Friday, March 21, 2014

Nobuo Uematsu Turns 55 Today

Happy Birthday to Nobuo Uematsu, who turns 55 today. I can think of nothing better to say than that the games he has composed for would be infinitely less without him. Here are two of my favorite tracks of his.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Backtracking in Super Metroid

Backtracking as Theming in Super Metroid

            As loved as Super Metroid is, among the most common criticisms of the game and its franchise has been its reliance on backtracking to create the illusion of non-linearity[1], typical thought being that playing through the same areas repeatedly is unappealing. Moving forward should always be bringing about new sights, new sounds, new mechanics, new adventures: so says the conventional wisdom.

            This is borne out not just in typical nitpicks of the Metroid franchise, but also the later-era Castlevania titles the Metroid franchise heavily influenced, as well as in commercial reviews of, for example, Devil May Cry 4 or NIER.

            That reveals a special problem with how we look at videogames in the form of the commercial review, both in terms of how we assess narrative, as well as ludic content, because games often have good reason to revisit familiar places.

In the case of DMC4, for example, the way we approach the game as Dante differs wildly from how we approach the game as Nero. In NIER when we revisit old areas, we expand on the stories of the places we’ve visited before, and have a more enriching experience as a result.

In the case of Super Metroid, backtracking provides us with the means by which we display the growth of our avatar, which in turn is a display of our skill as players for having conquered the game’s challenges. This renders backtracking not a minor flaw, but in fact an incredibly important part of the game’s communication of narrative to the player.

As is especially important in this case, Super Metroid does not merely provide new tools to the player as a way of finding new areas[2], but it also gives them new ways to move through old areas, at their convenience.

Within minutes of landing on Zebes, the player can find an entrance to Tourian, where they will eventually find the Baby Metroid, and fight Mother Brain. Securing the entrance is a statue displaying four of the game’s five main bosses: Kraid, Phantoon, Draygon, and Ridley. To unlock the elevator down into Tourian, we must kill them, which means we will have to navigate our way through Brinstar, the Wrecked Ship, Maridia, and Norfair.

Thus, Super Metroid becomes a game about exploration and acquisition: Exploring new areas and acquiring new resources, which then allows us to becomes better explorers and find better resources, both skills which we will use to find a boss, and then kill them. We get a simple system of challenges and rewards which then provide us with more challenges and more rewards.

However, there a number of easy mistakes that could’ve been made in this process that Super Metroid deftly avoids.

For one, it could’ve been easy to make the games process of acquisition crucial only to fighting bosses: “collect enough Missiles and Super Missiles to hurt and kill the bosses, but they won’t be needed to defeat regular enemies or move through the game world.” On the contrary: each new Beam, pack of Missiles, etc makes regular enemies easier to beat than before, with some even making enemies that were previously invulnerable fellable to Samus’ weaponry, and each addition to our inventory opens up new places in Zebes to explore.

In addition, Super Metroid could’ve also made a similar mistake wherein Samus’ new movement tools are only ever used to move to new places. And while that is the purpose that these new items serve primarily, they also give the player further rewards by unlocking previously inaccessible areas in old places and allowing Samus and the player to further their item collection, as well as by making older areas easier to navigate. Compare that to progression items in the later-era Castlevania titles where it’s like finding a card key in an old FPS. There are arbitrary movement barriers and they only reason that these arbitrary items exist is to remove these arbitrary barriers.

That’s the real meat of this argument: Super Metroid’s backtracking succeeds because by making older areas easier to move through and older enemies easier to kill, it provides us with visceral proof that we are succeeding not only because we are moving on to newer and greater challenges, but because it proves that we are dominating this foreign environment.

It’s almost like struggling to get C-rank somewhere the first time you play on a higher difficulty in Metal Gear Rising, and then toying with lower enemy levels later on when your damage output allows you to do basically whatever you want. You succeed, and then you succeed in an even more demonstrable way.

Put simply, the backtracking in Super Metroid makes you feel powerful because it becomes so easy to do. Areas which previously required the Grappling Hook now are much more easily dominated by the Space Jump. Areas where Samus would be actively hurt or her movement hindered become as smooth as the rest of the game when you grab the Varia and Gravity suits. Blocks which previously had to be bombed one-by-one now simply vanish in frame-rate decaying glory when you use a Power Bomb, and in some of those sections, if you were already running, the Speed Booster will simply destroy the previously existing blocks, and it is also so powerful it will outright obliterate lower-level enemies as well, rendering whole rooms of the game simply a matter of running where previously they would’ve been approached more slowly with more thoughts on to how to approach the enemies. These are only a few examples.

All of this is crucial to the game’s legendary flow, and that ever elusive “game feel.” This is a tight system of challenges, rewards, movement, and atmosphere, and when you remove any one of those things, you get a game that is still strong but ultimately weaker.

If Super Metroid were to make the mistake of not having each mechanic prove crucial to moving through the game and conquering it’s environment, you might result in a game where moving through the environments becomes simply the tedious task of getting to the next exciting boss fight setpiece, or inversely it makes the bossfights an interruption of the flow of atmospheric movement puzzles that define the rest of the game.

Super Metroid is about as well-designed as a videogame could possibly be. It creates a continuous flow of gameplay whose rich detail makes it a satisfying experience even when you can beat it in less than 3 hours, with an atmosphere that still manages to intimidate and immerse even when compared to modern AAA experiences. That the solidity of its construction aids this is not only obvious, but is only another small part that makes Super Metroid the great game that it continues to be.

Also, Happy Anniversary Super Metroid! 20 years ago yesterday, March 19, 1994. Big ups to my friend Julio Peredo for helping me edit this piece. Thanks for reading.
-          Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

[1] A topic for a later date: sequence-breaking in Super Metroid actually creates true non-linearity, which the formalization of Prime and Zero Mission outright remove even though they have the same non-linear illusion in their forms.
[2] This is why that critique of latter Castlevania is a lot more functional than this critique of Metroid

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Notes on Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter

Notes on Dragon Quarter

·         The game establishes its dystopian future aesthetic immediately by contextualizing the typical JRPG “Pick Your Name” screen in a fashion similar to the Nodes in Metal Gear Solid 2: You aren’t interfacing with abstract game interface, you are entering your name on a government computer.

·         The first camera angle in Dragon Quarter is from behind a ceiling fan in a locker room and holy shit videogames need more of that. (I can confirm that, in areas without combat, similarly dramatic camera angles were common. Presumably they were less common in areas with combat because moving around enemies is so important in Dragon Quarter.)

·         The soundtrack is awesome, and yet totally un-JRPG like so far. It reminds me a lot of Soul Reaver actually.

·         Aaaaand the battle theme is lame, filled to the brim with abrupt shifts and lacking in core melody. I’m gonna take a guess that it’s . . .

·         . . . yup, the curse of Yasunori Mitsuda strikes once again. (Holy SHIT dude, just listen to some fucking Motoi Sakaruba and get with the program.)

·         [According to some sources some of the music was also done by Hitoshi Sakimoto, but based on his work with Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and Final Fantasy Tactics I stand by what I said. He has a lot of the same problems.]

·         [The battle music does get better later, and the boss music is fantastic.]

·         I like how you start off too poor to buy even a basic weapon upgrade. The game has already established through many visual and dialogue cues that getting to the top is what we’re trying to do, and communicating that upper echelon above you through your own comparative poverty is clever.

·         My absolute high point for JRPG opening acts is, of course, Final Fantasy VII because it gives you a setting and an aesthetic, within just a few seconds, and then hits the ground running telling a story and building its world and teaching the game mechanics. Dragon Quarter does this in a more subtle way, but it definitely does it. 2:46 and this game has been rolling since the moment I popped in the disc. The gameplay has communicated an aesthetic better than almost any game I’ve yet played and the story has already enthralled me.

·         In my first night of playing Dragon Quarter, I’ve played for about 5 straight hours. This used to be what I called “The first half of Saturday” after which would follow dinner, and then another 5 hours of a game, but really, I don’t do this much anymore.

·         “Indeed, the truest trumpet blast proclaiming Dragon Quarter‘s greatness is said atmosphere. Insects cling to flickering lights in psycho-depressing underground metal stairwells, words are scarce (what’s to talk about?), elevators are a ‘mode of transportation’, people in ‘cities’ slump against rock walls, everyone hates everyone else, everyone hates their self, everyone hates everyone else for hating themselves. That the game’s characters and players share the same desire re: getting the hell out of this depressing place is more than just a coincidence: it’s good game design.” – Tim Rogers

·         I’d like to point out that Action Button’s review of Dragon Quarter has an aside wherein Tim Rogers uses a triple parenthetical to criticize the lack of continuity in the Final Fantasy series, and then rolls back said criticism. I really can’t make up the shit he writes sometimes.

·         It’s a damn shame that faces in this game are made with 2D textures because it’s the only part of the game that looks bad.

·         It was probably the result of a small budget, but this game has no voice acting. I cannot overstate how well the game uses this. A fair amount of the cutscenes thus far have had no music at all, and that communicates the aesthetic perfectly.

·         Most of the money you make in Dragon Quarter is by finding items and selling them. I’ve always loved this version of money-making mechanics in RPGs because frankly they just make so much more sense. It adds an extra layer of busywork, but that busywork feels real and immersive, and suggests an in-game economy, even if it doesn’t do the hard work of building a fully functioning economy outside of the player characters presence.

·         Having put down the game and not played for pretty much the entirety of December, I was quickly reminded that Dragon Quarter is fucking brutal. In this particular case: the kind of brutal where a status ailment you’re commonly inflicted with does not have its remedy readily available for sale, but you can buy the item that cures all status ailments for twice the price. (Thankfully I had the money.)

·         RYU: “Am I going to die?”
LIN: “Well, we all die in the end.”

·         I find myself revisiting Dragon Quarter less often not because it is unentertaining, but because it is fairly draining. Saving is a limited resource in Dragon Quarter and for what I shit you not was the last three hours of the game I wasn’t allowed to do it, because I actually ran out of Save Tokens. Those stretches got bigger and bigger as the game went on.

·         A great thrill in Dragon Quarter is that the game is designed around you sometimes not being prepared for boss fights, which encourages you to really overprepare in towns. It feels like genuine survival against a genuine struggle. This creates a tension where there’s the tension that the next time you open a door it’ll be a boss fight and you might not be ready for it. The way the game takes little notes from horror games here and there is pretty genius.

·         There’s a cutscene where a major character dies, and as one character is shocked, the dungeon music fades back in and they walk on. Not a sad “character just died” theme but the regular music that goes with what is technically speaking the mundane part of your adventure.

“So it goes.”

·         Briefly after that, I realized that my previous hard save had me at 12:20, and my new one at 15:36. Again, I restate that the level of dedication Dragon Quarter will ask from you is pretty insane.

·         A common mistake I made and you’ll likely make: saving before you’ve bought your items and such. Save yourself some pain: don’t do that. Don’t take permanent progress for granted.

·         I love the tension that having a limited inventory is brining. Now granted, you start with only three pages of inventory, and as of the point in the game I’m at now, I have seven [I ended with seven], but it brings a serious amount of resource management into the question. Make no mistake, you will run out of space in your inventory.

·         Common example: Your inventory is full. (Trust me, it is.) And you have an opportunity to pick up a new unidentified weapon dropped by an enemy. (This happens a lot.) You could pick it up, but to do so you might have to drop a slot of 10 healing items to do so, or gamble on this unidentified weapon being better than some other unidentified weapon. And really, either of those could be huge. It could be the weapon that allows you to thread skills exactly the way you want so you can really start doing damage, or those healing items that might make it possible to beat the next boss. What Dragon Quarter excels at is making that decision feel tense and real whilst not too often putting you in a situation where you ended up making the wrong one.

·         Another thing in this game that I can’t say I’ve seen in many other RPGs: Jump scares. Really cheap ones too. Dragon Quarter still looks great today, but that’s in part because it has a cartoony aesthetic that doesn’t make you expect too horribly much in the way of character animations, for example. Point is, it doesn’t necessarily do horror well, but it can still get you every once in a while by sneaking an enemy behind you and making you go “Fuck! Where did he come from?!” And again, the game isn’t unfair: the extra turn that gives the enemy isn’t going to result in your immediate death, but it does mean you’re gonna have to burn some healing items because you didn’t get to kill the enemy before they even had the chance to attack. It’s just a little whisper in your ear every once in a while that keeps you on your toes.

·         For the past few months I’ve been stuck in a particular part in Xenogears because basically, if you don’t upgrade your gears you’ll not be able to beat the upcoming bosses that you fight with your gears. Except this time there’s no place to go buy shit for my gears. I’ve been playing for about 25 hours after already having restarted the game twice or so, and I’m going to have to start again. From the beginning. (Game Design!!!) Now lemme tell ya, if you wanna feel defeated, starting a game over and over again and not actually beating it is a good way to do it. Dragon Quarter is about that. It’s about feeling overwhelmed, defeated, and yet still struggling onward, and wondering whether it’s worth it, and wondering even as you steadily progress whether the choices you’re making with strategy are actually effective enough to see you the whole way through, (because in a game like this eventually someone’s gonna have your number . . . right?) and it expresses that with the hints of an aesthetic, but primarily through ludic frustration. Said ludic frustration is achieved through, for the most of the game, trapping the player in the area of character strength that feels like the first 10-15 hours of a typical JRPG rather than letting them grow into the immensely broken parts of the later 30 hours. Best of all is that this is used to metaphorically express the characters place in society and their struggle to escape, all of which is totally brilliant. I'm going to write more about this game, but I'm just going to say now that you absolutely must play Dragon Quarter.