cases, they’re completely optional. I invite you to go play the most recent single-player RPG in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, and ignore every single sidequest you pick up. Just do the main storyline quest chain. You totally can.  It’s an amazing story, too. You’re a prophesied hero, and you traverse a massive world to battle an evil that wants to obliterate creations. And you never have to touch a single sidequest to do it. Of course, you’ll have a much stronger and richer game experience if you do.

This goes back to what I mentioned earlier with regards to realism: Having the freedom to choose what you do makes games a more satisfying experience. If I choose to put a hold on my quest to save all creation to help a little girl deal with a bully, doggone it, I like that I can do just that. And in many cases, optional side quests are just that: optional. I don’t particularly see what the difference is between getting them early on or only having them available at the end of the game. Either way, I can choose to do them or not.

Quick sidenote: I recognize there are games where sidequests are pretty much not optional, and you practically have to do them to keep up with the game’s story. A lot of MMORPGs are guilty of this, the most notable example that I’ve recently played being Star Wars: The Old Republic. That’s a design style I do not particularly enjoy. Old Republic gives you an absolutely fantastic personal storyline that’s incredible and epic. Unfortunately, the leveling experience comes incredibly slow, forcing you to do side quests and the side planet storyline to keep up. That is one thing I will fault most MMORPGs for. World of Warcraft, in my opinion, got this one very much right with the Cataclysm expansion’s revamp of the original game leveling experinece. Each zone is a self-contained storyline on its own with minimal side questing that is usually related to the main plot you’re playing through anyway, and especially in later expansions, the zones tie together into an overall plot that you explore once you reach the level cap.

 

4.  The preference of 2D worldviews

I can get Josh’s desire to see everything around him. It’s why in a lot of games, if given the option, I will switch from a first-person perspective to a third-person one. I did this in Skyrim, I did this for most of the Jedi Knight series, and most of the MMOs I play tend to default to this setting anyway.

And by no means is the classic 2D worldview completely and utterly dead: I mean just look at the number of indie titles out there making fantastic use of it. Mark of the Ninja is a fantastic 2D stealth game. There have been new classic Megaman titles in recent release. It’s still out there and still being used. But It’s not the future.

This goes back to my earlier point about advancing technology triggering the evolution of games. The 2D experience was great when it was the limit of what we could do. Why in the world would we want to just stop there when new tech allows us to do so much more? We can build entire worlds to interact with in incredible detail

I have to direct another question to Josh here: Josh, is it possible that you had one bad experience with Ocarina of Time and it’s completely scarred you from 3D games entirely? It sounds to me like that’s the case. I think you’re letting generations of fantastic games with incredible experiences waiting for you pass you buy because of this fear, and as your friend I don’t think that’s a good thing. I think its time to jump back into the fray and conquer them and see all the awesomeness you’ve been missing. Your preferred old-school 2D games are awesome, and that isn’t going to change, but that in no way means that new 3D titles are thus inherently bad.

 

Hopefully in reading my responses to Josh’s point you got a good sense for how I feel about gaming. I look forward to what the future offers and can’t wait to try it out. While I do have my own genre preferences (such as not touching sports titles with a 10-foot pole), I’m also much less afraid to jump in and try something new than I used to be.