Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Critical Switch: Shovel Knight and Interrogation

So hey, new microphone! I've had episodes with good sound before thanks to my friends like James and Solon, letting me borrow their mics, but I now officially have my own Snowball mic! So audio quality should be lovely and consistent from now on. Thank y'all for helping make this happen.

Critical Switch is of course supported by patient listeners like you at

Nostalgia means more than – hey, hey, sit down. I'm going somewhere with this. Nostalgia means more than people tend to think it means. In common usage it tends to mean a fondness for the past, but it can also mean “a fondness for a past that did not exist.”

In the recent wave of retro genre revivals, we see some of this concept in practice, in many particular ways. Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin look and sound lot better than the isometric Baldur's Gate/Planescape: Torment CPRGs they are formatted on. Likewise for 2D platformer revivals like Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth, which preserves the pure 2-directional whipping of it's side-scrolling predecessors but tampers down on the need to commit to one's jumps, as well as having the aforementioned technical upgrades.

A trend becomes noticeable wherein designers are choosing to buff out what were generally considered “flaws” in their original designs when updating them for the age of Kickstarter and reminiscence. And why shouldn't they? The history of commercial game design is mostly of slow-moving iteration wherein certain things that are disliked about a particular design are either removed or replaced, and in theory these games are merely picking up on where their predecessors left off.

But there's also something to be said for established traditions as well. I've run up and down the halls screaming at my listeners and followers about how if JRPGs so desperately needed change then why do none of the late-90's classics of the genres really play in any fundamentally different ways? And in many ways, the same sense of need for iteration is what arguably drove us away from these beloved genres in the first place, especially as we became focused on the progress of technology.

Now what I'm saying here is mostly some “the answer is in the middle”, “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart” type shit. That's not useful. What is useful, is a work like Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight is an immensely intelligent videogame released last year by Yacht Club Games whose ever design and narrative trope is, on a moment-to-moment basis, interrogating that space between nostalgia, progress, and the true past.

Aesthetically, Shovel Knight rides that particular “false past” idea of nostalgia quite hard. The game's color palette sticks almost religiously to the NES' own color palette, but they've admitted that in a few spots they had to use shades and hues not accessible on the NES. The music is neither puritanical NES chiptune or modern arrangement, but instead features music that was only capable of being played on a Japanese Famicom and certain games that made use of an expanded set of channels, most famously Castlevania III. Only a few games used that expanded set of channels, and none of them were ever released that way in the west. CVIII's western release uses only the regular 3 channels+noise for it's music. And of course, Shovel Knight is simply too large to have ever fit on a NES cartridge, being loaded with enough musical assets alone to fill an entire cartridge.

As well, Shovel Knight's particular design choices, while rooted in a genuine appreciation of 2D classicism, (multiple critics besides me have already analyzed the game's meticulous level design) also has a number of modern design choices, namely it's use of a Dark Souls-esque drop of money when the player dies. It chooses this system for punishment of death, which is barely punishment at all if the player can retrieve their money, rather than allowing the player only a limited number of attempts per level, thus opening up paths to repetitive mastery that, in older games, are mostly found through the abuse of savestates on an emulator.

So in some sense, Shovel Knight is already throwing on rose colored lenses about what the NES and what the games on it were like. In case it sounds like I'm stating this as critique on it's own, I'm really not. Each of these choices makes Shovel Knight more accessible than it's forebears, and choices made in favor of accessibility are nearly always justified.

Even then, in an intelligent and controlled way, Shovel Knight begins to subvert that modern accessibility. Specter Knight's stage's gimmick, for example, is that it will bathe the screen in darkness, but that the player can detect Shovel Knight and his movement objectives if they observe the blackness against the colored background. As well, sometimes lightning strikes and illuminates the path forward briefly. However, later in the stage there are a few sections that require seeming leaps of faith because Shovel Knight and his platform are bathed in darkness, and enemies are on his tail. One can only trust the designers here to have placed platforms in the way at exactly the right space to make these spaces practically navigable without putting Shovel Knight at risk. That trust is rewarded.

Slowly, as we move through the game, we see more and more design decisions in this vein. Instant death becomes more common, and the player is forced into awkward forms of movement and control like adjusting to the wind propellers in the Propeller Knight stage or the ice physics . . . the fucking ice physics in Polar Knight's stage. Some might see this as sloppy design as the game gets closer to the finish line, I'm more generous because in these decisions I see the boldest defiance of NES design this game has to offer: narrative and metaphor.

What is Shovel Knight about? It's about a Knight attempting to reclaim his former glory and save his girlfriend and his kingdom from the clutches of the evil Temptress. It's seemingly boilerplate videogames, but there's already a subtle and critical difference: Shovel Knight's quest is based on a loss in his fairly distant past, before his self-imposed exile. As he moves through and gets closer and closer to the enchantress, the Black Knight warns him that he is walking into great peril, and the various members of the Order of No Quarter, the Enchantress' servants, especially Treasure Knight, who tells us: “Even now, others are paying the price for your avarice.”

Still, Shovel Knight journeys on. After each level, Shovel Knight rests at a campfire, and sometimes he dreams of Shield Knight, desperately trying to catch her as she falls from the sky as he fends of hoards of fiends. It's a provocative pairing that I think almost suggests the unreality of the situation, not in an “everything that's happening is a dream” level, but more on the acknowledgment of the fantastical quality of games themselves, as well as living out this fantasy version of a NES game. We ultimately find that the Enchantress is in fact Shield Knight, under the control of evil magic. In defiance of the odds, Shield Knight is freed, and she joins Shield Knight and rests with him at a fireside. She limps to her place beside Shovel Knight, it is unclear whether she will awake from her rest.

This is, I think, a pretty strong metaphor for what it means to develop a 2D platformer in 2015. It is the struggle of searching for the past while accepting the present. And it's the constant question of whether the magic can survive in modern times. Overall I think the tone of the game, and of course the fact that the game exists, and is a beloved commercial success gives us a hopeful bend on that, and what were NES games if not optimistic, but what I appreciate most is that it's a topic that Yacht Club chose to struggle with not just in developing, but inside of the game itself. And after all, what is searching for answers, if not`` digging?

In this episode you've heard “Strike the Earth,” “The Requiem of Shield Knight” from the Shovel Knight original soundtrack by Jake Kauffman. Zolani Stewart will be back with our next episode.

From Seattle, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ronnie James Dio: 5 Years Later

Today marks 5 years since the shocking passing of Ronnie James Dio, and wallowing in melancholy I find myself writing an ode to him. The greatness of Ronnie James Dio is nearly impossible to describe in hyperbole, as much of his importance simply comes down to facts. The facts are these:

Born in 1942, Ronnie James Paladona (stories differ on how the name “Dio” came about, suffice to say it means “God” and the name is appropriate)  was first a trumpet player before being a singer. In a 1997 interview he claimed that he never once took a formal vocal lesson, employing merely the correct breathing techniques he’d learned playing the instrument. (Speaking as a friend of a number of formally trained singers, I doubt the story is facetious.) He fronted a number of unremarkable rock bands throughout his early career.

Often noted for his age after fame, Dio’s singles with early rock bands were met with only regional success, and he spent his 20’s in obscurity. He wasn’t even featured on a commercially released LP until Elf’s debut in 1972, when he was already 30. (According to wikipedia, his earlier band had made an album for Atlantic records, I can find no proof it actually exists.) Suffice to say, Dio peaked late, regardless of when one thinks Dio peaked.

That brings out the next astounding fact about Dio: not only did he record his most celebrated material at an age when some singers have already severely injured their voice, but in the process became one of the most celebrated frontmen in the history of metal.

In Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, we first see Dio’s fascination with fantasy imagery. Some bands had toyed with these motifs before, but Dio made them his own. In adopting such a style he also thoughtlessly adopted some of the casual racism of 20th-century fantasy, such as on “Voodoo” from The Mob Rules or a song from his Holy Diver album titled after the well-known slur for the Romani people. These are some of his weaker lyrics, such that their titles end up being more offensive than the content contained within, but the archaic and outdated must be noted along with the innovation.

That fantasy imagery (when used responsibly) combined with an early musical experiment in what would later be noted as speed metal, “Kill The King” represents arguably the first example of what would become power metal in the late-80’s and 90’s. The song has become something of a metal staple, being covered by the thrash band Heathen, and power metal bands Primal Fear, and Stratovarius.

The vocal styles employed by power metal bands can be credited almost singularly to Ronnie James Dio. Surely noted singers like Rob Halford, Ian Gillian, or even Robert Plant sang high, but there timbre was still obviously deep within the realm of rock’s down-south blues influences. Dio’s style was based in a classicism and melo-dramatism that he pioneered and mastered within metal. Power metal masters like Hansi Kursch, in their adoption of dramatic affectation, borrow much more greatly from Dio than from any other great metal vocalist aside from maybe Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, who it should be noted wasn’t even recorded until 1980, and didn’t rise to prominence until almost a full decade after Dio. (As well, though Priest’s early material is now held in high regard, Halford wasn’t nearly the level of household name until around the same time.)

Presumably believing that fronting one of the most important metal bands of all time was simply insufficient, Dio left Rainbow when Ritchie Blackmore announced his intention to commercialize the band’s direction, and happened to run into Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on the sunset strip in 1979 after the latter band had recently split with Ozzy Osbourne. The chemistry between the group and their new singer was so instantaneous that they released Heaven and Hell within the next year, reinventing their sound in the process. It and it’s follow-up, The Mob Rules are such immensely strong albums that it is to this day a serious question whether Sabbath fans prefer the Osbourne or Dio albums. (For most of my teenage years, Mob Rules was actually my favorite Sabbath album.) Dio first left Sabbath in 1982, after a rather silly argument over the mixing of their Live Evil album. Dio, a notorious egotist, had supposedly been tampering with the mix to make his voice louder, though despite his reputation that accusation is dubious at best.

Though Sabbath’s early days laid down the foundations of heavy metal and the downtrodden pace of what would become doom metal, I would say that tracks like “Heaven and Hell” or The Mob Rules“Sign of the Southern Cross” are probably the foundational basis for what would become classic doom metal in the late-80’s and early-90’s. Listen to Candlemass’ Epicus Doomicus Metallicus or Solitude Aeternus’ Beyond the Crimson Horizon and notice the combination of mid or low tempo riffs, but also notice the insistent melodicisim and the vocal approach of Johann Lanquist (or his successor, Messiah Marcolin) or Robert Lowe. I’d argue the approach bears a much stronger resemblance to Sabbath’s early-80’s material than their early-70’s, and those singers owe much more a debt to Dio than to Osbourne.

Presumably fed up with being a hired gun for established performers, Dio decided to make the show his and form a band under his own name following his departure from Sabbath. While not as musically important as either of his previous acts, Dio found his greatest commercial success with legendary singles like “Holy Diver” and “We Rock,” and gave some of his great all-time performances as a singer. “Rainbow in The Dark” in particular remains a favorite of mine, an immense display of Dio’s often-derided talents as a lyricist.

I cry out for magic
I feel it dancing in the light
It was cold,
Lost my hold
To the shadows of the night

Dio’s best lyrics are filled with evocative images like these, and though sometimes the intent of his metaphors are lost in confusing jumbles, the power of his stronger lyrics certainly makes one forgive his many attempts to capture a similar magic. It was on songs like this where the power of Dio’s voice was uplifting by pure strength alone, a source of genuine inspiration for my younger self, mired in suicidal depression. Connecting with his voice and his words showed me a side of metal that could empowering, not just defeatist. And while I identify with the pessimism of metal, it is songs, voices, and stories like Dio’s that help me carry on in spite of doubt. I may be left on my own like a rainbow in the dark, but that makes me the rainbow, doesn’t it?

Even when his words weren’t powerful, his voice always was. Even as he aged, Dio was still giving shocking, thunderous vocal performances, as we can hear on 2000’s Magica or my personal favorite, on Heaven and Hell’s The Devil You Know, which turned out to be his final album. Listen to his control of volume and his ability to choose when to unleash the grit and growl of his voice on “Bible Black.” Dio was sixty-six when he recorded this!

The modern age begets cynicism and skepticism in needless quantities, and I’ve seen more than a few wonder if Dio’s performance on this album was the result of studio magic. I had the privilege of seeing Dio on his last US tour to support the album. It is still the most impressive vocal performance I’ve ever seen, and he hit every single note of his youth. Perhaps not with ease, but surely with command.

Fame came late and death came early for Ronnie James Dio, who died from metastasized stomach cancer on May 16, 2010 at the much too young age of 68, who earlier in the year was still looking forward to playing summer tour dates with the reunited Heaven and Hell lineup, who didn’t even cancel their dates until it became apparent how serious his illness was. Dio was still determined to live, and to sing. It has been five years since and I still cannot describe the shock at learning that even gods can die.

Austin C. Howe, Seattle, WA, 2015

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Critical Switch: Republican Dad Mechanics

I was gonna go on this long tirade about Dark Souls and abuse and nihilism but honestly, I think I want to focus on something in particular, it's a design trend that Dark Souls has largely fathered and I'm concerned about where I see it going.

Dark Souls and the semi-franchise it emerges from and has helped popularize has brought on the rise of mechanics whose design intention is to get gamers to be more careful, and build skill, but also have least the potential to cause brash, irrational decision making.

These types of system designs I will designate: “Republican Dad Mechanics.” You could also probably call them “school bully mechanics” but, an election year is coming up and dammit, this country is on the line! You know how it is.

In theory, the Republican dad is someone like this: they want to teach their child how to hit a baseball, but they find that the child is swinging limply, missing, or losing grip of the bat.

Now what a sensible human being would do is give expert advice: plant your feet firmly, grip the bottom of the bat strongly in the palms of your ha- nah fuck that, what the Republican Dad does is throw the ball so hard that they might actually hurt the kid, the logic being “you're gonna swing the bat or walk away with a bloody nose.”

That is the basic root of much of a lot of Dark Souls core design, but it's probably best indicated by the Blood Stain mechanic.

A primer for the unfamiliar: in Dark Souls, when you die, you leave behind a stain of your blood, and on that stain is the Souls that you picked up before you die. Souls are extremely valuable, as they are both the currency you use to buy things from merchants and blacksmiths, but also the experience points you use to level up. Even to gamers hell bent on the ultimate challenge of beating the game at Level 1 will use souls to upgrade their weaponry.

This creates this extremely common situation: I just died to a horde of ene mies while h olding a not-insignificant amount of Souls. Given that I am likely to die if I try and combat those enemies again, based on previous results, I would like to rush in, grab my souls, and escape the room as soon as possible. Thus, I begin my bum rush back behind enemy lines and within a moment I've died to the same horde. Thus, by the rules of Dark Souls I've lost my opportunity to ever get those Souls back. This logic applies to any other type of enemy, obviously, since enemies you've died to once are almost by definition enemies you are likely to lose to again.

Thus, the game has given me something that should encourage me playing better, that is, the loss of my souls, but it's also made those things the carrot on a stick that forces me into nonsensical loops of actions. I have played at least 200 hours of these games, I cannot shake the feeling that regardless of how good I get at them, the fundamental psychology of that mechanic will not change.

Bloodborne, From Software's new game in much the same style, has actually doubled down on this parental conservatism with it's new Regain mechanic. In Bloodborne, a certain percentage of damage taken within a certain time frame can now be regained if the player quickly strikes back at their opponent. The psychological punishment is actually even more severe here. As . . . I can't believe I'm citing this man, but the quote actually is pretty good, Tim Rogers writes:

 If an enemy hits you, doing damage, you can get your health back if you hit them soon enough after they hit you. This is idiotic. This is insulting! This is a huge, dumb punch in the face of a perfect combat system. It's filthy and it's gross. Wow, it's so great; I love it a lot.
With the Regain System, Bloodborne begs you to take tiny risks. I say the risks are "tiny" because that's how it feels: just one more button press. That button press is highly likely to get you killed, because for the length of that button press — the first few dozen time s, anyway — you're not thinking about position, timing, or stamina. You're thinking, "Hey, I can get that health back, so let's see if I can get that health back." Ten seconds later, the enemy is dead, and you have half the health you had during your initial engagement with the enemy. You feel like the biggest sucker in the world. You've seen the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The Wizard of Oz was flipping you off.

The weird part is, in case you missed it, Tim Rogers likes this part of Bloodborne which you can list off as reason number 9001 about why I don't get that guy. Or maybe he's being ironic, I don't know y'all, New Games Journalism was weird.

So again, the game is shoving this obvious carrot in your face, but the only real answer is to just let it go, man. That could be a lot of things, but for a game as ludically focused as the FromSoft games tend to be, I'm just gonna call it misguided design.
Now of course other designers are preaching the Miyazaki gospel. Lords of the Fallen, one of the first major-studio Souls-likes adds an experience multiplier so that the longer you avoid resting at a checkpoint and spending your experience the more experience you build . . . which is bizarrely reflective of modern financial economics: “You've invested in some good stocks and made some smart decisions! Now make the decision whether you want to retire early and die rich or GO FOR MORE” even though there's no real reason to do that except maybe to buy that second Bugatti.

The idea of course is simple enough: let's put in mechanics that encourages gamers to more consciously engage with the interactions at hand. But in these cases, we have system upon system built to encourage wild and often unrewarding risk-taking. So how do you avoid being a Republican Dad designer?

This is the easy part: the solutions have always existed! But in particular I want to point out the tremendously smart decisions made by Platinum games, in particular how the parries work in Metal Gear Rising.

Parrying is exceptionally important to scoring high in Revengeance, or even just surviving on the high difficulty levels.

Parrying is attached to the same keys as both movement and attack, and that makes it inherently risky, because if you screw up the parry you're swinging at an enemy or running when you need to block.

Now granted, this can still happen, but unlike Dark Souls, Revengeance has got your back. What Revengeance does to mitigate possibly misguided player risk-taking is implements two types of parries.

The better kind, the kind you want, are often referred to as “Perfect Parries”. When a parry is executed within frames of an attack landing, Raiden will riposte, for enough damage to outright kill a low level enemy, and often to do 20% or more of a bosses health.

It would've been easy for them to look at player inputting those parries too early and say “git gud scrub” and walk away, but Platinum actually wants people to enjoy their videogames so they don't do that. Instead, they offer a version of the parry that can be activated much earlier, but also doesn't offer the riposte reward, often not resulting in any player reward other than not being hit. This is on top of having an invincible dodge move as well, for moves that cannot be parried, and that you can also use instead of a parry when you really need to get out of Dodge.

Bayonetta does something similar where when an invincible dodge is activated within the right time frame of an enemy attack, Bayo enters Witch Mode and gets to shell out massive damage, but you can still execute the regular dodge at a lower level of risk.

How would you implement those kinds of risk-mitigation mechanics in Dark Souls? Well . . . you don't. Because the fanbase would never shut the fuck up about it. Because remember, the most important thing you can derive from a hard videogame is being self-important about being able to beat it.

This week you'll've heard the Majula theme from the Dark Souls 2 original soundtrack and the Firelink Shrine theme from the Dark Souls original soundtrack composed by (I am definitely going to screw this up) Motoi Sakaruba, and “Stains of Time” from the Metal Gear Rising OST, music and lyrics by Jaimie Christopherson.

Zolani Stewart will rejoin you next week.

From Seattle, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.