Death and horror games: how failure may be the least scary thing a player has to face.

         I have to admit that I’m not really a huge fan of horror games. This is down solely to the fact that I am a HUGE scaredy cat: after playing a good horror game, I’m jumping at my own shadow for potentially days after, if there even are any shadows left after I’ve turned on every single light possible. While the cathartic feeling of fear-laden-adrenaline is one particular rush that I can appreciate, I’m not really the type to go actively seeking it too often. The only times I’ve really gone out of my way to get a horror game is when my brothers and I have collectively decided to do a play through together, which makes the actual horror much more manageable. One such outing was for Outlast, and now Outlast II.

The Outlast games are perfect examples of products that heavily benefited from the developers NOT trying to re-invent the wheel. They’re mostly just the standard horror affair of ‘run/hide from scary dudes’ that’s been a staple of horror games ever since Amnesia brought the practice back in 2010. But they don’t really feel any weaker just because they use a well trodden formula: instead they use it to make extremely polished and engaging experiences, even if they’re not necessarily the most innovative. Not to mention, they’re also clearly made by people who aren’t afraid to take the more disgusting and less used avenues in horror (these games have a LOT of necrophilia and child murder between them). For all of that, the developers at Red Barrels have my respect.

(Just a small tangent: how did a group of developers calling themselves ‘Red Barrels’ end up making horror games? Like, don’t get me wrong, the Outlast games are some damn effective horror games, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but ‘Red Barrels’ is the name I’d associate with some kind of action or shooter developer. The group definitely make a valiant effort at re-contextualising the meaning in their logo spot on Outlast 2’s opening, by having blood run into a groove shaped like a barrel, hence giving the name a horror twist. Even then, it’s defiantly an odd one.)

There is one point that I noticed though, as we crept through Outlast 2’s disturbing Jonestown-esque environments. For one, that old woman with a pickaxe is god damn terrifying, holy crap. The other more pressing realization is that actually being caught by the things that are chasing you is weirdly not that scary. You creep around for tens of agonising minutes, tensing whenever a muttering cultist wanders past, ducking into barrels of water that threaten to drown you just so you can be out of sight for a few seconds. Alternatively, you get spotted and you run as fast as you humanly can to be out reach of your pursuers, your breath getting heavier and heavier as your steps slow and their own start to speed up. And after all of that, when they finally catch you, it’s…oddly anti-climactic.

Don’t get me wrong, watching Blake (the main protagonist) get his nadgers cleaved off with a pick is always painful, but I feel all the tension wash out of me when the screen finally fades to black. This then risks what is basically a dying cycle: you can’t figure out how to progress, and get stuck repeatedly dying while you try to figure out just where the hell you’re supposed to run to, making the whole chase more of a chore. There’s a good example of this problem in the very first meeting with Marta. She is guaranteed to see you, and is standing directly in a narrow passage, blocking you from your objective. It’s easy enough to double back and run in a circle around a shed, meaning you can evade her long enough to move forward. The only problem is that the only way to escape from there is to crawl under a small gap in a wall, something that isn’t amazingly easy to spot while you’re running for your life. Since this is early in the game, and the player most likely hasn’t learned to hide in the barrels and tall grass, a lot of players are going struggle to find the critical path without dying at least a few times.

The threat of death and harm is one of the key concepts to horror games. Regardless of your background or character, nearly everyone in existence would rather avoid dying, especially if that death is a painful one. A huge number of classic horror conventions are only effective because they make the perceiver worried there might be some kind of threat waiting around the next corner. This is why the rustling of bushes freaks you, why the darkness is so foreboding, and why you want to be as far from the crazy axe swinging murderer as possible.

…Well, that last goes without saying…

While I think horror needs something beyond that to be truly unnerving (the physical horror of Lovecraft’s ‘Old Ones’ is second to the sheer existential questions and dread they create), there’s no doubt that the fear of dying is an important one for horror products. However, since these are video games, you need to actually be able to make good on that threat, otherwise the game would simply play itself. The only problem is, dying gives you a forced break from all of the terrifying atmosphere and tension. And when Blake is returned safe and sound when the checkpoint is reloaded, we remember that failure only has minimal consequences.

This is why dying repeatedly is a complete antithesis of making something scary: it’s a jarring reminder that you’re sitting safely in your home, just playing a video game. You’re not actually being chased by some horrific monster, and being caught has no real consequence to you. At most, the only consequence is that being caught wastes your time, since you’ll need to re-do the section you’re playing. This is kind of a big issue, since the whole point of a horror game is to be scary. Even worse, this is something that will be pretty heavily affected by the player’s own skill, since a player with better reactions will die less, which helps to avoid this problem, but there’s no way to 100% ensure the player doesn’t run into this problem.

It’s not like the Outlast games are the only horror games that suffer from this: Little Nightmare’s deaths are all vividly disturbing, as highlighted by this ‘delightful’ trailer, but getting stuck on a sequence and watching them over and over would eventually tire everyone out. Even P.T., which was pants crappingly horrifying, suffered a little from this when the final corridor becomes obtuse as hell with no clear idea of how to advance. While that one hallway now has a permanent spot in my waking nightmares, so too does the frustration at wandering down it with nothing happening for ages. Although, considering that it was made by Kojima, it’s possible that was the intended reaction.

This is something that horror developers need to be careful of, and maybe even plan around. Admittedly, keeping it so something is challenging and tense but not too difficult or obscure is a delicate balance to maintain. One key solution that Outlast II itself employs is to make sure that the player knows what the overall objective is in the current area before putting the patrolling threats in the area. A good example of this is when you have to push a cart up to a gate so you can climb over it. The area is completely devoid of threats before you find both the gate and the cart, which also gives you a chance to scout around the area for good hiding spots. This means that when Marta inevitably appears out of (or hacking through) the woodwork, the player has enough clear directions to what they actually need to do. If she had been present while the player had just been scouting around the area, it would have been much more aggravating to get anything done.

Another trick that Outlast II uses is one that’s a pretty common tactic across all of gaming, namely that you can guide the player’s eye using light. This is most obvious during the game’s many chase sequences, where in your path will nearly always have a bright source of light in or near it, making it much easier to tell which direction you have run in even in a split second. While this technique is pretty prevalent across gaming as a whole, the effect is especially pronounced here thanks to the deep and foreboding shadows that seem dominate this entire game.

Of course, even these don’t always save the player from an untimely death, nor always help to avoid several deaths in a row, again mostly because there’s no way to fully guess how skilful the player is or isn’t going to be. Indeed, this might be a problem with no solution, just methods of minimising how badly it is.

I would be fascinated to see a game that tries to directly eliminate this problem, to make failing in a horror setting just as scary as the chase, but until then I’ll have to try and stop panicking when some git with a hatchet jumps and tries to murder my ass.

Accessibility, easy mode, and the casual audience: the importance of not neglecting gaming’s entry level participants.

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I recently entered into a position where Blizzard has me completely locked down, and stuck in their twisted little maze of addiction.

You see, I’m a big fan of Overwatch. That by itself is impressive, since I’m not usually the type for competitive multiplayer games. I used to play Call of Duty 2’s online like it was a religious obligation, but I had thought I’d lost the spark necessary to enjoy those kinds of experience at some point. However, it’s hard to deny Overwatch’s sheer appeal: the fact there’s a character for pretty much every kind of player (both in terms of play style and actual characterisation) makes it hard to not get drawn into the weird and wonderful world Blizzard have created. There’s a whole plethora of reasons for Overwatch’s success, from Blizzard’s beyond perfect marketing for the game to the staggering amount of porn its fandom produces, but I believe it’s varied and fun cast is one of its biggest draws.

Indeed, it’s because of said ‘varied and fun’ characters that I found myself playing Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard, trying to maximise the most out of the millions of players they have in Overwatch, set up a cross promotion wherein your could earn new appearances for the characters if you played one of their other games, Heroes of the Storm. This isn’t the first time they had marketed something like this, but I had originally passed on the first opportunity: previously, the only prize was a skin for Genji, a character I don’t get a lot of use out of. However, the hilarity of being able to play as a 19 year old, professional gaming, mecha driving Korean girl dressed as a police officer proved too alluring to resist. Had I know that I was already caught in Blizzard’s web, I might have saved myself, but alas.

You see, it turns out that Heroes of the Storm is actually pretty fun. I was kind of surprised, since it was my first proper attempt at playing a MOBA (a brief stint in Smite being my only other experience). The ebb and flow between the minute-to-minute fights between players and trying to hold the lanes while also running after map objectives is actually pretty engaging. Engaging enough that, when I had a spare hour or two to play on something, I found myself thinking ‘do I want to play on Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm?’ It was only in that moment when I realized that Blizzard’s cross-promotional trick had worked its wicked magic. I am now alternating my time between two products from the same group, which is probably indicative that some marketing guy at Blizzard just earned a promotion much the same as an angel earning their wings.

I did, however, discover something else from this anecdote. Namely that one of the reasons Heroes of the Storm had grabbed me so much more firmly than my few experiences with other MOBAs was because it was simpler than the others in its genre. In HotS, you don’t have to worry about micro-managing a plethora of buyable items, nor even worry about your personal level, since you level up as a team. Instead of items, you’re given a list of ‘Talents’ that more strongly affect your character’s skills when you level, which streamlines the process compared to buying items. Likewise, HotS games are pretty darn short, clocking in with an average time of around 15-20 minutes, a much smaller time investment compared to others in the same genre. All of this makes it much easier for a total new-comer to enjoy Blizzard’s take on the MOBA, while still retaining a lot of the tactical depth and brutal combat that makes other MOBA’s so popular. Somebody who’s invested a lot of hours into League of Legends or Dota will probably find it somewhat underwhelming, but at the same time it has the appeal of not being as taxing as either of those games.

All of this made me think about the nature of certain games being more or less accessible (or indeed, appealing) to more entry level participants. Gaming, by its very nature, is all about over-coming some kind of obstacle or challenge. Whether that challenge is a boss, a puzzle, or indeed another player, gaming as a medium is one that puts problems in front of you so they can be solved or resolved. However, it’s important to recognise that not every player you’re trying to sell a game to will be on the same level of skill or competency. There can be an extremely wide difference in ability between any two players, and gearing your game to only serve one will naturally alienate the other. It’s probably why having the ability choose a game’s difficulty became so prevalent: by allowing the player to make their own judgement on how easy or hard a game is, they can set their own barrier of entry, which gets around many of the problems that a game’s difficulty might present.

However, I’m more interested in the games that don’t have such a simple solution, and thus have to come up with other ideas, for good or for ill. A clear case of a game that really struggled to catch the attention of a more casual audience was Street Fighter V: the game was rushed out without a story mode or an arcade mode, a fact that put a fair number of people off buying the game at launch. To their credit, Capcom were fairly transparent that they were going to do this, mostly so the game would be out in time for their own fighting tournament, but the damage was already done. While later patches would add the missing features and the game would go on to sell okay, there’s no denying that the early drought of casual players really hurt the game’s sales and reputation.

For the reverse, the Sniper Elite games are surprisingly accommodating for players of all skill types even beyond their difficulty settings. My dad doesn’t play a lot of games, and specifically avoids games that are too frantic since they take a lot out of him, but he absolutely adores the Sniper Elite games because they allow him to play at his own pace whilst still taking a fair amount of skill to complete. Indeed, the very mechanics of sneaking and sniping in the Sniper Elite franchise rewards the careful and steady strategies he employs while still allowing for the more gung-ho player (guilty as charged) to be aggressive. In addition to being fun as hell, these games are a good example of how the mechanics of game can allow for players to set their own pace.

On the other hand:

While I do think that making room for less hardcore players is generally a god thing, I’ll not totally deny the argument that some developers end up hurting their product when taking this concept too far. Making something simpler and easier to understand is worthwhile, but inevitably runs into the issue that you lose some of the nuance that you could have placed in it. Not to mention it’s a two way street: some players will be put off something if it offers absolutely no challenge (or at least no entertaining challenge), or feels ‘dumbed down.’ A game that suffered more than a little bit of this was DMC: Devil May Cry. I have a lot of “feelings” towards this game, but the only really objective one is that making the style-meter much easier to rise only hurt the game, since it no longer felt as gratifying to finally reach the S-ranks.

Likewise, sometimes it just isn’t necessary to worry about matters like this, since the game you’re making doesn’t really align itself with more casual audiences. MOBA games and Bullet Hell games are rightfully seen as games you have to invest yourself in to get the most out of them. While there are outliners that try to be a little more forgiving (HotS for MOBAs; the Touhou games are generally agreed to be more accessible, though only slightly easier), games in these genres aren’t really going to attract a large market by their nature, and instead are usually sustained by players who are already fans of the genre.

In conclusion:

Bottom line is, adding an ‘easy mode’ to something never really hurt anyone. It doesn’t necessarily fit every type of game: for example, the Dark Souls series is known for its difficulty, but they can only maintain the precarious balance of ‘tough but fair’ if they have an exact idea of what the player is coming up against. However, in many, many cases, adding a mode that lets people who need easing into a game or genuinely needed the added help never hurt the more hardcore players, since it’s a simple of matter to just not use that mode. I’ve always supported the idea that the more ways a game can offer the player to make it more fun for themselves the better, and choosing just how challenging an experience a game is makes a good example of this idea. How difficult or accessible a game is, and whether or not it is on the right side of the spectrum, will be something each player will have to decide for themselves.

Unapologetic plugging, or how I learned to stop worrying and link my content.

Hello, loyal reader, thanks for stopping by today!

For those who have been here a while, you might have noticed that we missed last week’s deadline of uploading some new content on Sunday (not that this particular blog is exactly fantastic at staying on schedule, ha).

Hopefully without sounding like I’m making too many excuses, one of the main reasons for the delay in content was that I finalising an application to the site ‘Gaming Respawn.’

I’m going to be posting some articles there from now on (which can’t be cross-posted to here), but I want to reassure that this won’t affect the upload rate from here on out: now that the application has gone through, we’ll be back to our semi-reliable schedule of one article a week every Sunday.

I also just wanted to thank everyone who’s followed the blog. It’s a small thing, but I’m super glad that some people actually enjoy reading this little collection of eclectic thoughts.

(In a final act of completely shameless self plugging, I’ll just leave the link to my spot on the website here: http://www.gamingrespawn.com/author/oliver-culling/)

Quick Review! Shadow Warrior.

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“You got Wang.”
– The protagonist, who happens to be called Wang, perfectly showing this game’s humour.

It’s always fairly surprising when a franchise that everyone thought was already long dead comes from the brink of obscurity with a new game. It’s even more surprising when it turns out that said new game is faithful to the series it’s revitalising without feeling the need to be completely the same. Shadow Warrior is, thankfully, one such game.

Shadow Warrior is one of those extremely hard to classify run-and-gun, action and exploration shooters of the early days of gaming. If you played Duke Nukem or indeed the original Shadow Warrior games, you already know what to expect from it in the game play department. However, in addition to the new coat of paint that modern hardware can give the game, Shadow Warrior also takes this chance to expand on the story and characters unlike the old games.

For the first point, let’s talk about gameplay. Shadow Warrior’s core gameplay is an extremely frantic and bloody melee, wherein Lo Wang’s (the game’s protagonist, and yes that is his name) only option of avoiding damage is to either dodge it or kill his attacker before they get the chance. Over the course of the game, you’ll be given access to a multitude of weapons, all of which will offer you new and satisfying ways to remove ‘problems’ from your forward path. However, one of the neat aspects of the game is that you can actually get by using nothing but your starting katana, mostly because it can become the deadliest weapon in your arsenal. Which is pretty impressive, considering your arsenal includes a god damn rocket launcher. Your katana eventually gets crazy useful magical attacks and powers via the games levelling and upgrade system, resulting in melee combat being as fun and viable as shooting from range.

When you’re not slaughtering your way through the hordes of enemies that want to make a mess of your day (and face, and organs, and pretty everything else) you’ll be scouring through levels looking for secrets. Secrets come in many flavours, from straight up EXP boosts, unlocking more magic powers, to pretty funny Easter eggs. Because of this, regardless of what you’re looking for, the game really does encourage upturning every rock and checking behind every corner for its secrets. In addition to all of this, the game has some really neat boss fights, and a good variety of enemy designs.

For the second point, the game’s story and narrative is actually really good. We play as one Lo Wang (seriously), a sword/gun for hire who is employed by a man by the name of Zilla. At the very start of the game, Wang is sent out to find an oddly well guarded katana; he recognises the whole situation is pretty suspicious, but he is loyal to his boss, and does everything he can to get the job done. Before too long, however, we get to the real meat of the matter: the earth becomes over run by demons from beyond our world, and the sword he was sent to find is the key to stopping earth from turning into a hellscape. To make things even more complicated, Wang picks up a sarcastic little blighter of demon called Hoji, and the sword he is looking for is actually three swords. Now, with his boss suspiciously keeping radio silence, both Wang and Hoji must try and set things right.

There are two things I really love about this game’s writing: for one, it is just pure unadulterated fun. The banter between Hoji and Wang is fantastic, and serves as the basis for many of the jokes. The game knows that it’s completely over the top in many ways, and doesn’t shy away from making cracks about the whole thing, which becomes even more hilarious when juxtaposed to the actually pretty freaky locations you often trollop through. However, it’s the other part of the story that I really admire: for all of the jokes and gags, the narrative actually has some pretty heavy moments. As you find out more about why the demons are invading earth, and more about the key figures behind this whole situation, the more it becomes clear that this isn’t necessarily a clean and simple matter. I’ve said before (here: https://oliverculling.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/an-exploration-of-tone-in-drakengard-and-nier/) that a great way to control the tone of something was to bring your audience’s guard down with something more light hearted, before hitting them with the heavy stuff, and that’s certainly done masterfully here.

While the game is great, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the levels, particularly towards the end, start to lack the openness to make exploring them fun. Early levels have a good balance of keeping the spaces open to encourage exploration, without losing the tightness of good liner level design, but later levels lack this quality. Likewise, there are a few enemies later on in the game that are more of chore to fight, rather than challenging or engaging.
A more constant headache, for me at least, was the rating system. At the end of large and major conflicts, you’re given a score of blank/5, and are rewarded with extra EXP depending on your rank. However, the scoring system isn’t really clear enough, which makes it difficult to consistently get high scores. It’s never clear if it’s more important to use a varied set of attacks and moves, or if it’s more important to clear the horde out quickly, or without taking damage, etc.

None of these points are really deal breakers, however. The game is a fun ride, with varied and fun combat and a surprisingly engaging story.  The game delivers a strong performance as a love-letter to its source material while also being fun for new and old fans alike. Jump in for a frantic sword and gun battle to the gates of hell and back, if you think you can handle the Wang.

 

Voice acted RPGs: how role-playing is both enhanced and hindered by voice acting.

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I gotta admit that I’ve got a lot of respect for Larian Studios: not only did they make a shining example of a truly deep and engaging RPG when they made Divinity: Original Sin, they proceeded to somehow make an even better version of what was already winning awards. Seriously, they made a really stellar game that fans and critics loved, pretty much everyone agreed was worth kick-starting, and then turned around and said “nah, we can do it better,” and released the Enhanced Edition. It shows a real passion for their craft that they cared enough to put so much work into making sure the game was as tight and satisfying as possible. One of the biggest changes that I didn’t expect was that they added voice acting into the game, and even more surprisingly added it without compromising on the game’s writing.

Voice acting in RPGs is kind of an odd feature, both in terms of its effects and possible consequences. It’s been around forever (Even the Zelda CD-I games had voice acting way back in 1993, though that might be the only kind thing I can say about them), but noticeably started to really pick up steam as the industry grew. Noticeably, pretty much every RPG that came from the bigger and more prominent companies has had extensive voice acting in recent years, and the amount of voice acting only seems to grow as time goes on. This is a marked change from how it used to be, where only critical NPC’s and important cut scenes had voice acting, most likely as a consequence of the games already being expensive to develop without adding what was at the time a more esoteric component. While not a 100% vital component, it sometimes feels like the bigger RPG releases have put a greater emphasis on voicing as much of the game’s dialogue as possible, even going as far to give the player character fully voiced lines.

However, this isn’t without consequence. The reason I was impressed by Divinity’s ability to put in voice acting without also flubbing up the writing was because I had kind of gotten used to RPG’s writing suffering in return for voice acting, because at times it feels like it’s an unavoidable effect. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge factor on the quality of the writing, since the actual script and scenario creators are going to have a far larger hand on a game’s writing than anything else, but it’s a noticeable effect all the same. One of the main factors for this is that rewrites become impossible beyond a certain stage: the art of writing is a really difficult and complex system, but it is made infinity harder if there’s a pressure to get it down in as few iterations as possible. If every line added needs to be fully voiced and you’re working within a deadline and a budget, there will be a pressure to make sure the writing is as good as it can be in only a few rewrites. However, as anyone who has tried to write more or less anything can tell you, creating quality writing is a process that requires a lot of rewrites (I’m not even a professional writer and the stuff I made felt like it took years off my life). Thus you enter a situation where the writers need to make sure they’re getting things as good as can be in the shortest amount of time, in a genre where the story and writing are one of the most important parts. Naturally, there’s going to be some fumbling involved.

There’s also the problem of potentially limiting the kind of characters the player can be when you have to fund voice acting for them: because the player character is going to be saying a lot through an RPG, just adding even just a single alternate race for the player to be can be expensive as heck. This is likely why games like Dragon Age: Origins have the player character be the only character without voice acting.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying it’s impossible to create an RPG wherein the writing is both voiced and great. The Witcher series, Divinity’s Enhanced Edition, and the Yakuza games are all RPGs with great writing and a ton of voice acting. Like I said, the competency of the game’s writing staff is going to be far more of a deciding factor in the matter than anything to do with the voice acting, but the presence of the latter does make it harder for less than fantastic teams. When things work out, the addition of voice acting can be a serious boon, however: giving a character a voice goes a long way to helping to actually characterise them, and thus giving every person you meet a voice helps to make the world itself feel far livelier. Giving every character a voice goes a really long way to immersing a player into a world, and when the setting is one of the selling points, that’s a valuable (if expensive) asset to have. I suppose the tricky part is getting the balance right: because it’s cheaper to use less voice actors on more characters, one could just use the Oblivion/Skyrim method of using a pretty small pool of voice actors to voice every non-important NPC. While this does mean that every character has a voice, it becomes pretty noticeable that many of them have the same voice. Other times it’s simpler to just not voice minor or non-essential characters, such as in the Yakuza and Nier series, which means their dialog can be more easily edited.

Another factor to consider is the quality of the voice acting, or more accurately how much the development team is willing to pay for higher quality. I’ve rattled on about writing and how difficult it is, but let’s take a second to actually appreciate that voice acting isn’t exactly an easy job either. There’s a reason for the recent large scale voice actors strike, and while that’s a mire of a morally grey area in which I’m reluctant to throw my hat into the ring, I will say that I understand why the voice actors felt the need for the strike. Voice acting is a pretty difficult job with a relatively low amount of recognition or payment for how much effort it requires, with only the really big names like Nolan North, Troy Baker or Jennifer Hale gaining much lee-way. To that end, it’s a pretty easy thing to do to just not throw a lot of funding into the voice acting part of development, which in turn leads to a lack-lustre or bland job being done. And let’s not even get started on the added expense of dubbing a foreign game during its translation phase: translations are an expensive thing to do for what inevitably turns out to be a relatively niche audience, so it’s no wonder that a lot of dubs of foreign games suffer somewhat (Nier: Automata is a pretty recent example of an exception to the above). Also, getting celebrities to voice characters is certainly a neat idea, but you have to beware of both budgetary issues and scheduling issues if you’re going to put them in a big role, as Bungie learned after the situation with Peter Dinklage in Destiny 1. So, in addition to the effect on the writing, it’s important to consider what the cost of the actual act of voice acting could be, and how much will be needed to be spent to make sure it’s of a sound quality.

Much like many parts of creating a video game, there’s really no ‘easy’ answer to all of this, and much like many other things we’ve talked about before it’s something that needs to be done on a case by case basis. Some games are going to really benefit from giving a lot of characters voices, even if it comes at the expense of the writing, while others can only stand on the strength of the writing, and thus can’t afford to compromise too much on adding voice acting. Personally, I’m happy to play with games in either style, but I’m also looking forward to all the weird and wonderful ideas that this industry will come up with as we struggle to find a compromise.

As always, thanks for sticking with these rambles of thought. One of my favourite parts about writing these entries is that I often collect my own thoughts on a matter with much more clarity than if I had just let the matter lie. I’m hoping that I can make them entertaining for others to read as I go, so I appreciate everyone who sticks with me as I often run through my own thoughts as much as I run through the various aspects of this industry. So here’s to you, loyal reader.

It’s the day after Mother’s Day 2017!

In order to celebrate the occasion, I thought we could go for a lighter topic and have a look at some of video games more…particular mothers, and just for a larff try to estimate what they would want for mother’s day. We were SUPPOSED to do this yesterday, so it would actually be more topical, but it turns out trying to get mother’s day sorted out for my actual mother took way longer than expected. Any who, let’s take a gander! (Some spoilers within)

The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3)

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The Boss is regarded as the greatest solider of her time (surpassed only by her own student), and is more or less one of the greatest soldiers ever seen. She lead the ‘colourful’ Cobra unit into countless battles, created her own kind of close-quarters combat, and was probably the most loyal patriot the USA had ever been graced with. She would go on to create a legacy that, while heavily misinterpreted by others, would show just how much influence she had on other’s lives.

What I’m trying to get around to saying is that this is the kind of woman you don’t just give a half-assed card to.

The Boss is a complicated case since while she is indeed a biological mother (to mention to whom would be a colossal spoiler); her metaphorical mother-son relationship with the original Snake is far more prevalent. Entire essays could be written about the complex relationship between the man would become known as Big Boss and his mentor, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she was the most important woman in his entire life. Heck, it’s even possible to say that she was a mother to the whole Cobra unit: no mean feat, considering one of its members is over one hundred years old, and another member is just a guy that shoots bees at people (seriously). To sum it up, in addition to being one of the most impressive women in the world, she’s also the surrogate mother to the most rag-tag “family” the world has ever seen.

Admittedly, going to fight on the beaches of Normandy while heavily pregnant was perhaps not her greatest idea, though was definitely pretty badass. A lot of woman can barely move when late into pregnancy, let alone fight in one of history’s most iconic battles. All in all, quite the glowing record. Would certainly be a shame if said record was marred by defection…

What would she want for mother’s day?
               For someone to send a letter to everybody who keeps misinterpreting her will and going off the deep end in her name. I mean, come on: she just wanted the world to realize they don’t have to go to war over imaginary lines on a map, and that they all share their beautiful planet without wrecking it with nuclear hell-fire. Come on guys. It’s not too hard to understand.

Bayonetta (from the game of the same name)

01Bayonetta

As one of the last remaining Umbra Witches in existence, Bayonetta fills her days slaying the various agents of heaven that regularly flock to try and kill her. Armed with four pistols (two of which are strapped to her feet) and the powers of demonic beings, Bayonetta is definitely not a woman to be trifled with.

Despite all that, she seems to blanch when she comes across a little girl called Cereza who calls her “mummy,” and the tyke is determined to cling on to her. In addition to seeing the usually cool as a cucumber Bayonetta get a pretty funny set of interactions with this child, we also get to see that Bayonetta is actually pretty protective of her, and jumps through some serious hoops in order to keep her safe. While a little slow to warm to the idea, we are shown that Bayonetta makes for an encouraging and emboldening influence for the young Cereza.

We also find out that she…is Cereza.

Due to some serious time travel stuff, Bayonetta gets the award for being probably the only person in existence who was, at one point, a mother to herself. That means she probably got the idea for how she wanted to be in the future…from herself, in the future, who must have gone through the same thing. Weirdly, the rabbit hole only gets deeper as we find our more, since it’s shown in Bayonetta 2 that Cereza/Bayonetta’s actual mother did indeed look identical to how the witch actually looks during the events of the games.

For a game that’s not overly concerned about the plot, Bayonetta sure was one hell of a trip.

What would she want for mother’s day?
Any number of things:
– Replacement dresses for all the ones the angels have wrecked
– A lifetime supply of lollipops
– More weapons
– More places to strap those weapons (maybe she can stick one to her forehead?)
– More demons at her beck and call
– More demons at her beck and call that WON’T try to kill her
– For the Umbra Witches to not be completely wiped out
– Anti-Cockroach spray (crybaby edition)

I would add ‘more angels to brutalize,’ but that’s a particular gift she gets everyday already.

Sora’s Ma (Kingdom Hearts)

01SorasMa

Ahh, who could forget this classic Kingdom Hearts character. (I mean, besides the writers.)

Sora’s mother raised our goofy-shoe-wearing hero, and was a great influence in his life. True, she went pretty easy on the boy, mostly letting him faff around on an island (which has a pretty confusingly unclear position relative to the mainland) with his two childhood friends. However, I have no doubt in my mind that Sora’s core ethos and morals wouldn’t have been the same without his mother’s influence.

Indeed, she might actually be the single-most important character in the entire franchise: one of the key requirements for wielding a Key-blade is having a “strong heart.” Who do you think gave Sora the genetics to have a heart that pumps blood at almost half the effort of a normal person? Definitely not his dad, who might as well not exist considering he doesn’t even have a single line in the entire series, which is pretty weak compared to her two lines.

Basically: without a Key-blade, Sora couldn’t stop the Heartless, but without his biological heart, Sora would probably struggle to do very much, thusly his mother is literally the only reason the Heartless will one day be defeated.

I’m sure when she comes back in Kingdom Hearts 3 as the secret true final boss, we’ll all be happy that the series ended with its strongest and most layered character.

[Alright, serious point for a moment: for a series that is so steeped in the importance we as people share with those we care about, I do wonder slightly why no one’s parents have appeared outside of minor references in conversations. I  do get it: from a writing stand-point, having a young characters parents around can cause a mess because the audience begins to wonder how the hell said parents can stand to let them go gallivanting around the place. Still, if it turns out Xehanort is also Sora’s father, I’m just going to call it quits.]

What would she like for mother’s day?
For Sora to come down and get his bloody dinner.

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It may have only been a small sample, but talking about these odd cases always make me realize just how weird and wonderful these video games can get. We are certainly blessed with some pretty creative developers in the industry.

Speaking of which, make sure you come back for father’s day: if you thought there were some odd mothers in video games, ho boy…

See ya’ll next time!

An exploration of tone in Drakengard and Nier.

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Or, why let prejudice and slaughter get in the way of a good joke?

Tone is kind of a curious thing in video games, when you stop to think about it. The ‘tone’ of something is (to put it in its simplest form) just how something is presented, with the most common two extremes being a serious presentation and a more comical one. There are a lot of different facets and ways to affect a piece of medium’s tone, from how each individual character affects the tone to how something as simple as the use of colour in the environment affects it.

However, videogames are in a weird place where their tone is partly dictated by the player. Because the player is the one controlling exactly how events occur, they are having a direct effect on what kind of tone is being presented. If, for example, you made an otherwise serious character run and jump repeatedly into a wall in an otherwise serious story, the tone would take a nose dive into the comical. This particular thing isn’t really something a developer needs to worry about, since each individual player will find whatever tone is best for them, but it is worth looking at how certain developers use a particular set of tones in their games. Mostly because, in a medium where they can never be 100% sure what tone the player is currently experiencing, looking at how a developer tries to insure a certain tone is being received is interesting in itself.

Take the tones used in the Drakengard and Nier games as some examples. Both series are the creation of Yoko Taro, a somewhat eccentric Japanese games director/writer, and both have this odd balancing act going on. Drakengard is a franchise known for its extremely gritty worlds and liberal slaughter, and the Nier games are known for their beautiful but also very melancholy stories, and yet both try to inject some levity between their more serious moments. Drakengard 3 is a tale of one woman’s quest to murder her sisters while desperately trying to stave off a disease that will kill her slowly and painfully, but is also the tale of one woman desperately trying to stop herself from strangling the life out of her silly, silly dragon.

Even Nier: Automata gets in some funny jokes, which is pretty impressive considering it’s a game that brings into question where mere artificial intelligence ends and sentience begins, and where humanity factors into the matter. Despite the fact you’ll be spending a lot of time questioning if you’re even doing the right thing, the game still has a couple of light-hearted moments to break things up. A memorable early example is when 2B and 9S (the game’s rather clinically named protagonists) are escorting a robot ‘child.’ Despite the fact that she’s actually bigger than both of her escorts, the girl is just full of questions like a real curious child…including one that 9S is really adamant about dodging.

It makes sense that such serious and tragic games have such silly and comedic moments: if something was serious or dark every second of its runtime, it’s pretty likely that the audience would quickly become overwhelmed by it. I’m an optimist, and I like to think that everybody is naturally caring and sympathetic to some degree, but even I know that a person’s charity can only extend so far. Just asking an audience to sympathise with a character’s crappy situation isn’t enough by itself, you have to give them a reason to root for those characters. By extension, if the tone of something is just unendingly bleak, then you’ll quickly run out of your audience’s good will. But if you sprinkled in some lighter moments throughout, the audience will become more disarmed; a heavy hitting and emotionally tragic scene is made all the more effective because the audience has seen the characters in question in better times. A good example of this comes from the very first Nier, with its unnamed primary protagonist and the supporting protagonist ‘Weiss’. These two really go through hell and high water before the game is over, but you’re already emotionally invested in them before that point because you’ve been won over by their pretty funny banter. If the game had lacked this component, it might have been somewhat harder for the characters to truly endear themselves to the player, and thus making the task of the writing all the harder.

It doesn’t just have to be comic relief that provides these lighter moments. The original Drakengard is pretty devoid of goofy humour (outside of that one time the main protagonist kicked a praying old man just to shut him up, that was chuckle worthy in context), but never the less has moments where it lightens up. In a world with very few ‘good’ people and where the main character is a murderous psychopath, his relationship with his dragon is actually engaging and nice to watch develop. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the game’s tone, but it’s hard to not appreciate how the two grow closer despite their initial hatred of each other. Although, that might only be because every other relationship in the game is in a varying degree between ‘screwed up’ and ‘oh god why why why.’

I’m not saying this is some kind of hard and fast rule that all pieces of entertainment that want to be taken seriously need to do, especially since it’s something that certain products aren’t even going to want to do. A horror game that has more light hearted and comical moments in it isn’t going to succeed in its primary task of freaking out the player. Imagine if Outlast took a break from its pants wetting terror so you could watch some asylum patients do some sort of funny gag, it would take you right out of the tension. While something like a horror product will have moments where it is less scary so it can properly build up to the really terrifying stuff, its tone shouldn’t move too far away from its oppressive and tense atmosphere.

As previously stated, video games are in a strange place where the creator can’t be 100% sure that the thing they’ve created is always going to have the tone they want it to, since a single glitch or exploit can turn an experience into a farce. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an accident: some people don’t really care about the context of a video game and only want to see the gameplay, meaning they’re almost completely out of reach of the designer. However, Drakengard and Nier are good examples of the games where the player might not always know what kind of tone to expect. The games (quite rightly) sell themselves on their pretty grim and morally grey worlds, so it can be kind of surprise to come across their more light-hearted sides. I think it only adds to the appeal of the games, not only because it helps to bring out the darker tones, but because it adds such a strange but appealing variety to them. While he’s hardly the only writer who uses such techniques, Yoko Taro really is a pro at this kind of thing. That, and maybe some kind of wizard. That’s the only explanation I can think of for how he manages to be both a creative lead on multiple projects (despite none of his games making a huge amount of cash) and manages to nail it out of the park every time he does.

In any case, thanks for sticking with this little ramble of thought, which had mostly been born out of wondering why I never felt too overwhelmed by Nier and Drakengard’s bleak tones. Due to Neir: Automata’s recent release and the fact that I’m currently addicted to playing it, expect a few more pieces on the weird and wonderful world of Nier in the future. Thanks and take care!