Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Brief Notes on #Oldgames

This was originally intended for Critical Distance Blogs of the Roundtable series for December, but I didn’t put it together quickly enough to get it in. So: here are a few aphorisms on New Game +, Replaying a Game, Nostalgia and HD Remasters.

Does New Game + Affect the Narrative of a Game?
In indescribable ways. To pull the most famous example of recent memory: Dark Souls. Dark Souls achieves a certain tone to it’s early game especially by making the player feel utterly limited. This is decimated by New Game +. In short: any sense that the player character is supposed to be at any kind of disadvantage is absolutely gone, and thus, in many cases, even the basic premise of the game we’re playing is destroyed. Chrono Trigger isn’t the same game when Chrono is just as capable of beating Lavos within the first hour as he is within the fifteenth.

I can understand why people might want to burn through a game on easy mode, but I think it should be acknowledged that the version of the game being played is certainly not an accurate representation of the game’s systemic or narrative ideas as a result of this. More like a Greatest Hits tour of the game.

Does Replaying a Game Distort Our Original View of It?
First of all, replaying a game is almost entirely beneficial for critics. I’ve maintained that the games I’ve written about the most, particularly Final Fantasy VIII, which I wrote somewhere around 10,000 words about in 2014, I would not be nearly as well-equipped to write about if I had not played the game something like 5 times for a total of at least 105 hours. The first time I played the game I enjoyed the game, but it wasn’t until successive playthroughs when I truly understood it, and I find that my understanding only deepens with each successive playthrough. This is largely the case because FFVIII is a good videogame with a lot of good subtext to look at. Each new playthrough reveals ever more subtle details. As recently as this December, more then 7 years after having published the near-comprehensive “Driving off the Map” on Metal Gear Solid 2, James Howell still produced new and interesting insights on twitter about Rose’s relationship with Raiden and how it reflects Raiden’s relationship with the player.

I believe it was Film Crit HULK who once said that you haven’t really seen a movie until you’ve seen it twice, that the second time is the first time you’re really seeing how all of the pieces fit together. This is true for games, and I believe that the more you play a game, the better you are likely to be at writing noteworthy observations on it.

That said, I do think a key distortion takes place, namely, that the more you play a game and thus, likely, the better you get at it, the more likely you are to be way too forgiving of what I’ll casually call bad design. This is a particularly bad habit of Dark Souls players.

It’s actually pretty easy once you get used to it.

This is not helpful as a critic. What is useful as a critic:
  1. Using your knowledge of a game to help others play it.
  2. Recognizing when the game does a bad job of indicating important information.
  3. Recognizing when a game breaks it’s own “rules” to create new challenges.
  4. Recognizing that the problems people have engaging with a game’s systems is legitimate.
And most importantly:
    5. Recognizing that just because you like a game or find it interesting does not mean it is well-made, well-designed, or even just good.

Do Old, “Nostalgic” Games Fall Apart Under Close Scrutiny?
Obviously a case by case basis, but what I tend to see happening is almost the opposite. People don’t use their newfound scrutiny to recognize a game’s faults, they use nonsensical critical constructs to wreak havoc on an undeserving game, often for the sake of pure contrarianism.

Ah dude, I used to really love Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 but man, all those cutscenes. I mean like, shouldn’t games not even have cutscenes?

This is not criticism. This is checkbox review writing wearing a tuque and drinking better coffee, and it needs to stop. In short: we see a lot of game critics, especially those who influenced by the ancient perscriptivism, not use their abilities as critics to find out why a game works, but rather point out how a game doesn’t work under a set of false pretenses about what the game should be. It’s akin to grading a fish on how well they can run a race. There is a particular site that does this all the time and it drives me crazy. Hint: they’ve got about 7 million glowing reviews of God Hand and somewhere along the line the word “crunchy” got involved.

Rather then seeing critics point out how Japanese Role-Playing Games to do not adhere to the standards set by Western First-Person games, I’d rather see more writers set about decoding norms across genres and discussing their functionality. If a particular type of game uses a particular design trope incessantly, why is it there? Why did it exist? And if it has since been replaced, was that actually a good idea? Hint: the JRPG has been in a steady decline as turn-based battle systems have become less and less popular.

HD/Remastered Versions?
Look let’s be real here: console games are incredibly fragile. Pause for a moment and realize that no one actually makes the CRT displays that Final Fantasy VII was meant to be played on anymore, much less the original hardware on which it was meant to be played.

The process of making games compatible with current hardware is incredibly important for preserving videogames, and so far, the industry is doing an absolutely pathetic job of it. Case in point: I’ve been playing Breath of Fire IV recently. I’ve been playing it on a PS3, which is good enough, but that means I’ve been playing on an HDTV, which means that I’m getting a few frames of delay on my inputs and that my display isn’t entirely correct to how the game would look on a CRT display (even if I use the correct aspect ratio), but the game is still very enjoyable thus far. But what if I wanted to play Breath of Fire III on a similar setup? Can’t. Why? Because Capcom remade Breath of Fire III for the Playstation Portable! (Y’know, that handheld system everyone totally owns.) And they’re trying to sell that . . . in Japan and Europe where that was actually released. #GamesIndustry amirite?

Companies can’t be completely blamed for choosing their bottom line when it comes to these things, but problems happen when companies still see these games as viable tools for making money long after their initial marketing push when said games are not beloved classics of the sales tier or caliber of say, Super Mario Bros. 3 or Halo: Combat Evolved.

This becomes especially depressing when you realize money is most of the reason games of a certain obscurity will simply never see the light of day on a contemporary console. Can I even begin to explain how well a game like Terranigma would work on the 3DS even if they did literally nothing to support the dual screen? Or better yet, if they added a functional map system to that game? And yet Square, who owns the IP, will likely do nothing with it. Capcom knows that their #TrueFans hate Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, so they’re leaving it completely untouched even for an emulated port on the PS3. Thankfully physical copies of the game are still relatively cheap right now, but that will change for the worse if the PS1 market of rare games is anything to go by. Protip: if you want a copy of NIER, go buy one now, while they’re still cheap.

That kinda went in a lot of different directions but here’s the short version: yes. Remake everything. Port everything. And if you don’t think you’re gonna make anything off of either of them, just dump the ROM for free on the internet.

And if your favorite old game isn’t available for legal purchase on a modern system, continue to emulate the shit out of it. Your moral responsibility to give companies money falls apart when buying the game would no longer mean actually paying the developer or the publisher for their work.

Thanks for listening.
Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014


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  2. I've always thought of dark souls ng+ as an interesting narrative turn. To me ng+ is the final boss. It is you showing lordran and yourself that you're not weak anymore. You play through the game that took you 85 hours in 10 hours. You destroy absolutely everything that gave you trouble before. It always felt like character growth to me.

    And as ng+ is the final boss, ng++ is the open world being free to explore after you defeat the final boss. You don't really know why, but you're compelled to memorise all the item locations and shortcuts etc.

    And you start longing for your vulnerability again. You realise that your life in this world in meaningless without it. Lordran is no place for a king.

    As a certain person who published 7 million glowing reviews of god hand once said about space invaders, you love the enemies because you want to kill them, and they love you because they want to be killed. But once you've mastered the world, there's no more foreplay. Killing them is meaningless if they don't kill you first. You're no longer dancing with them, you're performing for them. But they're no audience.

    This strange constructed nostalgia for earlier on in the game makes you come away feeling cold and empty. You want to be afraid again. You want to be surprised again. You want to feel wonder again. You want to feel hope again. And you can't. You never can again.

    Easy comparisons to capitalism aside, I think that's kind of cool!