Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Patreon!

Hey!

This month, I've finally gotten my blog on the rails again. It reminded me of how much I love to write! And then I realized that sooner or later, my schedule will push it right back out of my life again. Instead of letting that get me down, I've thought of a possible solution: Patreon.

I have a lot of doubts about this - I don't have a consistent readership outside of my friends, and I'm not sure if there is a great market for this sort of thing - but why not give it a shot? It'll help me support my writing efforts and build and involve a community. You can check it out right here:

https://www.patreon.com/user?u=560203

I won't ever put articles behind a paywall, but you can find funny background stories and anecdotes if you decide to pledge!

Right, that's it for this update. We'll get back to Color Splash very soon!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Paper Mario: Color Splash Critique #1 - Streamlined, Yet Cumbersome

I recently finally got a chance to try Paper Mario: Color Splash. I've been a fan of the series from the very beginning, so I was interested to see the changes and how informed they are (or aren't) by proper game design. I want to make it clear that Color Splash is a fun game with a beautiful presentation, and this critique isn't intended to condemn all the work that went into it. In this first article, I'll examine my main problem with the game, the battle system, and how it tries and fails to streamline the series' formula.

Paper Mario: Color Splash's battle system is, in a word, odd. Rather than allowing the character a set amount of moves to strategize with, the player instead relies on a finite set of cards acquired or bought in the overworld. In that sense this is very much an evolution of the battle system present in Paper Mario: Sticker Star.


There really is no in game justification for why Mario requires cards to use the jump and hammer he is naturally armed with, but the lack of an in-world explanation doesn't necessarily condemn the battle system - only the degree to which it meets its intended goal does.

So what is its intended goal? It seems to me that Intelligent Systems attempted to streamline and simplify battles. Your average battle in Paper Mario: Color Splash takes one or two turns at most, for a few reasons: All attacks do a lot of damage (and that includes the enemies') and Mario can perform many actions in a one go. To name an extreme example: If you were two play 2 'worn-out hammer x 5' cards, you would be doing 10 hammer attacks in a single turn. You wouldn't be interrupted by any menus, everything would simply come down to your timing until your cards have run out of paint.


I understand and respect the basic idea of this system. You could potentially face down a tough group of enemies, and by choosing just the right cards in just the right order, defeat them before they land a hit on you. You can pack the strategy of what prior games would do in multiple turns, in just one. To further support this, the game always takes special note if you get through a battle without taking any damage and rewards you for it with a 'perfect bonus.'


That doesn't sound so bad, does it? But that's just the concept. Let's talk about the execution.

To choose your cards in Paper Mario: Color Splash, you are required to look down at the Wii U Gamepad. From there, you can choose your cards from a list. Unfortunately, however, the UI for selecting cards was obviously not designed with the sheer number of cards in mind. You might find yourself awkwardly dragging past a dozen of the same kind of card before finally finding what you want, even if you use the game's 'organize' button. Next, you have to drag said card - and later, cards - up to its spot to confirm you want to use it. Sounds pretty cumbersome, right? But it only gets worse.

Once you have selected your cards and confirmed your selection as a separate action, the game then requires you to paint in the cards. Even if all cards you selected were pre-filled, which they thankfully can be, the game still shows this screen and requires you to confirm that you are done painting the cards. If they weren't, you are expected to hold down on each card for a while to paint it. It's slow and feels extremely unnecessary. Why have a step deciding the strength of your cards when the cards themselves already do this? You have worn-out hammers, ordinary hammers and even big and giant hammers; and you can find and buy them at will. Other cards, like the jump, are much the same. Was the extra variable and the extra time it costs to fill in the cards really necessary or useful? Most of the time, you'll want to fill the entire card, since you're unlikely to ever run out of paint anyway. On top of that, Mario's attacks don't do a clear number of damage, so it's impossible to use an "informed" amount of paint.

So after making you find, select, drag, confirm, color and confirm your cards again, the game decides to waste your time just once more by forcing you to drag the cards up. After that, you're finally in business, and can perform Mario's attacks with their Action Commands as you would in any other Paper Mario.*

The underlying thought of the dragging is cute - you're sliding the cards from your Wii U screen up to your television - but the sheer amount of dragging and selecting actions the game asks you to take every turn makes me think they never tested it for extended periods of time.

Compare this to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, where it'll never take more than three button presses to start an attack - and it lets you actually select the enemy you want to attack, whereas Color Splash simply attacks the enemies in order, with the first card attacking the first enemy, and so on. Regardless of how many cards are at your disposal, it ends up limiting the player's choices in the end. In the end, the vast majority of them are simple variations of the hammer and jump attack.



In conclusion, Paper Mario: Color Splash had a good idea to streamline battles into intricately planned out turns, but the poor implementation of the Wii U Screen, cards and paint make it so cumbersome that each battle ends up taking an unnecessary amount of effort. The system absolutely does not lend itself for the amount of battles and how repetitive they are. Paper Mario: Color Splash, like its predecessor, tries and fails to streamline the perfectly convenient battle system of Paper Mario 1 and 2.

In the next article, 'Overworld Joys and Overworld Woes,' I'll discuss the overworld you navigate in Color Splash outside of battles. Thank you very much for your time, and I look forward to your feedback.

* Update: On Reddit, I received a reaction about something I glossed over because I was too focused on the interface itself. In Paper Mario Color Splash, the Action Commands are almost exclusively timed button presses. In the first and second game, the Hammer Action Command worked by tilting the control stick, and there were a variation of Action Commands and stylish moves on top of that. This is another simplification that ends up making the battle system more tedious and monotonous than it could have been. Thanks for pointing this out, /u/rendumguy!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Breath of the Wild Discussion: A Post-Apocalypse Without Murder?

This article will contain spoilers from various games in the series, including Breath of the Wild, so read at your own discretion!

Back in March, Nintendo surprised the industry with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a huge open-world game and a complete change in direction for the series. The game has many merits, but today I'd like to discuss a strange rule the game seems to stick with: Link isn't allowed to kill anything that is - or looks - human. 

Breath of the Wild's world is populated with many monsters such as Bokoblins, Moblins, Lizalfos, Chuchus and Lynels. But seasoned fans of the series will notice a few fan favorites are missing: Poes, Gibdos, ReDeads, Stalfos and Stalchildren, for example.


ReDead from Ocarina of Time 3D. Source: http://zelda.gamepedia.com/ReDead

What do these enemies have in common? They are all undead people. (Though Nintendo has admittedly tried to retcon the ReDead into being a magical, non human creature.) Indeed, though Breath of the Wild has tension and atmosphere, it very rarely engages with the dark locations and enemy designs that Majora's Mask, Twilight Princess or even Ocarina of Time dealt with.

At this point, you may question the premise, pointing out that the absense of the aforementioned enemies simply resulted from Nintendo's choice to steer away from disturbing locations and enemies, and not actually a problem with killing humanoid enemies specifically. However, considering which enemies are in the game, the problem with this argument becomes clear: most common enemies have a 'Stal', or skeletal, equivalent.

Link fights a Stalnox. Source: Robinotta on YouTube

In other words, Nintendo had no problem involving undead skeletal enemies... so long as they weren't human or Hylian. On top of Stalnoxes, Breath of the Wild includes Stalkoblins, Stalmoblins and Stalizalfos, but the classic Stalfos and Stalchild - humanoid skeletons - are missing.

However, Breath of the Wild actually does have humanoid enemies. It's time to address the elephant in the room: The Yiga Clan.

Link is ambushed by a Yiga Clan assassin. Source: DivDee on YouTube

The Yiga Clan, though masked, are confirmed to be Sheikah defectors and thus part of the same race of people, and Link is able to fight them. However, the way these fights end proves the original premise furter: unlike monster enemies, which visibly die and drop guts and teeth, people of the Yiga Clan teleport away from Link when defeated, dropping only Mighty Bananas and money. They are completely unique in this regard.

The one exception is Master Kohga, who does seem to die after you defeat him.

Master Kohga in all his splendor. Source: Zelda Gamepedia


But rather than having Link strike him down, in the cutscene after his battle, Kohga brings about his own demise by summoning a large metal sphere which ends up pushing him into a chasm. Words don't do it justice; You can view the clip here.

And even Ganon himself, whose human form Ganondorf met a grisly end in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, has no such form in this game. Instead, his first form is a monstrosity with a vaguely human head.

Calamity Ganon. Source: Boss Fight Database on YouTube

Interestingly, though thousands must've died in the events leading up to Breath of the Wild, Link isn't allowed to seriously harm any human being, alive or undead. Human enemies are kept to a minimum, with even their skeletons replaced by those of standard enemies, and human enemies that do appear aren't killed. That's why I think Nintendo consciously decided that Link wasn't allowed to kill any human in Breath of the Wild. 

That's my conclusion from these design choices, but I could be completely wrong. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on why Nintendo made these choices, and whether or not you feel there is any meaning to them at all. Depending on responses, I may write a follow up to address the best arguments and theories. 


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Choosing Through Gameplay in Undertale, Part 2

In part 1, we discussed the implementation of player choice in Undertale. I argued that the battle system was a great vehicle for organic choices, but that the impact of choices in the overworld left something to be desired. At the end, I conceded that there are certain choices in the overworld that do have a major impact. In this article, I'd like to have a closer look at those choices, how exactly they do affect the game and what I think about them. 

Let's get right into it. The most important choices in the overworld concern three story-critical characters.

First up, there's Papyrus. None of the dialogue choices with Papyrus matter at any point. All that matters is that, after Sparing him in battle, the player visits him at his home and agrees to have a "date." This date consists of more dialogue and choices without consequence, though it is a very charming scene. It is a shame, though, because the 'date' switches to a perspective and style similar to the game's battles; it would've been great to forge a more specific relationship with Papyrus through it.


Once the player has "dated" Papyrus, he is seen as befriended, a fact that will contribute to getting the 'true pacifist' ending. This will also allow the player to later befriend Undyne, but let's start at the beginning with her.

The first meaningful choice concerning Undyne starts with Monster Kid, who follows the player around Waterfall for some time. Near the end of the area, Monster Kid trips and hangs from a ledge, pleading for the player to save them. The player can choose to walk away, approach Undyne, simply stand and watch or save the Monster Kid - a real choice using the overworld's mechanics. If the player does not approach and interact with Monster Kid, they will fall and Undyne will jump after them to save them. This doesn't have any effect on the ending, but it does change some of Undyne and Monster Kid's dialogue. The really interesting part, though, is that it decreases Undyne's health if she had to jump down. The dialogue in the scene actually hints at this fact.


The effect of this choice is minor but I really respect its inclusion. The fact that such a clever and natural way for a choice in the overworld to affect the subsequent battle is included really makes me wonder why it isn't more common in the game.

But the interesting choices and interactions with the overworld involving Undyne don't stop there. If the player follows the Pacifist route, the only way to Spare Undyne is to run away from her and run away to the next area. This area, aptly named Hotland, causes Undyne's armor to heat up, after which she collapses. A convenient water cooler is the only thing in sight, clearly instructing the player what should be done.


Though I appreciate having another meaningful choice in the overworld, this choice is notable because it's the only choice that can outright lock you out of acquiring the 'true pacifist' ending. If the player ignores Undyne, or worse, pours all of the water on the ground, Undyne will spend the rest of the game in her house because she's suffering from heatstroke. Thus, she is impossible to befriend, and as a result, the player cannot befriend Alpys either. This means the True Lab will not be discovered and the player's friends will not interfere with the battle against Asgore, making the true pacifist ending impossible to acquire on this run.

So, arguably, this moment is exactly what I was asking for in my previous article. However, the problem presents itself when we consider the following facts:

1. Unlike the "dates," this interaction can be missed permanently if the player moves on without giving Undyne the water.
2. It's the only choice of its kind, meaning an explorative or comedically inclined player may intentionally pour all the water out or ignore Undyne as a joke or to see what happens, without realizing what they missed, because prior choices in the overworld never had any permanent consequences - including calling Papyrus a 'loser' and answering negatively to each and every one of this questions in the "date." 
3. It's only barely a choice, due to how obvious the 'right solution' is.

A sensible counterargument to point 2 would be that the choice is also unique in the sense that someone is obviously in danger, which only ever happens with Monster Kid and Undyne. I agree that there is some precedent for the kind of choice it is, but not necessarily for the kind of consequences it implies. Monster Kid gets saved regardless, and Undyne doesn't even die, but you're still locked out of the true pacifist ending.

On point 3, it's easy to argue that the obviousness of the solution also invalidates my critique of its consequences - but in that case, why is it a choice at all?

It may sound like I'm contradicting myself on what I think about this choice, so I'll summarize how I would've preferred it to be. Either...
- The context of the choice is more serious and presented more like a choice, or
- The impact of the choice is diminished.
Essentially, I don't have a problem with this kind of choice, nor with that kind of consequence. I just find attaching such a particularly serious consequence to such a simple and almost funny choice to be a bit out of place, especially because it happens nowhere else at any point. But I'll be the first to admit that this is a nitpicky complaint; it is a choice with consequences and it is in the overworld, so I'm still glad that it exists.

Once Undyne is properly Spared and watered, she can be met and "dated" much like Papyrus. And exactly like in Papyrus' date, nothing you choose makes a difference. You can explicitly state you do not want to be her friend, but you will end up as her friend regardless.



It's still good that the player has to go out of their way to visit Undyne after reaching Hotland, making the "date" a very conscious choice, but I still would've liked some variation within the the date itself and the player's relationship with Undyne.

After Papyrus and Undyne have been dated, the player must first see the Neutral Ending before they can befriend Alphys. I've already overanalyzed this odd requirement to pieces in another article, which you can read by clicking here. If the player dates Undyne before seeing the Neutral Ending, she will call them upon their return from the Core, asking to visit her in Snowdin so she can hand over a letter to Alphys. If the player dates Undyne after seeing the Neutral Ending, she'll give the letter immediately after the date, provided the player has passed through Hotland already.

Giving the letter to Alphys will initiate the third and final date, which is once again filled with many entertaining choices but nothing that'll ultimately impact the ending or overworld.


After Papyrus, Undyne and Alphys have been befriended, the player will gain access to the 'True Lab,' where much of the game's backstory is revealed. Successfully completing the True Lab and facing Asgore at LV1 with 0 EXP will then lead the player to the true final battle and the true pacifist ending.

That about does it for the story critical decisions in the overworld. Before I move onto my conclusion, there's one tool for connecting the overworld and battles that I haven't yet covered and which is used to great effect: Items. The reason I haven't featured them prominently is because they are almost exclusively used in battle, but it would be a shame not to mention some of the clever hidden interactions:
- If the player saves the butterscotch-cinnamon pie they get from Toriel in the Ruins all the way until they reach the fight with Asgore and eat it then, it will decrease Asgore's attack and defense. 
- If the player saves an item purchased from the Spider Bakesale in the Ruins and eats in front of Muffet, she will Spare the player immediately. 



As cool as these easter eggs are, however, they don't influence the story or ending.

What all this amounts to is that there are 4 choices in the overworld, outside of battle, that influence the player's ability to get to the true pacifist ending. To summarize them once more:
Dating Papyrus, giving Undyne water, dating Undyne and dating Alphys. The inclusion of such choices is, in my opinion, a positive - but I would've liked there to be more choices, or for the choices to have more options than a single date per character that decides whether or not you were a 'good enough' friend. However, credit where credit is due: Undertale's overworld is not a place without consequence, and the overworld and battle system aren't always completely disconnected.

If I missed any important choices or if there's something I got wrong, please feel free to post your feedback!


Friday, January 6, 2017

Choosing Through Gameplay In Undertale, Part 1

In many RPGs, the overworld holds the story while the battle system holds the gameplay. The result is choices are made outside of the game's primary game mechanics, through something like a dialogue system or choice-based menu.  Undertale approaches its choices a little differently, and I'd like to discuss the successes and failures of that approach in this piece.

It's been over a year since Undertale was released. Its story, characters and music have made a permanent mark on the Internet and pop culture. A year ago, I joined in on the conversation and wrote a piece about Undertale's design and narrative. I argued that, based on Undertale's design, Toby Fox had intended the player to kill Toriel on their initial playthrough.

Looking back on the article now, I discussed how the game's mechanics were explained, but I spent very little time on the actual mechanics themselves - and how they reflect on the game's choice based narrative. I'd like to shed some light on that particular facet of Undertale now.

The fact of the matter is really quite simple: Undertale's choices are almost exclusively presented through its battle system. Each monster you encounter can be approached in several ways - by simply fighting them until they die, by convincing them to spare you and surprise attacking them, by befriending them and sparing them or simply by running away. All of these possibilities are presented through the game's battle system, with its four-option menu of FIGHT, ACT, ITEM and MERCY.


Such a system should be commended for the way it allows players to make their choice organically. But where does that leave the overworld and all the scenes that occur outside battles?

Like many RPGs of its kind, Undertale has a lot of text to read. There are hundreds of dialogues and descriptions, some of which change based on the player's prior choices. For an impatient player, it could quickly become cumbersome to have to read so much uninterrupted text. This is why Undertale smartly breaks up many of its conversations with choices as well.


But these choices ultimately don't influence the gameplay. All you'll get for your choice is a unique few lines of dialogue, with perhaps a wink back to your earlier decision later down the line. But a choice made during dialogue never influences the game's overarching story or the game's ending.

Is that a negative? I feel that it is, but it'll ultimately depend on the person playing the game. I would've liked it if your choices had a greater impact on the flow of the story, or even just the dialogue, since most dialogues return to a set path shortly after a unique choice has been made. To take it one step further, I feel like there could've been more nuance; characters are simply spared or not spared, and befriended or not befriended. What if the sum of your behaviour could form a unique type of friendship or relationship with the characters? However, I realize that this hypothetical demands a lot, and perhaps isn't fair. After all, we must not forget that the game was developed by a single person. Regardless, I would've liked to see just a bit more consequence in the choices made during dialogues or in the overworld.

Perceptive readers may have two complaints about my assessment so far;
1. I commended the battle system for allowing organic choices.
2. I stated only most of the choices in the overworld do not affect the story.

To address the first point: that is true. And I wouldn't have anything more to say about choices in the overworld if Undertale was a bog standard JRPG where the overworld served only as a pathway to new battles - however, Undertale's overworld itself also holds gameplay in the form of various puzzles (like Papyrus') and even mini-games (like Mettaton's). Not to mention, the dialogue in the overworld is almost consistently important to understand the characters' history and motivations, and for this reason, it regularly interrupts the gameplay. For those reasons, I really would've liked it if the player's choices in the dialogue and overworld had more of an impact.

About point 2: I hinted at this before, but there are a few choices in the overworld that do make a difference, specifically by influencing the ending. The choices concerning Undyne are particularly interesting in this regard. 

To summarize what we've discussed so far, Undertale allows for the player to make organic choices in its battle system, but the choices in the overworld lack impact, even though a significant chunk of the game's story and mechanics do take place outside of battle. Please join me in part 2 as we delve deeper into Undertale's significant overworld choices and how they reflect on the game in general.

Feedback is appreciated! 




Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016's Almost Over! - A Brief Reflection

It's been a while, hasn't it? Just now, I finally wrote a new article after a six month hiatus. The truth of the matter is that this blog hasn't been particularly active ever since I graduated in June. I'd like to give you a brief update on the why and how.

After the safety net of school disappeared, my time suddenly became a whole lot more valuable. That didn't stop me from wasting a lot of it on silly videos and drama, but it did make it a lot harder to invest genuine effort in non-paying work. And in time, a lot of the drafts I had lying around aged badly; I had a Phoenix Wright article planned, for instance, which will need serious revision after the release of the sixth game in the series, Spirit of Justice. A lot of other ideas, I've just lost interest in. Lastly, it's been pretty hard coming up with new ideas! Maybe a part of that is that I still haven't found a specific focus, but I don't want to limit myself to any specific perspective on art and the industry. If you have any particular suggestions of what you'd like me to write about, please go ahead and post a comment or send me a message. 

That isn't to say the situation is particularly grim, however. I do have work, and I have been able to do the occasional art stream on Twitch. I've noticed that the active pressure and immediate nature of livestreaming is a good motivator for me, which is why I've been able to do it even though it doesn't pay. Maybe it's an idea to write blogs while streaming, as well- it's unusual, but I'm sure I could find an audience for it. Something to consider for 2017!

Anyways, with the explanation and update out of the way, let's briefly reflect on this year.

About half of my posts mostly involved narrative; the most popular examples being the one on Undertale and the one on Life is Strange's ending. The other half discussed more general game design, like the one on Darkest Dungeon's mechanics and the one on big numbers in RPGs. I've barely really discussed visual design, even though I'm an artist by trade, so that's something I'd like to cover more in 2017.

In terms of views, my Darkest Dungeon article was the most popular article this year! I had expected Undertale to easily take number one, but the Undertale articles have taken 2nd and 3rd place from what I can see in the analytics. I'm really grateful so many people took the time to read my work and offer their own thoughts! In spite of my lack of consistency, people still regularly read my articles, and I can't tell you how happy that makes me.

As for the business side of things, my blog isn't exactly a source of income. It's not a huge issue because I do like to write, but investing time and effort into something gets a lot scarier when you're dependant on your time and effort to make a living. I'm wondering if I should set up a Patreon for my articles. I'm not sure, however, if my readership is consistent enough to make that work. So, I'd love to hear your thoughts! Would Patreon be a good idea? 

_

Right, that's enough rambling. In spite of my inactivity, it's been a rather good year for this blog. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read my articles, and do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. It's always appreciated!



The Objective Review

People often define the quality of reviews based on how objective they are. But to what degree does this - and should it - apply to artistic media like videogames? 

For anything that can be bought and sold, there's bound to be reviewers. It makes perfect sense - very few of us have money to burn, and before you spend your money you'll want to know exactly what you're getting into. There's no debate on the value of reviews when it comes to a simple product of which the value is defined by, say, durability or weight.

On the other hand, something that is entirely artistic is hard to review. A painting can be criticized on its composition or use of colour, and maybe the authenticity of its content, but it's very easy to simply accept deviations from the norm as a unique style. When something is a work of art and only serves that purpose - to be self expression - you enter some pretty murky territory when it comes to critique. This is why reviews and detailed critiques of "pure" art aren't very common or popular.

But what if the reviewers are discussing artistic media, which falls somewhere in the middle? To be sure, you can still stick to the basic facts - how many episodes are there of this series? How long is the movie and which actors star in it? Does this game run at a specific resolution or framerate? Facts like these can influence a purchase, but they're usually not the most important factors.

With that in mind, many reviewers give their reviews a unique spin. They'll focus on something they or their audience might find important, and in doing so, offer a different perspective than a dull list of objective specifications might. This means there are many unique and interesting reviews that appeal to a variety of audiences. For this reason, a lot of critics and their audiences have voiced their frustration that people seem to put objectivity on a pedestal. But the question is, is objectivity really what people are after? Is that the whole story?

A critic such as John 'TotalBiscuit' Bain might express a personal dislike for platformers, for instance, but because he wears this bias on his sleeve and doesn't make it out to be an objective problem, people don't particularly mind it. Contrast this with say, a critic who detracts from a game's score for a similarly taste related reason. This would almost certainly result in irritated reactions from the audience. A similar problem arises when critics berate a game, or even dock its numerical score (which is an issue of itself) for social, political or religious reasons.

But does that mean that subjective elements, be they the critic's taste in game mechanics or religious views, cannot and should not be involved? Not at all. It is simply that the audience should be made aware of these biases and how they influenced the final review. A hypothetical Christian reviewer might believe one or some elements in GTA V to be amoral, for example. But if he or she were to state that in their review verbatim, they would be doing the game and their audience a disservice. It would be better to say that 'I find this to be amoral based on my religious beliefs,' for instance. Rather than pretend that your beliefs and perspectives are objective fact, be objective about your subjective lens. In that respect, what I think people are after isn't necessarily just objectivity; it's honesty.

To close off with an interesting example, 'Christ Centered Gamer' is a Christian game reviewer. It considers morality in its reviews, but gives it a separate score. I haven't seen another website combine their beliefs with a more generalized form of reviewing, and made with work with numerical scores, so my hat's off to them.

Objectivity, while important, isn't the only thing people want from their reviews of artistic media. In truth, what people want is a proper balance between the objective and subjective, and some good honest transparency about the latter.