Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fable I & II: What Choice is All About


In my younger years I was frankly addicted to the Xbox exclusive game Fable. I may have played it a total of eight times through from beginning to end. So naturally I was thrilled for the arrival of it's long awaited sequel in 2008. Unfortunately, completely Fable II felt more like finishing the original game again. It was less of a new adventure and more of a rehash of the one before it. But there was something which struck me about the series that had amazed me.

Choice. The first two Fable games were about choice, however ridiculous those choices were. Often one would pick between the most horrible thing imaginable and it's high-holy counterpart. So by the end of each game the world could be drastically different than it was when your hero set out on his quest. But that was a lie, and between the games something unintentionally deep was revealed. No matter how good or evil I had been in the first game the world of the second was unaffected.


It was inevitable that all of my "heroes" actions were for not. I could become the greatest evil to ever exist, I could make every in Albion happy and safe, but when my descendant in the second game began his journey I was but a faint memory. Isn't that just like reality in all the saddest ways. Oakvale, my main character from the first game's hometown had been burnt to the ground. Later I would see it rebuilt. But regardless of my hero, nothing would stop it from being buried underwater in Fable II.

We as human beings have an inherent freedom of choice. Every day we can spend of time making tough or simple decisions, avoiding conflict or marching through the streets. But the way of the world, nature and time, keeps going despite us and all our pretentious influence. In our lives we are the only ones who can perceive ourselves as heroes, but on a grander scale (a grander scale than our pointless human existence) our actions are meaningless.


What a depressing game... and I thought it was about fart jokes. That is another great example of choice in Fable. I can marry man or woman (progressive), I can go around punching every citizen in the face, I can buy up almost every building, I can just wander aimlessly laughing at strangers, I can chop wood for hours, but none of it even matters to my own story at the time. The linear plot of my life is set in stone, and there is truly only one ending. I make a choice (good or evil, or neutral in Fable II) and the world goes on, uncaring.

That was the best part of the games for me, perhaps only because I found some unintentional depth. The games are fun on their own, if not a little bland and very similar. So I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to playing the third, or if I will play the third, but I did get something out of the series I haven't seen in many video games. That's something admirable... I guess...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Suggested Gaming: Gretel and Hansel Parts 1 & 2


Newgrounds has brought us a lot of interesting games over the years, and this is definitely one of them. Gretel and Hansel is an adventure game in the strictest sense of the term: search around for items that fit one puzzle each with no multiple solutions to any situation in order to follow the story. What can sometimes feel like a design flaw is that you can die quite frequently during the game, which can feel frustrating, if not obnoxious. But that acts only as one of the many parts of the games atmosphere. It works hand-in-hand with the art style, music, and mood to create a game well worth playing.

It took the developer (Makopudding) to create the first two installments of this series, the second of which is much longer and intricate than the first (so clearly that year was not wasted). Perhaps following the footsteps of titles like Machinarium rather than Monkey Island this game use sight and sound instead of dialog to create the perfect mood. The lead character, Gretel, discovers her parents are going to abandon in their children in the woods so as the child with the clearly superior intellect it is up to her to save them.

The games balance between child-like humor and horrifying adult themes which can be seen through the visual style they use. Cute characters in a storybook setting, one which looks hand drawn with faded sides (almost as if from a near ancient children's book, fittingly enough), are juxtaposed with graphic violence, hideous monsters, and brown washed colors. It sets a fearful mood as you immediately attach to your character and hope none of the over-the-top harm befalls her (and the first time it does can be shocking).

The soundtrack, especially of the second chapter, is absolutely beautiful. Most notably is an old man's banjo song able to keep you in the area for a longer than average wait, just to listen. But the entire soundtrack to the second part is golden, from haunting melodies to intense instrumentals accompanying moments of terror. It all works splendidly to build up the incredible atmosphere.


The actions of your character reflect your increasing desperation. During the first chapter you are more likely to distract the monster with tools (this is before you even leave your home). The second chapter is when truly disturbing action is taken by the characters. Alone in the woods, you more readily resort to violence. *SPOILER* In the first part of the game there is a moment where you find a rabbit and approaching it result in a hug, smiling as you rub it against your face. In the second chapter you capture what could be assumed the same rabbit, slash it open and use its innards as bate to kill a bear. *END SPOILER* There is a definite contrast between the innocent life of a safe child and a person fighting for survival established through this series.

So check out the first two chapters of the series. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I have, and I also hope to see the next installment(s) be as clever and disturbingly beautiful as these last two.

You can play the first part for free through this LINK

You can play the second part for free through this LINK

Friday, October 22, 2010

Suggested Gaming: Costume Quest



I made the terrible mistake of looking at the metacritic reviews of Double Fine's latest title Costume Quest today before writing this. Right now it's at a 71, and while that is by no means a bad score, it definitely isn't the kind of rating to earn a game fantastic sales. These days the color yellow can inspire fear into a developer. I wonder what they do around bananas... Costume Quest is an imperfect game, but it's one I would heartily recommend to anyone.

Tim Schafer's Double Fine is known for quirky aesthetic and funny dialog (as in Psychonauts and Brutal Legend), and that can be seen in Costume Quest in spades. The humor is strong, with clever writing and comical juxtapositions. But more lovable than that even is the world created by the company. The entire game takes place on Halloween night where the player takes control of one twin of their choosing (Wren or Reynold) who has to rescue the other who was kidnapped by the minions of a sinister witch for wearing a profoundly lame candy corn costume. Yes, this is a game about candy!

Currency is measured in candy, the experience bar is a meter at the top of your screen with a growing pack of Smarties, you can see how much candy you have by looking at an on screen silhouette of trick-or-treating bag. The Halloween setting follows the player through three areas with a surprisingly lot in them, from malls to corn mazes, suburbs to carnivals. For a six hour game, you certainly get around.

There are two different styles of gameplay in Costume Quest. There's the adventure mode where you will spend most of your time exploring an area, completing quests, and trading spooky trading cards. This part of the game is extremely cute, with big headed heroes and a quirky charm. When the game switches into combat mode your character goes through a transformation into an over-the-top cool version of their Halloween costume. Costumes can be changed up outside of combat, and whichever ones you and your party are wearing will determine what basic attack and special you can do.

The combat is done in a very basic Super Mario RPG style. You essentially have two moves, a basic attack and a charged up special move. You can also give your character certain advantages or an extra move by putting found or purchased stamps onto their costume (one per character). When attacking you have the opportunity to do a little timing trick (a la Super Mario RPG) to deal extra damage, or can deflect part of an opponents attack if you press the right button at the right time. This system is very simple, but if you can't get it down the game can be extremely punishing.

The choice for this part of the gameplay is likely meant to reduce grinding, you'll only need to get to level 10 to beat the game. The decision for the JRPG combat seems like a practical one as well. For children all play fighting is turn-based where the imagined version of the child declares actions before an assault, then another child contests or attacks on their own turn. If this was part of their goal (and I hope it was) it could have been integrated a little better into the game.

Honestly, this could be easily done with voice acting, my only major problem with the game. The game is very quiet during the beeping dialogs, and while a low-budget game like this certainly does not require voice acting, it is one of the most charming qualities of Double Fine's earlier works. It would add personality to the combat and the story. Sometimes the speech bubbles would go by so fast that I would miss the end of a statement. Once again, this is fixed by voice acting but it never kills the experience.

Double Fine is masterful at creating worlds and letting people explore them to the fullest (one reason why they belong here in video games instead of in other animation industries) and they an island of strong writing and smart humor among a sea of dim-witted power fantasies. While this was by no means the studios magnum opus, Costume Quest has gotten me excited to see their next three smaller releases.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

JRPGs

I find the JRPG formula enjoyable, which is strange because only in rare circumstance does it make any sense for gameplay. It can often hinder the flow of a game. For example, in Final Fantasy VII there will be exciting cut scenes with big monsters and big explosions, there will be vibrant casinos, and high speed motorcycle fights, but when combat pops up things will take a drastic change of pace. Suddenly the epic heroes are taking turns whacking randomly appearing mutant squirrels. Only on rare occasion can this style of gameplay act fittingly with the world around it.

I bring this issue up because to very similar games have been released State-side in the last year: Dragon Quest IX and Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, and they both succeed on certain levels and fail horribly in others. In Dragon Quest IX you control (provided it is a single player experience) four, mute champions of good and while the aesthetic seems to compliment the simple combat there is a major disconnect between player investment in the game and the game itself. A requirement to finish is an almost unholy amount of grinding or side quests, and since the world is interesting players should want to explore beyond the story. But the side quests are not truly connected to the characters, as they have no personality, so there is still less reason to participate in anything beyond the only visible plot. Especially in RPGs player investment in characters and story should drive grinding and missions. In Dragon Quest IX it does not.

While characters do have personality in Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, the gameplay is set up to be as non-interactive as possible. So once you are able to play as even the most basic archetypes in a four character handheld game, you are left unable to play as them as directly as you would in a game without personalities (Dragon Quest IX). It seems most RPGs, even our most beloved ones, will leave a player longing for something better, whether it be stronger story, stronger character, or stronger mechanics. It is a rare moment when the JRPG formula, and all of the elements combined into it, actually feels most suitable for the situation.

Space Funeral Spoilers Below (Go Play It!)

Two examples of great JRPG style play can probably be found in Space Funeral and Final Fantasy VI. Space Funeral is a freeware game I’ve suggested before and it’s definitely worth your time. The turn-based combat is necessary for it to work because it takes place in a warped version of a JRPG. The goal is to change the world back to the way it should be, a proper JRPG. While the world is unsettling, the gameplay is familiar; it adds to the strange and unsettling feeling one should have as they play. The game makes the player question why things don’t feel right.

Final Fantasy VI is THE proper JRPG. It has more class than any other game in the Final Fantasy series. Things move patiently. There are operas and elegant flying machines. The combat compliments the sophistication of the game by being turn-based, therefore chess like. I’ve posted about this game a few times, and do really see it as among the best games in the genre.

One turn-based RPG I am holding out hope for is Tim Schafer’s Costume Quest. Being released October 20th it follows children on Halloween, and as they enter into combat they take on the form of their costumes. This is a perfect place for a JRPG. In childhood games kids often do more standing around talking about what amazing things they are doing with the imagined images of themselves than doing amazing feats. Children make believe in the JRPG formula unintentionally. The potential is great for the game and I’ll be sure to pick it up on release.



I think there is a way for JRPG mechanics to meet with story and character in perfect harmony. I think there are games that have gotten very close, perhaps as near to perfectly as one can get. But I would like to see more effort put into the games instead of it just tossing uniform mechanics into a game so it can be called a game. And this is does not mean I don’t enjoy games like Dragon Quest IX or 4 Heroes of Light. They each have their charm, but are seriously flawed.