Monday, November 24, 2014

Weird Sequels

I’d like to write about each of these games more individually someday, but until then, here’s a short list of one of my favorite genres:

Sometimes Postmodern Sequels
Or Follow-Ups in Games Without Continuity
That Repurpose Their Series To Be Textually Interesting,
and Usually Receive Negative Critical/Fan Reception For Doing So.”

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
I probably won’t write much about MGS2 myself, considering that James Howell utterly demolished the topic in his classic “Driving off the Map”, but it had to make the list considering it’s easily one of the best videogames ever made.

Metal Gear Solid 4 Guns of the Patriots
Again, a topic totally destroyed by James Howell in “Monstrous Births,” but what makes MGS4 interesting in contrast to MGS2 is how it uses similar techniques to denounce repeating the cycle of MGS2 and MGS3, which built their meanings by reiterating tropes from the first two games. MGS4 intentionally reiterates these tropes in a meaningless way to point out how stale Kojima felt his series was getting, and that was matched with a script largely focused on stagnation, death, and disease. In all honesty, MGS4 is a tie for my favorite game and is absolutely one of the best I’ve ever played.

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
Commonly criticized for being a stopgap entry that does nothing to advance to overarching plot of the franchise, this handheld title also had tedious, grinding gameplay. But it was about something: this tedious gameplay was contextualized in the narrative as the actual jobs of the characters in the story, making for an interesting experiment in ludonarrative that attempts (and I think succeeds) in demonstrating how the tedium of everyday experiences causes lapses in the development of personal lives. The game even occasionally indicates huge time skips to keep up the pacing of the narrative, indicating, like real life, huge passages of time between genuinely significant events. And that this all effectively criticizes the core gameplay loop of the series is genuinely clever. The excellent cutscenes are available as part of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix which is overall a great package, but I’d still recommend laboring through the experience to get the full effect.

This one’s a bit of a cheat honestly, Drakengard and it’s sequels are already regarded as some of the strangest titles ever published on a console, but even in comparison to the game that brought us medieval characters traveling to contemporary Japan and then being killed by the military, NIER is still spectacularly strange. I wrote about it a bit here, and I think that piece still somewhat speaks for itself. The game is still cheap if you can find a used copy and that will change.

Final Fantasy VIII
I’m really cheating now aren’t I? FFVIII is infamous. Justly thanks to it’s absolutely bewildering mechanics that make the game impenetrable to many and joke easy to anyone who knows how to play it right, and unfairly thanks to a story that strongly de-emphasized the epic sci-fi/fantasy plot that had characterized the two genre-defining titles previous to and proceeding VIII. Instead, FFVIII was interested in . . . teen romance. Yeah, I know, it sounds bad, but this gives the game a fascinating way to explore and negotiate with masculinity, thus making an interesting semi-trilogy on the subject in the FF titles released for the PS1. Be not dissuaded by strange plot twists, this game has subtext for years. On top of that, it has an interesting aesthetic, some of Uematsu’s best music, and when you do get comfy with those systems, you will absolutely demolish the game’s balance in ways that only get more entertaining the more you learn. (And you don’t even have to master the card game to do it!)

Dark Souls II
Let’s be upfront here: Dark Souls II is a horrendous game, but in terms of it’s lore, DkSII seems to exist almost entirely to pick away at the tedious, thematically-empty pointlessness that is the lore of the original Dark Souls by pointing out the repeating cycles of tedium that define the impact of the player character’s actions. Also fuck the haters, Dark Souls II looks a lot better then the original game.

Soul Reaver 2 and Legacy of Kain: Defiance
In short: utter brilliance. The original Soul Reaver boils down to a fairly simplistic, unfinished revenge story whose main appeal is it’s aesthetic and it’s voice acting. It is, in retrospect, not very meaty. SR2 and Defiance essentially chucked the original idea for the plot out the window and made the series a brilliant existentialist commentary on fatalism, historical cycles, and power structures, and did it all in the context of brief, enjoyable games that were always top of the line graphically, and still look genuinely great today. They even managed to incorporate the fact that all of the games feature half-endings (largely due to bad budgeting) into the series thematic framework to make for a brilliantly ambiguous final cutscene in what is otherwise still an “incomplete” series. Some of my all time-favorites. I have an essay on Soul Reaver 2 coming out in the upcoming issue of Five Out of Ten magazine. Be sure to buy it, the money you spend supports myself and the other writers directly!

Chrono Cross
I’m replaying this one right now and taking notes. On top of having a great aesthetic, a great battle system, and easily one of the best soundtracks ever written for a videogame, Chrono Cross also makes itself interesting through it’s apparent disinterest in following any conventions of typical quality, even within it’s genre. For example, instead of featuring a relatively tight cast of highly backstoried and developed characters, it readily switches out people in a case of fourty-five playable characters. Seemingly each time the game builds narrative momentum, it sidetracks into something strange and disorienting. All of these make the experience of playing the game a sort of hazy trance that is at once incredibly difficult to describe and really, deeply satisfying, even if we end up finding the game ending as seemingly incoherently. I’m not sure I totally ascribe to that view yet, but what’s also worth noting is that Chrono Cross is notable for absolutely savaging the juvenile tropes and themes of Chrono Trigger, the beloved classic SNES game it is a predecessor to. Absolutely recommended even if the game only ends up being something akin to a megalong ambient music album, though I genuinely think the game has a lot more than that going on.

1 comment:

  1. Cheating a bit here (:P), but even though Majoras Mask has continuity in the Legend of Zelda series timeline and even deals with some of the persistent themes present in the zelda games since Links Awakening/Ocarina of Time, it is also a series departure and a break from the Zelda we've come to expect. It's subversive, basically. And here's why:

    There is also Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. From an article on secondquest: "Most of the complaints had to do with the fact that it’s widely perceived that the game simply uses the franchise/characters in order to boost sales of an unrelated game; it would have had a better reception if it had used all new characters to tell its story. But that’s clearly not the case. The game is quite literally about the inability to see people you believe you know in a different light, from a different angle. Our unwillingness to do so mimics the characters’ inability. We need to have preconceptions of these characters; we quite simply need to have some baggage. Giving this storyline to completely original characters would not have made it nearly as effective; the player would have been more of an observer than an active participant.

    I think Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords is also worth a mention, if I remember correctly. I played it many years ago and adored it, and didn't understand why it was considered such a failure, since I thought the interactions with the npcs and the relationships developed to these was the best since Planescape Torment (which is my gold standard for rpgs basically). Especially one character turned everything upside down, and that is Kreia which Avellone wrote as a sort of spiritual continuation of Ravel from Planescape, because zie wanted to continue exploring the archetype of "the crone" in relation to the player and their morality. I'm thinking Star Wars is much about good versus evil, or at least jedi vs sith. Kreia complicates all that, throughout the game, and is what makes KOTOR2 quite subversive in its context and in general.

    Few things beat Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4 when it comes to these sort of sequels though.