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.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Some Notes on Detuning Electric Guitar

So let's get a few things straight about this video because honestly, yes, I do want to spend time on this today.

  1. The guitar tone this guy is using is totally off for this sort of thing: it's farty as all hell, lots of midrange, not really much going on in the low end, and without enough high-end to make the notes really distinct either. I can only describe it like that and not specifically since Mr. Scallon didn't have any description of the gear he chose to use, not even just his amp settings!
  2. Now, it's not impossible to get good metal tone out of a Stratocaster like what the dude is using, but it's not exactly as easy as getting heavy tones out of any of the other guitars he had sitting around. For example, the EMG-loaded Schechter 8-string he has sitting there parallel to the strat he uses. (Note: not really a fan of EMGs or other actives, but it is gonna sound superficially "heavier" then whatever pickup is loaded in that stratocaster, in all likelihood.)
  3. The fact that he chose to use a six-string even after tuning well below B highlights another problem. Even with heavy strings, six-string guitars are not built to be played in, say, Drop A (AEADF#B), and guitars built for playing in those tunings tend to be, to put it simply, larger. The Statocaster he uses is built to 25+1/2 inch-scale, that is to say, the part of the string that is vibrating is vibrating over 25+1/2 inches. Even guitars that add extra strings for bass-register notes tend to add an extra inch and a half at least so that the string being tuned that low is still taut and has clarity of pitch.  Ibanez makes many of their 7 and 8 string models at 27 inches. Schecther's 8 strings are 28 inches. Ibanez's signature models they make for Meshuggah? 29 inches long. Without that extra space, the string isn't being pulled tight enough for those notes to be clear, or for the pitch of those notes to be compromised when fretted (because pressing the string with the same force as a tighter string will actually bend the string and increase the pitch of the note being played.) Again, using heavier strings, as Scallon does, counteracts this issue somewhat, but not as effectively as simply using guitars built for those extended scale lengths. Specific effects can be achieved by using six string, "average-scale" guitars for low tunings, such as the strange, sludgy-yet-buzzsaw-sharp tone that Thomas Fischer has been getting with an Ibanez Iceman since Celtic Frost's Monotheist, but to make a fair tone comparison between a riff being played in standard tuning and one being played in a lower register, that string tension must be accounted for.
All in all, while I get that this video is intended to be somewhat humorous, these factors combined make this experiment kind of a wash for me, as is the general question of whether down-tuning makes music "heavier."

Thanks for listening to me blab about guitar tone for a bit.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Press R1 To See Jack Cry

Let’s get it out of the way: “Press F” doesn’t work in Advanced Warfare and “Press R1” does work in Metal Gear Solid 3 primarily because AW is written by hacks and MGS3 is written by probably the most singularly talented game director working in the industry today.

That being said, the interactive mourning also works better in MGS3 for a specific design reason.

As highlighted in George Weidman’s video review of the game, “Press F” distinctly fails because it locks all actions to the same action button. The same button you use to vault yourself over cover is the same one you use to “Pay Respects.” This is recurring, as this great blog post about the failure of a similarly emotionally charged moment in Bioshock: Infinite points out. For whatever reason, there seems to be a strange disconnect between the universality of our own human limbs and the universality of an “action button.” Pressing the same button to open a door, punch a dude in the face, and place a hand on our friend’s coffin robs the latter of it’s emotional weight through some mysterious mathematics by which the repetitiveness of pressing the “action button” for each solitary action begins to rob those actions of their impact.

I’m uncertain as to why this is. That we use the same hands to scratch our butts as we do to cradle the lifeless husk of a dead pet doesn’t rob the latter of it’s impact in real life. But I do think that I largely agree with the criticism. For now I simply want to note that there does seem to be an emerging problem with the universal action button and move on, because other games, particularly, Metal Gear Solid 3, already seem to have figured this out for themselves.

In MGS3, R1 performs one function and one function only: first-person view. Mechanically this serves the practical function of allowing players to line-up anatomically sensitive precision shots to dispose of or tranquilize enemy guards or bosses. However, in a cutscene, MGS3 will sometimes prompt the player to Press R1 to see through Snake’s eyes, and this has a variety of effects from titillation to canon shoutouts to helpful tips. When the game came out, this was seen largely as a way to chip away at the perceived non-interactivity of the game’s cutscenes which, in true Kojima fashion, were even longer than the cutscenes in MGS2.

This, in contrast with the back-and-forth embodiment politics that defined MGS2, gave gamers a fuller sense of embodiment and control of the player character, Naked Snake, whose real name is Jack and would come to be known as Big Boss (I’ll refer to him as Jack.) Through this, the player builds something like empathy with Jack, by allowing us to look through his eyes and collect information or admire the craftsmanship of a well-constructed handgun . . . or ogling a woman’s body. (Hey, I didn’t say it was all good.)

Something interesting happens here, in that by encouraging the players to tap the R1 button, curious players find themselves occasionally pressing R1 when not prompted, and on occasion this is rewarded with unmarked first-person view opportunities. The marked ones, along with the regular use of first-person in regular gameplay, build an empathy with and an embodiment of Jack such that we become curious about him during the cutscenes where theoretically first-person view isn’t an option, and that empathy is curiosity is rewarded with yet more things that strengthen that empathy and that emobdiment.

We live through this character’s eyes for a significant portion of the game, and when Jack loses an eye, we notice this as well, our vision permanently dimmed by the loss.

This sense of embodiment becomes complete during the game’s final cutscene, wherein a defeated Jack goes to mourn at the grave of The Boss, who he had been forced to kill during his mission. As he stands and salutes, our empathy may lead us, yet again, to wonder what Jack is seeing, and if we press R1 here, we can see tears rolling down his eye and blurring his vision. We have taken part in many victories and many discoveries with Jack, but here, we take part in loss, and we do so because of an organic interest in the care, not because we are commanded to pay our respects.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014