Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Everything in Its Right Place

Wow, it's been a while since my last post.  Well, between packing and moving into college for another year of classes, my time has been pretty occupied.  I don't even know if I can fit in more posts with classes.  Hopefully so.  But, in case I can not post more with my workload, I'd like to have a very serious post as my potential "last" post.

This issue was spawned in a debate my friends and I had last night when we were walking around.  After discussing video games for a while, we eventually began a debate on one of my favorite games, Visceral's Dante's Inferno.  In particular, we were debating Dante's Inferno's Condemn/Absolve system.  For the uninformed, throughout Dante's trek through Hell, he comes across not only the minions of Hell but also notable sinners throughout history, including Pontius Pilate and Attila the Hun.    Dante then has the decision of whether to "absolve" this souls, sending their souls to Heaven, or "Condemn" them, in which Dante burns the souls and condemns them to stay in Hell forever.  The mechanic doesn't have much story application, it mainly just serves as a way to get upgrades.  It does the usual trade off you've seen in other moral choice games (Evil choice gets the bigger short-term gains, Good has the better long term gains).

The problem I have with this mechanic is not any particular flaws with it.  It works well, and there is nothing I would particularly fix.  But the problem I have with the mechanic is that it has no real reason for being there.  It's there because it's cool and because it worked in other games.  There is no narrative reason for it being there.  And while I have no problem with games putting in mechanics to be cool or fun, I think it doesn't work in a game like Dante's Inferno, where other elements have a narrative application.  The enemies, for example, represent the Circles of Hell.  The weapons represent the difference between Heaven (Dante's cross) and Hell (Death's scythe).  Everything is there for a particular reason and to represent something about the world or the character.  But the Condemn/Absolve mechanic doesn't represent anything.  It doesn't change anything about Dante and other characters' views towards Dante don't change regardless of what you decide.  The mechanic, in other words, has no narrative weight or meaning.  It's just there.

But the saddest thing is, this mechanic could have weight!  It could have been Dante's reaction to the things he has seen in Hell.  If he absolved the souls, we could have seen a kinder, gentler Dante; one who forgives himself for his actions.  If he condemned, we could have seen a meaner, colder, more callous Dante, who still believes he is holier than others and learns nothing from his trials and thus deserves his sport in Hell.  It could have made Dante a deeper, more interesting, and just more human character.

See, as much as I love games that are just generally fun and cool, sometimes I want a game that feels planned and feels like every element, from the mechanics to enemies, is there for a reason.  Let's look at two examples, one a novel, the other a game.

My favorite book of all time is George Orwell's Animal Farm.  By itself, the novel is a brilliant story of a revolution of farm animals against their cruel owners and the aftermath, where the leader pigs soon become as corrupt as their former, human owners.  But when you learn that is an allegory for Stalinist Russia, and every character, from the pigs to the sheep to the horses, represent something in the Russia. The Horse is the working class, who blindly and fervently works on government projects to serve Napoleon the Pig, who represents Stalin.  With these concepts and allegories in minds, the story has more weight and meaning, and you care for the characters more.

Let's now take Silent Hill 2.  As explained in a previous post, all the enemies represent something about James's character and psyche, and thus, his actions and violence against these enemies thus have a psychological meaning that can be analyzed.  That's why people complain about more modern Silent Hill games including the sexy nurses and Pyramid Head.  Those creatures meant and represented something to James.  They really don't for the other characters without seriously convoluted reasons.

So what am I saying?  I think we can still have our fun games, but I think the games that want to tell a story and send a message truly need to think about what they are including in their game.  The people who created Dante's Inferno would have to truly consider the Absolve and Condemn mechanic and what it could mean to the character.  In other words, more artistic games will have to consider EVERYTHING in a narrative context when in the concept stage of development.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attoney; Ace Game

Well, this post has been delayed due to visiting family, odd work schedules, and general busyness.  Also, a little procrastination due to my latest addiction, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, which you can find on the Apple App Store for $5.  Go buy it.  Now.  Seriously.  Stop reading this and buy the game.  This blog will be here when you get back.  BUY IT.  

You want a link, here's a goddamn link: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/phoenix-wright/id372166015?mt=8

OK, for those who remain unconvinced, let me tell you why you should support the Ace Attorney series.  For starters, there is nothing else like it on the market.  Even this morning, I had extreme difficulty describing the game to someone.  I tried to say it is like a odd mix of point and click detective game and a little bit of critical thinking truth and dare game.  Add in clever and humorous writing and Monty Python-esque characters with  extremely clever names (half of which are puns, which I actually enjoyed), and you've sort of got the Ace Attorney series.  Confused?  Most likely, because that's how unique the Ace Attorney series is.  But let me try and clear it up.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend.
You are Phoenix Wright, a up and coming defense lawyer in Japan.  (Yeah, I know it's supposed to take place in America, but the game is so obviously influenced by Japanese culture that it actually makes more sense to just SAY it takes place in Japan.)  The game takes place in episodes, with each episode taking place over one of Wright's cases.  The game is then separated AGAIN into two different different styles of play: an "Investigation" section, where Wright interviews suspects and witnesses and looks for clues to use during the court case.  Then, when you find all potential clues, the game skips forward to Wright's time in court, where he must deconstruct the witnesses' faulty testimonies (using the evidence you found during the "Investigation" portions) in order to clear his clients' name.  Both sections are full of clever and head-scratching puzzles, clever writing, and plenty of twists and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat. 

Preview of Investigation Mode.  This woman's name is Wendy OLDBAG.  YA GET IT?
And as engaging and entertaining as the gameplay is, the real star of the show is the writing.  Since the game is pretty much an interactive book, you got to have clever writing.  And boy, does this series have it.  It doesn't just have humorous characters with clever dialogue, but it also has some of the most likable and even fleshed-out supporting characters I have seen in any form of media.  From Phoenix's assistant, Maya Fey (M. Fey...you see what they did there?), whose jubilant and bright personality brings a smile to anyone's face, to the gigantic manchild that is Detective Dick Gumshoe (YOU SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE?), every new character that graces the screen is full of fascinating character traits, making you look forward to each new character and inspring progression.

There is a shitload of characters.  And you will love ALL OF THEM.
But the absolute stars of the game and the prime examples of the series's great writing is the prosecutors, particularly Miles Edgeworth and his adoptive sister, Franziska von Karma.  

Purple suit and a cravat?  MAXIMUM SWAG DETECTED.
That whip is worrying.
At the beginning of their respective games, both Miles and Franziska play the roles of the snobby rich villains you've seen in every 1980's sports movie ever (talking down to Wright, calling him a fool and such).  But after Wright eventually defeats them, tarnishing their perfect win records (the thing they based their entire life's motivations on), they begin to have changes in their personality and eventually become friends to Wright.  They grow as characters, and the player grows to like them.  For example, when I started playing the game, I couldn't stand Edgeworth for his aforementioned snootiness.  But, as time went on, and I saw his growth from snooty villain to kind, yet still socially awkward, hero, I actually began to root for him.  Now, I can even say he's one of my favorite characters in gaming.  He's got a sick cravat, he's a closet nerd, and he has no idea how to deal with women, though they seem to latch on to him to a great extent; what's not to love?

His only weakness is camaraderie. (Seriously, he's trying to flee because he felt uncomfortable with everyone being happy.)
I must admit these games aren't perfect, however.  The gameplay is a little bit too structured, making it seem like you are just going through the motions the game is giving you rather than making it seem like you are the great detective and lawyer the game makes you out to be.  And, like most adventure games, there is often one solution to problems that may not seem obvious at first, leading to some puzzles going from puzzling to aggravating very easily.  This also aggravates me because I could always think up several flaws in a witness's testimony, yet Wright has to find the most convoluted way to prove their lies.  Also, the story has some major flaws at times, such as the fact that the police almost NEVER consider things as important as motive in their investigations.  Finally, I must say I don't really like Phoenix.  He's the clumsy, sarcastic, yet easily flappable everyman they we are supposed to latch on to and identify with, but I found him to be too much of a wimp and really, a very shitty lawyer. 

Yet, despite the flaws, these games are great.  Unique, witty, and all around fun.  AND ONLY 5 DOLLARS.  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, BUY IT.