Monday, June 29, 2015

Critical Switch: Intro to Game Design and Drama

Zolani told us last week, and him and I have both been hammering on for the past year or so, the interactivity-focused nature of ludology, that is, the formalized study of games and play in both digital and analogue spheres, is almost completely useless for studying games as works of art, especially given that we're finding, more and more, that interactivity is actually a massive element of all artwork, and that the interactivity we have with videogames in particular (as opposed to analogue games) don't really allow us the freedom of choice and action that is, supposedly, the definitive characteristic of the form.

Actually, now that I'm thinking about this, I realize that I should probably reiterate some stuff that we talked about around this time last year.

I return of course the devastating, razor sharp clarity of the words of Masayuki Hambalek, a Japanese game critic, who said about a year ago:

When you can’t do something in a digital game, it simply doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t lower the degree of freedom.”

Digital spaces are different from real life. Whereas a fence that prevents us from getting too close to a particular place is an intentional restriction on our freedom, in a videogame, an invisible wall is more or less a rule of nature, an element like gravity or inertia that makes sure the whole universe functions properly.

As I stated in response to that thought on my own blog not long after:

We as critics and players more often than not highlight the fantastical things that games allow us to do over the mundane things that they do not. In reality, the amount of things you can't do in a videogame far outnumbers the things that you can, but the appeal of most digital games are those specific possibilities they do offer.

Or, as Zolani put it last week: “Interactivity is crap!”

As a result, interaction alone, we find, is likely not the element that makes for interesting and meaningful gaming experiences. I believe personally that what makes particular interactions interesting is their basis in contexts that we find compelling, be it a fictional universe or even just an aesthetic. It's not necessarily the what you do, because ultimately that “what” can be boiled down to polygons and numbers, but the who, when where, why, and how you're doing it.

I guess you could say that means I like videogames with good writing, and you wouldn't be lying, but I also enjoy plenty of silly bullshit games like Resident Evil 4 that build satisfying interactions through the most loosely-constructed contexts. In fact, poorly-written AAA action games give us a pretty strong argument for this kind of “context-based” understanding of engagement, because what most of them do is construct a context for the interactions that is just convincing enough to make for satisfying experiences. But that's a different episode.

As we move away from an interactivity-focused view of what makes games great or important, I think it's equally important that we not assume that interactions themselves are unimportant, if nothing else because the interface itself is what gamers most directly engage with. So basically, a game needs to have some kind of playability to it!

I feel like that's fairly self-explanatory so think of it this way: “gameplay” as it's thought of is not the notes and chords of the music, as I think someone like Keith Burgun would assert. It's more like the mixing of recorded music. When I listen to music, the mixing is the thing between me and the music, it's the thing that delivers the music to me, or the thing I have to work through to hear the music. Depending on the artistic aspirations of the piece, that mixing can be hyper-focused towards an aesthetic goal: this is your slick, mirror-shine pop record, or your raw, demo-quality black metal album. But still, in most cases, you're going to want a mix that healthily balances professionalism and cleanliness with excited performance and untamed energy. For videogames then, the gameplay, the interface, is not “what the game is” but rather the thing between me and the game, the thing that delivers the game to me, or the thing that I have to work through to get to the game.

The most obvious lesson this can show us with commercial videogames is that the design of these games should be relatively open to an audience who wants to pick up and play, and not be egregiously difficult or needlessly obfuscant. But my primary concern today is actually with games that, in an effort to streamline the relationship between the gamer and “who, where, why, and how” kinda skip out on the “what” because it's viewed as largely superfluous.

Among the early classics of what are broadly called “art games” a term that will hopefully die with scholarly study, and among what are often called “walking simulators” or “first-person narrative games”, the common design trend has been to build games that have almost no semblance of challenge or what the critic John Thyer calls “resistance,” whatsoever. And that works, for me, when the game you're making is meant to be a more exploratory experience. The Stanley Parable would be actively harmed by an attempt to add bizarre resistance to it, and I think Limbo was always harmed by it's attempts to mash up it's aesthetic and loose, heavy sense of embodiment with it's puzzles.

But I'm already also seeing a small trend of games wherein a sense of resistance is completely lost where I think it would strongly benefit the piece. Temporality by James Earl Cox III, for example, has a really bare interface. Temporality is a 2D game wherein you view multiple men's lives in a non-linear fashion as they move through phases: from childhood onto military service. These characters simply move forward through space and time until they is inevitably shot dead in an early-20th century war while somber piano music plays. You can walk backwards and view events backwards but the events themselves aren't changed, only the way in which gamers view them.

The game is largely sentimental and I think what it wants to do through it's simple control scheme is convey a sense of inevitability to these characters' deaths. But the game also has you use the same control scheme to show lives that are full of vibrance and value and human experience. So when we inevitably get to the war torn field where these characters meet their ends, it feels bizarre to me that they inevitably die without me having some way to try and save them. I'm not saying that I should be able to save their lives, but rather that it would feel more appropriate if I, while their deaths were inevitable, was able to participate in some romantic struggle to take them as far as I can. As it stands, the quote-unquote “lack of challenge” inherent in Temporality's structure and controls feels nihilistic whereas the narrative information it's conveying is romantic, sentimental, humanist.

Huh, if only there were an ultra-specific term for naming a kinda conflict between how people interface with a game and the narrative content that game is trying to convey. Hmm . . .


So in essence there are, again, in my view, about two types of dysfunctional video games: those whose form of resistance against the gamer is so vicious and poorly-constructed that it makes me play designer and remove myself from the fictional or aesthetic context to try and understand the game as a series of hitboxes and numbers, whereas games that offer too little resistance fail to convey the weight and seriousness of their dramatic context.

The question then emerges is “what kind of interface would we add to this? What kind of resistance?” Now, the answers to that are endless, but I think how we go about doing that can easily be derived from a study of what we understand as “game design.”

If we were to add those kinds of interfaces to Temporality, we would attempt to do things like find cover, move between lines of fire, all of which can be built from understandings of deadly projectiles that we find have existed in commercially released games for decades.

There are tons and tons and tons of examples of this, and I want to go over a few of them in my next few episodes, so rejoin me in mid-July as we dive deeper into the study of Game Design and Drama.

Next week, Zolani Stewart will be back with an analysis of Naisance.

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Critical Switch: FFVII and Jazz Standards

On Jazz Standards

Joe Pass was a Sicillian-American Jazz guitarist who lived from 1929 to 1994, he is one of the greatest Jazz guitarists of all time, often cited along with Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson. He was particularly a master of solo performance, capable of deftly moving between melody and supporting harmony, all with a massive improvisational flair. He could move between chords whose names I can barely say and in the next bar be blazing across a lick with deftly incorporated passing tones. This was on top of being an incredibly capable band leader, and an extraordinarily skilled accompanist.

Joe played jazz standards. Rock can have problems with cover tunes, at least from the 70's-80's and onward. For whatever reason, songs are usually seen as inseparable from the people who first wrote and performed them, from the contexts in which they were first created. Jazz doesn't do that. Jazz performers, generally speaking, tend to take a song and put their spin on it, and sometimes even put multiple different spins on it, like Joe Pass did with the song “Summertime,” first written by George Gershwin for the musical Porgy and Bess. Three different versions of “Summertime” that Joe Pass recorded are playing under this episode.

There's been a lot of argument over whether Final Fantasy VII should even be remade. If the original is as great as we say it is, shouldn't it stay the way it is? I'm bothered by this line of thinking for a number of reasons, some sentimental, others outright selfish, but one point became burningly clear as I realized it:

If Final Fantasy VII had already been remade, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

Now that's a fairly tautological statement, but the evidence backs it up. I can think of no such dedicated originalists concerning, for example, Final Fantasy IV, which has been remade countless different times. Now, you could easily play the original version on the SNES and that's still a great game, but you also now have the choice of playing the PSP remake and the DS remake, the former a more traditional iteration with updated sprite graphics and more or less similar mechanics, (itself a port of a GBA remake) the latter a fairly major overhaul made in low poly 3D, adding voice acting, and redefining character combat functionality. Both of them are really great takes on the game. Both of them are really fun, both of them have the same great music and adventurous story. In my mind there is absolutely no reason not to play one of those versions over the original SNES version. And come to think of it, if you wanted to play the original game, would you play the US version with the butchered translation and altered mechanics, or would you play a fan translation patch of the Japanese version? That US version may be an inexcusably bad port by modern standards, but it was also the version that some people grew up playing, and probably the version some still play today.

Tales of Phantasia: now granted, nearly none of these versions are available legally in the US, but indulge me. The original version of the game on the SNES is by no means a bad game, but the Playstation version builds on it in every conceivable way, iterating on the combat system to more resemble the game's recent sequel on the Playstation, and adding the series legendary “skits” to the equation, adding lots of fun interactions between the game's lovable cast of characters. You could also consider Tales of Phantasia X for the PSP, which has all of the PS1 version additions and a fully voice acted cast.

Dragon Quest is a particularly blatant example: no one who likes people would recommend playing the original NES version of Dragon Quest when the Super Nintendo version exists that cut the grind in half, simplifies the environment interactions, and puts a fresh coat of paint on the graphics.

Chrono Trigger: the DS version adds stylus controls for the menu if that's your thing, a minimap, all the anime cutscenes from the PS1 version without any of the load times, and redoes the original translation. It is almost without question the definitive version of the game.

The primary difference, the only difference really, between any of those games and Final Fantasy VII is that those games were iterated upon consistently from their original release till present day. And while we can have reasonable discussions over which versions are we like better for what particular reasons, there's no real question as to whether the various iterations are legitimate interpretations. Final Fantasy IV, Tales of Phantasia, most of the Dragon Quest games are all jazz standards. Each version has it's own flavor, and thankfully, all those flavors are pretty solid!

Lemme let you in on a little secret, cuz a lot of people have forgotten this: Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX were all scheduled to be remade . . . for the PS2. Gamespot reported this in 2001. Quote:

Square has announced that it will release the remakes of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX for the PlayStation 2 in individual packages. Each will be in DVD-ROM format, with graphical and audio enhancements. Additionally, special features will be included in the remake discs. No release information has been disclosed on the three Final Fantasy remakes at this time.

Then, a little movie called The Spirits Within happened, Squaresoft had a major corporate restructuring, they merged with Enix to become Square-Enix and the project never materialized.

A tech demo was even made that rendered Final Fantasy VIII's dance sequence in real time. With FFVIII being my personal favorite, I go back and watch that every once in a while and just go “Man, I wish I could play this version.” I mean yeah even it looks dated now, especially considering it's a real-time tech demo vs. the original games lovingly crafted FMVs, the character models are especially pale, but y'know what also looks dated? Every part of Final Fantasy VIII that isn't an FMV.

I guess the real question is, if all these games get remade and people are cool with it because those versions are awesome, why all the skepticism now about this game? Is it because this game is better? I mean sure, I like it better than pretty much any of the games I listed above and I'm also doing edits to my book about it, but Final Fantasy VII is also by no means perfect. The original translation has two ableist slurs and has Barrett talking like a Mr. T parody, and even the Japanese version has FFVII's infamously loosely structured endgame bit with the Huge Materia that we collect for . . . some reason or the other? Hell, FFVII is great, I'd still call it one of The Greatest but the game's Magic Defense stat doesn't even function properly, partially lending to the absurd cost:damage ratio for using magic all across the game. A remake would be a great chance to fix some of that stuff and maybe tweak the balance of high-level play as well.

And that's if Square takes the traditionalist route and remakes it as a traditional JRPG. I'd be perfectly fine with that, ecstatic even, but the more I think about it, the more I came to agree with my friend James Hearn that, like listening to Joe Pass' very different versions of “Summertime”, I'd love to play a version of Final Fantasy VII that, at least on an interfacial level, changed absolutely everything.

As noted by my friend Devon Carter in an episode a few weeks ago, Hiroyuki Ito, who designed the battle system for Final Fantasy VII, even said that when he first designed the Auto-Time Battle system for Final Fantasy IV, which Final Fantasy VII iterates upon, he saw it more as a means of abstractly presenting the fights in a way that was achievable with the technology at the time, and also said he thought that, as the series got older and tech got more advanced, how the battle work would change, and it has. The old 3-to-a-line battles had their own style and their own elegance, but Square shouldn't necessarily feel chained to them.

I understand preserving FFVII in it's original format, and I understand why for historical reasons that that is important, and I would never argue that the original game isn't worth remembering or caring about even with the remake on the way. What I will argue is that some of the stalwart dedication to preserving the original game instead of an effort to preserve Final Fantasy VII that also lets it evolve like a jazz standard comes from a dedication to the original game that is frankly silly given that the original game likely can, and arguably should be altered.

And if worst comes to worstand FFVII turns into some F2P MMO with all the music replaced by Sunn 0))), what a shame it would be, given that I can still play the original version or PC version, both of which now have excellent fan translations that address the major concern of preserving FFVII in the west.

I've rambled about but my primary point is this: FFVII should be remade. It should've already happened once, and ten or twenty years from now, it should happen again. Not necessarily because each version will always be better than the last, but, hopefully, because each of them will be interesting, and serve to give us multiple ways of looking at and thinking about one of gaming's grandest artistic achievement.

I will be returning next week, as promised, with an episode (or two given how these scripts are looking) about game design as a conduit to drama. From Seattle, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.