Nintendo's E3 Lineup Previews

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Nintendo's E3 Lineup Previews

Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker:

Zooming out Captain Toad levels is a lot like playing Where's Waldo, if Waldo had the voice of a shrill, screaming grandmother.

Zooming out Captain Toad levels is a lot like playing Where's Waldo, if Waldo had the voice of a shrill, screaming grandmother.

The Captain Toad levels are the best part of Super Mario 3D World. Full stop.

If you don’t believe me, you either haven’t played 3D World, or that grating Toad voice Nintendo has been putting in games since 2001 made your head explode a lot faster than mine. For the former, the Captain Toad levels saw the titular explorer (first introduced as Mario’s weird schlemiel tagalong in Mario Galaxy) move around a 3D puzzle box level, hunting down green stars. The captain can’t jump use powerups, or even run very fast, but he can manipulate the camera a full 360 degrees, allowing levels to be trickier than they seem at first glance.

This is BASICALLY Gears of War. That cover would be waist high on anyone else.

This is BASICALLY Gears of War. That cover would be waist high on anyone else.

They were short, but generally really clever little puzzles. and the only complaint I ever had with them was that there weren’t more. Now that I have that though, I can’t help but be a little concerned. Don’t get me wrong, the puzzles are still tricky, and require some careful thought, as well as quick reflexes, but I have to wonder how much Captain Toad can justify an entire game. The demo I played had four levels, all pretty different from one another, including one where our intrepid explorer had to move from cover to cover to avoid a dragon spitting fire, while also moving forward to avoid the slowly rising lava lake. It’s not a terribly original level design, even for Nintendo, since it's pretty much exactly the Helmaroc King fight from Wind Waker, but Captain Toad’s specific limitations and goals gave it an interesting spin on a classic puzzle platformer challenge. If Nintendo can keep that kind of variety up across a few dozen levels, Captain Toad might finally escape his eternal sidekick role.

 

Mario Maker:

That hand isn't for show. It's in the game every time you edit a level and it's mildly unsettling.

That hand isn't for show. It's in the game every time you edit a level and it's mildly unsettling.

The first thing you have to know about Mario Maker though is that it really isn’t a game. It’s more of a toy, sort of in the vein of Mario Paint. However, unlike Mario Paint, fans have been making Mario level editors for years on the interest, at different, mostly questionable levels of legality, so what’s the deal here?

See? Maybe that's Miyamoto's hand? It would only make sense.

See? Maybe that's Miyamoto's hand? It would only make sense.

Assuming Mario Maker is a smaller, eShop title, and not a full retail release, the basis of Mario Maker is sound. Making your own Mario levels is a fun enough concept that dozens of half-baked fangames have been made to service the idea. The problem is how Nintendo plans to make Mario Maker worth a price tag. As it stands, Mario Maker feels pretty early on, it’s fairly light on features, and I’m assuming plenty more will be added as the game gets closer to release. For example, while the toolset let me put wings on any damn enemy I pleased, the red Koopas pictured in the official art weren't in the demo, leaving me dropping hundreds of winged green turtles to their doom.

Actually, it could be Reggie's hand. It is very well manicured.

Actually, it could be Reggie's hand. It is very well manicured.

The most intriguing feature the demo had was the ability to swap between Super Mario Bros. 1 graphics to New Super Mario Bros. U graphics on the fly. Nintendo has mentioned that they’re looking into adding more graphic overlays, and I think that’s where this game has a chance of really standing out. If tools from every 2d Mario platformer are available, with abilities from every game, we’d have a much deeper level editor than fans have ever made. Imagine switching to Mario 2 graphics and being able to plop down turnips for throwing around and setting up magic potions and portal doors, then erasing that level, and building one of those nightmare Kaizo Mario World death traps that require constant spin jumps over hungry piranha plants. Or assets themed around more obscure games like Donkey Kong ‘94, or even a Paper Mario visual filter. Mario Maker could be a really deep, fun toy that takes a look back at Mario’s platforming history by giving players the reigns. Emphasis on could. It could also be made obsolete by fan games before it’s even released. Here's hoping for a Hotel Mario skin at the very least.

 

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse:

Every single piece of art for this game is so cute it may actually kill me. LOOK AT HIS CUTE GLASSY EYES. LOOK UPON THEM AND DESPAIR.

Every single piece of art for this game is so cute it may actually kill me. LOOK AT HIS CUTE GLASSY EYES. LOOK UPON THEM AND DESPAIR.

Kirby’s Canvas Curse is the actual best Kirby game, but probably also one of the most overlooked. It came out at a weird transitionary period in the DS’s life. It was long enough after launch that every DS game wasn’t an exciting new tech demo, but before the system hit its popularity stride with stuff like Brain Age and Nintendogs. Not to mention that it was a touch based game about two months after touch was no longer a special feature. But, it was a really clever platformer that used the DS hardware better than pretty much any game before it, and was fun to boot.

I wish every screenshot of this game was a ,gif, it's sort of the only thing that would do it justice.

I wish every screenshot of this game was a ,gif, it's sort of the only thing that would do it justice.

Almost a decade later, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse becomes a long-awaited sequel by default, but there’s something off about it. It’s still fun, and the paint-line mechanic hasn’t been revisited since the original, but I just can’t understand why the game is on WiiU. Yes, it’s gorgeous. Screenshots don’t quite do it justice actually. The world is rendered in clay, giving the game a faux-stop motion feel.  It’s constantly moving but in tiny, imperfect ways. Kirby is never a perfect sphere, but invisible hands are constantly trying to remold him into one, like a child with a ball of plasticine. It’s some of the best, most creative use of HD I’ve ever seen, but it’s not necessary to the game. The aesthetic tries to justify its existence on WiiU, when it’s otherwise a much better fit for 3DS. It is the sequel to a DS game after all. One has to wonder if this game and Kirby’s Triple Deluxe, a more traditional platformer that would probably get more attention on a console, didn’t get swapped around or something at birth.

Yeah. If that doesn't win you over you're dead inside.

Yeah. If that doesn't win you over you're dead inside.

It's Yoshi! But yarn! It's cute!

It's Yoshi! But yarn! It's cute!

Yoshi’s Wooly World:

Yoshi is another WiiU game that tries to justify its existence through an aesthetic. Unlike Kirby though, its harder to fault it for that. I’m sure it’s coincidental, but considering the general “meh” Yoshi’s New Island received from players at large, stepping as far away as possible from the traditional Yoshi art style is probably a good idea.

No one man should have all that yarn.

No one man should have all that yarn.

Otherwise though, Woolly World is Yoshi as you know it. Considering it’s already the third direct Yoshi’s Island sequel in eight years, the ground before it is pretty well trodden. You eat enemies, turn them into eggs (yarn balls technically), bop more enemies with them to collect treasures. In a cross with Good Feel’s previous craft-based game, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yoshi doesn’t have a life bar, instead losing a chunk of collected treasure upon death. In multiplayer mode, dying also respawns you as a floating egg for your partner to pop, sort of like respawning in New Super Mario Bros.. It’s totally solid, but I’m still iffy on using Epic Yarn’s death system. While it does get rid of Baby Mario’s incessant whining, Yoshi’s Island’s difficulty was in collecting well hidden secrets like the red coins and flowers. Putting the emphasis instead on amassing as much treasure as possible feels like it’s missing the point, much like Yoshi’s New Island and Yoshi’s Island DS. Maybe we’ll just have to wait a little longer for a true Yoshi’s Island sequel after all.

 

Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright:

Luke's the only one not getting in on the Objection action. That's because no one likes Luke. Sorry guy.

Luke's the only one not getting in on the Objection action. That's because no one likes Luke. Sorry guy.

Earlier this year, I got really existential about there being no more Professor Layton games. Of course, I knew then that Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney would be coming out in North America eventually, I just also knew that due to its long release delay it was going to feel like a pretty significant step back.

When the 3DS was announced, this was the game that made me perk up and get interested in the system. Two of my favourite DS adventure games come together to form a weird, violin accompanied Voltron? Where do I sign up? Playing it now though, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. The game doesn’t demo well, but in the half hour or so I played it, I watched Professor Layton explain what a puzzle was, using a non-interactive cutscene that lasted three or four eternities, and Phoenix and Maya bicker about how they’re bakers, not lawyers. I swear, they think they’re bakers until the first contradiction, and it lets them justify every first case cliche the series can throw at you. Explaining how to press witnesses? Check. Explaining what contradictions are? Check. Explaining how testimony works? Arghhhhh

Spoilers: Maya isn't in AA5, so seeing her again is a real treat for long time Ace Attorney fans.

Spoilers: Maya isn't in AA5, so seeing her again is a real treat for long time Ace Attorney fans.

I’m sure those things will pass, but I can’t help but feel the game is designed for newcomers to the Layton franchise from the Ace Attorney side, as well as newcomers to the Ace Attorney franchise from the Layton side. It’s tutorial city. Again, the demo I played was only an hour and a half or so into the game, and I’m sure it’ll pass, it just didn’t leave a great taste in my mouth. Also, since the game came out before Ace Attorney 5 in Japan, it lacks the option to skip text at any point, forcing you to sit through s l o w ,  s c r o l l i n g  d i a l o g. It’s a minor complaint, I know, but I’m a fast reader, and having that option in AA5 was a real blessing. Playing without it may get really frustrating for Ace Attorney veterans in the same camp as myself.

 

 

Hyrule Warriors:

Fans have determined that this Link is the "pretty Link", and I can only assume it's the scarf. Gotta be the scarf.

Fans have determined that this Link is the "pretty Link", and I can only assume it's the scarf. Gotta be the scarf.

The problem with writing about Hyrule Warriors is that it’s exactly what I expected of it. Not that that’s a terrible thing. Hyrule Warriors is a Zelda-inspired take on the Dynasty Warriors franchise, which at this point has teeth so long they qualify as tusks. If you’ve played any of those, you know what to expect here- giant hordes of enemies, punctuated with a few bigger, tougher foes, scattered across a map with various bases and control points. Kill scores of them and complete missions (mostly oriented around running to another point on the map and killing scores of them) and beat the level.

Some days, we just need to sit back and appreciate how great the Skyward Sword Lizalfos design is. It has a giant rock gauntlet Let that sink in.

Some days, we just need to sit back and appreciate how great the Skyward Sword Lizalfos design is. It has a giant rock gauntlet Let that sink in.

There are a few differences, sure. Subweapons like bombs can be found on the map and equipped instead of the standard healing potions, and having individual hearts instead of an ambiguous health bar makes it a lot easier to know how much health you need to pick up to keep on trucking, but overall, this is Dynasty Warriors wearing a Zelda skin.

Original character White Sorceress Lana is here to fulfil your daily recommended dose of moe character design.

Original character White Sorceress Lana is here to fulfil your daily recommended dose of moe character design.

It’s a pretty skin though. Hyrule Warriors is among the prettier WiiU games, and the Skyward Sword-inspired battlefield the demo took place in looks like a massive step up even from the game’s initial trailers. And, speaking as a far-too-enthusiastic Zelda fan, the little touches thrown in are adorable. Midna’s “twilight wolves” have the same chunky dreadlocked mane that Wolf Link was rocking back in Twilight Princess, and one of Zelda’s alternate weapons is the Wind Waker, complete with requisite sound effects. There are a few spots where the shout outs go a little too far, like when Navi’s ever-grating “Hey, Listen!” plays over tutorial tooltips. It’s as if the developers knew that her catchphrase became memetic, but totally missed the part where it was the world’s most annoying sound.

It’s hard to write about this game without it just sounding a back-of-the-box feature list. Kill monsters! Zelda things! Dynasty Warriors was smart to move into more and more licensed titles, like their recent Fist of the North Star and One Piece-themed games, and Hyrule Warriors is no different from either. It’s classic, tried-and-tired Dynasty Warriors gameplay with a candy-coloured Zelda coating. That was totally enough to get me to buy One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2 last year, and depending on how much more content this game has we haven’t seen yet, it might manage to do it again.

Twilight Princess's Midna brings down Majora's Mask's moon as part of one of her supers, and that sentence is definitely a dream come true for someone. (That someone is me.)

Twilight Princess's Midna brings down Majora's Mask's moon as part of one of her supers, and that sentence is definitely a dream come true for someone. (That someone is me.)

Remember, for more previews of games like Bayonetta 2 and Project Giant Robot, check out our audio from Nintendo's preview event, coming soon!


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Super Smash Bros. WiiU/3DS Preview: Lookin' Good

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Super Smash Bros. WiiU/3DS Preview: Lookin' Good

Smash Bros. is a weird beast. On one hand, it’s an outsider game, part of Nintendo’s initiative to take genres they aren’t comfortable with and Nintendo-ize them. Smash Bros. is an action-platform-brawler, sure, but it’s also Nintendo’s more intuitive, easy to understand take on the fighting game genre (see also: Splatoon for shooters, Fire Emblem for RPGs, Luigi’s Mansion for point-and-click adventure games). On the other hand though, it’s the insider game, combining pretty much every Nintendo franchise that matters (and some that really, really don’t) into one fan-pandering package.

It's like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Mega Man beats Mario who bears Sonic who beats Mega Man until both are irrelevant.

It's like Rock-Paper-Scissors. Mega Man beats Mario who bears Sonic who beats Mega Man until both are irrelevant.

That fighting game part of the equation is really relevant these days, with the sudden surge of popularity Super Smash Bros Melee, the 2001 Gamecube incarnation of the series, has been seeing in the fighting game community. Nintendo, in response, made sure that Gamecube controllers, the Smash Bros. standard would be compatible with the WiiU game through some sort of Frankenstein's monster of a switching box. It takes up two USB ports, and I’m not really sure how. Then, they held a tournament, inviting the world’s top Smash Bros. players to show off the game in a livestreamed event in the Nokia Theatre. Nintendo is pinning all its WiiU hopes and dreams on Smash, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s consistently a multi-million seller, but unlike Mario Kart, its more popular older brother, it draws in a fairly stable crowd of Nintendo, and specifically, Smash Bros. diehards.

So, getting Super Smash Bros. for WiiU and 3DS (seriously, that's the full name) right is a Big Deal for Nintendo. Such a big deal that they’ve dedicated multiple Nintendo Directs to it, post daily updates on the games development to Miiverse, and commission original, usually super clever art every time a new character is revealed. Smash Bros. is an event game. It’s a once a generation game. But enough context, let’s talk video games.

Rush....Do you think love can bloom? Even on a battlefield?

Rush....Do you think love can bloom? Even on a battlefield?

To prepare for the demo, I played enough of Melee and Brawl to get a feel for the differences between the two games, and to remind myself exactly how they felt to move around in. I found that Melee was a lot slipperier than I remembered, while also being a very stiff game overall. Brawl, meanwhile, had a lot more traction on the ground, and moved more smoothly, but had a lot of floatiness and looseness in the air. Smash Bros. for WiiU feels tighter, in a good way though. Melee’s stiffness made hit and run tactics the order of the day giving defensive players really big opportunities, while Brawl’s floatiness made matches one long air battle, eventually culminating in a single strong ground hit for a kill. Overall, characters feel like they have less airtime now, as well as more responsive hits on the ground. The overall feel is snappier, tighter. Characters have real weight to them again, but not so much that they feel cumbersome to combo with.

K! O!

K! O!

For example, I got my hands on Punch Out’s Little Mac, one of the game’s newcomers. Mac is a boxer, not exactly skilled at air fighting. His jumps are low and heavy, and his off-screen recovery options either move straight up, or straight to the side, no precise recovery here. But, his ground game is unmatched. He’s lightning quick, hits like a tank, and most of his specials and smash attacks combo out of his jab attack. Mac also builds up a power meter as he takes and deals damage. Once it fills up, you get a single use, instant-KO uppercut. It comes out slow, but hitting it stops the action and zooms in on you crushing your opponents jaw with the might of a thousand elephants. It’s crazy satisfying. The rebalancing of the air and ground game still makes Mac a less viable character overall, Smash Bros. is an action-platformer after all, and what good is a platforming character who jumps like a turtle? But, more of the action takes place on the ground, and playing to your strengths (and the center of the stage) makes Mac a really solid, entertaining character to use.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Rosalina. The Mario Galaxy princess is light, and floats around pretty much like she’s right out of Brawl. Her shtick is that she has a Luma following her around, sort of like the Ice Climbers tandem system from previous games. Unlike Nana though, Rosalina is in full control of her Luma, and can use it to create devastating (and really cool looking) set ups and combos. In the time I used her, she seemed really tricky to get a hold of, but definitely showed potential for serious damage. Between the Luma and Little Mac’s power meter, it’s easy to see that Smash Bros. new direction isn’t so much about refining the engine and core feel of the game, as it has been before, but about refining the characters, and making each feel more unique.

Don't worry, Diddy always has it coming.

Don't worry, Diddy always has it coming.

Take a look at Mega Man. He doesn’t have his own special subsystem, but the way he operates is entirely different from the rest of the cast. His jab combo fires three pellets (and only three, just like NES sprite restrictions demand), and each of his moves are individual, distinct hits, often with charge up time, poor recovery, or slow start-up. Mega Man doesn’t combo. At all. But, just like he does in his games, he has a ton of options available to him. The (ironically sort of useless) Metal Blade can go off in any direction, the Leaf Shield lets you run right through projectiles, Hard Knuckle demolishes any enemy beneath you, Air Shooter lets you chase enemies right off top of the screen in an aerial battle. Mega Man has an option for any situation, and they hit hard. Mega Man requires you to understand the game and predict your opponents, not react, then pick the right tool for any job. No other character plays like that.

Yeah, but where's all the sports tape?

Yeah, but where's all the sports tape?

Even older characters have gotten tweaks. Pikachu’s thunder attack is no longer nearly as useful, and his “breakdancing” down-smash has a bit of a vortex applied to it, letting him suck enemies into his whirling death tail. Overall, it forces Pikachu players to play more aggressively, having to rely far less on well placed thunders to carry enemies off screen for them. Meanwhile, perennial bottom-tier bench sitter Link has a stronger downwards stab in the air, as well as far batter range on his boomerang. Maybe it’s not enough to take him out of the D-List, but he certainly feels more viable.

I could look at 100 screenshots of Sonic eating it and never get bored.

I could look at 100 screenshots of Sonic eating it and never get bored.

It all makes Smash Bros. feel much more like what I think it was intended to be. A collection of Nintendo's unique characters, each recognizable because they play just like they’re supposed to in their original games. They’re more different than they ever were before. It diversifies the gameplay in a way that Smash Bros. hasn’t tried since the very first game. Greninja plays hit and run like a melee character, Wii Fit Trainer is floatier, but hits hard and plays a strong fundamentals game. The Villager is unpredictable, much like Mr. Game and Watch, but with a heavier focus on set ups and traps. It’s the first Smash Bros. game where I feel like I really need to sit down and learn some of the characters, and that’s a really good thing. It’s making me very excited to clean up with Little Mac in Super Smash Bros for WiiU and 3DS.

Boy, it really needs a better name.


Sidebar: Smash Bros for 3DS Update-

It does actually look this nice up close. Zoomed out? Not so much.

It does actually look this nice up close. Zoomed out? Not so much.

Did you hear? Smash Bros. is also on 3DS this time around!Presumably because the WiiU isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, and a 3DS version is a pretty sure sales bet for a good few million copies. But handheld fighters are never the best idea. Sure, they can function, but it often comes at a serious cost. Either the engine suffers, or the controls aren’t right, or frames get dropped. 3DS Smash Bros. is a pretty unique case in that it is literally the exact same game as it’s console big brother. Sure, it has a different set of stages and a few special modes, but it uses the same characters, the same assets (scaled down significantly for the smaller screen) and the same engine. It plays identically, smooth as silk. I’ll take the thick black outlines over dropped frames any day of the week.

The game’s big draw right now is the Smash Run mode, which lets up to four players run around a floating island dungeon for five minutes, killing various Nintendo enemies for power ups. These power ups then get applied for a set of multiplayer matches once the time limit is up. The mode is entertaining, but playing against CPUs really only hammered across the fact that Smash Bros. is built on local multiplayer. The controls work (the timing for smash attacks feels a little more lenient on the handheld), and the screen size isn’t really an issue. Online multiplayer is solid enough on 3DS, but it’ll never replace the local, punch-your-friend-in-the-shoulder-for-using-a-cheap-move multiplayer that made the series so popular. This game needs tons and tons of single player content, but I have to imagine all of that will find its way to the WiiU version anyway, considering it comes out a few months later. No matter what Smash 3DS does, it’s always going to be the inferior version, and that’s not a great place to start from.

Not the 3DS version, but do appreciate the RESOLUTION on those hula hoops. You won't find hula hoops like that on any other console. Those are proprietary hoops. First party hoops.

Not the 3DS version, but do appreciate the RESOLUTION on those hula hoops. You won't find hula hoops like that on any other console. Those are proprietary hoops. First party hoops.

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E3 2014: Nintendo has two whole new games, and Jack Kirby aliens

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E3 2014: Nintendo has two whole new games, and Jack Kirby aliens

Nintendo's digital event this year was probably the most interesting one it's had in a while as it announced a few new games and franchises. Plus, the company now seems keen to mock itself with Robot Chicken segments, references to the Luigi Death Stare and Reggie officially saying the word "ass." This is despite ever tightening restrictions on its public relations officials.

Among the games that attracted attention, a new Zelda, a new Star Fox and a new Yoshi's Island all got top billing. The two new franchises are a surprising departure for Nintendo, as again, it reaches into absurdity to create intruiging premises. 

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E3 2014: Show us the real Vib-Ribbon, Sony!

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E3 2014: Show us the real Vib-Ribbon, Sony!

Daniel Rosen continues his adventures in sitting beside a computer monitor and live tweeting every press conference at this year's E3. With EA talking mostly about the concept of video games, and Ubisoft giving Alisha Tyler an annual paycheck, all that's left is Sony.

We get a glimpse of the Sony of 2015, as they showcase Batman: Arkham Knight, Uncharted, Bloodborne, Powers, Dead Island 2, PS Now, and No Man's Sky. They also talk about way more than Daniel alternatively enjoys, snarks on, or attacks vehemently. Like who really wanted Youtube sharing on PS4. It's handy, but come on. It's like clapping for button pressing functionality. 

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E3 2014: Microsoft shocks everyone by talking about video games

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E3 2014: Microsoft shocks everyone by talking about video games

Microsoft's E3 press conference was a shocker this year for how focused it was on games, not features. They revealed the Xbox One's biggest news all year. Daniel Rosen willingly sat by his televisionand talked about Microsoft for two hours to find out for us. We don't pay him enough for this, or at all. First on the list was Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. It's about terrorism? Or maybe the war economy. No. Wait. That's a different game.

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Op-Ed: E3 Shows us that 2014 is the Year of Stagnation

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Op-Ed: E3 Shows us that 2014 is the Year of Stagnation

There were more severed heads in trailers at E3 this year than there were women on stage. 

That's a frightening statistic, but let's be honest here, it didn't surprise you, did it? It's E3 after all. Sure, no one made a rape joke on stage this year, but across the four major shows (Microsoft, Sony, Ubisoft and EA) there were five women presenters. Counting Nintendo, which had none, that averages out to one women per show. Meanwhile, the number of severed arms, heads and other appendages probably tallied somewhere in the 50s by the time all was said an done. Hell, outside of Nintendo, individual presentations had more gore than women every single time. Nintendo went zero for zero by the way, but they're something of a special case. Not so special though that they didn't have more women playable characters on screen than every other presentation combined. 

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Op-Ed:  We Need To Talk About Budgets

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Op-Ed: We Need To Talk About Budgets

Yesterday's EA conference bugged the hell out of me. Not because of the constant deluge of sports games, I'm used to that. That bit where they called bothMadden and Fifa football in the span of like 20 minutes was pretty annoying, but I got over it. There was a good 5 minutes there where they were using Bruce Lee's digital corpse as a puppet to shill UFC games, but that didn't annoy me so much as make me deeply uncomfortable. No, the part that drove me insane was when they showed four games that looked to be in varying stages of pre-beta development. Criterion's new, currently untitled, action sorts game, DICE'sStar Wars Battlefront 3, as well as their Mirror's Edge prequel/sequel/reboot and Bioware Montreal's Mass Effect 4. 

Every one of these games was prefaced with plenty of text telling us about how the footage we were seeing was nowhere near final, and, in the case of Battlefront, that this was merely a test of what the engine could potentially achieve. Hell, Bioware announced a new game that didn't have a concept, just a fancy season changing system. 

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The Primer: Interesting Failures

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The Primer: Interesting Failures

Like any creative medium, games fail. A lot. Creatively, critically commercially, even morally, games that don't succeed seem to outnumber the ones that do sometimes. But, behind every failure is a story. Sometimes the budget ran out, sometimes development shifted suddenly halfway through, sometimes the market wasn't right for the game, sometimes the game just sort of sucks and no one can do anything about it. 

But other times, a whole host of things go wrong and stop a game from succeeding in any number of ways.  This month, in our look at failure within the industry, what causes it, and what goes wrong, we want to take a look at some of gaming's more interesting failures, commercial, critical and otherwise.

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Op-Ed: Americanizing Ace Attorney Was a Brilliant Idea

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Op-Ed: Americanizing Ace Attorney Was a Brilliant Idea

Anything you've ever liked in an Ace Attorney game is a result of its localization. Every clever joke, cute pun, and witty line of dialogue was a product of the localization team taking the original script and reworking it to fit an American audience. Sure, the localization team has no control over the mysteries they're handed, or any particularly offensive character designs, but other than those things, Phoenix Wright is pretty much all text. Which made it sort of a revelation to me which it came out. I'd played adventure games before, but never anything as visual novel-styled as Ace Attorney. My computer wasn't really up to snuff, and from my perspective, most of them were R-rated hentai games, which I was terrified of my parents catching me playing. But Ace Attorney was something different- it was well written. In fact, so well written that nothing about it really screamed "Japan" at me. I'd watched a bunch of anime at that point, so I was catching the art style, and the various seinen tropes it drops, but other than that, the first Ace Attorney doesn't seem really seem out of place in its Los Angeles setting. It’s a game about lawyers with wacky clients, a plot that could have easily been transposed onto a TV series, or movie, or book. But outside of that, every character had been renamed with a usually goofy, but never grating, pun, cultural references to Japan had been totally relocated, and characters cracked jokes based on American idioms and pop culture, but never in a way that felt like someone just checked a Wikipedia page and based their goofs off of that.

Cultrual differences: In Japan, that "Victory" text was in Japanese, and that ghost was a werewolf.

Cultrual differences: In Japan, that "Victory" text was in Japanese, and that ghost was a werewolf.

There’s a saying that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. That a light touch is best when it comes to bringing something over from another country. It makes sense, if you beat someone over the head with any Americanisms it’s going to seem pretty obvious that it wasn’t American in the first place. Ace Attorney 1 hits that sweet spot perfectly. It might as well have been an American-developed game from my perspective playing through it for the first time. There are some weird Japanese things left over, like the string of flags on one character’s souvenir stand, or a popular Tokusatsu show being filmed in an LA studio, but those just sort of make sense in the inherent weirdness of a world where magical spirit channelling exists and is totally admissible as evidence in court.

To be fair, some of those cultural references are uhh...uncomfortable.

To be fair, some of those cultural references are uhh...uncomfortable.

Just as an example, there’s a bit in the Japanese version of Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations where one character spills curry on a picture of the spirit channelling master. In Japanese, her orders are to put a “splendid end to the head of the house.” Being a kid, she misreads some of the Kanji involved, getting karei, or splendid, confused with kare, which means curry. She also gets indoh, which is the word for giving someone their funeral rites, as indo, which means India. So she spills Indian curry on the picture. Of course, that pun doesn’t make a lick of sense in English, but the localizers were stuck with the picture being covered in a brown foodstuff. Her orders in English are to “gravely roast the master,” so she dumps some gravy from the night’s roast on the picture instead. The event doesn’t change, but her misunderstanding makes sense to an English speaking audience. It’s a perfect crossover, and until someone pointed out that the gravely/gravy and roast/roast connection doesn’t exist in Japanese, I never noticed it. It’s the deft, light touch or a good localization. Sure, the fact that she mixed up those words is a little goofy, but it’s equally goofy in both languages, and makes perfect sense in the moment. There isn't really anything lost by changing the food items, other than a bunch of Americans not getting the joke, because curry isn't particularly popular here.

Of course, for a series that lives by its localization, it also dies by it too. So sometimes, when an Ace Attorney game falls flat, it’s probably the localization’s fault. Ace Attorney Investigations is a pretty boring game. It has hysterically simple cases that last forever because of dozens of filler interrogations you have to sit through before you can actually get your hands on the culprit, but that’s the fault of the game’s developers. The localizers instead have to shoulder the blame of the bottom of the barrel puns (the sports-loving Jacques Portsman, the victim known as Died Mann) and the monotony of Edgeworth, Gumshoe and sidekick Kay having exactly one joke each. Some of that might be attributed to the fact that because of the game’s core conceit, you aren’t really ever doing anything of purpose, just wandering around trying to find someone who will be arrested and eventually dragged to real court, but there’s certainly space for a localization to have spiced things up. It’s too light a touch for localization.

Just gotta something!

Just gotta something!

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, on the other hand, actually suffers from a very noticeable and problematic localization- it’s full of typos. There’s actually a tumblr dedicated to cataloguing some of the incredible spelling mistakes. Most of them are small ones, “any” instead of “an”, “statute” instead of “stature”, nothing that seems totally crazy. But then they spell one of the game’s primary locations three different ways and you realize they didn’t hire an editor. It makes the whole thing look amateurish for a high-profile release from a major publisher. It also totally destroys a lot of your immersion when you have to stop every few textboxes to gawk and marvel at the latest unbelievable error.

Vale/Vail/Veil/Village/Vermont/Vermillion

Vale/Vail/Veil/Village/Vermont/Vermillion

And while Ace Attorney 1 benefited from the westernised script, Dual Destinies stumbles over it. Where the Los Angeles setting made for a more welcoming atmosphere for a new player than Tokyo would have, Dual Destinies leaves players looking for semblances of American culture cold. The game features two Japanese villages that somehow relocated their entire populations from Japan to Southern California, brought over their ancient sealed demons, and somehow used their images to sell a popular wrestling show. All of that is crazy, especially the wrestling bit. 

Now, that isn't necessarily Dual Destinies' fault, considering they were stuck in LA to begin with, but they really could have done something about the incredibly problematic third case, which features a very Anime-styled legal academy, a prep-high school for law school, which is presumably what allows people in the Ace Attorney universe to pass the bar at 13. At the school, you run into a young man who was born female and lives life as a man. Of course, once you reveal this in court (which is kind of gross in and of itself), the character admits the truth by pulling out a pink high heel and staring at it longingly. You need to make them admit this because you need a reason for them to have stolen and worn a dress. Even though the proof is there, there is somehow no way they could have done it unless they were secretly actually a girl. Also, after the big reveal, the character becomes very stereotypically girly, teasing characters, doing over-dramatic fake faints, and putting their hands on their hips. It’s sort of crazy offensive, and the kind of thing that probably could have been worked around a little bit by the localizers. To be fair, I don’t know if it was worse in the Japanese version. This was, after all, the series that had an enormous, flamboyant French chef talk about how he was a “woman on the inside” and leave it treated as a hilaaaaarious joke.

He also smokes a feather, but that's not a Japan thing, it's an Ace Attorney thing.

He also smokes a feather, but that's not a Japan thing, it's an Ace Attorney thing.

Dual Destinies takes a pretty light approach to the whole localization thing outside of a handful of cultural references here and there. Prosecutor Simon Blackquill is a walking ball of Japanese cultural references that don't track unless you're familiar with a whole host of Japanese tropes. He's a samurai, but dresses more like court nobility, he calls everyone -dono at times, an antiquated Japanese honorific used to denote respect, the list goes on. To be fair, the localizers did a decent job of making him speak British English to reflect the more archaic Japanese he used, but there's no halfway here. he came off as strange, and sort of jarring. No one is going to argue that Dual Destinies is a well localized game. Part of that is partially because being stuck in LA renders a few of the cases and characters impossible to localize, but the rest of that burden sits on characters like Blackquill mixing Japanese and English tropes, along with the complete lack of editing in the game's script. 

Dual Destinies manages to have a localization that isn’t just offensive and confusing, but also completely unreadable at times. It sort of ruins the game, in the same way that Ace Attorney 1’s spectacular localization saved it from being “too Japanese” for a wider audience. It was a visual novel that didn’t really feel like one, and opened the floodgates for me personally. I really fell in love with the visual novel concept, all because Ace Attorney was so well written, and so well localized. I’m pretty sure Dual Destinies won’t accomplish the same for anyone. It might even scare them off of the genre as a whole, considering how little it tries to make things palatable to a western audience. Someone yells YOLO once, and I’m pretty sure that’s the sum total of the cultural references I caught. A good localization is very important, and in Ace Attorney’s case, it’s literally the difference between a good game and a bad one. In my case, and I’m pretty sure for many others as well, it’s the difference between being introduced to a new fantastic genre, or being chased even further away by typos and uncomfortable Japanese attitudes to sexuality.

But also the typos.

But also the typos.

Some might argue that Ace Attorney goes too far in its localization, that it erases the original Japanese intent by retrofitting the script to work in America. But the problem is that if it was left as a Japan-centric game it would have never found the popularity it did in the West. A good localization change things around to better suit the culture its being brought to, and in Ace Attorney’s case, that meant playing down the Japanese element to it, which was honestly not terribly important to its core plot. As the series went on, it got out of hand, sure, but there’s no denying that it was the best decision that localization team made at the time. Of course, some games need different localization choices. The Persona games wouldn't make any sense at all if they were westenrized to the same degree as Ace Attorney. In fact, that's often one of the major complaints people have with Persona 1. A good localization is one that takes both the needs of the game as well as the audience into account, and a bad localization is one that fails them.

A good localization also won’t put in a “this is Sparta” reference, but we’ll let Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations slide. It was 2007, we were all making mistakes.


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Mario Kart 8- Back on Track

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Mario Kart 8- Back on Track

Everyone's favourite Mario Kart is the one they spent the most time with. Among my peers (ie. jaded 20-somethings) that's usually Mario Kart 64. That actually probably holds to people about a decade older than me as well, considering they would have played it in college, but you're probably going to find some Super Mario Kart fans in those numbers, especially when you skew older. Younger fans might love Double Dash, DS or Wii. Nobody loves Super Circuit, because Super Circuit was a crime. The point is, the difference between Mario Karts is often so minute that it all comes down to personal preference. But, that also means when a game personally drives you crazy, it becomes a serious object of ire. All this comes down to an anecdote: the last time I played a Mario Kart game was 2008, when I fell asleep playing Mario Kart Wii.

There are a lot of babies in this game. That isn't the disappointing bit, it just really bears mentioning. If you hate babies. You monster.

There are a lot of babies in this game. That isn't the disappointing bit, it just really bears mentioning. If you hate babies. You monster.

That's not even a joke. My friend and I dozed off during an online race. The tracks were wide enough to drive five trucks though, side by side, and still leave legroom, while the karts moved so slow the finish line seemed an interminable distance away. You never actually saw other racers on the course, everyone had enough room to breathe that no turn was ever too tricky, no one was ever having too much fun. It went too far in the classic Mario Kart balance of fairness vs fun. In the interest of fairness, the racers in the back have a higher chance of getting items that could turn the tide of a race. In the interest of fun, good, disciplined racing should still be able to win the day. Of course, it wasn't, and combined with the series' traditional rubber banding AI, Mario Kart Wii was an unfun, boring mess of a racer. I swore of Mario Kart, and stayed away for six years, until it was time to do this review. Instead, I played other arcade-style racers, like Split/Second, and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed.

So take it to heart when I say that Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular racer, it's just inside of a disappointing package.

Planes, trains and auto-mobiles and just kidding about the trains part.

Planes, trains and auto-mobiles and just kidding about the trains part.

 In case you've missed it over the last 22 years, Mario Kart is a series of games that puts Mario and his pals (along with some of his more amicable enemies) in go-karts and motorcycles to race each other across cartoon environments lifted from their adventures. But, in a Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races style twist, they can pick up items and weapons along the track to use against other racers. This time around, the karts have been upgraded to have anti-gravity features, which gives them a sort of F-Zero-in-slow-motion twist on certain stretches of the tracks. 

Anti-Grav adds a sweet "Anime Future Blue" glow to your tires.

Anti-Grav adds a sweet "Anime Future Blue" glow to your tires.

It sounds like a cheap trick on paper, but it really works in practice. In anti-grav mode, bumping into other vehicles gives you a speed boost, which is great on straightaways, but can kill you on a turn. In what has to be a response to MK Wii, 8 features significantly narrower courses, meaning bumping into other racers (the whole point of a go-kart) becomes a significant part of the strategy. On the ground, it mostly just punts them off the road and on to the acceleration-killing grass. But in anti-grav mode, racers can take the calculated risk to slam into opponents on turns, and send them flying off of the track entirely. Of course, this means they themselves then have to survive the turn with the speed boost, a mechanic largely borrowed from Mario Kart's faster but forgotten older brother, F-Zero. In that game, hitting other cars can slam them off course, but drains your energy bar, which acts as both your health as well as fuel for your boosts. It's the biggest change from previous games, and it's a welcome change of pace from the regular racing mechanics, but it's not exactly earth shattering innovation.

The other major change 8 brings to the table is HD graphics, which, while not a gameplay shift, are undoubtedly impressive. Nintendo continues to be one of the few companies to use HD to its fullest potential, with bright colours and eye-popping designs. I found myself wishing for a way to just view the tracks without a race going on, so I could appreciate how much design effort went into things that usually whiz by during a race. But, at the same time, it's hard to claim like it's a genuine step up for the series. It doesn't impact gameplay, other than making split-screen a teensy-tiny bit easier to read on smaller screens, and the general crowd for HD graphics is looking for photo realism, not a perfect cartoon. But that's neither here nor there, it's undeniable that the game looks incredible.

I'mma gonna ween.

I'mma gonna ween.

Similarly, the music is great. Nintendo keeps wheeling out the same live jazz band they seem to be using for every Mario branded game lately, but I'm not complaining. Just like Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Super Mario 3D World, this return to Mario's ragtime/big band musical roots sounds spectacular. A few of the retro tracks from previous games have a slightly more rocking take on the source music, but overall there's a lot of brass next to those electric guitars. The Electrodrome course music specifically is a standout no-brass track, with a really rad techno beat that fits the Shy Guy rave going on in the background.

But while those parts of the presentation seem fantastically high budget, everything else feels like corner cutting. After two weeks of playing the game, I can't find an options menu anywhere. Not that there's anything I necessarily want to change, but it's odd that there's no option to tweak volume or display settings. Similarly, it's odd that the traditional post-grand prix ceremony animation is gone. Instead, it's been replaced by a rotating graphic of the trophy you won, and a list of who placed where. It's not a big deal, especially considering most people tend to skip those, but again, it's a weird tiny corner to cut that leave the game feeling a little cheap at times. Compared to other kart racers, like the criminally underappreciated Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, the single player portions of the game are lacking. Mario Kart has never really had a robust single player mode, but even a small mission mode would have been something. It looks strange that Mario Kart, the premiere kart racing series, and Nintendo's current great hope for the WiiU has a totally bare bones single player when compared to Sega All-Stars, a game that is by no accounts a top budget title, but has an hours long career mode. Admittedly, that career mode gets bogged down with boring missions that get far too difficult on higher levels, but it's something.

Rejoice, for Toad Turnpike is back, and that means you're going to get flattened by a Wario-branded truck.

Rejoice, for Toad Turnpike is back, and that means you're going to get flattened by a Wario-branded truck.

Having not played Mario Kart 7, the kart customization features are new to me, and they're a welcome level of complexity, but again, it's nothing that hasn't been done before. Similarly, the return of coins from Super Mario Kart is a nice strategic addition, but mostly just highlights how the series is just borrowing from its past to keep itself moving now. In that vein, pretty much every retro course brought back from the earlier games is spectacular, including the three best Mario Kart 64 tracks (Yoshi Valley, Toad Turnpike, and Rainbow Road). In fact, the only standout dud is Moo Moo Meadows, a course lifted almost directly from MK Wii, and less said about that the better. New tracks are similarly great, aside from super simple ones like the basic Mario Kart Stadium. One of my favourites is Mount Wario, which has no laps, instead featuring a three part race to the bottom of the mountain, with completely different challenges in each leg of the race. Nothing really stands out as bad when you're in the races.

It's all the stuff that happens outside the races that irks me. The main menu is as barebones as it gets, with options for single player, multiplayer, online, and Youtube uploads. When I was looking for players online and I couldn't find any, the game wouldn't let me quit searching without shutting off the console. Battle mode has been killed without remorse, changed from fast-paced arena battles to slow plodding circuits around massive tracks, desperately looking for another racer to fight. it all comes together to feel like a game that had a limited budget, and poured it all into what the designers felt mattered. I don't think they were wrong, but it certainly leaves the game as a whole feeling a little lacking when compared to its predecessors and contemporaries.

There is an art department at Nintendo dedicated exclusively to making Mario's denim overalls look juuuuust right.

There is an art department at Nintendo dedicated exclusively to making Mario's denim overalls look juuuuust right.

But again, there's no denying that  Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular game, it's just a worrying package. It's the best console Mario Kart game in more than a decade, but it still feels lacking when compared to the previous games. It's bare-bones outside of races, where it's lavish and fun and Mario Kart at its very best. Mario Kart 8 is gorgeous, with tightly designed courses, frantic gameplay, and a spectacular soundtrack you'll never hear over people shouting at Baby Daisy for lapping you AGAIN. But the death of battle mode and the low-budget presentation set a bad precedent. Mario Kart DS was the spectacular return to form before the dreadful Mario Kart Wii. Mario Kart is totally worth it again, but how long will it last this time?

Then again, I’m doing time trials while I edit this review, so maybe we don’t have to worry about that just yet.

It's called a road, it's called the Rainbow Road....

It's called a road, it's called the Rainbow Road....

Verdict: Thumbs Up!

(Built to Play uses a simple, binary rating system. These aren't product reviews, but we do want to tell you where to best spend your time and money in this medium we cherish. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)

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Thou Hast Played a Game! - A History of Olde English in Localizations

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Thou Hast Played a Game! - A History of Olde English in Localizations

There's something about old English that gets RPG localizations going. Maybe it's the often medieval settings, or all the swords, or the fact that it's actually impossible to cast magic without sounding like a Ren Faire reject (seriously, try it sometime), but any game with a high fantasy air to it going to be scripted like an episode of Game of Thrones. What's interesting though is that this localization choice has been around almost since video game localization started. It's a thread that runs through Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and dozens of other RPGs from pretty much every era of gaming. And every time it's served a very specific purpose. What's really weird is that it never served the same purpose each time. It's a not-so-unique stylistic choice with a real variety of uniquely weird choices.

Thou art confused as to why this omniscient narrator speaks such!

Thou art confused as to why this omniscient narrator speaks such!

Probably the first game that went full-on Arthurian in America was Dragon Warrior (nee Quest). In Japan, Dragon Quest was one of the early Famicom days to break one million copies. Thing is, since the Famicom was so popular, and there were so few games to buy, pretty much every game sold a million copies. But then Dragon Quest 2 happened, and by the time of Dragon Quest 3, we were getting rumours in Nintendo Power that the Japanese national guard was deployed at game stores to keep kids from buying the game on a school day. So Nintendo was pretty keen on making it the same kind of sensation here as it was at home. 

The problem was, Dragon Quest wasn't the grassroots success a lot of people sold it as. Part of that series' huge success can be attributed to the fact that it had promo art from Dragon Ball's Akira Toriyama. The Toriyama connection then got Dragon Quest comics into Shonen Jump, the suer-popular children's comics magazine that serialized Dragon Ball at the time, which in turn kept Dragon Quest on the brain for the millions of kids still looking for decent Famicom games. Toriyama wasn't the only talent that drummed up continued interest in the series either, composer Koichi Sugiyama was relatively popular for his work on anime like Gatchaman and Cyborg 009, and designer Yuji Horii was a writer known for his regular video games column in Shonen Jump, as well as his script for the Portopia Serial Murder Case, a beloved Japanese computer adventure game. Horii's writing was known for being charming and clever, and his games were always designed with the belief that no game should ever be too challenging for the ordinary player. Adventure games and RPGs weren't necessarily reflex based games, the skills required were purely mental, and could eventually be brute forced with enough patience. 

If that kid turns around, Goku can actually sue.

If that kid turns around, Goku can actually sue.

That last bit was what Nintendo was banking on when it brought Dragon Quest over as Dragon Warrior, and gave it away for free with subscriptions to Nintendo Power. Dragon Quest worked for all ages, with gameplay simple enough for a kid, and dialogue charming enough to engage adults. But a literal translation of Horii's writing would have sapped the game of all its character, so the localizers elected to recast the game in faux-Shakespearean "thee"s and "thou"s. It was a way to keep the game cute and clever, without having to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the entire script- an efficiency measure, but one that stuck around in RPGs for a very long time.

Dragon Quest 2 and 3 held on to the old English style for a few more years within the Dragon Quest series, but 4 dropped it due to the more global nature of the plot and characters. Though, DQIV's DS port had an accent-filled localization, complete with completely incomprehensible Scottish accents for some of the cast. But that wasn't RPG localizers last chance to put Horii's dialogue in a time machine. Chrono Trigger's Frog speaks in the absolute most imprenetrable old English I've ever seen in a game. "Mayhaps a hidden door lurks night?" he croaks. "Let us search the environs." Meanwhile, the Japanese version opts for the much more reasonable "Yes, there's a secret passage somewhere in this room."

Just in case you didn't believe me...

Just in case you didn't believe me...

In fact, the choice to make Frog a cartoonish Shakespearean buffoon is super weird in light of his attitude in the Japanese version. Japanese Frog is a more boisterous knight, with a propensity to call enemy leader Magus a bastard, and a zeal for beating up monsters. As far as I can tell, the choice was to keep him more in line with Western expectations of what a medieval knight should sound like, though the DS port toned down his "hast"s and "dost"s considerable. Around the same time, Chrono Trigger's translator Ted Woolsley also worked on Final Fantasy 6, where he gave Cyan, the technologically-inept knight a more Shakespearean bent, though not nearly to the extent of Frog. In fact, Cyan's Japanese was similarly archaic, though more in line with how samurai and ninja would have spoken.

So, sometimes it's a character thing. Other times though, it's a space thing. Etrian Odyssey II doesn't feature too many archaicisms, but it does refer to almost every shield in the game as an aspis, which technically isn't old English, but we'll accept ancient Greek for our purposes because it never comes up. Etrian Odyssey limits weapon names to 10 characters, including spaces. In Japanese, ten characters might as well be a sentence, but in English, it barely gets across two words. The word "shield" plus the space before it eats up seven characters, leaving only three to describe what kind of shield it is. Meanwhile "aspis" is only six characters with the space, leaving a roomy whole four letters for an adjective. Archaic speech patterns might not always be known for their efficiency, but sometimes out-of-use words are just what a smart localization needs.

Pretty sure this paragraph counts as the airing of grievances, but I'm tapping out when we hit the feats of strength.

Pretty sure this paragraph counts as the airing of grievances, but I'm tapping out when we hit the feats of strength.

Sometimes though it's just weird and crazy annoying. In what the localizers say was an attempt to evoke the high fantasy grandeur of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, Capcom's Dragon's Dogma is packed to the rafters with strange, out-of-use, and archaic terminology. For example, the fire sell is called "Ingle", an older English word for a fireplace, while the ice spell, "Frazil" is named after a needle-like ice formation. It can get confusing, especially when characters heap on the archaic grammar, but it allows for some clever workarounds. Since your character can be male or female, characters address you as "Ser", a gender neutral version of sir and lady that, while not necessarily an old word, definitely looks and sounds like one. Iit fits in seamlessly with the localization and cuts back on voice acting work without raising any more eyebrows than the rest of the script.

Any excuse to post FF12 concept art is a good excuse.

Any excuse to post FF12 concept art is a good excuse.

In a similar sense, the Ivalice series of Final Fantasy games use old English to set the tone of the world. It's a little different than Dragon Quest's attempts to inject some much needed character into boring RPG text though. The Ivalice games span hundreds of thousands of years in the timeline of a fictional world, and the specific choices made in localization over the years really reflects that. Final Fantasy XII is chronologically the first game in the Ivalice timeline, but takes place during the world's golden age. There's a distinct olde English flavour to everything, but it's more Victorian than Elizabethan, in fact, the game's bestiary text was styled after a Victorian handbook on medicinal herbs. One of the cleverer localization choices made by Ivalice series translator Alexander O. Smith, as well as frequent partner Joseph Reeder, was to recast the antagonistic empire's characters as British, and have the friendly rebels speak in American accents. Sure, it's not exactly what the Japanese writers had in mind, but it very quickly gets across the idea that the rebels are on your side, and the empire isn't. 

Lotta cur talk in this game actually.

Lotta cur talk in this game actually.

Meanwhile, it was a calculated difference from Smith. he also translated the chronologically final game in the Ivalcie series, Vagrant Story, which still has that archaic flavour, but is distinctly more modern in places. "All because of this religious freedom! Too much freedom, too many gods. Let those cultist cur-dogs run loose, and they will bite you. Gods! While our Parliament cowers..." is a lot more readable to a modern audience than Shakespeare. In between there's also the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games, which Smith worked on, but those have a much more modern take, most likely because they were aimed at younger audience who might not have been able to pick up on the purple prose. Put together with Square Enix's updated translation of Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP (the middle game in the Ivalice series) and the changing speech patterns give a really strong sense that there's one world grounding all these stories, but it's shifting, ever so slightly.

Basically, old English isn't quite the cheap and easy localization tool that Dragon Warrior would lead you to believe. It's a shorthand for the middle ages, sure, but it can also build a world, set a mood, save some space, or even just make a frog sound like he stepped out of someone's horrible Shakespeare fanfic. Truly the finest use of language.

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The Primer- Great Localizations

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The Primer- Great Localizations

When it comes to figuring out what goes into a great localization, there's a lot of time spent thinking about games that really nailed the transition from one region to another. And also games that totally dropped the ball. Sometimes games dunk that ball though. Other times someone gets hit in the face by an errant pass. Occasionally the ref calls a time out and has to analyze what just happened because the ball was floating in the air gloriously, before crashing back down to the court in a flaming wreck.

What this tortured metaphor is trying to get at is an introduction to just a few of the most impressive game localizations of all time.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The thing about the Ace Attorney games is that all at once, they manage to be some of the best examples of how to do a Japanese-to-English localization, while also showing exactly what goes wrong when you play it fast and loose with localization. One one hand, they’re loaded to the brim with clever puns, mostly subtle references to american pop culture, and charming dialogue. On the other, it’s actually impossible to believe the series could possible take place in Los Angeles.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies is either the most amazing series of typos ever, or an incredibly detailed post-modern comedy bit.

To be fair, the series isn't exactly batting a thousand. Between goofy nonsense that doesn’t register as a pun until you think about it and get disappointed (see: Glen Elg, the palindromic homicide victim), and the grammatical catastrophe that is Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies, there are a lot of missteps in what’s usually considered to be a shining exemplar of good localization. It says a lot that, for a time, the biggest meme to come out of Ace Attorney was making fun of the one major error in the second game. Well, that and people constantly yelling objection for no damn reason.

[UNSET] (1).jpg

It takes a lot to take a game, especially one as text heavy as Ace Attorney, from one culture to another. The first game in the series did an impressive job of balancing the whole “it takes place in america” thing with the rest of the factors in the plot. To be fair, not too much about that first game was very Japan-centric. The Steel Samurai read as a Power Rangers/Super Sentai-esque kids show in both regions. Sure, it was weird that the Fey clan ran a mystical spirit channelling village somewhere in the mountains of Orange County, but it didn’t ever take me out of the suspension of disbelief required to believe that the world’s most incompetent lawyer was an undefeated defense attorney. But, the part in Ace Attorney Dual Destinies where an entire Japanese village relocated to America and took their ancient chained-up demons with them so they could use them in wrestling TV shows pretty much snapped my disbelief over its knee. It was a smart choice to set the first game in LA. It made it feel closer to home for North American players, and really let the writers play with pop culture references that wouldn’t really fly if the game was set in Japan. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the games stick out like a traditional Japanese shrine in the middle of LA. It was one smart short term choice, that ate into the suspension of disbelief more and more with each game going forward. At this point, I’m half-expecting the upcoming Meiji-era Japan game to be set in the Wild West when it comes over stateside.

Actually, samurai in cowboy hats sounds rad. Sign me up for that.

Pokemon Red/Blue

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

Pocket Monsters: Lizard Dude Version

The impressive thing about Pokemon’s localization isn’t really in its script. “I like shorts” isn’t exactly Dickens. No, the cool thing is all the work that went into it that most people miss. It’s the names. Pokemon names to be specific, Charmander to get really particular, actually. See, in Japan, Charmander is called Hitokage, which literally the word for salamander in Japanese. That itself is sort of a pun, because it means fire lizard, but a straight translation would still render that as either salamander or fire lizard. And then what do we make out of Lizardo and Lizardon, Charmeleon and Charizard’s Japanese equivalents? Fire Lizard Jr., Fire Lizard and Fire Lizard Sr.? Lil’ Fire Lizard to Big Fire Lizard? Nintendo’s trick was to flip the script and go with what localization always tries to do at its best, preserving the original intent without sticking to the literal script. Charmander works. It says fire and lizard and salamander all at once, perfectly preserving the Hitokage pun without just calling it “Salamander”.

Changes like that actually led to a few problems down the line. The longer english names often hit the character limit, leaving Gyarados without his former English title of Skullkraken, and forced the designers to change the status screen orientation for foreign versions of Gold and Silver. Longer names meant they wouldn’t fit in the Japanese version’s vertically oriented menus, forcing a horizontal flip. Some people say that the best localizations are the ones no one notices. A light touch. Pokemon, the first games at least, are probably the lightest touch I’ve seen in a game while still being an enormous amount of work. Charmander is clever, but 151 of those critters is crazy. By now, renaming Pokemon is a science, but in 1998? It was a new frontier. You try to come up with 150 cute puns that kids will get but not get bored of?

I’ll start: Skullkraken.

SKULLKRAKEN

SKULLKRAKEN

Mother 3

If you say so...

If you say so...

Mother 3 is another one of those “look how impressive this text-heavy game’s localization is” kind of games. It’s funny, clever, charming, the puns work, and it all manages to be poignant rather than tripping over the language barrier. Part of that has to do with the script’s pre-existing qualities. Shigesato Itoi, the creator of the Mother/Earthbound series, is a well-regarded and respected writer over in Japan. But, the rest of it comes from a superb english localization courtesy of some folks from the internet.

Mother 3 never came out in America, reportedly because it was a late-period GBA game that would have required a lot of effort, leaving it in the same Japan-only vault as the first Rhythm Heaven game from the same time. Realizing they wouldn’t be be able to play the game unless they did it themselves, Earthbound fans banded together and worked for years on their own translation of the game. Earthbound fans have a reputation for being a bit crazy in their love for the series. Considering Americans only ever got one game out of three in any official capacity, it’s not hard to see their love for the series as a little out there, but it led to possibly the best fan translation of all time, so I’d call it a win.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

All of Mother's official art is done with clay figurines, appreciate it, because it'll never happen again.

45615-Mother_3_(J)(WRG)-9.jpg

One of the really neat things about the localization is that they also launched some merchandise to go along with it. The team released a hardcover guidebook with a full game walkthrough, which came with a keychain. That guide was also the first major release out of Fangamer.net, another product of the Earthbound fan community, which now produces stuff like Earthbound-themed vinyl figures. Also, in a rare look into the localization process, the lead on the project has a series of articles detailing his translation choices throughout the two years of localization work. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s still amazing that a small group of people could turn out a translation at Nintendo Treehouse quality. I'll be the thousandth person to say that Nintendo should just use their translation in a digital release, but they really should. Unless a player already knew, they'd never guess it wasn't an official job.

Final Fantasy Tactics

final_fantasy_tactics_logo_by_eldi13-d486ych.png

There’s a pig in FFT that has an attack called “nose bracelet”. The dancer class uses the skill “wiznaibus”. The boar enemy classification is listed as “wildbow”. The best part comes early on in the game, when a character is reading something out loud, so you can’t control how fast the text scrolls. In the second sentence, he says “little money”, which takes longer to scroll for each letter than the rest of the text does combined.

 

L

     i

          t

               t

                    l

                         e

                              m

                                   o

                                        n

                                             e

                                                  y

 

Really, it speaks for itself.

Really, it speaks for itself.

If the rest of these games on this primer were great examples of how good localization looks when it’s done right, then the original Playstation version of Final Fantasy Tactics is a crash course on what can go wrong. Back then, Sony was handling Squaresoft’s english translations internally, and they polished the game’s script to a dull brown mess. Nose bracelet is supposed to be oink, which is odd, because bracelet was supposed to be “breath” every other time it appeared in the game. Why else would a dragon have a fire bracelet? Dancers who fight dance “with knives” or “wizu naibusu”, not wiznaibu. The boar is a wild boar, not a particular misbehaved bow. The little money thing seems to be a programming error that cropped up during localization, because there’s nothing like it in the Japanese version.

Whatever you say, lady.

Whatever you say, lady.

The fairly complicated plot, full of political machinations, backstabbing and demonic usurpation of the church is had to follow in the much more coherent PSP remake, so it goes without saying that it makes no damn sense in a version of the game where they manage to misspell Malboro, one of the series’ classic enemies, as Morbol. It’s an impressively terrible translation, which is doubly as terrible because it’s such a great game. Comparing it to the PSP remake, War of the Lions, makes it look like the amateur job it probably was. Fortunately, we all have that version now, so there’s no need to have a death cold about it anymore.

No, I don’t know what that one was supposed to be either.

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Adaptation: Three Classic Comedies that Need Games

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Adaptation: Three Classic Comedies that Need Games

Look, there are only so many times we can say this, but games can, and should be funny. Sometimes. Maybe not all the time, but there’s definitely room for cracking jokes through gameplay. Sometimes, you just need the right material. Now, I’m no game designer, but I feel like I have some idea the industry could put to good use. Specifically on adaptations of famous classic comedies, beloved the world over. Here’s some material folks- great ideas to better homes. Do with them what you will.

Mrs. Doubtfire:

This summer, Robin Williams is still doing vaguely offensive voices.

This summer, Robin Williams is still doing vaguely offensive voices.

The Pitch:

There’s a new Mrs. Doubtfire movie coming out. Now, I know movie tie-in games aren’t quite as popular as they used to be, but licensed game doesn't carry the same baggage as it used to. It’s a trade off. I’m fairly sure the only movie licensed game coming out for the major consoles this year is Amazing Spider-Man 2, so the market for a tie-in movie game is underserved at best. Now, it’s also nonexistent at worst, but you can’t make money without taking a few ungodly risks. And the biggest, stupidest, most ungodly risk available to you as an investor is getting behind this Mrs. Doubtfire game.

Like, just make that broom a trident and we are halfway to pig monster.

Like, just make that broom a trident and we are halfway to pig monster.

Robin Williams has effectively pissed away his popularity with projects like RV and those Zelda commercials where he had a crazy beard. Actually, can we get Robin Williams to play Ganon in a Zelda game? Check on that after we’re done here. Robin Williams is only slightly more popular than crossdressing comedies. Other than the shambling franchise zombie that is Medea, zany drag comedies don’t really pull in the audiences anymore. This probably has something to with the fact that playing crossdressing as hilarious in and of itself is crazy offensive, but then again, White Chicks in on Netflix and we as a society haven’t started rioting yet, so what do I know?

What I know is I have a killer pitch for a Mrs. Doubtfire game.

 

The Gameplay:

The game has two distinct gameplay stages. The first is a makeup portion, think Cooking Mama meets a dress-up doll game. You have to do Daniel Hillard’s make up perfectly for whatever the occasion calls for. Going out on the town, staying in to take care of the kids, top-secret missions in North Korea, whatever Mrs. Doubtfire needs to do.

That sweater is actually kevlar. 

That sweater is actually kevlar. 

Yes, that’s right, Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire is now a top-secret agent for the US Government, the world’s best disguise artist, able to infiltrate any compound without detection, all while maintaining an impeccable falsetto British accent. Depending on how well you do your makeup in the pre-mission portion of the game, the level may be easier or harder in certain places Your makeup affects your ability to blend in and attract interest from NPCs. Different makeup styles will lend themselves better to certain strategies, and don’t forget to try and track down the secret looks, which can unlock special skills like invisibility and constant-being-on-fire.

During the mission portion, you’ll be tasked with infiltrating an area with the least amount of casualties. Like Snake in Metal Gear Solid, Doubtfire only procures weapons on sight, and attacking guards and innocents is likely to arouse suspicion. Be careful not to blow the mission, your president is counting on you to stop terrorist attacks from a country that hopefully won’t be an ally in six months when this game is on store shelves. Games are missing this blend of tactical espionage action and makeup simulation, and Mrs. Doubtfire 2: When in Doubt, Fire, is just the game to give gamers what they crave.

 

Borat:

Every promotional image of Borat involves that green swimsuit, and I just don't want to put you through that.

Every promotional image of Borat involves that green swimsuit, and I just don't want to put you through that.

The Pitch:

You know it, I know it, the nation knows it. We, as a society miss Borat impressions. People aren’t saying “My Wife” enough anymore, or parroting anti-semitic and/or misogynistic comments sans satirical context. We’ve lost the Borat spark. Sacha Baron Cohen has disappeared to parts I do not know where, and there is no one to fill the void left behind by the lack of Borat in our collective life. But now, there is. Look, the Ghostbusters game was supposed to be Ghostbusters 3 until it wasn’t. Then Ghostbusters 3 went back to being a thing that will never happen but we’ll keep hearing news stories about until we’re all dead, so why can’t Borat 2 do the same?

He is ALREADY A MII. It's that easy people.

He is ALREADY A MII. It's that easy people.

See, Borat 2: The Game won’t be a good game. That’s literally impossible. What kind of game would it even be? We’ll get to my pitch in a moment, but seriously, it’s terrible. Don’t bother. The point is, it’ll light a fire under Mr. Borat’s ass to work on the real Borat 2, or better yet, Borat 3: The Canonical Sequel to the Trainwreck Known as Borat 2: The Game. It’s sure to be a film loaded with laughs, hoots, hollers, and guffaws galore. Maybe there will be a celebrity cameo or two? Maybe I’ll appear, and Mr. Borat can say something mostly offensive to me. It’ll be very exciting. The point is, we need to make this game happen, and then we can all go back to the halcyon days of late 2006 to early 2007, where your dad thought the Borat voice was the key to comedy.

Ahhhh, nostalgia.

 

The Gameplay:

I’m not going to lie to you, folks. This cannot be a good game. I mean, first of all, Cohen refuses to play the Borat character anymore, since he’s too famous to trick people with. Second of all, what do even gamify here? I was thinking to go the easy route, and have Mr. Borat platform his way through America, but we’re not lazy here at Built to Play. We’re innovators, and we have a trainwreck of a design pitch for you. Imagine a 3D exploration game, where you, as Borat, walk around a town, asking for interviews with various townspeople. Using a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel, you find the best way to keep the conversation going, which builds up your catchphrase bar. Once full, you can decide to end the conversation by making them uncomfortable, and physically yelling on of Borat’s many catchphrases into a microphone. By the way, you’re also wearing an Oculus Rift, two Playstation Moves, and Wii Vitality Sensor, so your body language, heartbeat, and head positioning have to be perfect for the NPCs to trust you during the interview.

Remember this? No? Good.

Remember this? No? Good.

Alternatively, you can use the catchphrase bar for point multipliers, which will increase your score the longer you keep the conversation going. It’s a classic risk reward system, like quoting Borat in 2014. You have one life, and villagers react as you move, so it’s pretty much a roguelike too, because the kids are into those these days. And everything has Minecraft-style graphics, because we aren’t made of money here. We’re already packing three high-end VR peripherals into the box, and one of them doesn’t even exist. The game also features a day-night cycle,which affects which NPCs you find roaming town, as well as your tiredness meter. It’s also the key to the endgame. After ten in-game years, your character will be retried, all your relevance is shot, and you’ll still hear people saying “my wife” is a dumb voice.

What’d I say? Trainwreck.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

No, that is no Donkey from Shrek, but that you for pointing out our cultural touchstones.

No, that is no Donkey from Shrek, but that you for pointing out our cultural touchstones.

The Pitch:

If it makes you feel better, pretend we're adapting the manga.

If it makes you feel better, pretend we're adapting the manga.

Shakespeare is classic. And I don’t mean that in the patronizing, pretentious, you have to read him because he’s so important. You don’t, and he isn’t. I mean it in the literal sense, he’s old, and kids don’t care. But, he’s public domain as all hell, which means a cheap game idea is ripe for the picking. I flicked through a list of his comedies, and the dude didn’t really “get” being funny, but hey, this one has donkeys and fairies in it, and that’s probably good enough. We polish this thing up, give it some grit, market it to the Mountain Dew generation, and we’re golden.

In case you don’t know, and who am I kidding, you probably don’t because who pays attention in high school english other than nerds like me, A Midsummer Night's Dream is about four dumb teens who get messed around with by some fairies in the woods. Puck, the fairy court jester, makes some of the teens fall in love with each other, and the whole thing becomes a confusing love quadrangle. After that, a guy called Bottom shows up and he gets turned into a donkey before everything gets sorted out, and Puck tells you it was all probably just a dream.

There’s a couple directions we could go with this. Obviously, kids love “it’s all a dream” endings. They’re all over video games. Hell, Mario 2 was all a dream, and that’s the greatest story in the history of video games. It has frogs, it has vegetables, what more could drama need? Second, kids love fairies. It’s all over their media. Name me one show that doesn’t have a fairy in it. They all do. They’re tiny and magical and only visible to the pure-hearted, so of course you don’t see them. Maybe stop being such a jerk and work with me here.

 

The Gameplay:

Like this, but with more boredom!

Like this, but with more boredom!

I have two ideas for this project. Both are first person titles, but only one is a shooter. That one has you in the woods, playing as one of the four dumb teens. Each has a different special ability, and is fighting to make their way back to their friends for sweet group makeouts. Hermia is a sniper, Helena uses rockets and explosives, Lysander is an all-around character with an assault rifle, and Demetrius is a close-up shotgun character. There’s no real reason for any of that, but no one’s read the play, they won’t know. They fight all kinds of twisted monsters in the forest, and at the end of each level, they fight one of the fairies as bosses. Threatening monsters like Mustardseed, and Peaceblossom. The final boss is Bottom, with his donkey head as a horrifying, gruesome visage that will scare the daylights of of children for decades to come, guaranteeing our place in gaming history.

Alternatively, my other idea is a first person VR experience, where you sit and watch a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from any seat in the audience. But, no matter which you pick, you’ll always be bored. It’s art!

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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Games make me laugh all the time. Not usually on purpose, but they do it anyway. I laugh when I die yet another stupid death in Dark Souls. I laugh when an Animal Crossing character asks me to deliver something to the guy standing next to them. I laugh when my character in Persona gets away with two-timing every girl in the city, because that's insane. My being a part of these tiny worlds lets me laugh at them in some way. When something insane and ridiculous happens in a movie, it's either a brilliant on-purpose joke, or campy nonsense that drags down the film for most viewers. But when it happens in a game, I did it, I caused the insanity, I'm the one who broke the fifth wall of seriousness and turned this whole world into some elaborate joke.

I'm the comedian, and this whole game can be mined for jokes.

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it THE PAIN?

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it THE PAIN?

Everybody's seen the clips from the Wicker Man where Nic Cage yells about being covered in bees, or the Judge Dredd clip where Dredd is the LAWWWW, and outside of the context of a full movie, those clips are hilarious. But inside the theatre, for the people who paid to sit and watch these movies, those are the things that break the flow of a film, ridiculous, awkward scenes and stilted dialog that break our brief immersion into whatever world we're trying to be a part of. Games however, no matter how hard they try, can never really be immersive as a medium. It's sort of impossible to be mechanically driven and also immersive. There are games that choose to put aside mechanic complexity in favour of serving a deeper interactive narrative, which is a totally rad prospect, but those aren't, and probably won't ever be, the majority of games. As countless smarter people like Merritt Kopas and Darius Kazemi have said, games do what they do best by letting a player explore their systems. Systems and mechanics stacked high to the ceiling, bursting from a game to be able to convey a message or a story. It's what makes games a unique medium, our ability to interact with them in a deeper way than say, books or movies.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

But systems aren't terribly immersive. When you see the way the sausage is made, it doesn't quite seem like a sausage anymore, and the less abstract your systems are, the more of the sausage factory a game is showing. Heads-up displays, like health bars and ammo counts immediately come to mind as something that tips me straight out of the immersion. Some games do a better job of presenting that info diegetically; Halo puts ammo counts on the backs of it guns as tiny LED displays, and Metroid Prime portrays your HUD as part of Samus's visor, occasionally fogging it up in intense heat, or showing a reflection of Samus's eyes if there's a flash of light. But even diegetic info doesn't feel quite right at times. The fact that I have health in the first place is sort of weird, and at the end of the day, I'm separated from the game by a screen and a controller. During a movie, I'm part of a captive audience, sitting in a silent room with mostly motionless people, all staring at one screen. There's something to be said for the immersion you can achieve when the outside world is locked away. Movies can do that, mostly because they run in controlled environments and last 3 hours maximum. Games are usually played at home or on the bus, where there's noise, movement and getting up to go to the washroom. In fact, a pause button is totally unimmersive. Movies don't stop when you need to pee, the characters' lives go on. In a game the world stops for your every whim. You're god, and being god isn't a terribly immersive experience.

The point is, you can't be ridiculous and immersive all at once. But that's an advantage that games have, and can use to tell better jokes than pretty much any other medium. The first time you die in Dark Souls II is guaranteed to be a stupid, ridiculous death. You can die in the tutorial zone, you can mess up a jump, you could fall off a cliff in the starting town. Anyway you slice it, your first death is going to be careless and stupid. Which is why the game rewards you with an achievement called "This is Dark Souls". It's a great joke. It plays off your expectation that you're going to die in this game famous for being hard, teases you for dying so stupidly, and then makes a nice little point about the game that you shouldn't really worry about death, because you're going to die a lot. Interactive jokes are sort of like a knock-knock joke in that way. One side opens the joke, the other side fills out the middle, and then the first side delivers the punchline.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

A joke can be made funnier if you let the audience in on it. There's a really great joke in Moshe Kasher's stand up special where he has a member of the audience give him people and things to mime. Of course, the audience member is comedian Brent Weinbach, and they've rehearsed the bit, but for the audience, seeing the comedian react to what they think is one of them and play off of it seems even funnier. It looks like brilliant improv, or at the very least shows that Kasher has some great reactions. There's an element of surprise there. Jokes are all about surprising the audience with something they never thought of before, and letting them fill in a bit of the joke makes their expectations more solidified. They don't expect something, they know something, and playing off of that is even funnier.

Similarly, games with interactive jokes work off of flipping around what you thought you knew. At one point in Jazzpunk, for a split second, your damage indicators and noises turn into those from GoldenEye. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of thing, but it works. It plays with a mechanic you already know and understand. I mentioned the frog joke in this month's primer, but it's really my favorite joke I can tell without spoiling the whole game. A frog asks you to help him get to other side of the road, which turns the game into Frogger. Then, when you inevitably fail, the frog is bandaged up and wounded. Every time you try again, he gets more and more injured, begging for you to stop hurting him with your awful Frogger skills.

I don't know what happens when you win, but I don't care. The initial joke was having to play Frogger all of a sudden, then I filled in the middle by playing it, and the punchline was that the frog was reacting properly to my failure. For that moment, I knew the game was frogger, which brought a whole new, different host of expectations from knowing the game Jazzpunk. And then it blew the whole thing out of the water by whiplashing me back into Jazzpunk. It's a great joke! I thought it was hilarious! I ruined a poor frog's life!

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

We tend to like things more when we can participate. In a slightly weirder way, shooting someone in Call of Duty is more visceral and powerful than watching the same scene on youtube, or even in a movie. Action gives us something. It’s one of the reason spreading jokes through memes is so popular. Having a joke template allows someone else to dictate the terms of the joke, ie. the format, concept and context, and allow the other person to fill in the punchline. It’s funnier to us because we had a hand in its creation. There’s a lot to be said for the power of interactivity, in learning, in entertainment, and even in comedy. If someone learns better when they do instead of read? Why not laugh more when they tell part of the joke, instead of just hear all of it?

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

Of course, that style of humour isn’t for everyone, and the kind of singular focus and clever writing required for a game with comedy as its primary gameplay element (read: an adventure game) pretty much automatically means any comedy-genre game you’ll ever play will be an indie game. But between Jazzpunk, Goat Simulator, and even simpler concepts like Don’t Shit Your Pants, we’re living in a comedy game golden age right now.

So let’s get cracking on that knock-knock joke simulator, huh?

 

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The Primer- Games 'n' Goofs

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The Primer- Games 'n' Goofs

While it might seem like making people laugh would go hand in hand with having fun, games haven't really taken much of a shine to jokes and comedy over the years. But, small, brave handful of games have tried to get you to guffaw while you gun down zombones or whatever. Either by being ridiculous in concept, telling jokes throughout, or having comedy be your primary method of interaction, these are just a few of the games that might be at the fore of a comedy genre in games.

Barkley’s Shut up and Jam Gaiden:

None of what you're about to read is a joke.

None of what you're about to read is a joke.

The year is 2053. You are Charles Barkley, and you are on the run from Michael Jordan’s B-Ball Removal Department for allegedly unleashing the chaos dunk, a dunk so sweet it levelled Neo New York. Also Ghost Dad and Cyborg Vince Carter are there. Larry Byrd is a priest, and an evil clone called Shadow Barkley is involved at one point. Oh, and Space Jam is canon.

Everything you just read is real.

Everything you just read is real.

It’s hard to say that Barkleys’ Shut up and Jam Gaiden is a parody game, because it’s so dang earnest. It’s also a big game, with plenty of dungeons, attacks, items, the standard RPG bag of tricks. The thing is, all of it is so ridiculous, it becomes a pretty low-key parody of both ‘90s JRPGS and ‘90s basketball. Has your character been hit by one of the game’s many status effects, like diabetes or glaucoma? Try some tobacco, it cures whatever ails ya. One of you characters went down in battle? Try steroids. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and draws a lot of its comedy chops from early South Park, among other things, but it’s one of the earlier examples of an indie game poking fun at mainstream game genre tropes. Mostly by being ridiculous rather than actually saying anything of substance, but it worked at the time.

I imagine releasing a game with “aspergers” as a status ailment equivalent to confusion wouldn’t fly these days, but in 2008, before indie gaming broke out in a huge way, before games stopped taking themselves so damn seriously all the time, it was something of a revelation. Personally, I hadn’t played an RPG that wasn’t trying to be Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls up to that point, and all the grimdark self-righteousness  that entailed. The upcoming sequel The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 - Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie - Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, or Barkley 2 looks to carry that goofy torch into a new generation of indie games, one that includes Cyberdwarf body pillows as kickstarter rewards.

No one said comedy couldn't be tsundere.

But this is as real as it gets.

But this is as real as it gets.

Maniac Mansion:

Razor really doesn't seem impressed with this shadow puppet bullshit. She's seen real terror. She's seen a dead hamster.

Razor really doesn't seem impressed with this shadow puppet bullshit. She's seen real terror. She's seen a dead hamster.

There’s a moment in Maniac Mansion that everyone knows about. It’s one of the few things that escaped the censorship of the NES version of the game, and it’s become so iconic, so emblematic of what Maniac Mansion did best, that it’s pretty much come to define the game itself. If you get your hands on Ed’s pet hamster, and you’re playing as either Syd or Razor, you can put that hamster in the microwave, then present it to Ed himself, the scene will cut away to the tombstone of the character who showed it to him.

NSFW: REAL GORE

NSFW: REAL GORE

In retrospect, it’s a pretty simple, straightforward bit. It’s a little obscure, considering you need one of two character to do it, and you need to assume the game will let you actually microwave a hamster, but that’s part of the joke. It’s ridiculous that the game would let you do that in the first place, and even crazier (at least for the time) that it would react. Sure, it’s a binary reaction, in that you either did microwave the hamster and got the joke, or you didn’t and you don’t. But, it’s a really early example of using the player’s interaction with the game world as a conduit for joke-telling. If the player is willing to set up the joke by doing something crazy, the game will respond in an equally surprising way. If the game had told you that you had to microwave a hamster and then killed you, it wouldn’t really be a joke. In fact, it would just be the game killing you for following orders. By giving you a little bit of freedom to set up a joke that was programmed in, the joke becomes way funnier. You’re an active participant in the joke-telling process, because you made the choice to microwave the hamster.

They key was actually in the hamster, and now we're screwed. Thanks, Syd.

They key was actually in the hamster, and now we're screwed. Thanks, Syd.

Comedy games aren’t quite a genre right now, but whenever they really get going, Maniac Mansion is definitely the origin point for whatever they become. Interactive joke-telling got its start with early LucasArts adventure games, in Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, and moving forward into Grim Fandango and Sam and Max. They’re comedy touchstones, a part of funnygame history. Luckily, they’re a lot less offensive than actual comedy history, which is mostly just a lot of racist jokes.

    

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard:

Matt_Hazard-TimeLine.jpg

Eat Lead is not a bad idea for a video game. Will Arnett plays a Duke-Nukem-alike named Matt Hazard who starred in video games for years before running his name through the mud with a series of casual, kid-focused titles. Now, he’s trying to start a gritty reboot for himself, with an M-rated third person shooter on modern consoles. It all devolves into self-aware jokes about game design tropes and how the CEO of the fictional game’s publisher (played by Neil Patrick Harris) is running a Duck Amuck-style campaign to edit Hazard out of his own game with the help of QA, your standard video game disembodied lady voice.

Unfortunately, since it's a "satire" of gritty cover-based third person shooters, it just sort of looks like a gritty, cover-based third person shooter.

Unfortunately, since it's a "satire" of gritty cover-based third person shooters, it just sort of looks like a gritty, cover-based third person shooter.

The problem with Matt Hazard is the same problem with 99% of things that call themselves satire. It’s not satire if you are literally doing the thing you are making fun of. If it knows its a bog-standard third person shooter, and makes fun of itself for being so, why is it still being that thing that it is? The game makes fun of generic enemies that look like they were copy-and-pasted from other shooters, by using generic enemies they claim were copy-and-pasted from other fictional games. It doesn’t really work.

The cowboy physics were very advanced for their time.

The cowboy physics were very advanced for their time.

But, there’s something to be said for trying to be a post-modern, self-aware parody game. The first trailer for Eat Lead was a neat, VH1’s Behind the Music-style interview with Matt Hazard about his fall from grace and his upcoming projects. The idea that game characters have lives and exist in a weird flux when they aren’t in the game itself has been explored since (see Wreck it Ralph and Charles Yu’s Hero Absorbs Major Damage for some good examples), but the thoroughness of the parody is admirable. There are really solid joke concepts in Eat Lead, but it isn’t satire, which is what would have made them work.

Oh, and it’s also a pretty boring third person shooter, but that’s beside the point right now.

 

Jazzpunk:

yayyyyyy

yayyyyyy

Jazzpunk is probably the first modern comedy game. It’s genre is comedy. Sure, it’s a first-person adventure spy game, but, like LucasArts’ classic adventure games, your primary gameplay mechanic is taking an item from one place and bringing it to another. The thing that made adventure games popular (and also what ended up killing them in the late ‘90s) was that they were the only place you could go for gorgeous animation and top-notch writing. Other games had to prioritize complex gameplay and physics in the limited space available to them at the time, but adventure games, with their simplistic gameplay and slow-moving action, could have far higher production values that pretty much any other game genre on the market.

Dial 4 for McDonalds. 5 is the White House, but it's just a White Castle. 6 is the Mayor of Townsville.

Dial 4 for McDonalds. 5 is the White House, but it's just a White Castle. 6 is the Mayor of Townsville.

Eventually, other games managed to get up to snuff in terms of the production values department, not necessarily the quality. Final Fantasy VIII had full motion, CG cutscenes. Metal Gear Solid had voice acting and an interesting, cohesive story. All LucasArts had in comparison was the ability to tell clever jokes and run on high-end computers. They did those things first, but consoles were bigger, and adventure game design could never really be as popular as say, an action game.

But Jazzpunk is a glorious return to that traditional adventure game comedy style, with a decidedly post-modern look. Really, all you’re ever trying to do is move one object from one place to another, but what’s pushing your forward through the game isn’t the gameplay, but the nonstop, torrential stream of jokes. Everyone is shaped like those signs you see on washroom doors sometimes, which is ridiculous enough, but then in the first level, people dressed like spies are poking out from the branches of trees, then disappearing once you look. Across the street there’s a frog. Talking to him starts a game of Frogger, which is amusing in its own right, but failing causes the frog to reappear, bandaged. Continuous failure ends with the frog covered in bruises and casts, begging you not to try and help him anymore. Of course, you totally, totally can.

With pleasure, good sir!

With pleasure, good sir!

In a way, it reminds of the Family Guy-style cutaway joke. It even sounds like something that would happen on the show. A frog starts crossing the road, and it gets run over. Ha ha, bet you never thought of that before. But, by giving the player agency in telling the joke, it goes from hackneyed concept, to brilliant execution. It’s funnier that my failure at this dumb, unfun game leads to permanent injuries to the frog. It’s funny that I can keep hurting him to get different reactions. It’s funny that I did it so many times that eventually the game forgot to go into a top-down view for the minigame, and I ended up playing a few games of behind-the-back Frogger

Jazzpunk’s primary gameplay element, that is to say, the thing that drives you along the critical path that leads to the end of the game, is wanting to hear, see, or play the next joke. In a lot of ways, it’s the heir to the LucasArts throne. Where those games died because every other game had their production values and more, this game thrives, because in the indie space, that doesn’t really matter. Jazzpunk over specializes in delivering a hilarious, interactive joke-telling experience, and no other game can promise the same.

Well, maybe Goat Simulator.

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

The last time I got fundamentally lost in a video game, like, I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going-I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-circled-this-one-tree-five-times-already lost, was in Shadow of the Colossus. I was following the light beam from my magical sword to the next Colossus when I hit a wall. More literally, it was the side of a mountain. Then, I turned to try and find a path around the mountain, got distracted by a lizard scampering across a plain, and by the time I caught the lizard, I had no goddamn clue where I was.

The mountain wasn’t rendering anymore, so there went my landmark. SOTC has a map, but I wouldn’t call it detailed, so using that was out the window. My mad dash for sweet lizard meat found me standing on the edge of the world, looking over at some seagulls flying over the ocean. I didn’t catch the lizard, and for a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to find a Colossus out there. The edge of the world is a lonely place, after all. Of course, I quickly remembered I could pull out my magical sword again and follow its light back to the mountain, but for a brief, shining moment, I was totally lost. And no matter how big open worlds get, it’s never happened since.

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

I don’t actually play a ton of open world games. I often find the lack of direction frustrating, and I’m more likely to finish something that gives me motivation on a regular basis, not just whenever I happen to be in the right mood to push myself along the critical path. That’s mostly just a symptom of the kinds of games that use open world design though. Traditionally, open world design meets sandbox-style gameplay and they go hand-in-hand forever into the night, but that’s not necessarily a given. You can have a sandbox without an open world, just take a look at Animal Crossing or SimCity’s sandbox mode, and you can have an open world without a sandbox, like in Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls.  The latter is uncommon, the former barely exists, and the combination of the two is pretty much every game in existence right now. Grand Theft Auto is the progenitor of the open world sandbox genre, sure, but Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and all manner of dog-and-non-dog-related games occupy that same ever growing category.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

But clever open-world design can actually add a lot to more traditional, directed genres. Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds applied the open world concept to the entrenched and unchanging Zelda formula to pretty interesting results. By giving players access to every tool in Link’s arsenal from the beginning of the game, the traditional dungeon design had to be rethought and refocused on the player’s potentially wider tool belt. Additionally, being able to leave a tricky dungeon to go try another was a welcome change from having to bash my head against the impenetrable wall known as “Zelda logic”. Dark Souls takes a step further, giving players a huge open world and absolutely no tools with which to work off of, but works in that same action-RPG context.

Dark Souls as the glowing exception to the rule though, these worlds tend to be sterile. Link Between Worlds uses the same overworld map from Link to the Past, a 23 year old game. Wind Waker, another Zelda game with a relatively open world, is content to situate its Great Sea on a grid, only letting each square contain one island. The recent Tomb Raider reboot lets you travel around an open world, but then railroads you down action set-pieces that block off exploration. Maybe you’ll go back to an earlier area later to pick up a few trinkets and collectibles. You probably won’t though.

You definitely won’t get lost.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls are, in some small sense, bastions of an older kind of game design. Of building a huge world and refusing give players direction in exploring it. SOTC leads you to the next colossus fight with its magic glowing sword, but you’re sure to miss the helpful stat-boosting lizards and birds along the way. Of course, they aren’t necessary, and most people’s major complaint about SOTC is the lack of things to do in its huge world. It’s a fair one too, considering that the enormous map is entirely empty outside of the next colossus you have to fight. But that’s what makes the world so appealing to me. It’s not a terribly well designed world in the gameplay sense, there’s nothing really funnelling you towards the colossi or any interesting challenges outside of them, and the arenas where you fight the colossi are pretty barren for the most part. But aesthetically and atmospherically, it’s second pretty much only to Dark Souls in setting a mood for a living, breathing world. Though, in SOTC’s case, it’s much more of a dead, barren world.

Play undead. Good boy,

Play undead. Good boy,

Huge expanses of nothing, ruins that serve no purpose, every little bit of SOTC’s map tells a little story about the world, or is at the very least fascinating to look at. That doesn’t make it a super fun game for everyone by any means, but the world enamours me. It makes me want to get lost. Dark Souls’ Lordran hits me in a similar way. It’s much tighter and livelier than SOTC’s barren wasteland, but it has the same sort of lore-revealing efficiency in its world design, with the added bonus of constantly teaching you how to play while forcing you into battle. Fighting the dogs in the tight corridors of the thieves’ down beneath the Undead Burg teaches you about how easy it is to stab them as they leap at you, which is a skill you’ll find comes in very handy during the Capra Demon boss fight, where two attack dogs stunlock you before the demon slams his axe down on your head.

To go back to Zelda for a second, the worlds remind me a lot of Zelda 1. Of course, Zelda 1 suffers from a lot of the same problems that SOTC and Dark Souls do. The open world often lacks direction, you’ll sometimes find yourself with a lack of things to do, and you cane stumble into areas far beyond what you can handle. But they’re also scary, lonely worlds at times, without much in the way of a home base or safe zone. Mind you, SOTC doesn’t have any enemies anywhere, but the world is enormous and labyrinthine for non-gameplay reasons. It feels threatening in a way that a world designed around constant combat just can’t. It feels dead, and that’s not “right”. You never feel at home. Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls may be the centre of the world, but it’s definitely not safe, and Zelda 1 starts on a non-descript square at the bottom of the map with no location-significance whatsoever.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

There’s a sort of focus to building a world like that. An open world that isn’t meant to lead you down one path or let you do anything you want. Go anywhere, but do only a few things. It doesn’t sound like a very good selling point, and that’s probably why we don’t see too many games like that, but in my experience, it lets the world speak for itself, with atmosphere and character all its own.It makes for something very different from having the world be defined by dozens of minigames and pointless encounters created to pad the experience.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

Big worlds are so often full of junk that isn’t, well, interesting. I enjoy Saint’s Row IV, but its rows of cloned skyscrapers are punctuated with, for the most part, variations on minigames I got bored of halfway through my first time playing them. And the bigger a world is, the less likely it is to have constant unique elements. Everything has to serve some player purpose, and the purpose is usually to keep them engaged and entertained from a gameplay perspective. At least SOTC’s emptiness serves the purpose of being negative space for the colossus fights, that’s something unique.

I don’t want to get lost in Liberty City, I don’t want to get lost in Skyrim. In fact, there’s no way I can get lost in them. There’s something around every corner, every nook and cranny has purpose. That outcropping with the seagulls doesn’t really serve a purpose, and there’s something realer about that. Or at the very least, something a little more magical.

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

In Dark Souls 1, I never really felt safe in the Firelink Shrine.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

From the moment I was dropped unceremoniously next to the bonfire by a massive crow, Firelink Shrine felt like a place I was in not because it was in the centre of the world, but because it was the only spot that was free of enemies within a 30 second walk in any direction. Firelink Shrine scared me. It was dark, there was weird snoring coming from the pool in its centre, and that weird cleric off to the side was always cackling evilly. But, it conveniently connected three totally different areas that required totally different skill levels to conquer. Of course, that meant me, a first-time player, had a ⅔ chance of walking into an army of giant skeletons, or falling into an abyss full of untouchable ghosts. Firelink wasn’t a base of operation, or a home, or even a hub world. It was the scary gate to an open world full of horrors that would chew your face off and have your hands for dessert.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, tries to make me feel as safe as possible at any given moment. Every bonfire is just a loading screen’s worth of fast travel away from beautiful, seaside Majula, a magical town without an enemy in sight. Majula is not only home to every NPC you “save” over the course of the game, but also a handy-dandy covenant manager, level-up mistress, and merchants and blacksmiths galore. It’s bright and gorgeous, with probably the nicest fictional sunset I’ve ever seen outside of an anime ending credits sequence. Plus, like Firelink before it, Majula also connects to at least two other locations right off the bat, and more as you explore. Of course, unlike Firelink, those two areas are actually both fairly manageable your first time through. Even though speedrunners and high-level DS1 players found more efficient paths, the Undead Burg was usually your first stop after Firelink. Majula on the other hand hooks you up with the Forest of Fallen Giants, a fairly simple beginners area, and Heide’s Tower of Flame, which is patrolled by seven-foot-tall Knights who wield greatswords twice their size and make you turn around screaming “nope” all the way back to the bonfire.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

But Heide’s is manageable for a player who’s quick enough on their feet to dance around the lumbering knights. As a bonus, it's also home to some items that could make the early game much friendlier for a first-time player. Emphasizing that, both Heide’s and the easier forest loop around to the same end location after a while, merely approaching it from different ends.

But the way from Majula to Heide’s doesn’t feel terribly organic. The path is through a tunnel that goes through some sewers before spilling out to a beautiful ruin floating in the ocean. You can’t see Majula past the high cliffs, and you definitely can’t see the underground catacombs that Heide’s will lead you to by the end. It’s a distinct shift from DS1, which delighted in showing you what was coming, only to pull the rug out from underneath just before you got there. You see the foot of the Undead Burg’s drake long before you see the drake itself, and the first bell is visible from the moment you walk into the city. The world doesn’t only let you go anywhere, but it’s willing to show you everything, almost as if to say “you see that belltower? It’s not just scenery, you can climb it.”

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

That’s part of what made DS1’s open world so enticing. Everything was not only interconnected, but also visible from anywhere else. Everything fit together and became accessible in logical ways. The Valley of Drakes opens up to the Darkroot Garden, which leads to a backdoor into the Undead Parish, giving a smart player a quick shortcut up to the first bell. Learning the world and its labyrinthine connections was as much of a strategy as learning how to fight.

But I still haven’t gotten that feeling from DS2 yet. Sure, it took a few months and constant speedrunning to find out how to best use DS1’s dense, tightly wound world to avoid challenges and run through the world without a care, but the evidence was there from the beginning. Everything up until Anor Londo was deeply and intricately connected in a way that made sense- in a way that made Lordran feel like a real world. DS2’s Drangleic feels more like Peach’s Castle from Mario 64 than anything else.

Basically Dark Souls.

Basically Dark Souls.

It’s classic hub and spokes design. Majula branches into three or four areas as the game goes on, each in turn then branches out again. Some of these branches intersect, but nothing ever winds back into Majula. Peach’s Castle opened up into dozens of areas, including new floors of the castle when it came time to open up a few more levels. Of course, Drangleic is a little bit more open and intricate than that, but it’s the same basic design philosophy. Lordran was tightly wound to the point where some levels suffered from having to fit back together into a greater whole, but it led to a dense, cohesive world. Each of Drangleic’s areas are vast in scope and feel like fantastically designed individual challenges, but never quite come together as a single unit. I know that Majula and Heide’s are both by the sea, but I honestly couldn’t place them on a map for you.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

The problem is only exacerbated by fast travel, which DS2 gives you from the word go. You’ll need it, because areas are much bigger and getting between them would be a pain without it, but I get the sense that the chicken came before the egg here. DS1 gave you fast travel as a reward for finishing half the main game and making it to Anor Londo, the bottleneck-y, hyper-linear, vipers nest of an endgame. Fast travel was meant to be freeing and empowering, giving you control over this world that you’d been struggling to navigate for the last thirty hours. The designers may have reacted so positively to it, they gave it to you at the beginning this time, which made them able to make much more compartmentalized levels. It all smacks a little bit of Demon’s Souls, the predecessor to the Dark Souls series, but since I haven’t played a lot of Demon’s I can’t really speak to that.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

I’m not sure if that really matters in terms of designing an open world though. It’s nice that DS1 is a tightly wound coil of a world, endlessly circling back into itself again and again, but DS2 features such incredibly different areas, all with fantastic, individual designs. At the end of the Heide’s/Forest loop, you’ll find an area called the Lost Bastille, which can be approached from whichever entrance you happen to find first. It’s a beautifully designed level that is challenging both forwards and back, and has a sort of high road/low road balance that makes it super fascinating to explore over and over. But, you get there through what basically amounts to warping. The Lost Bastille doesn’t really feel like it’s part of the same world as Heide’s and Majula, but if it had to open to those, I can’t imagine it would have the same scope or style. It looks nothing like the rest of Dragnleic, which is great and refreshing, but stops it from feeling like it’s as real a world as Lordran.

Then again, DS1 started extremely open before completely bottlenecking you towards the middle chunk of the game, and DS2 shows no signs of slowing down the rate it gives me new areas to explore. A big part of what made DS1 so open was also the master key, which opened almost every door in the game, and was available on the character creation screen. There’s no item like that anywhere in DS2, as if to say off the bat that you aren’t going to get to dictate your movements through the world as easily this time around. It leads to DS2 being a much more directed game, with more set pieces and planned ambushes. It’s a great game, but I’m not sure if it really uses the open world concept quite as effectively.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

It’s interesting, however, to see DS2 take a much more classic stance on open world design, drawing directly from Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of 3D sandbox games. The world is huge, but it is it really a world? Or just a collection of levels hidden behind paintings?

Actually, DS1 had a world hidden in a painting as well, so it tried that too. Nevermind, Dark Souls 2 sucks, everyone go home and play Mario.


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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

Linearity is a bad word.

When it comes to games, linearity is one of those dreaded concepts no one dares say aloud, for fear of angering the internet. It's not the worst concept though. That terrible title probably belongs to "free-to-play", or maybe "full reactive eyes entertainment”. In fact, if you just go back a few years, linearity wasn't the hot buzzword everyone loved to hate, it wasn't even talked about. Certain games were set aside as being open world games, because linearity was the standard. Now, the script's been flipped. The last major AAA release I can think of that didn't feature an open world was Call of Duty: Ghosts, and its single-player campaign is by no means the "point" of that game.

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Meanwhile, every multi-million dollar series worth its salt features an open world, each one claiming to be bigger, open-er, and world-ier than the last. Assassin's Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Knight, and of course Grand Theft Auto V lead the charge, coming from a relatively long line of open world predecessors, but even brand new IPs, like Watch Dogs and Sunset Overdrive are launching as big, open world games. Not that we're seeing much in the way of new IPs these days. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is taking the Metal Gear series into an open world for the first time, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot combined its spectacular Uncharted impression with its best shot at placing Lara in an open world that didn't really matter.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Open worlds are basically the MSG of game mechanics. You just add a little, and it makes everything seem to taste better. Or, the way publishers see it, adding an open world is a guarantee that your game will sell better than if it didn't. Because open worlds sell, you see.

And why wouldn't they? Video games are, at their core, about interacting with a world and having agency over it. A big open world that doesn't lead your anywhere by the nose is pretty close to the ultimate expression of that concept. Some people see video games' endpoint as the holodeck from Star Trek, a fully immersive, totally realistic simulation of whatever you want to experience. They aren't terribly far off, at least if the progression of open world games is anything to work off of. Add a health bar and a wanted meter, and Picard is basically playing Grand Theft Auto: XXVII.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

But there's another school of thought here, the idea that games are a focused exploration of a specific set of concepts and mechanics, that they shouldn't try to be everything, because you'll never perfect that. Games didn't start as trying to replicate the holodeck experience. At first they were trying to replicate ping-pong, to be fair, but then we got into focused looks at more fantastical mechanics. Mario let you jump twice your own height, and asked you to figure out how to best control that. Mega Man put you through a gauntlet of mazes and traps, then asked you to learn from the environment and figure out how to best use the tools you'd acquired from bosses. Even Adventure wasn't trying to simulate something so much as it was trying to help you learn that dragons could look like ducks too.

BARF

BARF

But, in order to properly explore those mechanics, those games had to be linear. Directed. Focused. It wasn't a technical limitation either, considering that River City Ransom came out in 1989. To be fair, RCR was a pretty small, simple take on the open world concept, but it does show that the idea not only existed, but was possible, even in the early days of game design. But, RCR was big and spread thin. There wasn't a ton of complexity to it, most of the fun was had in seeing how the open world and mechanics could be abused. It introduced the world, or at least the few people who had played it at the time, to emergent gameplay, which would go on to become one of open world design's strongest selling points.

The point is, games were linear for a long time for a reason, and it wasn't technology. A linear, heavily directed experience is the best way to show players how to best take advantage of deeper mechanics, the easiest way to adjust the difficulty curve, and the easiest way to tell a story. Look at Ocarina of Time's Shadow Link battle. Link enters an empty room with an island in the middle. You walk over to the island, nothing's there, but you see a door on the other side of the room. You check out the door and it's locked, so you turn back the way you came and suddenly Shadow Link is waiting on the island. It's a simple experience, but distinctly affecting, and one of the most memorable parts of that game. Obviously it's just a tiny moment in one room, but it works as a microcosm of Ocarina of Time's design philosophy as a whole:

Make the player think they have agency.

Nothing to see here...

Nothing to see here...

The best linear design is all about illusion- tricking the player into assuming they have choices over how events transpire. In the locked room, Link can go anywhere, but reaching the other door will trigger the encounter. So the developers put the island in the middle of the room, giving the player an extra stop on their journey, a point of interest that delays the inevitable. You have a choice of stopping at the island, but you have to go to the locked door, no choices there. Of course, you don't really choose to go to the island either, since it was put there specifically so you'd notice it and go there first. It's a magic trick of game design, perfect direction that wouldn't be possible in a nonlinear experience. Ocarina of Time does it the whole way through. Hyrule Field opens up to four or five areas, but you can only get so far into each before having to turn around due to missing equipment. You can choose to hit up the Zora river before Death Mountain, you just won't get very far. In the end, Death Mountain has to come first.

It's a great way to tell a story, and a great way to prey on player expectations and surprise them. Of course, open world mechanics do worm themselves in everywhere, because more choice is actually a pretty good selling point. If games really are power fantasies, then choice is what makes us feel powerful. The more choices, the more power, and the more those choices affect the world  the better they become.

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Of course, when you get to a situation like Telltale's The Walking Dead games, which feature choices with real consequences to them, most of the power is stripped away. Power doesn't react well to real consequences, it just wants immediate gratification. If I choose to ramp this car over a bridge, I want to see a sweet jump and maybe an explosion at the end, not get a ticket and file paperwork for the damages I caused.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Which is why everything is open world now. Power fantasies are not only in right now, they've defined games for a very long time. It may suck for some, but it is true. All those big, AAA open world titles I mentioned up top are all power fantasies. The bigger a world is, the more thinly spread it is as well. Choices don't really have consequences in an open world because they can't. The whole world can't shift so easily, that would require a massive amount of assets that most developers just don't have. It's why Mass Effect's and Infamous's moral choice choice systems are all smoke, mirrors and fluff, and why Telltale's the Walking Dead is such a small, linear experience. An open world is better suited to power fantasy, because it inspires choice without consequence, while a linear experience is better used when trying to tell a cohesive story.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

It's why linear shouldn't be a bad word either. Linearity lets you focus on mechanics and refine them to perfection, lets you get players caught up in a focused narrative, lets you construct a difficulty curve that makes sense. Opening up the world and letting the player mess around as they choose throws those things out of balance. Which isn't to say open worlds are bad. They aren't just mindless power fantasies, they can only be huge worlds to explore, or have rich histories to discover, like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus, or Wind Waker.

So, no, linearity isn't a bad word. Neither is open world. Instead of thinking of them as positive and negative concepts, maybe we should start thinking of the two like we do writing perspectives. A novel can be written in first person or third person, with an omniscient narrator, or an unreliable one. They're different tools, with different uses, and each one is best suited to a different kind of job.

Except for the free to play tool, that tool broke years ago, no way we're going to fix it now.

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....


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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

The other day, Warner Brothers announced that the next Batman game, Arkham Knight, was not going to be handled internally, like the tepidly received Arkham Origins, but instead returned the reins to the developers that made the series famous, Rocksteady.

Rocksteady, now the prodigal son of the Batman: Arkham Noun games, worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was hailed as the best licensed game ever, and the the inventor of the coolest new genre: Batman Simulator. Their follow up, Batman: Arkham City was similarly well-received, though some fans found the new open world mechanics to miss the point of the fantastically well-directed, almost metroidvania style approach that Asylum took.

Origins, of course, upped the ante with a bigger world, but it was also a buggy mess, and now that there's a proper heir to the throne, people are beginning to toss out the now-evident pretender. So, what do Rocksteady and WB choose to highlight with their announcement? What does the prodigal son's return bring to the fans?

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Well, a pretty slickly produced CG-trailer, which had to cost at least a million dollars, two and a half million, tops. They aren't messing around with this, Batman is their money maker. Which means they also have their pre-order DLC lined up in a row. "Buy early and you can play as Harley Quinn," they yell, like some sort of demented carny barker trying to fleece you out of your hard-earned dimes. "You've gotta pay extra if you buy the game used!"

Other than the fact that the game's budget is likely pretty high, when you factor in that trailer as indicative of their marketing budget, and the cost of the Batman license (if WB has to pay it at all). The game is expensive, is what I'm saying, to the point where they have to sell you a feature-missing version of the game if you buy it used. The only other thing we know about the game is that it will feature the "entirety of Gotham City."

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Expanding the world is a logical choice, all things considered. Arkham Asylum featured a small island to explore, which was ramped up to a slice of walled-off Gotham in Arkham City, and now, finally, we get the full Batman experience, swinging across the rooftops of Gotham and driving down the streets in the Batmobile. The problem is that Arkham City was already sort of empty and boring at times, what happens if we make it even bigger?

You could almost think of "bigger is better" as the adage that drives AAA gaming these days. Assassin's Creed started with separate levels, then moved to an open world, each one having to be exponentially larger than the last in order to justify its existence. At a preview event, I played Assassin's Creed IV on a ludicrously sized television, and the map was still so huge it boggled my mind. Of course, it was mostly water, but that's still size. When you have an open world, the easiest way to tell consumers that your sequel is going to be better is to tell them the world is going to be bigger, and that's exactly what WB and Rocksteady are doing.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Far be it from me to throw them any shade on this though. I loved both of Rocksteady's Batman games, and even though I preferred Asylum, City's open world was a pretty cool idea to toss in. And, of course, "bigger" is what moves copies. I will throw shade on ALREADY having pre-order DLC, but that's an entirely different article. But, the bigger-is-better mentality behind Arkham Knight is not only worrying, but indicative of a larger problem in modern, AAA game making.

Every game features an open world these days, mostly because Grand Theft Auto sells well. Assassin's Creed went open world, Tomb Raider went open world, Saint's Row's entire existence is proof that "crime focused open world game" is a genre distinction now that GTA is the most popular thing going. In fact, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grand Theft Auto sells well, thus more games feature open worlds, thus more open world games sell well, which makes publishers think that open world means good sales, thus more sequels with open worlds are developed and so on and so forth until the heat death of the universe.

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

Of course, that's not only true of open worlds, but when you make a game in the other most popular game genre going right now, first person shooters, you can't really rely on having "more guns" as your big sequel sales hook. A bigger world is a tangible thing people always want, without necessarily worrying about the consequences. If open worlds are your jam, then of course you want a bigger one. More places to explore, more ways to get around, more NPCs to brutalize in new, unexpected ways, it's pretty much everything you want from an open world sequel.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

The problem is that most of the time, they just end up diluting the formula. If the core gameplay, the moment-to-moment things you're doing in a game is like chocolate syrup, you want a glass of chocolate milk. There needs to be some milk in there, so you aren't just pouring syrup into your mouth. Think of the milk as the world, the details that embellish a game. The game does need to be a little deeper than just a core idea, after all. But when you start adding too much milk, you start to lose the flavour. You can barely taste the chocolate syrup anymore, and all you really have is vaguely brown milk. Then you add even more milk and the cup overflows and you've just made a whole mess of the kitchen. Clean this up, right now.

I may have lost the thread at the end there, but the idea is, the bigger your world gets, the less likely it is to properly highlight the core gameplay of the world, and the more likely it is to feel bland and empty. When there’s so much negative space between missions and side quests, you find yourself just running between things, doing a whole lot of nothing for minutes at a time. The Batman games have a pretty neat grappling and gliding mechanic, but even that gets old. Saint’s Row IV let me leap over buildings, run faster than any car, and BASE jump to my targets from the top of the world, and I still got bored of getting from point A to point B. I suppose that it makes me appreciate it more when I’m actually playing the game, but that’s like saying it would be harder if you chopped off my thumbs, it’s illogical. The best excuse for an open world, in my mind, is atmosphere. I love Shadow of the Colossus’ big empty world because it’s so eerie and beautifully designed, not because I have to spend 10 minutes running from the central temple to the Colossus each time I’m itching for a fight. But, the bigger your world is, the less time and money you have for details. Saint’s Row IVs city is huge, but it’s also sterile. The same billboards show up again and again, building interiors, for the ones that even have such a thing, are bland and boring. Most of the skyscrapers and houses are the same stock model with slight alterations. You don’t notice it, because you don’t really slow down to look at the world at all, but take a look. It’s not because the developers are lazy, it’s just a symptom of having such a huge world to develop. They can’t make a million unique houses, they don’t have that kind of time or money. No one does.

It's a big city...

It's a big city...

...and a bigger world.

...and a bigger world.

Well, Rockstar does, considering GTA V took five years to make and cost more than $150 million after you deduct advertising costs from the budget. But they’re the glorious exception. They can have huge detailed worlds because they have both the time and the money that no one else could even dream of. Look at Shenmue. That game cost $47 million in 1999, making it the most expensive game ever developed at the time, and ninth on Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive games ever developed. Shenmue’s open world was tiny, but incredibly detailed, with little things like drawers you could open, and other tiny, almost unnoticeable background features. Of course, GTA III came out just a short while later and blew it out of the water with it’s comparatively massive world. It was cheaper, bigger, wasn’t delayed nearly as many times as Shenmue, and far more successful. Bigger is better. Detail is the enemy of budgets and release schedules.

But bigger isn’t better, is it? The world is big but empty and lifeless. The world takes hours to trek across, but those are hours you aren’t actually playing the game. The world is bigger than ever before, but every building looks the same, and the NPCs mull about pointlessly like they always have. A bigger world isn’t a bad idea per se, but if it’s your priority over actually making the gameplay more interesting, or the existing world more detailed and interesting to explore, you’re just feeding the problem. There’s no innovation in getting bigger, you’re just diluting the chocolate milk. And eventually, it’ll get to be so bland that no one’s going to want to drink it.


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The Primer- Open Worlds

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The Primer- Open Worlds

This month, we're all about open worlds, so we decided to take a look back at some games that tried to do something new and interesting with the open world concept at the time they came out. Assuming you've already played Grand Theft Auto and its ilk, you're probably pretty well acquainted with the standard concept of an open world sandbox, so how about something a little more offbeat?

Super Metroid:

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So, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game in the way we traditionally think of one. It doesn't have a wide open sandbox, the limits of the world are pretty clearly set out, and there's a very clear linear path you're meant to follow to the end of the game. But, the thing about Super Metroid is that it was one of the earliest games to successfully implement an open world structure into a traditional action game framework.

Even from the beginning, Super Metroid never tells you where you need to go. Hints are dropped frequently, and places too far along the critical path are locked until you find a specific power up that will let you through the gates, but you're never given specific directions. From the moment the game gives you free reign over the environment (pretty much when you enter Brinstar), the linearity takes a backseat to teaching you how to play with carefully constructed, subtle challenges, as well as always giving you enough rope to hang yourself with. You'll never get stuck, but you'll always know you're just tantalizingly out of range of one more secret.

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Super Metroid's constantly expanding map told you where you were and where you'd been, but when you zoomed it out, you could start seeing where secret passages might be hidden, items might be tucked away, and shortcuts might be explored. You would start to find hooks, places you could explore off of the directed path that led towards Mother Brain and the end of the game, and find non-essential power ups and items there. The X-Ray beam and Spring Ball come to mind, but so do dozens of missile expansions and energy tanks.

So no, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game, but if you want to see a masterclass in how to make a game more interesting by properly implementing open world design, it's one of the first, and still easily the best.

Dark Souls:

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Dark Souls takes what Super Metroid started, and pumps it full of open world steroids. After the tutorial area, you can start poking around the Firelink Shrine and end up in the nearby graveyard, which is meant to cream any player not already a decent chunk of their way into the game.  If you're quick on your feet and figure out the lay of the land though, you can run by tricky challenges and use the doors between areas to get around anything in your way.

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But, unlike Super Metroid, the doors aren't gated according to what gear you've found. It's hard to get around Super Metroid's Marida until you've found the Gravity Suit, which will let you move freely in water. In Dark Souls, however, there's nothing stopping you from running right through late game areas at level one. The only real gate is Sen's Fortress, which doesn't open up until you ring the two bells, which you can of course ring in any order you like.

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Dark Souls is so open to varying playstyles that you can go through the entire game with nothing but a shield. Dark Souls emphasis on atmosphere and careful, measured combat makes that sort of big open world fun rather than frustrating. It's always easy to tell when you're biting off more than you can chew, and retreating isn't terribly hard. Dying only costs you souls, your global currency, and those can be recovered from a bloodstain left when you die. The real measure of your progress, your personal experience as a player, goes nowhere. You're encouraged to fail and try again, and maybe take one of the dozens of different paths to your goal, or even just take up a new goal entirely.  It's a fantastic expression of what the open world concept can do when applied to a genre that isn't "generic third person action game".

Shenmue:

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Shenmue came out in North America on November 8th, 2000, just a month before Grand Theft Auto III set the world's love for open-world sandboxes aflame. Shenmue came out for the commercially unsuccessful Dreamcast, while Grand Theft Auto III was a fairly early game for the PS2, which I don't know if you've heard of, but it was the most successful console in history. Shenmue was so expensive to make that it's often cited as one of the reasons Sega got out of the hardware game, while Grand Theft Auto III was so successful they can still afford to blow a quarter of a billion dollars on the latest entry in the series, GTA V.

What I'm saying is that no one really remembers Shenmue, which is a shame, because it is in almost every way the anti-GTA sandbox game. Instead of a huge city to explore, protagonist Ryo Hazuki explores a comparatively tiny town, with just a few locals hanging around. But, instead of Liberty City's sterile, interior-less environment, Shenmue took incredible care in detailing every single aspect of the world. You could open up cupboards and closets, gardens were fully featured, right down to that bamboo thing that fills up with water and then makes a *donk* noise when it falls down to empty out.  You could even swap out the randomly generated weather effects for the historical weather records of that part of Japan in 1986, when the game is set.

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You can eat off of GTA III. There's very little detail to its world, to the point where it's almost not even a world at all. It's a playground, where you can jack cars and shoot blocky polygons with awful controls. Of course, it has the upper hand on Shenmue is about a dozen other ways, but imagine a world where Shenmue became the open world game every developer wanted to copy instead of GTA. All martial arts, no guns, driving forklifts all day through a hyper-detailed, if sort of tiny, town.

We'd live in a very different kind of open world.

Far Cry 2:

The famous story about Far Cry 2 goes that while testing the in-game fire effects, they blew up an explosive barrel, which set fire to the surrounding grass. Then the nearby hut. Then the trees. Then a propane tank, which exploded in a dozen directions, lighting up everything in its path, including an enemy guard who ran into a friend of his, lighting him on fire too. Within two minutes, the entire world was on fire. Obviously, they had to tone it down pretty quickly, but the core idea was now permanently in the game. Everything burns, and if you want to, you can set fire to the world to see what happens.

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Far Cry 2 is a fascinating expression of the sandbox concept, because it never puts any restrictions on players. Want to kill your story-relevant partner characters? Go ahead, they stay dead. Want to play as a suicidal madman who doesn't take his malaria pills until the last second? It's an option. Gearbox's Anthony Burch once held a GDC lecture on how playing the game with permadeath turns into a powerful, meaningful experience on the nature and pragmatism of evil. Any way you want to play Far Cry 2, it's there, and it's probably super cool. The possibilities for emergent gameplay are endless.

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I doubt we'll ever see a game as open and willing to let the player muck around as Far Cry 2 again. Even Far Cry 3 was a much more prescribed, directed experience. That sort of openness and freedom invites dozens of flaws, most of which Far Cry 2 suffers from on a regular basis. Clint Hocking, the game's designer, left Ubisoft a few years ago, and is now working on mystery projects of his own. But Far Cry 2 came at this fascinating delta when open world games were the single most popular game in existence, and first person shooters were just coming off of the high from the initial Modern Warfare. A first person open world game was both innovative enough to draw top talent looking to do something new, and could also get the kind of budget to not be a horrible disaster. We might not live in those times anymore, but Far Cry 2 is like $5 at this point, so you have no reason to give it a shot and party like it's 2008 and we still had hope for the industry.


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