Sunday, February 21, 2010

game mechanics & conventions

you know what’s a really good game mechanic? creating a boss battle that centers around your inability to do damage. you have to play tug-of-war in order to put the enemy into a damagable state, and you have to play a stupid minigame to prevent him from escaping every turn. once he recovers he can force you to blow a turn to prevent him from healing. and then he launches a massive attack that requires you to counter every move he makes or else you lose the tug of war and get a ton of damage dealt to you. which, by the way, you can’t heal unless an enemy is randomly spawned carrying such an item, and you don’t accidentally kill that enemy.

oh, and all your moves including that critical counter-attack is based on a finicky touchscreen control you previously used once, about an hour ago, and have had no chance to practice the timing on. and as a much more minor complaint, the entire plot reason for you fighting this thing is incredibly flimsy.

this game, made for children, is incredibly difficult and frustrating. or i’m really bad at it. either way.

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incidentally, i’ve really been losing my taste for jRPGs. The battle mechanics are always repetitive (except for Magical Starsign which was dynamic and challenging), the plot is always cliche and threadbare or else meant for children and goofy without being funny (Except for Baiten Kaitos whose prequel was, in conjunction with the first game, challenging and wonderfully revelatory). 

I can’t see myself picking up Final Fantasy MMXIV for more than twenty minutes, because even though Lost Odyssey was by all measures a very impressive example of its genre, I still haven’t finished it (or any of the other jRPGs mentioned above, actually…).

Here is my experience with Magna Carta 2, a JRPG that  I returned after playing it for 10 minutes (Fuck you gamestop clerk who told me it was amazing and revolutionary):

  • Expository text about kingdoms and princesses and oh man, a war. this certainly isn’t like every other game I’ve ever played.
  • Cutscene of an epic battle. Incredible! I’ll bet the gameplay is exactly likehahahahahahhaha
  • Ambigious-gender enemy does something bad to girl with boobs popping out and short skirt. oh, right, yes, the princess, who is in the middle of an epic battle because who fucking cares jesus.
  • PC wakes up with… amnesia. This is going to be bad. I fish out the shot glass but hesistate to start a drinking game. I might not survive that.
  • Expository dialogue about how this simple village is such a wonderful place to be. I begin taking bets on how long until it is attacked, except the very next line of dialogue is about how it’s being attacked. I hand myself $1. Thank god I put the shot glass away.
  • I am given an errand to kill sand crabs.
  • I run through this gigantic empty town to a gigantic empty beach via a gigantic empty path.  This is where I started to get really pissed off. This is wasted space. Nothing is going on. I’m just… running. Eventually I will kill some sand crabs. Then I will assume I kill some slightly larger sand crabs, then I’ll get embroiled in some stupid conflict I don’t care about, then I’ll turn out to be the chosen one and by the end of the game I’ll kill god.
  • The combat system sucks. It’s “real time”, combining all of the excitement of clicking your mouse in diablo (minus the skill tree) with the awesome loot of a jRPG (You got: 5 xp, 5gp, a crab shell!)

Look, I understand why these plot devices were originally created. The amnesia is because the player is blind to this world, and we want to learn about it through the eyes of the character to learn and bond with them.

Mass Effect handled this really well by having the PC not be a blank slate.  when you selected a dialogue option, Shepard would fill in the blanks for the player. you could still role-play, but you weren’t role-playing a clueless hero who didn’t know what your own name was. 

(Incidentally, do I really need to learn every single detail about the world upfront? Can’t I just learn by observing your well-written NPCs at work instead of having it explained to me letter by letter that elves are distant and untrustworthy but noble and the wookie-looking guys are noble savages who will swear a blood oath to me if I save their lives?)

Planescape: Torment blew the fucking lid off the amnesia cliche by having the PC be aware they were about to have amnesia, so they tattoo’d instructions onto their own back. So you keep the joys of having your character learn along with you, but the plot isn’t just putting blinders on some stupid fucking revelation you’ll have halfway through the game, which will tear you and your party apart until you brood for thirty seconds and then everything will proceed normally.

The epic battle between good and evil. Fine, good, great, we all know that Hollywood 101 is “Have action within the first 5 minutes to catch interest, then slow down and introduce what’s actually happening”. But is it too much to ask that I be able to participate in this battle? So that I might actually, I dunno, give a shit about its outcome? Lost Odyssey did this to good effect by having a background of a thousand soldiers doing their thing, but the PC only engaged 1-2 at a time. It looked really nice.

Having a tutorial is fine, really. But, as a genre, haven’t we all agreed that killing rodents, vermin, and small crustaceans the jRPG equivalent of start-to-crate? Not to trot it out again, but Mass Effect’s first level had you repelling an invasion of sentient robots that zombified colonists and ended with you hallucinating so hard you pass out. Magna Carta 2’s first level started with you sleeping in a boat and mentioning your amnesia about 6 times and then killing some sand crabs.

And expository text at the beginning? Look, we all forgive Star Wars for that because Americans find science fiction impossible to understand and weird (see also: People who thought Surrogates was deep, people who were confused by the plot of the first Matrix movie (there were no other Matrix movies)). But let’s be honest with each other: Your jRPG is exactly like every other jRPG I’ve ever played. I’m not going to remember any of this shit, and when I put a damn game in the system it’s probably because I want to play it, not be force-fed your shitty “Kingdom of pure good / betrayal / fall / redemption… QUESTION MARK” arc.

(NOT TO HARP ON IT BUT I JUST FINISHED THE SECOND GAME: Mass Effect & Mass Effect 2 started with some shadowy figure discussing your fate with no context, like it was the cold opening to a Law and Order episode. This bothers me to no end because it adds NOTHING. Just let me play and find out for myself!)

Empty space is my new pet peeve. Everyone wants to make epic worlds that take 60 hours to explore, but they don’t have the time or the content to pull it off so you’re left with… nothing. Mass Effect blew this in the first game with the Mako, and in the second game with the mineral exploration. Fallout3 subverted this by having wonderful little goodies hidden around every corner. Magna Carta 2 blew this by making me run from one end of town to another without anything going on in the meantime. It took maybe 60 seconds, but it felt like 6 minutes. I want every second of a game to have a purpose, especially in the first 10 minutes. and yes, “downtime” is a purpose (like talking to your party members in between missions), but you can’t call something “downtime” when I haven’t fought a single battle yet. 

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