KOF: Maximum Impact (PS2/SNK Playmore)

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

by tim rogers [don’t capitalize my name, please]
red text by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
green text by tim rogers
teal text by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Yeah… I don’t know what happened here.

King of Fighters was a union of Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting; there were other characters from other places, to be sure, and there were plenty of new ones. [Here, you cut out my explanation that in KOF: Maximum Impact, Geese Howard is running for President of the United States. There are political posters and everything.] [Yeah, I liked that part. You took too long to get to the following sentence, though.] The first thing King of Fighters did right was remove the damn stupid plane-switching and the god-forsaken nausea-inducing zooming. This spirit has carried the series into the present with a vigor that only fans previously known as “hardcore” could appreciate: each new game in the series subtracts one unnecessary formerly-experimental element for each new feature it adds. [clue 1b]

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Ishmael

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

I can’t remember his name, so I will call him Ishmael.

It was hard to avoid Ishmael, as he was in most of my classes. Some of those classes consisted of little but heated debate between the two of us, as the other students sat dumbfounded and the teachers hid under their desks. Still, as little common ground as we shared, at least Ishmael was a worthy adversary.

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Like a bad penny

  • Reading time:2 min(s) read

Oh lordy. Right this minute, I’m hearing an old commercial for Ovaltine on Air America. It’s the one where the mother puts the strange emphasis on “chocolate milk.”

I have been expanding my Range Of Familiarity in the city. Where when I first arrived, a three-to-four-block jaunt to the market was akin to a stealth operation through enemy territory and I was gasping and faint when I returned, relieved that I made it home unscathed, I now am comfortable enough to spend hours on foot, poking through the streets, trying to get a sense of relation.

Today, on my way back from that hyper-left-wing indie bookstore near Little Italy, with the surrealism and philosophy books right out front and anti-Bush displays in the window, I found my head fuzzing a bit. I needed something to drink, soon. Since I was near the financial district, I strolled down Montgomery: the border street, where I knew there were at least a few coffee shops. On the intersection with Pine, I encountered and customed a juice store. From there, I needed only head west on Pine, to arrive at my origin.

So West, I went. And that’s when I hit it.

And now I know.

On the role of role

  • Reading time:5 min(s) read

See. The big advance in FFX, as far as the series goes, is in narrative and all that it relates to. The game system underneath is just the same as always — one that leads you to dissect it in such a way as you do; to think about its characters and overall world in Pokemon terms. Some of the relative sophistication is dulled by holding back and masking the player’s involvement with Game, lowering the relationship between player and character to trainer and racing pony.

That ain’t a healthy relationship. It’s akin to the horce-race coverage of local elections that you will see on the news. The point isn’t who’s ahead, and what numbers they can come up with; the point is the issues at stake, that have a broad or specific effect upon us, upon our world.

What is required here is a whole shift of our frame of reference, of our expectations.

The question is, what specifically or generally might illustrate a place to shift it.

As far as the relationship of a character and his world, I like the image of Shenmue, crossed with the likes of Elder Scrolls or Fable. On a level.

How, then — to take that as-is, for the moment — to integrate this with a game system, game world like those in FFXII? What else would be required? To strip away the mask that numbers and statistics and superimposed gimmicks present, and to put yourself in the position of the characters you control and face, what is missing? This is a subtle question; it deals with psychology more than anything. What do we need, to make our lives meaningful, comfortable, believable? What is real, what is false, on an internal level, and why?

The challenge is to come up with some framework which will allow the player to directly channel whatever the answers might be, without the architecture getting in the way, emotionally. This is not a matter of simply taking away the superficial elements that you happen to enjoy, but to be rid of the very reasons why you would want to prop yourself up with them. I’m pretty sure, were such a thing to exist, you would have no reason to lament the loss of the system; rather, when presented with the alternative, you would be wondering why you had been leaning on it for so long.

Me, I don’t have the answers. I’m just watching.

Thing is: if you go back to the origin of these systems, the pen-and-paper RPG, and you play the game correctly, the stats stand in for abstract or complex ideas: how much damage a person can take before dying, and how likely he is to hit a monster; values and properties that would otherwise be difficult to keep track of. The purpose of these statistics is to enable everyone concerned to deal with complex situations and conflicts, which might arise during play. The intended focus is upon the interaction amongst the players: upon picking a role, and thinking within it and within the world presented to you by the narrator — the DM. An RPG is about exploring an alternate life. The rules do not dictate; they empower.

This is, of course, not how people always play it; for many people, the organizational system — a tool which exists to make the experience easier to manage — has become confused with the game itelf, transforming the system into a bureaucratic trap, and the process of playing an unhealthy exercise in tunnel-vision. And that’s the whole problem we’re discussing.

These systems are a convenience; they only exist, in principle, to enhance the core ideals at stake in the experience. If the systems are no longer doing their job correctly, then let’s find a new structure that will work with contemporary technology to address those ideals; that will be a tool instead of a distraction, once more.

The question is raised: “If, however, you remove all of the systems that people have come to associate with the RPG, will a game still be recognizable as such?”

I think so. Again, it all depends on burrowing back down to the essence of what an RPG is trying to illustrate. If it’s there, people will feel it.

A decent comparative model might be our definitions for different genres of fiction: tragedy, comedy, farce. Each of these has a specific definition, which tends to be tied to a certain combination of defined human emotions and certain models of human behavior, desire, and ambition. The colors can be combined in any way you desire, clearly; such is the manner of life.

Nevertheless, there are certain keys to the RPG which are not present in the shooter, in the (closely-related) adventure game, in the platformer. There are certain real human traits that these genres exist to placate, stir, or simply acknowledge. It might be helpful to dig up what these are, if we are to do much of human meaning with this medium. Then we can build with them.

Actually.

I think I have hit upon why videogames remain an immature form of expression: the focus remains generally upon the method of execution rather than the underlying themes.

In other media, genres are generally classified in terms of what they have to say about life. In videogames, genres tend to be broken down by the actual game mechanics — by the process, rather than the goal. This is rather a shortsighted approach, akin to the way one sees life as a child.

I think this is something to revise, someday.

[For more discussion, see this thread.]

The Shooting

  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

In a sense, the interaction in a shooter is about the most basic interaction available in the medium. You reach out and touch your environment by sending out a “ping”; a probe. As you mention, the shooter is the original videogame — starting with SpaceWar. Even Pong operates on a similar principle, really. It’s just… backwards, kind of, in that the “bullet” is coming toward you, and you’re trying to catch it. (I don’t quite like this model as much.)

All through the medium, shooting more or less equates to exploration. In Metroid, you test the walls, and get a feeling for your environment, by shooting at them and it. In Asteroids and Centipede, your shooting shapes the very gameworld.

It was something of a revolutionary leap to switch away from this mechanic in Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. — that whole thread that I was mumbling about before. In that model, you’re no longer pecking at the environment from afar but personally running around and punching and gobbling and jumping through it. Sort of interesting to tie this into what I was saying earlier. Not sure how it all goes together.

Mizuguchi went back to a rail shooter for Rez for a reason: he wanted a clean slate; to strip away all of the junk we have piled on top of the medium for the last few decades, and make the most basic videogame he could, that would still be palatable to a contemporary audience. There’s nothing more basic than a shooter. This is ground one, for videogames. Everything else is built on, or exists in rebellion against, this mechanic. Mizuguchi then tried to find just how much he could express with this mechanism — to show, in part, that it’s not the game system which necessarily drives a game, on an artisic, on an emotional level. Also, just to show how much can be said with how little — and thereby to ask why we have come to tend to express so little with so much.

This is why I like Rez — just the whole way it disassembles our whole notion of the videogame, and shows how it might be used more well than it has been.

I’m really curious what his next step might be.

Parts of the above, combined with parts of what I said about Gradius V

Frickin’ Fantasy XII

  • Reading time:7 min(s) read

It’s one of those laws. If you say anything negative about Final Fantasy, you’re just asking for trouble. To be fair, the complaints I have gotten have generally been civil. I just haven’t had much patience to reply in any helpful manner.

>I see gameplay in an RPG to be a bonus if it is really great gameplay.

If a game is designed well, it is designed well. This genre is developmentally stunted, as a whole. The reason you say this is that you have not seen what greater expressive potential would be possible, were the design philosophy intrinsic to this genre as mature in its development as it could be, at this point in the overall history of game design and in the evolution of game hardware. Pretty much anything is possible now — yet developers have not yet caught up with this potential; increased their ambitions to fit it, and find a new set of limits of expression within the medium; preferring to stay with the same limited design decisions that they have, more or less, been using since the 1980s — decisions which were instituted at the time merely because of the inherent limitations in technology and in design theory at the time.

This is a problem in all genres. It’s just that RPGs are the most prominent example. In a broad sense, they have not grown to fit their bigger shoes. Developers are more or less doing the same dumb things they always have, out of habit — or out of a lack of understanding for what these design concepts originally stood for, or why they were instituted. Or because the audience itself has not matured enough to ask for something more substantial.

You must understand that videogames are not what they could be, artistically. There are few developers at present who are actively trying to explore the expressive power of the medium; the rest are content with absentmindedly churning out reiterations of games which have already been made dozens of times in the past — games which worked, once, in a specific context. They might have even been clever for their time, for the solutions to contemporary hardware and design problems that they happened to find. What so many people fail to understand, however, is that those solutions are relevant within a specific context — timeframe, developer, hardware — alone.  The solutions that Shigeru Miyamoto found and applied within Super Mario Bros. were ingenious for that moment, for that game, for that history. They were an evolution of ideas that Miyamoto nurtured through several previous games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Mario Bros. Although some of the principles that he developed in that game — such as his general concept of level design, whereby the game implicitly teaches you how to play it without ever telling you what to do, as such — will probably always be applicable in one sense or another. Others are inherent to that game, to that one man. They are his ideas. Anyone else who uses them as-such — who just takes them and sticks them into his own project, without understanding why the ideas existed to begin with — is making a big mistake. Those parts of that project will be false, because they do not come from the subject at hand. They do not grow out of what this second person is attempting to accomplish. They are an easy and proven solution, yes — yet within their context. This new person, with this new project, has created a new context. And that new context, especially with knowledge of what has come before, demands a new series of questions and demands a new series of solutions which evolve from the demands at hand.

Here. Take a look at what Toru Iwatani has to say. It’s interesting.

http://www.insertcredit.com/features/gdc2004/iwatani.html

The techniques that Yuji Horii created for Dragon Quest are great for Horii and for Dragon Quest. They are his own ideas, which suit what he is personally trying to accomplish. The gameplay choices he makes are perfect for his games. Outside Horii, the situation is different. The question has to rise: what are we trying to accomplish here, and what is the best way to realize that, given current technology and what we understand so far about the potential of game design? If, in the case of, say, a Final Fantasy game, our goal is to tell a story, then how rich a story can we tell? What kind of a story? What manner of game design would lend itself most well to what we wish to accomplish within that story? Ideally, the game design would be invisible. You would not distinguish between it and the ultimate goal of the project — because the design itself would come from that goal. It would be designed in order to facilitate that goal. The game design itself, the game play itself, would be part of that story, and the story would come from the gameplay.

It’s not like this is hard, today. Take a game like, oh, Metroid Prime. The goal in that game, really, is exploration: communication with the environment. To facilitate this, the game is set in a first-person perspective. That way, you’re left looking at the game world rather than Samus’s ass. The game has a rather profound story to tell, yet to do this it draws from the main goal of the game, and from the established gameplay decisions. It is in the process of playing the game, and of inspecting the environment, learning about the game world, that the story unfolds.

Although story is secondary or tertiary in this particular framework, and it evolves organically out of the more primary elements of design, without interfering with them, you see the structure. There is no reason why it cannot be turned on its head, such that the gameplay, the overall design, evolves from the story. If that is the primary goal. Of course, that means that the game design would depend on just what the story is; what its own focus is; what the writers hope to get across.

If a gameplay decision does not lend itself to the ultimate goal of the project, directly or indirectly, then it probably doesn’t belong there. It’s the whole deal about too many strokes spoiling the painting. Even more so when the strokes are misjudged to begin with. Or when they are put in place just because that’s the way it’s always been done, or that’s what people expect, rather than because that’s what the painting calls for.

As long as developers continue to cram their ideas into existing, prefabricated molds — which describes most of the persistent mechanical facets that people have a tendency to associate with the RPG genre, in favor of the more integral goal of the genre (mainly, showing the personal growth of one or more people through a set of difficult trials, and what effect their actions along the way might or might not have on the world around them — thereby, with luck, expressing something meaningful about the nature of life) — they will be stuck in a creative rut. They will not grow as artists. The genre will not grow. The medium as a whole will fail to mature.

What I was trying to say, in that preview, is that Final Fantasy XII seems like it might be one big step toward pulling the genre as a whole out of its current rut. Toward making people /think/ about what constitutes an RPG — or just a videogame, in general — and what what they’re really trying to accomplish.

The rest was just a bit of passing commentary, to help explain why I said that.

Vocal Hill

  • Reading time:3 min(s) read

This is all interesting, particular in the breakdowns of the plot and the character and monster origins for the first two games. Something that strikes me, however, is the marked difference in approach to the third game. Whereas in Silent Hill 1 and 2, the monsters were all consciously designed as manifestations of this or that, and the names for all of the characters and places were carefully (if perhaps overly-so) selected based upon relevent literary references and themes — like Harry and Cheryl’s names originally coming from Kubrick/Nabokov’s Lolita (before some alteration), and James and his wife’s names coming from elements of the Jack the Ripper case — very little of this consideration seems to have gone into Silent Hill 3. Monsters don’t seem to be particularly explained, either in their presence or in their design. They are there because the game needs creepy monsters. Names are increasingly arbitrary. Heather was named after her voice actress. Douglas was named after Douglas Fairbanks, for no particular reason. All of the attention in the creation of the third game seems to have gone into dissection of the plot to the first game, and into attempts to tie up everything prior to some comprehensible framework.

Although impressive in a certain right, I am unsure how truly constructive this approach is — as it kind of overlooks exactly the strengths of the first two games: namely, their ambiguity, and their strong inner motivation to illustrate one or another principle, or theme. Their subjectivity, really. In Silent Hill 3, the role taken by strong central themes in the first two games is usurped, in a manner, by convoluted and overt plotting as a new motivation. An attempt at aimless reason where highly-focued irrationality had previously been the whole reason for being.

This method just strikes me as rather clumsy, in comparison.

I guess that might be part of why Silent Hill 3 reminds me so much more of Biohazard than do the previous games.

EDIT: Notice also how many locations in Silent Hill 3 (once the player actually reaches Silent Hill) are lifted straight from the second game. Same geometry. Same fences still crumpled in the exact same way. Didn’t bother to change a thing, for the purposes of the game at hand. This seems to work into the above, somehow. One monster model is even taken straight from Silent Hill 2, although that should not be, given the explanation for the monsters in the first two games. The director of the third game didn’t seem to much care for these subtleties, though.