July 26, 2012

Too Many Split Personalities to Keep Track

[Celebrating the release of Kingdom Hearts 3DS this week, Enix Hearts is currently running an article series looking back at the previous Kingdom Hearts games. Since I wrote a piece for them revisiting Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, I feel compelled to do posts for the rest of the games as well. Below is the story of the prequel to the events of Kingdom Hearts 2.]

I know it’s common for a Nobody to have few, if any memories of their past, but I don’t remember a thing. Well, that’s not entirely true I guess. The only thing I see are fragments, hazy pictures of a spiky haired boy surrounded by friends. A boy that can’t—or maybe won’t—stop smiling.

If that boy was me, my cheeks would hurt too much to keep up the laughter. There’s no way he could have been happy all the time. That he could have been surrounded by friends, loved by everyone. People aren’t like that—they aren’t that lucky.

There’s no way I could have been him. That I’m a part of him or that he’s a part of me. It doesn’t matter, anyway—I have my own personality, my own identity. And no memory, no connection, nobody is going to take that away from me.

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days takes place between the events of Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. Much like Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories took place directly after Kingdom Hearts, 358/2 Days functions as a bridge between the first and second Kingdom Hearts. 358/2 Days is the story of a boy named Roxas, who at this point in the story we know is Sora’s Nobody, created when Sora became a Heartless in the first Kingdom Hearts. Roxas is taken in by Organization XIII, who uses him to fight Heartless and collect their essence in order to open the door to Kingdom Hearts. During his time with the Organization, Roxas questions his memories (or lack thereof), his existence, and his purpose. His keeper, Axel, puts up with his lack of self-confidence and existential crisis while accompanying him on several missions. Eventually, the two become close friends and begin to question the Organization and their roles in it as a whole.

As Roxas grows in strength and ability, he is introduced to a new member of the Organization—Xion. While Xion, unlike the rest of the Organization, is not assigned a number from I to XIII, she is nonetheless assigned missions to capture Heartless much like Roxas. She accompanies Roxas on several missions as well, and just like Axel does, she becomes close friends with Roxas.

Eventually, both Roxas and Xion learn their origins—Roxas learns he is Sora’s Nobody, while Xion learns she is a copy of Sora’s memories that was created by Xemnas in order to replace Sora. Xion knows that in order for Sora to become whole again after the events of Chain of Memories, she needs to be absorbed by him. She leaves the Organization with the help of Axel, and in the process, Axel and Roxas have a falling out. Xemnas takes control of Xion and sets her against Roxas, and Roxas defeats her and leaves the Organization. Axel tries to stop Roxas from leaving, but Roxas defeats him as well.

Shortly after leaving the Organization, Roxas encounters Riku, whose mission is to capture Roxas in order to return the rest of Sora’s memoires. Roxas defeats Riku as well, but before he can kill him, Riku turns to the darkness in his heart, channels a newfound power, and defeats Roxas, setting the stage for the events of Kingdom Hearts 2.

July 25, 2012

Moar Keybladez!

[Celebrating the release of Kingdom Hearts 3DS this week, Enix Hearts is currently running an article series looking back at the previous Kingdom Hearts games. Since I wrote a piece for them revisiting Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, I feel compelled to do posts for the rest of the games as well. Below is the story of the second Kingdom Hearts games.]

We woke up in a house, with no memory as to why we were there. Though I guess that doesn’t really matter—wherever we are, we are. Our goals haven’t changed—we still need to find Riku and Mickey. If they aren’t in this house, well, then we’ll check the next house. And the next one. And the one after that.

We found them once before. In a way, it’s our fault that they are still lost—after all, we let them close themselves in. I can’t focus on the guilt that’s eating away at me, though. If I do, I might just get dragged into the darkness myself. I can’t drag them out of the darkness if I’m trapped in it, right?

Even though “here” doesn’t matter in the long run, I can’t help but shake this feeling that I’ve lost something—that I’ve forgotten something important…maybe even someONE important…but if I remember Donald, Goofy, Mickey, Riku and Kairi, who else do I need to remember?

Kingdom Hearts II continues the events of the first Kingdom Hearts, with Sora, Donald and Goofy trying to find their friends Mickey and Riku. While searching for their friends, Team Sora learns of a mysterious group of hooded figures, called Organization XIII, that has the ability to control a new group of enemies that have begun to plague the worlds—the Nobodies. Similar to the Heartless, the Nobodies are a product of the transformation people go through when their hearts become filled with darkness. As a person’s heart is filled with darkness, it transforms into a Heartless. When that heart has fully transformed into a Heartless, it leaves the body behind. As a result, the discarded husk transforms into a Nobody—a (typically) grayish creature that causes lots of chaos and has a voracious appetite for hearts. The task to control the Nobody population and defeat Organization XIII falls solely on Team Sora’s shoulders, and they set off to save all the worlds from this new threat.

Team Sora learns that the Organization plans to rebuild and open the doors to Kingdom Hearts while defeating several Organization members. They eventually find Mickey again, and with the help of various members of other worlds, including a revived Maleficent, they wage war on Organization XIII. The team finds out that the Organization members are Nobodies themselves and that “Ansem,” the villain that they defeated in the first game, was not the real Ansem, whom Mickey personally knew, but actually was the Heartless of a student of Ansem’s, named Xehanort, who went around and called himself Ansem. Furthermore, Xehanort’s Nobody, Xemnas, is Organization XIII’s leader.

Still with me?

Team Sora heads to the Organization’s hideout, finds Riku there waiting for them, and teams up with Ansem to defeat Xemnas. An epic battle pitting Sora and Riku against Xemnas ensues, and together, they defeat Xemnas and prevent Kingdom Hearts from opening. Sora and Riku return to their home world, and reunite with Kairi once more.

July 24, 2012

A Key to Unlock All Worlds

[Celebrating the release of Kingdom Hearts 3DS this week, Enix Hearts is currently running an article series looking back at the previous Kingdom Hearts games. Since I wrote a piece for them revisiting Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, I feel compelled to do posts for the rest of the games as well. Below is the story of the first Kingdom Hearts games.]

Yesterday, we planned to get on a boat and leave our island in pursuit of the unknown. Today, our home no longer exists, I have no idea where I am, and I have no clue how to find either of you. After those shadow-like creatures separated us, I saw our home unravel right before my eyes. As you both disappeared into the darkness, gone to some place I can’t quite reach, I fought to save our world. But I was too weak. And now I’m lost too.

 I refuse to believe you’re gone completely—after all, I can still feel you both in my heart. There has to be some trace, some clue as to what’s happened to the both of you. I’ll find you again. Maybe we can’t rebuild our home, and maybe there’s no home for us on any of the worlds out there, but as long as we coexist in each others’ hearts and stay out of the darkness, we’ll never have to rebuild ourselves—just our surroundings.

And if you’re still stuck in the darkness, if you’re blind and you can’t see the light I can…well, then I’ll cast off this light, come after you and drag you out of the darkness myself.

Kingdom Hearts is the story of a boy, Sora, who gets separated from his childhood friends, Riku and Kairi, after his home world is attacked by a collection of shadowy creatures know as the Heartless. Sora is given a strange key-like weapon (called a Keyblade) which he uses to fight back against the Heartless. However, Sora lacks the strength to defeat the Heartless that invade his home, and as a result, they devour his entire world. The destruction of his home ends up relocating of Sora, Riku and Kairi to different worlds they never knew existed. Distraught and alone, Sora attempts to reunite with his friends and find a way back to their home.

During his journey to find his friends, Sora meets two other travelers, Donald and Goofy who also lost someone—their friend and ruler, King Mickey. They come to the conclusion that it would be easier to search for their missing friends together, and decide to team up to find them. Along the way, Sora, Donald and Goofy continue to run into the Heartless and are tasked with eliminating them from each world that they find.

As they fight the Heartless, Team Sora finds a group of Disney villains, led by Maleficent, attempting to control the Heartless in order to kidnap the Princesses of Heart and use their power to open a door to Kingdom Hearts, which would let them rule over all worlds. Team Sora methodically defeats various members of this nefarious organization while continuing their search for Riku, Kairi, and Mickey.

Eventually, Team Sora crosses paths with Riku to find that he has become an agent of the villains that they have been trying to defeat. Furthermore, Maleficent reveals that Kairi is one of the Princesses of Heart and attempts to use her to open Kingdom Hearts after kidnapping the other six Princesses. Team Sora defeats Riku and Maleficent, but in the process Sora is turned into a Heartless. A new villain, Ansem, emerges from the shadows as the puppet master controlling Maleficent and reveals his desire to open Kingdom Hearts and unleash darkness on all the world. Kairi ends up saving Sora, and after he transforms back into a boy, Team Sora fights and defeats Ansem. In his last moments of life, Ansem succeeds in opening Kingdom Hearts, however, and it is up to Riku (and a late appearing Mickey) to sacrifice themselves for all worlds by closing the door to Kingdom Hearts from the inside.

Sora, left with the choice between returning to his home with Kairi or continuing his quest to find Riku and Mickey, chooses the later, promising to return one day to Kairi with Riku by his side.

Why Lara Croft's New Direction Needs a Realignment

Do me a favor—take out a piece of paper, grab a pen (or pencil, if that’s your thing), and write down five female video game characters (and the lovely Lara doesn’t count).
You done? OK, great. Let’s take a look at who you might have written down—here are my five.
Princess Peach—the damsel in distress from the Mario games series.
Zelda—the iconic female from the Legend of Zelda franchise.
Samus Aran—the protagonist of the Metroid series.
Lightning—the heroine from Final Fantasy XIII.
Chun-Li—the most well known female fighter from the Street Fighter series.

Most, if not all of these characters are iconic to most gamers of the past 15 years. But would you consider any of them to be a good role model for any of those gamers who are women? I suppose we need to define what a “good role model” is before we continue. Since I’m not a female gamer, the best I can do (beyond asking several of my female friends who like to play video games) is look at the male role models I could identify with and go from there.

If I had a son, I’d consider any of the following characters a good role model for him:
Nathan Drake—protagonist of the Uncharted series.
Master Chief—protagonist of the Halo series.
Several male Final Fantasy characters from VII on.
I’ve got a lot more choices, (I listed the ones you’ve most likely heard of), so I’ll just break down a few characteristics a lot of them share.
1) They aren’t afraid of, well, anything.
While each and every one of those characters get into a heap of trouble and face down insurmountable odds (and believe me, they always do), they all make it out of that trouble and save the day. Every. Single. Time. And during their trials and tribulations, how much fear do they show? Not a whole lot. They have their doubts, sure—who doesn’t have those? But they really aren’t afraid of anything, and that’s pretty incredible.
2) They are usually trying to save someone or something
…and that someone isn’t just themselves. They’re saving a race, a galaxy, a civilization, a way of thinking, whatever—the point is, they are purposefully throwing themselves in danger for a greater good. They recognize that greater good is more important than they are, and they are willing to die for it. That’s what makes Shepard from Mass Effect so damn compelling—he’s willing to (and has) die to save what he believes in.*
3) They’re a little sardonic—kind of like an anti-hero.
This doesn’t apply to everyone in the list above (nor is it a characteristic that everyone looks for in a role model, I’d imagine), but I’m a huge fan of the “doesn’t play by the rules” characters in video games, like Nathan Drake, Stocke from Radiant Historia, etc. etc. The guys that deep down, care, but on the surface, are ambivalent, sometimes reckless, and unconventional. I hate Superman—he’s such a perfectionist, flawless boy scout. Give me Batman (Christian Bale preferred) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., please) every time.

These aren’t the only traits I look for in a good role model, but they’re some of the most important.

Now before I continue, I’d just like to say that I believe gaming had made great strides in introducing and developing good female role models. Honestly, I can only think of one good role model that came out of the 8-bit generation of gaming, and after that, there was a bit of a dry spell until characters like Lara Croft and Sheik (yes, Sheik, not Zelda) showed up. Our industry has done a lot to incorporate more and more women into games in leading roles, and that’s a step in the right direction.

So let’s take a look at how many women in our list have the characteristics I outlined above.

Princess Peach is the original “damsel in distress” for video games—she a princess who gets into trouble in one way or another (usually captured by some giant dinosaur, but sometimes a big ape as well) and can’t get herself out of it. Whenever she gets kidnapped, some dashing charming debonair average plumber comes to her rescue, defeats the bad guys with his charm strength wit ability to jump on things, and saves her from the evil villain. And everyone rejoices. Overall, she’s an OK character, and some depth has been added to her personality in the late 90s/early 2000s since the release of Smash Brothers Melee and additional spin-offs from the main Mario franchise, but overall, she’s not really a good role model in my book—she doesn’t have any of the characteristics defined above—at least, not in her earlier iterations.

Zelda gets us a little bit closer to good role model status, as per her performance in the Ocarina of Time, but before that, she spent a decade or so getting saved by Link in a similar way that Peach did. While she didn’t start off as a strong female character, I think Zelda is a great example of how video games have progressed to include additional good role models.

Samus Aran is the earliest good female role model I can think of—she took down an alien race that threatened to take over the galaxy, did it again, and has done so many times since. One of the best parts about Metroid was the big reveal at the end—the whole time, you had no idea that the character you controlled was a woman! The reveal ended up blowing peoples’ minds, as so many just assumed she was a man. This was an incredible move, and I believe it’s the first move that put a strong female lead in video games on the map. She’s the earliest character I can think of that made women gamers proud, and continues to do so today.

Lighting is more of the same—a fighter, a woman who takes her destiny in her own hands and tries to accomplish what she believes in. And boy does she just kick ass! She’s strong, beautiful, intelligent, and nearly fearless (with that fear primarily portrayed in her doubts. She’s a good role model for female gamers in my book, and it’s a shame there isn’t a critical mass of characters like her (and Samus).

Chun-Li, the last of this list, is an iconic female video game character—she’s been in movies, in cartoons, and in several different iterations of the Street Fighter franchise, including a strange puzzle game. She can, much like Lightning and Samus, kick a ton of ass. My problem with her as a role model for women is that she’s a bit…disproportionate. Her personality traits lend her to being a great role model, as she’s got incredible mental fortitude, doesn’t take crap from anybody, and is fighting for something she believes in. But I think she’s part of a trend that perpetuates negative stereotypes in video games (and other media)—unrealistic physical attributes that few women will ever be able to aspire to. She’s a female character created for men, not women, and that’s fine—she serves her purpose, but it’s a purpose that detracts from women role models in a medium that desperately needs them.**

Personally, I believe that there is a dearth in female role models in our industry, and that’s a problem. In fact, I think it’s one of the leading causes of horrible, horrible stories. What was there before Samus Aran? It was a bunch of random guys running around saving princesses, random circular shapes eating pellets in a maze, and games about defending the universe from flying saucers. Before Samus, we were saving Princess Zelda from…Qberts I guess…or saving Princess Peach from giant apes who wanted to fornica…

Huh. Gaming was kinda weird in the 80s, wasn’t it?

Anyway, that’s not the point—the point is our industry needs more iconic female characters that serve as good role models for female gamers. We don’t have very many nowadays—sure, we’ve got some Final Fantasy protagonists, a couple of random Nintendo characters, and a ton of disproportionate women fighters, but beyond that, we’re missing a critical mass of iconic women. Introducing more good female role models into our industry will have (at least) two effects on the video gaming population:

1)       Female gamers will have more characters to identify with and will be drawn to play more games. This will, in the long run, increase the self-esteem of female gamers and increase the total amount of women (and thus people) playing video games.

2)       Male gamers will be exposed to more and more empowered women in leading and support roles, which will, in the long run, hopefully cause them to respect women more (both real and imaginary).

Lara Croft, who was intentionally left off the above list, falls into two separate camps. Initially, I believe she was a character created for men and women—the disproportionate attributes that some men love to see and the empowered persona that women can positively identify with. I’d say she was close to a Chun-Li in the early and late 90s. As the 2000s passed and Lara was rebranded, she lost some of her size, so to speak, and began to branch out into different types of gameplay, including a highly praised cooperative adventure. I think this was a good direction for her to head—catering more toward the empowered persona instead of the larger than life characteristics she had in the 90s.

Flash forward to today. The powers that be, for whatever reason, have decided she needs another rebranding, and came to the conclusion that a reboot was the most efficient way to do so. Reboots happen all the time—Devil May Cry is currently going through one as we speak (which seems fine, as that series was getting a bit stale, though Dante’s new look is…interesting, to say the least). The concept of a reboot isn’t the problem with Lara Croft’s new game—the problem is the direction that reboot is headed.

I think the game play mechanics in this new Lara Croft will be excellent—this is an open, uncharted design space that no one has really delved into on such a scale before. But the presentation and marketing are steps in the wrong direction. I’m not opposed to this game, nor am I opposed to having a game about this type of survival—we’ve had survival and survival horror games before. I’m opposed to choosing a woman for it, and choosing how deep they are willing to go to make you “empathize” with Lara’s plight. The depth that they are taking her trials and tribulations to is not the type of role our industry should have for a woman—not yet, at least. I think we need to hit a critical mass of good female role models before we start putting our good ones into disempowered scenarios—that type of action detracts from their ability to function as someone to look up to. I think an origins story for Lara Croft is great, but not one where she’s exposed to all the things Crystal Dynamics have planned for her.

The real point is this—for every Lighting that exists, we have a Zack, a Cloud, a Vaan, and a Tidus. For every Samus, we have a Marcus, a Master Chief, and a Dom. For every Lara, a Nathan Drake, a Guybrush, and an Ezio. We need to shine a positive light on the female characters in our industry, not a negative one. There’s an abundance of good male role models, but a dearth of good female ones—and that’s a fact that needs to change.

Crystal Dynamics has the potential to do great work with reestablishing one of gaming’s oldest, most iconic (from the outside in) female characters. They are headed in the wrong direction now, and I hope that they can realign themselves upon the game’s release.

*I recognize that there is a female Shepard option available, and I’m glad that there was, since gaming could use a few more good female role models.

**Ever notice how the main offenders of unrealistic female character models are in fighting games? Maybe it’s just Soul Caliber…and Bloody Roar...and Dead or Alive…yea, maybe it’s just most of the fighting genre.

July 20, 2012

If You Have a Minute...

Y’all should check out this website (or compilation of videos, I guess) about video game lore. It’s basically a series of videos that cover the salient aspects of different video game series in about one minute. There are a few misses, but overall, the art direction, quality, and humor behind each video are stellar. My favorite is the Kingdom Hearts one, which has such a convoluted storyline that the writers barely cover the prequel to the series (not even the first entry!) in over two minutes. Great stuff overall.

July 18, 2012

A Massive Amount of Content…if You’re Into That

Mass Effect 3 is the end of something great, and the beginning of something amazing.

I’ll keep this completely spoiler free (for the third game at least—for shame if you haven’t played the first two).

I’ll be honest—the ending of Mass Effect 3 didn’t really…well…affect me. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great game, and I loved the time I spent with it (and the trilogy), but I think there’s a lot more to the game than just the last 30 minutes of gameplay that garnered so much negative attention over the past several months—an ending that had so much negative feedback that the developers added another ending to the game in order to appease their fans. I thought the ending was fine—you had some degree of choice, and your choices influenced the fate of the entire galaxy (and so did a few regulators, apparently). That’s what was advertised, and that’s what was delivered. You can’t really expect Bioware to create nearly limitless endings for every (relatively) small decision you make, such as saving the Rachni Queen in the first game or choosing between saving Ashley and…that forgettable guy in the first one (can you guess who I saved?). Honestly, did you really expect Bioware to make your romantic pursuit “significant” for the ending cinematics? I hope not.

What Bioware did do was reference every single choice you made over the trilogy. They remembered that you helped out some random Asari girl defeat a rogue Asari on some distant planet. They referred to the Salarian you fought who performed experiments on female Krogans, trying to “cure” the genophage. They reminded you that you helped a human doctor secure medical supplies from a bunch of thieves in order to better treat a suffering population. Bioware remembered the characters you came in contact with, if only in passing, and made each and every contribution that you made to the galaxy, positive and negative, significant in the overall fight against the Reapers. And they did it in style.

When you play Mass Effect 3, you can’t help but notice the top notch visuals—whether they are as large as the panoramic vistas, or as small as the facial expressions on each character. You will sit in front of your screen and stare at the sprawling cities and terrain on the various worlds you visit. You can feel the emotion emanating from Quarians, whose faces you can’t see under their space helmets. Even Elcor, Geth and Hannar, who neither speak in different pitches nor express their emotions physically, are easy to empathize with because of the compelling story elements and unique quirks of every race Bioware included over the past three games.

It’s not just the backdrops and characters that compel you to complete the main game. Bioware makes the story feel personal as you experience the struggle of fighting against the Reapers on multiple levels. You’ll feel the Reapers’ oppression smother you as you travel from galaxy to galaxy, fleeing their ships as they try to chase you down for indoctrination. You’ll feel the desperation of the galaxy as Captain Anderson fills you in on Earth’s situation while you’re out building your assault team to defeat the Reapers. You’ll feel the futility of fighting the Reapers in head to head combat as you battle their massive ships, sometimes armed with nothing more than an orbital laser gun.

In short, the game truly feels epic.

But the single players isn’t where the true fun lies—sure, it had plenty of great moments (that I’ll remember forever), but once I beat it, I wasn’t compelled to play through a second time. No, what’s kept the game stuck in my Xbox over the past five months is the multiplayer.

For those of you who don’t know what the multiplayer’s like, it’s your basic horde mode—you (and a few friends, should you desire) team up to shoot/grenade/use-magic-against computer controlled Cerberus (humans), Geth (robots) or Reapers (aliens) on some planet for…some purpose. The storyline elements in multiplayer are pretty much irrelevant, and the only real tie-in to the single player game is that you’re fighting some force that’s preventing the “good guys” from completing their overall mission—to stop the Reaper threat.

Luckily, the gameplay is insanely fun, and it makes you completely forget about the story elements of the game. Cooperating with a bunch of friends in order to defeat the AI enemy, and succeed, makes it feel like everyone wins—true cooperative gameplay. Every time you complete a mission, you get some amount of credits that can be used to improve weapons, gain access to new characters, or unlock new character models. And that’s where the addiction kicks in—the classic “Pokemon” effect on wanting to “catch ‘em all” and unlock every piece of content available.

Since Bioware keeps releasing new content (most recently two awesome soldiers that look like the villain from Iron-Man 2), (Insert pic comparison of iron man 2 villian and Cerberus character) those that suffer from the Pokemon effect will have plenty to do for a long time.

Believe me when I say Mass Effect 3 multiplayer is addictive—all this is coming from someone who has never liked a single variant on a horde mode before.

Should I buy Mass Effect 3?
100% yes—and it’s not even close. Anyone with a current gen system owes it to themselves to play this (and the first two games in the trilogy). The Mass Effect series is one of the greatest trilogies of the current gaming generation. 

Come to experience the end of Shepard’s epic journey; stay for the beginning of a great multiplayer experience.

July 12, 2012

Emotional Resonance—a Bridge between Old and New

8-bit graphics will never die. As the polygons of our shooters become smoother and smoother, as we watch the protagonist’s strands of hair sway in the wind of our RPGs, and as meadows in distant lands become littered with unique, individual blades of grass, we will still embrace the graphics of gaming’s first generation—graphics that were a medium for an art form in its infancy. It is instant emotional resonance—conveyed without words, without context, without story.

There’s so much promise in something new—new experiences, new relationships, new jobs, new friends, or new stories.  New can be flashy. New can be exciting.  But new can also be hard to rely on—after all, what if new sucks? What if new isn’t worth it? What if new can’t be built upon?

Sometimes, it’s easiest to stick with old. Old is proven. Old is reliable. Old is successful. But old can also be boring. Old has already been done; it has nothing different to offer. We have already experienced old.

But this doesn’t mean old is worthless. Sometimes, we wish to go back to old—we miss experiences we once had, and want to relive them. Returning to old allows us to recreate past experiences, learn something new thanks to new perspectives, or just to refresh our memories from something we used to know. Nostalgia drives us back to experiences we remember favorably, if only to attempt to relive them.

Is there any way then that we use the groundwork set by something old, combine it with the excitement of something new, and attempt to satisfy our desire for a new, unique experience that uses the success of old, in order to reduce the risk of a failed experience? Yes, there is (at least) one proven successful path to do this—and it is accomplished with the use of emotional resonance.

Emotional resonance is a tool used to evoke an association or strong emotion in an audience—whether that be a literal audience at a play, or a reader of a novel someone’s written, or a player of a video game you’ve created. If you make a connection on an emotional level with your audience, they will become more invested in your medium. However, it is difficult to establish an emotional resonance with a new product; after all, it’s new—you haven’t connected with anyone until the product is already in your audience’s hands. You need to play off an emotion that already exists in your audience, an experience they can relate to or a feeling they’ve felt before.

It is much easier if you use an old component in your new product; say, for example, if you write a fan fiction about Twilight, you can use the already established series to connect with your audience on an emotional level without them even reading a page of your novel. You can take risks on changing the content of your work (such as game play or style) by relying on the old as something people will enjoy. Activision did something similar with Spyro the Dragon, a character from the 90s and early 2000s, by using him as a brand that gamers would recognize, in order to gain a larger audience for Skylanders. This technique was so effective in the case of Skylanders that the game recently outsold Star Wars toys and is one of the most successful brands of 2011. Skylanders has very little to do with Spyro; so little, in fact, that his name is not even included in the sequel. But that wasn’t the point of including Spyro—Activision needed a brand to reach an emotional resonance with an audience and hook them to the game, and once it used Spyro to do so, it then created new experiences with the rest of the Skylanders cast so that the game no longer needed Spyro dragging the new brand down. Spyro was a crutch for Skylanders, one that the series could cast off as soon as it established itself as a successful brand.

So what does all this have to do with 8-bit graphics? Well, 8-bit graphics are the most common form of emotional resonance for today’s gamers. We, as a whole, grew up on a generation of games on the NES, in arcades, on computers, and many of the largest brands of our industry—like Mario, Zelda, Pac-Man, and more—all got their start using 8-bit graphics. Relying on 8-bit graphics as an art form for new games, for example, is a good way to obtain an audience initially and thus increase the probability that you will be able to keep them.

One of the reasons 8-bit graphics will never die is because they are a piece of gaming’s history—a piece that developers can turn to, time and time again, to remind us of gaming’s roots, and reach the audiences that were, or wish to be, a part of that history.

July 6, 2012

The Gauntlet: Final Fantasy Review

The Gauntlet
As promised, I’ve decided to play and review every single Final Fantasy (except possibly XI, because I hear that one is insane to play and since it’s online only, it will most likely be dead by the time I get to it—if it isn’t already). You can read all about the gauntlet here.

Final Fantasy…or First…Fantasy, I Guess?

Final Fantasy was…good. I enjoyed the time I spent in the game, but there were a few problems, the most severe being that the game was short and poorly paced. I guess since I’ve been raised on things like Suikoden II and Chrono Trigger, I’m used to investing more time in the main story of a video game—so a “short” experience with the main story of a video game created in the 80s is to be expected. If my problems with the game were solely related to the pacing, I’d probably say the game was a “must play” experience (like the above two games—seriously, if you haven’t played those, stop reading this post and go find them).

So for me to recommend a video game to my friends as a “must play” experience, it needs to have (at least) one of the following qualities:

·     1) The game has a “great” story.
·     2) The game has “great” single player gameplay elements.
·     3) The game has “great” multiplayer elements.

Of course, these are subjective—what I think is great you might think is complete crap. But I’m not going to suggest you play a game unless it’s got at least one of the above qualities, and even if the game has one of the above qualities, I still might not tell you that you have to play it.

In the case of Final Fantasy, I thought the gameplay was fun, but the story elements were atrocious. I had absolutely no emotional investment to the kingdom, the protagonists, nor the world the game created. It’s a shame, too—after playing Final Fantasy Dissidia (which was what started this Gauntlet in the first place), I was very excited about meeting and defeating Garland (the antagonist). However, outside of meeting him briefly at the beginning of the game and the final battle against him, his impact on the game was irrelevant—he didn’t show up anywhere else in the main quest. The threat he posed to the kingdom of…whereversville was not made clear to me, and as such, I felt nothing after defeating him. Well, I guess that’s not true—I felt like I could finally start on the next game in the series (which, by the way, is a feeling I can’t wait to experience with Final Fantasy II—but that comes later).

While I felt that the story failed to find that emotional resonance within me, I think the gameplay elements were actually pretty well done. You get to play with four main characters and have four classes to choose from, giving you a ton of different combinations to play the game with. The spells you get to cast are cool, there are some interesting weapons, but a lot of the combat is generic—but since this is one of the games that defined the genre, that’s perfectly reasonable and acceptable. This game was innovation, so any gripes I have with combat are kinda irrelevant. Also, there was one feature of combat that was really, really convenient—you can just hold down the A button to attack the first enemy across from you. So if you target the same enemy with all four of your warriors, and that enemy dies, if there is another enemy, you hit that one instead of skipping your turn or something. This was huge for me, actually, as more recent games than a game made in 1987 make you skip your turn instead (I’m looking at you, Golden Sun!). You can also choose who you attack with each warrior, but when you’re just leveling up, it’s a lot faster to just hold down one button and be done with it.

As for travelling around the world, the game escalates quite quickly with exploration abilities, which is something of a double-edged sword. In Metroid, for example, half the fun is gaining access to different areas by earning the power-ups like the ball bomb or screw attack. In Final Fantasy, you get an airship several hours into the game, which is basically the bomb ball, charge beam, screw attack, super missile and every single visor rolled into one power-up. This is where some of the pacing in the game really fails—there’s no buildup, no suffering, dredging from dungeon to dungeon and town to town, exploring the map at a slow pace or trying to make it back to a town with your last warrior at 1 HP and out of potions. You never experience this plight, and the game as a whole is worse for it. After getting the airship, it’s like you can basically teleport from place to place, and because of that, the exploration loses charm. I loved that I got access to an airship, but it wasn’t good for the experience overall.

As for the graphics, the game was pretty, especially on the PSP, which I feel like after all these years it was made for (or remade for, I suppose). The layout of the dungeons and towns were great for what the game was, too, and they kept the retro feel that I expected. Overall, I was quite pleased with the visual representation and the layout of the game.

So, the final question is this: is Final Fantasy a must play experience? Not…really. If you’re feeling nostalgic, then you could do worse by playing something else. But if you have zero emotional attachment to the world of Final Fantasy, I’m sure you can find a better RPG somewhere else (though probably not from the 80s or early 90s).

You can expect a review of Final Fantasy II to be forthcoming, but that one has been pretty hard to power through. Am I sad that I started this journey? That I imposed this gauntlet upon myself? Well…let’s just say you can ask me that question after I’m done with Final Fantasy II…


July 3, 2012

The Gauntlet

No, this isn't a post about the classic arcade game of the 80’s and 90’s that took the world (and a few of my friends) by storm. This is a challenge I've decided to impose on myself.

Perhaps you've heard of a game series called Final Fantasy. Perhaps you haven’t (though, if you haven’t, I’m pretty surprised you found your way to my blog—congrats!). For all intents and purposes of this gauntlet, I’m going to assume you have, in fact, heard of Final Fantasy.

Growing up, I was a video game fanatic—I tried to get my hands on every single awesome game and gaming system that existed that I could convince my parents to get me (read: just about one—the Gameboy). I never had an NES, SNES, Genesis, or any other console until the N64 came out (which I spent my hard earned babysitting money on). And by then, the Gamecube was on its way, so I didn’t get as much longevity out of it, because I was very addicted to Smash Brothers Melee.

I’m actually really happy (now) that my parents brought me up this way and didn’t buy every gaming system (or thing) that my childhood self wanted—it prevented me from being (too) spoiled and taught me some important life lessons. An unfortunate side effect of this, however, was that I missed out on a few classic gaming experiences...

The Short List of Games I Haven’t Played
·         The Legend of Zelda: II
·         The original Castlevania
·         Earthbound
·         Super Mario Brothers 3
·         Metroid

And the list continues, mostly covering the important Sony and Nintendo games that defined the 90’s and early 2000’s.

I've caught up on a lot of the classic games that people from my generation grew up on (the first Legend of Zelda, Metroid 2, all the portable Super Mario games, and a slew of others), but the one major series from my childhood that I still haven’t played any of is Final Fantasy.

My first brush in with Final Fantasy came at the (now closed) Virgin Megastore in Union Square. As I descended down the escalator leading to the basement full of video games, I spied a young, blonde, spiky-haired lad on a television screen fighting enemies with an unwieldy, giant broadsword. As he defeated foe after foe that came after him, clad some of most captivating (though probably least effective) armor I’d ever seen, I thought he was the coolest character in existence and wanted to play any and every game he was in (including, as I would find out later, a fighting game called Ehrgeiz). I asked my friend what game was playing on the TV, salivating at the opportunity to play it on my brand new N64.

“Oh, him? That’s Cloud; he’s the protagonist* of Final Fantasy VII. You know, that new PS2 game?”

I immediately became crushed, as I didn’t own a PS2, and thought that I couldn’t play the game even if I had it, because I hadn’t played the first six Final Fantasy games. Years later, I would find out that didn’t matter, but at the time, it was a huge letdown.

An aside on the branding of Final Fantasy

How has Square-Enix not realized yet how terrible they brand Final Fantasy? I can’t imagine I’m the only person who’s been turned away from their series because they didn’t play the first several (now 13) different games that preceded the newest entry in the series. Even though they are stand alone games, they still refer to the older entries in the series. It’s difficult to pick up a copy of XIII and not feel left out of the loop if you haven’t played the twelve games before it. Maybe those consumers will eventually learn that you don’t need to know what happens to protagonist of Final Fantasy II to enjoy the story of Final Fantasy VII, but you end up feeling left out all the same.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the new trend of creating sequels to these games, spawning innovative titles such as “Final Fantasy X-2” and “Final Fantasy XIII-2.” How’s a newcomer to the series supposed to handle this without feeling intimidated by the entire process? Hell, it makes sense to me, and I still feel intimidated. Not to mention irate at the stupidity of a game titled XIII-2.

End aside

Let’s flash forward to the present. Now I’ve realized that there’s a lot of history in this industry I haven’t been a part of, and a lot that I have. My parents had an Atari and a PC, so I soaked up as many of those experiences as possible. Duke Nukem, Commander Keen, and the point-and-click adventures of the 90’s were what my childhood was built on. But I missed out on a lot of what Nintendo and Sony had to offer—which is why I’m going to make up for lost time.

The Gauntlet is simple: play and review every single Final Fantasy RPG that currently exists. That means from the original Final Fantasy (released in Japan, though ported to various mediums) all the way to XIII. However, since XI was online only, and I’m assuming that community is dead, I’m going to skip that one (for now). Also I heard it was terrible. Like, a friend of mine spent a year of his life playing it and only gained one level. I have better things to do with my life than that.

The plan is to play them all in order, but I might skip around a bit (XIII is just so pretty!). I’ve heard great things about some, and terrible things about others, but I’m determined to find out, first-hand, what each one is like.
I only wish all Chocobos were this cute. (Insert picture of cute little chocobo).

*Because, at the age of thirteen, we used fancy words like protagonist in every-day speech. We also wore bowler hats and had monocles.

July 2, 2012

The Beginning

It’s amazing how some six year old, random blog post can still be inspiring to a new reader years and years later.
Maybe you found this site by entering “Video Game Journalism” in your favorite search engine. Maybe you reached it because I told you to come check it out in passing. Or perhaps you’re here because you wanted to head over to IGN.com for the latest coverage on that new video game you’re dying to buy, but you clicked on the wrong link and landed here instead (if it’s the latter, my apologies—it happens to all of us. That can be found here.) But if you’ve got any interest in reading about video games, the struggles of a twenty-something male who has no idea what he’s doing with his life, or just like random pictures of otters (and who doesn’t?) then stick around—I promise I can deliver on at least one of those three.
This site is the definitive chronicle of one man’s journey to break the shackles of his dreary professional life and be a part of something he’s passionate about—hearing himself talk. Specifically, about video games.
And who knows? Maybe six years from now, you’ll be reading this post for the first time, wondering if you’ve got the moxie required to take the risks I did when I started this journey, and how it all worked out in the end.
Here’s hoping I don’t disappoint.