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

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