Saturday, November 30, 2013

On "Gamefeel" (Storify)

So I'm gonna try this now where I post links to storify's of my twitter. My twitter is a mess, but I actually write a LOT there, and it gives me a great excuse to stay disorganized. So in the forseeable future, look forward to me occasionally posting links to a storify that groups together my thoughts on a particular gaming subject.

I have no regular publishing schedule, but I do absolutely promise you you're still going to get actual content on this blog, linking to a glorified group of my tweets will not replace my "deeper" work that I do here.

All that said, today I said a few things about "gamefeel". (I don't like it.)

Monday, November 25, 2013

On the term "Narrative Mechanics"

Just to clarify, I've been using the term "narrative mechanics" (I used it twice in the Wild Arms 5 piece, for example) and I will do so more in the future, and I wanted to make important distinctions

In the future, I will use "game mechanics" (or possibly "ludic mechanics" if it fancies me, or I need some variety) to refer to specific elements of play. For example phrases like "platforming mechanics" or "combat mechanics". It's a good "super" phrase to use to refer to a set of subsystems within the game design.

For example "battle mechanics" when discussing, say, Final Fantasy VIII would allow us to refer to all of the subsystems therein contained: basic attacks, drawing and casting magic, using items, summoning Guardian Forces, etc. "Customization mechanics" would refer to junctioning magic and GFs, selecting active and passive abilities in battle, and weapon creation.

The phrase "narrative mechanics" is not, in most cases, intended to refer to play at all, rather I use it when discussing the story as an isolated element of the game, or any other medium of storytelling.

In most cases, I use "narrative mechanics" to describe elements within a story in terms of their pure functionality. Specifically it usually refers to how a trope or some other element of the story helps keep the plot moving forward, or conversely, how it does not. An example:

  • "Chasing Sephiroth around the planet is a clever narrative mechanic, providing the with a solid reason to take us to the places it wants to go, where it can do the work of building the world, developing side characters, and overall making the game's narrative a more convincing and immersive experience."

However, I typically don't use it to describe elements of a story that serve to advance subtextual themes or to create detail in the characters, but again, specifically to discuss how or whether an element keeps "things happening" so to speak. Another example:

  • "The small interrupting cutscenes that occur in dungeons across Wild Arms 5 often serve little to no mechanical purpose, but they do give us tiny intimate moments with the characters that serve to reinforce the emotional backbone of the story, even without necessarily advancing the character arcs or providing additional thematic depth."

Just wanted to clear up some of that stuff because I'm not sure if it's a term I made up, but suffice to say I'll link to this piece when need be for the purposes of clarity considering I'll be using it more in the future.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

WA5, FFVII, Empty Space, Some News

Dive into the Heart: A Short Essay Comparing the Use of Exploring the Subconscious in Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms 5

By: Austin C. Howe

Disclaimer: This entire essay comes tagged with a gigantic spoiler warning obviously. If you haven’t played either of these games, you should probably play both frankly. Final Fantasy VII is the best game ever made and Wild Arms 5 has got a bitchin’ battle system if nothing else. (It’s got a lot else, but it’s a complicated issue. Tim Rogers’ review of thegame is almost complete bullshit, but what else is new?)

Both Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms 5 feature a section where we dive into the subconscious memories of a character. They are worth comparing because both games do them for the same plot-advancing purpose: both characters have some degree of amnesia and other characters are jumping into their subconscious for the purpose or re-connecting those memories to the conscious person.

Personally, I believe that Wild Arms 5’s use of the trope is much less effective than in Final Fantasy VII[1] because by comparison, the latter game uses the trope with much greater justification, much greater finesse, and to an end that does more to move the story forward, both sequentially and thematically.

To begin, I’m going to start with the less interesting questions of when these tropes occur in the sequence of their respective game’s narrative, and the narrative mechanics by which the games take us inside the minds of the characters involved, and then move onto the more rewarding topics of whose minds we jump into, where we go inside their mind, and what we do and what we learn when we get there.


The matter of when is simple because both games get it right. Neither occurrence comes across as sudden or unexpected because they are placed at points within the plot of their respective games where they are absolutely necessary to move forward the story and the character arcs.


            In Final Fantasy VII, Tifa and Cloud are in the town of Mideel while Cloud is incapacitated, fighting off Mako poisoning from being caught in the Lifestream after the events of the Northern Crater. When a crater opens up, Tifa and Cloud are caught in the Lifestream and jump into Cloud’s subconscious. Mako poisoning is established as a mental illness as opposed to a physical problem so the metaphor feels continuous. Also, we are jumping into three sets of memories that Cloud and Tifa share, therefore we don’t run into the logistical problems of having one character jump into another’s mind. It’s called Cloud’s subconscious, but it’s actually, for the most part, a shared memory.

In Wild Arms 5, the jump into the subconscious is a result of a classic deus ex machina: the Mediums connect the user to the earth and allow the user to summon the powers of nature to assist them in battle. (Much like Materia.) The game then essentially bends that “connect with the earth” into “connect with each other”. Basically there’s no way I can explain it that makes it makes sense.

FFVII uses its established metaphysics to set up the jump into Cloud’s subconscious: WA5 just comes out of nowhere frankly. In shorter terms: Final Fantasy VII’s dive into the subconscious is not a plot hole. Wild Arms 5 dive into the subconscious is a plot hole.

But plot holes are plot holes, and frankly, I don’t care much about plot holes. The real reason this trope isn't as effective in Wild Arms 5 in comparison to Final Fantasy VII is because it happens to the wrong character, where we go simply isn't that interesting, and what we learn and what we do are both ultimately not very interesting.


            This is where we first run into truly serious problems when considering the two examples of this trope in comparison. Avril vent Fleur is ultimately a side character in Wild Arms 5, whereas Cloud is the protagonist of Final Fantasy VII.

            Having a sub-conscious exploration for a side character is not a bad idea, but the problem is that the dramatic stakes aren’t high enough for it to feel absolutely necessary.[2]

            Cloud is the only character who can defeat Sephiroth. Final Fantasy VII implies as much when Sephiroth refuses to die until Cloud faces him alone. Thus, that he comes to terms with the truth about his past is something that has to happen for both the story to move forward, and for the heroes to emerge triumphant.

            This is not the case in Wild Arms 5 which the game admits outright: when we travel into Avril’s mind, we are trying to make her accept the memories of the infamous “ice queen” that she supposedly once was without regaining the vengeful and murderous personality. However, it is noted that if they fail, they will have to kill her. At no point does this imply that the party will not be able to defeat Volsung and his crew. Thus, when it occurs it feels more like a dramatic roadblock than a necessary landmark on the way to the end. 

            It’s also worth noting that in Wild Arms 5, the entire supporting cast jumps into Avril’s mind, which I can only assume was mostly for design reasons (see “WHAT” below). And while I understand the design logic behind it, it creates the problem that there’s all these extra characters hanging around achieving basically zero narrative purpose, while Dean, the character with the most intimate connection to Avril, helps her talk through her stuff with her subconscious and shit.

            Final Fantasy VII avoids this by having the only other character that goes inside Cloud’s mind Tifa, a character who shares a similar intimate connection that has the opportunity to be both more honest and more tender because of the characters’ kinship, and their privacy.


            When we arrive in Avril’s mind in Wild Arms 5, all we find are random icy roads (I guess because she was the “ice queen”) in a swirling, abstract black abyss. That really is it, we don’t actually see anything more interesting. In other words, we don’t visit the past, where we see Avril as the ice queen, and we essentially don’t learn anything new about where she came from. This would be an especially good opportunity since it would give us an opportunity to go place we haven’t seen yet, which would actually give it a leg up on Final Fantasy VII in terms of sheer visual variety.

            But in comparison, where we go in Final Fantasy VII, Niebelheim, at various points in Cloud’s life, is almost automatically more interesting as a result because we’re seeing a place that is important to the characters involved at important and dramatically interesting points in their lives. We see the incident as a child that drives Cloud’s heroic complexes, we see the burning of Niebelheim, and the Niebelheim reactor where Cloud first “kills” Sephiroth.

In comparison, the places we go in Final Fantasy VII when we enter Cloud’s sub-conscious are vastly more interesting than where we go in Wild Arms 5.


            We kind of already clarified this in the last section, but just to restate: Because we don’t actually “go” anywhere in Wild Arms 5 when we visit Avril’s mind, we don’t actually learn anything new about the character. She receives no new development.

            What we learn in Final Fantasy VII is hugely important: we learn that Cloud had been mixing his memories with Zack’s and that in his past he was not nearly the hero he was pretending to be. We learn a shameful truth, and by accepting that, by accepting the existential whole of himself, Cloud is able to regain control of himself and continue on with his journey.


            When we visit Avril’s mind, we do, essentially, what we already had been doing for most of Wild Arms 5: shooting barrels with nothing in them, following coin-marked trails, fighting regular enemies and bosses.

            Except wait: that doesn’t make any fucking sense

            Ok, ice roads because “ice queen,” that I can kinda wrap my head around, but what kinda metaphorical backflips and wall-running would I have to do to make sense of Avril’s mind being inhabited by monsters? It doesn’t make any sense to call any of them some sort of metaphor for something that happened to Avril in the past or some embodiment of her guilt a la Silent Hill 2 because we don’t ever actually learn anything about Avril’s past, there’s just monsters. Why are there monsters?

            Why are there monsters? Why are there Avril ghosts with swords that make me fight something and then start over at the beginning of the area? Why are there pots that I can shoot and they explode and make noise, and more importantly, why isn’t there anything in them?

            Because this is a videogame I guess? Because you need something to do here?

            It’s becoming less and less “radical” to say this, but I disagree with that entirely.

            In Final Fantasy VII, when we visit Cloud’s mind, what do we do? Almost nothing. We walk, we talk, we learn. It’s worth noting that, though much of it is linear expository cutscenes, a fair bit of it is not. The game gains a simple, but incredible power by forcing the player to tell Cloud to walk down the stairs towards where Sephiroth is waiting in the basement of the Shinra Mansion, or to run hopelessly around the town as it burns. This is a simple instance where the player is given free roam in a virtual space to explore with only a few things to touch and investigate, and it is such a powerful way for a player to interact with the game world that it serves as the singular style of gameplay used in Gone Home. It works, and we desperately need more of it.

            I farted around with this a bit much, but I guess that says it all about as best as I can: When Wild Arms 5 takes us into the mind of a character, it goes for the same typical forms of engagement that it had already been offering, and that other games like it offer constantly, and suffers because the section is ultimately unimportant to the story the game is telling. Conversely, in Final Fantasy VII, the exploration of Cloud’s subconscious feels not only absolutely necessary (because it is), but it provides a minimal and powerful form of interaction with the game world that makes it, aside from necessary, unique, worthwhile and memorable.

Epilogue (Some random news/speculations about future posts)

            In fact, as I sit down now to publish this piece, I realize that Wild Arms 5 is more and more like Final Fantasy VII, and, unsurprisingly, the ways in which the game fails are all the ways in which it differs greatly from FFVII. I’d even go so far as to argue that the much lauded hex battle system, meticulously well-designed as it is, simply cannot beat the economy and tone of Final Fantasy VII’s combat.

            I can’t promise that I’ll actually sit down to write more comparative essays on this subject, but I think I’ll try and make a small series out of it. The most complained about aspect of JRPGs in my experience has been that they all use the exact same tropes, but whether they differ in mechanical or thematic purpose, or one is simply better executed than the other, but broadly speaking, no two stories will use the same tropes in the same way, and the same could be said of games in terms of both narrative and design, so I think an extended small series of side-by-side analytic comparisons could be a useful look into how that works and why it’s important.

In any case, the main problem with that is that I’m working on a huge analytic essay about Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix right now, so that idea might have to go on hold. (It’s already half the size of the Metal Gear Solid piece and I’m nowhere near done. Hype!) And truth be told, I was frankly, really disappointed with Wild Arms 5 so I’ll be more than happy to walk away from it for a while, play other stuff, write about Kingdom Hearts, and come back to it.

In any case, thanks again.
-Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013


           The idea of “empty space” in video games was something I was thinking about while playing Wild Arms 5 briefly before I wrote this piece mostly thanks to twitter user Zolani Stewart (@Fengxii), so shoutouts to him. 

            He writes a GREAT blog about games called The Fengxi Box (featuring, among other things, a great piece about guns in video games as his most recent post) and he's launching a digital magazine called The Arcade Review that "publishes criticism on experimental games. Freeware and shareware games, oddities, obscure indie games, games rarely discussed, games outside of dense commercial spheres, games that challenge structure and our expectations of what games can do," and the first "issue" should be out early next year, and I'm really looking forward to it. His own piece is gonna be about Mortal Kombat 4! Don't you wanna read about Mortal Kombat 4? I sure as hell do.

[1] Yeah, a videogame that isn’t Final Fantasy VII is worse than Final Fantasy VII. What a shock.
[2] And Wild Arms 5 is frankly not a game with enough ambition to simply just have extended segments of character exploration that stop the forward movement of the plot just for its own sake. Exploring Cloud’s subconscious isn’t an example of this, since it is absolutely necessary, but Final Fantasy VII does actually have plenty of examples of this.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

EVO 2013 King of Fighters XIII Grand Finals: Reynald vs. Woo, Round 1

In case anyone missed it. One of the few examples I can think of where someone gets truly bodied and it's also astounding to watch. (It helps that Reynald came all the way back from a 2-0 lead, but he then reset the bracket and did not lose a match in the reset.) Also thought maybe we could compare match notes and see what smart both players are doing.

0:00: Right at the start, Woo knows that Kim is gonna go ham because that's how Kim does things, so he downbacks and anti-airs with crouch C, one of the best buttons of it's kind in the game.

0:05: Woo's spacing is great here, he knows he can hit with sweep, and of course he pulls #TheClassic cancelling it into low parry for big plus frames. Reynald blocks.

0:06: Reynald back dashes, creating the perfect space for him to come in and poke with hop CD, establishing light pressure. Reynald takes a very slight gamble going for the overhead air D Hangatsuzan, which Woo blocks. The very grey territory between the safeness and unsafeness of that move on block makes both players comfortable to push a button, resulting in a trade.

0:11: Similar to the start of the match, Woo downbacks in anticipation of Kim going in, which he does, hopping in again with air CD. However, Kim is lower to the ground by the time Ryo comes out with Crouch C, thus the CD counter hits the crouch C and Ryo gets knocked down, but the normals also trade, sending Kim too far back for Reynald to capitalize on the hit

0:12: However, that trade does leave Kim at advantage, and Reynald runs in to begin pressure. Woo probably smells more air CD coming (not a bad guess against Kim) and has already jumped to challenge with Ryo's own air CD. Reynald however chooses to use stand CD from a fairly significant distance, an especially smart move at this point for multiple reasons. 1) If whiffed, Ryo has no real way to punish it considering the moves incredible horizontal range.  2) If blocked, Reynald is far enough to be safe, though the situation would reset, or he could cancel into EX Hangatsuzan and continue pressure. Kim's stand CD has a good AA hitbox (apparently, it must), so it catches Ryo whiffing the CD on the way down and counter hits. From this distance Kim can't really follow-up, and Reynald pauses briefly before just whiffing ground B Hangatsuzan, probably to build some meter.

0:14-0:22: Woo smells low pressure, jumps back, lands a good combo that puts him in a good situation. Kim players rarely use stand A from what I've seen, so likely the same work could've been done from a hop which would've been safer. Then again, I'm not the one in Grand Finals at EVO. However, he flinches somewhat on the follow-up, allowing Reynald to use passive move. Reynald possibly smells out Ryo's godlike sweep and thus decides to use far standing D, which goes over lows. It connects, which does allow Kim to follow up with low B, but Reynald misses the link, ending the blockstring on a stand B. This puts Woo at the perfect distance to stick out Ryo's amazing stand D, a low, while Reynald probably began to walk forward to continue pressure. It hits, and Woo confirms into EX Tatsu, then links into a DP and Drive Cancels that into D Tatsu, ending in heavy DP. It's a lot of meter to spend, but it puts him and Reynald in the corner with Ryo at advantage to begin applying pressure.

0:23: Woo presses C to begin Ryo's typical corner pressure, which option selects as a throw tech. Kim's close C is a good button, though Reynald was more obviously going for the throw. It would allow him to get out of the corner and Kim's throws are insanely good and easy safe jump setups. Woo jumps in and the air D lands, however it lands too high for a ground combo to connect, thus the C that would've continued the combo comes out again as a throw tech, as Reynald likely saw the high jump-in and reacted, thinking similarly to the earlier throw attempt.

0:24: Woo might've been getting impatient here, and jumps back in on a downbacking Kim. Never a good idea: Kim has heavy Flash Kick waiting.

0:28: Reynald jumps in with Kim's A, his standard jump-in, then cuts the block string short at 2 low Bs rather than the 3 into stand B hitconfirm that is Kim's BnB, instead staggering out the third one to test Woo's patience.

0:31: Reynald might've been bating to see if Woo would run it against the button whiff. Not a bad idea against most characters, but terrible when discussing Kim, because Kim has an incredibly fast and even partially invincible EX  ground Hangetsuzan, one of the most dangerous moves in the game.

0:34: Yeah speaking of that, Reynald sees Woo's footsie waddling and punishes with the EX, and when the follow-up forward, forward A misses, he quickly presses a meaty close C, which ends up hitting. He follows up with a standard light block string then backdashes to a neutral position.

0:41: Both were playing neutral, with Reynald hopping (but not jumping) and whiffing buttons to bait Woo in, but he underestimated the range of Ryo's awesome jump D, and that won the round for Woo.

Woo goes on to win the rest of the round, and another match, but Reynald then incredibly won three straight to reset the bracket, and then another three straight to become the 2013 EVO Champion.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013

Quicky Re: Ep. 88 of The Game OverThinker and Absurdism

DISCLAIMER: I write because I have something to say, but I'll more than admit that I'm more likely to cast down in typing what I have to say about moviebob's stuff because the last time I did that, it got me a lot of pageviews, some positive feedback, and I got linked on the TV Tropes forums, which was really cool since I used to cut my teeth there back in the day. (It was also, coincidentally, where I discovered the work of James Clinton Howell.) All that said I ain't gonna disagree with the guy for the sake of disagreeing.

This isn't gonna be nearly as extensive or negative as the last time I responded to Moviebob (who I remind you, I respect and admire deeply) but some of this stuff has been nagging at me.

Here's the latest episode of his show:

I just wanted to hit up a few points here.

1) Bioshock: Infinite: Fails deeply as a condemnation of racism, as Brendan Keogh writes about here:
(I will link to that piece until the day I die.)

2) I think he kinda simplifies the topic of absurdism from both a philosophical and artistic standpoint.

The absurd, in philosophy, is essentially our need for meaning in life vs. there not being any.

The idea of the absurd is especially important in both existentialist philosophy, and videogames are nothing if not deeply existentialist from either a design or narrative perspective.

Absurdist works are not supposed to be meaningless per se, but rather investigations of meaninglessness.

For example, in the infamous Waiting for Godot the two main characters wait around for a friend who never shows up. It is both itself a meaningless act because it will never reap a reward and the act does not itself create meaningful growth in the characters, and the act of waiting (for Godot) is also a metaphor for the meaninglessness of most life: waiting around for it all to make sense, to add up to something when it simply will not.

In No More Heroes, by comparison, as analyst Emcee Prophit shows (I might be simplifying by putting words in his mouth by the way), Suda uses absurdism to demonstrate the nihilism of ludic acts. (Nihilism being the idea that not only is there no inherent meaning in life, but that none can be derived or created)

Travis Touchdown consistently lies to himself about his intentions in attempting to become the top assassin, but the game keeps going on to reveal none of those things to be true and demonstrates this through visual metaphors, as well as reinforces the meaningless of the violence by interrupting it with meaningless busywork. (The twist ending that reveals that there was no UNA also serves to reinforce the meaningless of not just what Travis did to get to the assassins, but the act of murdering the assassins itself.)

No More Heroes is definitely an absurdist satire. Of what? Videogames. The somewhat incomplete (it mostly ignores the sandbox stuff, which is minor, but still crucial) but still very valuable analysis by Emcee Prophit of it that I referenced begins here:

3) Metal Gear: You can kinda see above, but also to simplify . . .

Y'all know what I have to say about Metal Gear Solid.

Here's what James Clinton Howell had to say about Metal Gear Solid 2

And here's what he and Jerel Smith had to say about Metal Gear Solid 4

Suffice to say, Metal Gear's form does not exist to make the radical politics easier to swallow, it serves an integral purpose to the communication of those themes, and also functions as a self-sufficient criticism of ludic structure.

Otherwise, totally solid episode about how Grand Theft Auto V and it's fans are totally up their own ass. As always, thanks to anybody reading out there.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2013