Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dimentio, Charming Magician (Super Paper Mario SPOILERS)

Nintendo's beloved Mario franchise is appreciated for its complete focus on gameplay, perhaps at the cost of having a compelling narrative. But the Mario RPG series is an exception to this rule; after all, with slower strategic gameplay, a greater focus on narrative was a welcome change of pace as well.

Both the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario series have a great focus on their characters - it is a role playing game, after all - but their villains are still generally pretty cut-and-dried. Bowser, Grodus, Cackletta, Antasma; they're all your basic villains who want to kidnap the princess or take over the world. So imagine my surprise when a more action-oriented Paper Mario spin-off offered us the best villains a Mario game had yet seen.

Yes indeed, meet the somewhat controversial 'Super Paper Mario,' a project with a troubled development cycle on the GameCube that eventually found its way onto the Nintendo Wii in 2007.

Something that's truly unique about Super Paper Mario's cast of baddies is their distinct personalities, and the fact that none of them are truly evil. Count Bleck, their leader, seems to be the most clichéd of the bunch; in a variation of the usual world domination plan, Count Bleck plans to destroy the world instead. But throughout the story, you realize more and more that he is a victim of circumstances.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's talk about Count Bleck's minions for a moment. I'll keep each character's description brief, but you could really write a piece about each of them:

First off, there's Nastasia. She's a no-nonsense secretary with mind control powers. She's organized and intelligent, but doesn't perform too well under duress and is likely to blame herself for failures of the team.
Then, there's O'Chunks; comes across as your average dumb muscle, but is actually an ex-army commander who lost a war. He and acts foolish and blindly loyal to the Count out of a desire to forget and out of gratitude for the Count giving him a new purpose.
Next is Mimi, a shapeshifter with a sense of humour. She's a trickster by nature, but lives off the approval of the Count. But when he isn't around, she isn't afraid to ignore his prior orders. She even goes so far as to say she's "meaner" than the Count, which could be a clue the Count isn't all he seems to be.
There's also the 'Mysterious Mr. L,' who is Luigi.
And last, and now we're getting to the heart of it, there's Dimentio.

On the surface, Dimentio is easily the most unique and charming of the bunch. He's quite verbose and loves to speak in nonsensical similes. Because he also literally has the appearance of a jester, it's not hard to imagine that players will start out by seeing him as the comic relief.

But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear he's a lot more intelligent than the other minions. Moreso than opposing the heroes or helping the villains, he seems to be leveling the playing field. Early in the game, he reunites Mario and Princess Peach to improve their chances, and the times he challenges the heroes seem to be little more than tests to see how strong they are. He also likes to question the Count to test his resolve, and he manipulates his fellow minions to ignore the Count's orders. So, why is Dimentio working against his boss? Well, there are many reasons, but for starters: Because he feels the Count has betrayed him.

Count Bleck's plan, he claims, is to destroy the universe and replace it with a new, perfect world bereft of suffering. But he actually intends to destroy everything, including his own world and himself - for reasons I'll explore in a future post, most likely. Dimentio has caught onto this, and has thus decided to put his own plan in motion. 

So, he's a minion with an agenda; an interesting trope, certainly, but what makes it truly special? Well, a big part of it is that you really have no idea what to make of him. He's clearly not on Count Bleck's side or yours, so what does he want out of all this? By the end of Chapter 6, most people will probably believe he's on their side - after all, he's been a big help to the heroes and a big hindrance to the villains. He never seemed serious about the world-destroying agenda to begin with. But then a scene occurs that casts a shadow of doubt on his fun-loving personality. When the opportunity arises, he traps and kills "Mr. L," with some pretty creepy dialogue for good measure. Granted, he ends up in a cartoony underworld that you can get him back from, but there's still quite a weight to this scene.

This scene is especially poignant because, while it is still to the benefit of the heroes, Dimentio's methods and attitude aren't remotely like what you'd expect from a Mario character. But extreme methods or not, it's all to the heroes' benefit in the end. But it gets "better" - Dimentio then goes so far as to kill the heroes as well. They need to go to the underworld to acquire one of the game's MacGuffins, so it's necessary for them to go there, but again Dimentio demonstrates his extreme methods and bizarre attitude.

So, between his extreme methods and almost psychopathic attitude, what's he really after? Well, when you finally face him in Castle Bleck, in the second-to-last episode of the chapter, he reveals his hand. 

Dimentio reveals to the heroes that he's been their guardian angel and guide for much of the adventure, and asks you to help him destroy the Count. So, is that all there is then? Dimentio was actually on your side all along? Something about the entire situation seems off, especially when keeping Dimentio's attitude in mind. Further, you're not out to destroy the Count; you just want to stop him from destroying the world, no more and no less. So, a wise player will refuse his offer, to which he responds quite bluntly, dropping all of his similes and humour.

For the record, if the player does accept Dimentio's offer, he will brainwash Mario & Luigi to fight for him, leading to an alternate game over that is as amusingly written as it is disturbing; Dimentio was never really on the side of the heroes; he simply needed them as tools to overthrow the - from his perspective - treacherous Count. 

What follows is a battle between Luigi and Dimentio, ending with Dimentio seemingly killing both himself and Luigi after he realizes he cannot win the battle. But of course, that, too is another scheme. When Mario and friends finally arrive at Count Bleck and defeat him, to stop the world from being destroyed, Dimentio quickly swoops in - more crazed than before - and he's now determined to destroy the world and replace it with his own vision of a perfect world. You end up fighting a monstrous combination of him, Luigi and the Chaos Heart (the evil artifact used to destroy the world) as the final boss. Of course, Mario and friends end up defeating him, but Dimentio was a truly smart, well prepared and unpredictable villain.

So! There you have it. Intelligent, charming, scheming and completely psychopathic - that's why Dimentio is one of the greatest villains in the Mario franchise. I've only really scratched the surface here, as there are many theories about Dimentio; for example, background information reveals he might have planned even further ahead than the events of the game; it's implied he is the writer of the Dark Prognosticus, the book Count Bleck uses to summon the Chaos Heart. Though Paper Mario games have since abandoned darker villains and storylines, many fans are still hoping for a return of Dimentio, or at the least more information about this enigmatic psychopathic jester. 

Either way, I'm rambling at this point.

Who are your favorite villains and why? Post a comment if you want! 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Life is Strange's Ending: A Meeting With Fate & Contrivance #1 (SPOILERS)

I recently took some time to complete Life is Strange, a narrative game not unlike those developed by TellTale. I was generally quite impressed with the game, but the ending left me a little disappointed. In this piece, I'll explain my problems with the finale to Dontnod's successful narrative project.

To establish the most important details, in Life is Strange the player takes on the role of Max Caulfield, a photography student who somehow gains the power to reverse time. This power manifests itself when Max witnesses an old friend get shot, and she uses it to save her from this fate.

From this point onwards, Max uses her power almost constantly in the story. Personally, I rather liked the concept; being a student in photography, her passion was always capturing the moment in a way she envisioned, and limited time reversal added to that in an interesting way. To me, it didn't matter so much that the game never properly explained where this power came from; but it also made it very hard to swallow how the game decided to resolve the ending.

Throughout the story, Max and her friend Chloe - the person she saved - are on the trail of a missing student called Rachel Amber. Her disappearance is suspicious, to say the least, and ties in with repeated hints that there is a darkness, a storm brooding within Arcadia Bay, and the Blackwell Academy where Max studies. A conspiracy between certain students, teachers and influential families. This concept is further supported by repeated visions Max has of a huge tornado seemingly consuming Arcadia Bay. 

All of this reaches its peak when all the player's preconceptions are overturned, and the identity of the darkness lurking in Arcadia Bay is revealed as Mr. Jefferson, a teacher at Blackwell. As it turns out, he's been kidnapping students, involving them in bizarre photoshoots and then murdering them. So consider my surprise when Mr. Jefferson was caught very early in Episode 5, and an actual real tornado then shows up to wreak havoc on Arcadia Bay. So, all of the dialogue about the Prescott family, the students that went missing, the 'lurking darkness,' the brooding storm - it all boils down to an actual tornado just appearing out of nowhere. And not just that, but according to the game, it's Max's fault. 

Even though Max had her first vision of the storm and tornado before she even discovered her power, in the final minutes of Episode 5 you're told that averting Chloe's fate is the cause of all this. Because Max saved her, the powers-that-be decided that Arcadia Bay should be destroyed by a tornado.

To be fair, the game takes several moments to demonstrate that Max's powers may have an adverse effect on the world. Starting with out of season snow and dead birds, moving on to dead whales and a double moon, it can't be said that the eventual tornado came out of nowhere. But with that said, several characters in the story can live or die - Kate and Frank, for example. But regardless of whether they live or not, nature still gets messed up. Why is it that rescuing Chloe was seemingly all it took to completely unbalance nature? It's completely contrived, and for one specific reason: the final choice.

You either go back to the moment Max saved Chloe, and let her die to prevent the tornado from happening, or watch the tornado tear Arcadia Bay apart killing who-knows-how-many people. Outside its context, the choice is actually incredibly powerful; save the few you know, or the many you don't? But the fact that it all boils down to a tornado you supposedly caused using your unexplained power - that really took the emotion out of the choice for me. The game essentially used a Diabolus Ex Machina, and then said 'Look at this. This contrived conflict is your fault.' I sacrificed Arcadia Bay in favor of Chloe because I felt that choice best reflected my defiance of this supposed "responsibility."

So, to summarize; the game hints at an underlying mystery or conflict you're solving - a conspiracy between unknown powers - along with strange occurences in the natural world. You wouldn't be foolish for thinking the two were related, but as soon as the story's major conflict - the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the masterminds behind it - is resolved, an actual tornado shows up to wreck the city for no real reason - just because you saved someone at the start of the game. Since your power is not properly explained, it can also not resolve this plot hole. 

In my next piece, I'm going to write what I initially expected the final choice to be and why I feel that would've suited the story better.

As always, nothing I've written here is fact or truth. Please feel free to respond if there's something I've overlooked. Feedback is always appreciated, even if it's harsh! See you in the next one!

Correction (23-01-16): It was pointed out that Life is Strange is not Dontnod's first project, so I changed the opening line a bit to reflect the facts. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Million Points of Damage, Part 1: RPGs, Math & RNG

While some games hide the variables under their hood to preserve immersion or avoid confusion, some like to show off their numbers. I'd like to look at how different games handle the way they present these numbers to the player and why, starting with a few older RPGs. 

Some games wear their numbers on their sleeves, and RPGs are a common example. After all, strategy is an important part of any RPG.

Take classic Square-Enix RPGs, for example.  The damage dealt, the damage received and various stats are visible to the player in battle. Have a look at Chrono Trigger:

It's quite common for turn-based RPGs like this to boast rather high numbers. Characters may hit other characters for hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands points of damage. But then there are RPGs that are incredibly modest with their variables - take Paper Mario, for example.

It's easy to dismiss this difference in design because Paper Mario was designed for a younger audience, as demonstrated by its visual style emulating a children's book. But I would argue there's a little bit more to it than that.

Consider one of turn-based RPGs common criticisms - repetition. Fighting the exact same enemy with the exact same moves using the exact same party; that gets old after a while. Of course, game designers have known this from the start, and this is how RPGs and RNG became bedfellows. Now, RNG simply stands for 'random number generator.' This may sound weird at first, but think about how often RPGs rely on a roll of the dice. From random encounters to critical hits, there's a lot of chance involved. To get back to the point, random numbers eliminate repetition to some degree. You're never quite sure which enemy or enemies you'll run into, never quite sure how much damage you'll deal or receive and so on.

So, why the big numbers? I believe one reason is because they allow for more flexible RNG. Note that the aforementioned Paper Mario, which uses tiny numbers, also employs no random numbers for the damage dealt and received. How could it? Were you to attack an enemy with 3 HP, using a base attack of 2, a random element would make a huge difference, because a single point of damage would. The game would rely far too much on luck. But allowing a few dozen points of variation against an enemy with thousands of HP adds a level of surprise that doesn't undermine strategy or skill, while still allowing you to just barely make or miss that last hit on the boss.

Of course, RNG is really just one facet of complex mathematics. I've claimed that RPGs are forthcoming with their numbers, but in reality, they only show you the end result of a few numbers that went through a dozen formulae. RPGs need to consider a character's attack power, the type of attack, the enemy's defense and many more things, and calculate a number based on that. Using only small numbers, those results would be robbed of all elegance; that 10 % buff a piece of armour gave, for example, will mean a lot more for a 1000 damage equip than a 1 damage equip, even if they have equal strengh within the context of their own game. As such, having big numbers behind the scenes has its advantages. A great example of an RPG franchise that is amazingly complex, yet pretends to be simple, is Pokémon. Take, for example, how the game calculates whether or not you catch a Pokémon.

source: Bulbapedia

But all of this only shows the advantage of using big numbers behind the scenes, not why some RPGs present these numbers to the player. That still boils down to a level of unpredictability, as I mentioned before.

However, is that all? Using numbers in the hundreds or thousands should provide plenty of variance if it was just about the RNG and maths. Why is it, then, that some turn-based RPGs use numbers that are much, much higher

To answer that question,we have to cover two things: Progression and spectacle. If you start the game dealing 1 damage, and you knock the final boss down with a 100 000 damage hit, you're going to feel incredibly empowered. You could've built from 1 to 10 damage, and if the game scaled at the same rate, it would've worked much the same as if the numbers would be higher. But it wouldn't feel the same, because the jump from 10 to 100 000 is so much greater than the jump from 1 to 10. Mechanically, it's completely arbitrary, but larger numbers allow for this greater sense of progress and have a way of looking spectacular. If your character spends a whole minute on a cutscene preparing the greatest attack you've ever seen, doesn't it feel like a dud if they deal 10 damage, even if that is a lot in the context of the game? Especially if there are spectators observing you playing, who have no way to contextualize the numbers, although that's a topic in and of itself.

So there you have it! The reason why turn-based RPGs have a fondness for large numbers is that they're flexible enough to use with RNG and complex mathematics, as well as the fact that they allow for a great sense of progress and spectacle.

That's my 2,458,948 cents, but it's entirely possible I'm wrong. Please feel free to respond! I'm planning to make 'A Million Points of Damage' into a series where I explore the transparency of variables in other genres and games as well, and your feedback is going to be an important part of how it develops. Have a great day, and I'll see you in the next one! 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Undertale Follow-Up: Where Design and Marketing Collide

Recently, I wrote a post about a few inconsistencies in Undertale's design and narrative.

In the middle of my analysis, I took a moment to make a rather bold statement:

"Undertale's design assumes you're playing the game 100 % blind. The moment you hear the word 'Pacifist', or see that trailer proclaiming that 'no one has to die' in Undertale, the jig is up. One could say there's a conflict between the game's design and its marketing."

Now, I covered what the aforementioned conflict is in detail, but I didn't explain where it came from. I'd like to go over that briefly. First, please take a look at Undertale's launch trailer:

Note that the trailer does indeed stress that enemies can be Spared, that they can be befriended and that 'nobody has to die.' So why is Undertale playing its trump card in its marketing?

Well, quite frankly, because it has to. Consider the PC gaming climate, especially on platforms like Steam. Now, before I go on I want to stress something: this is not criticism. I'll simply look at the circumstances in which Undertale was released, and why those might have influenced the marketing. Undertale has two qualities that could make potential buyers wary of it:

Firstly, the artstyle. Retro-styled videogames, especially those emulating a mostly 8-bit style, are very common. With popular revivals like Mega Man 9, and beloved indie titles like Cave Story, it was inevitable that many devs would follow suit. Just searching 'retro' on Steam, as of writing this article, yields 1021 results, and that's without checking other tags like 8-bit, 16-bit, classic or pixel art.

Unfortunately, pixel art is often perceived as lazy or unoriginal. Its low barrier of entry, as well as many low quality games using it, may have led to this reputation. This, in turn, could've caused problems for Undertale, making it necessary for the developer to distinguish it in a different way.

Second, the game's genre. While larger RPG franchises are rare outside of Square-Enix's, engines like RPG Maker have allowed a lot of fledgling game developers to create and release their own projects on platforms like Steam. Unfortunately, these projects don't usually get very high ratings. While the genre is still appreciated, it's practically never considered unique or original to develop a turn-based RPG. I realize that's a bold statement, but how many times since Earthbound have you seen a top down turn-based RPG be considered an innovator of some kind?

Searching for 'RPG Maker' games on Steam gives you 154 results, while 'turn based RPG' yields 477 results. It's certainly less saturated than 'retro games' in general, but still something for the consumer - and thus, the developer - to think about.

So, those are two reasons why Undertale needs to distinguish itself through its marketing to prevent it from being dismissed at a glance. In marketing, you see, there's a concept called a 'unique selling point' or 'unique selling proposition' (USP). You want your product to be noticed in the crowd, you're going to need at least one of these, and Undertale calling itself 'the friendly RPG where no one has to die' performs that duty admirably.

So, what this all boils down to is that Toby Fox developed an incredible game with a solid marketing campaign, but the former's design ended up clashing a bit with the latter's transparency. 

But a lot of this has been conjecture. What do you think? Am I right about Undertale's design and marketing? Please feel free to respond. I might just write another follow up based on feedback!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Undertale: Two Anomalous Bosses and an Arbitrary Blockade

Let's kick off with Undertale, a turn-based RPG by Toby Fox that has - since its release on September 15 - gained a huge and passionate fanbase. This isn't going to be a general analysis of Undertale, but rather, a look at a few specific things that stuck out to me about the requirements for getting a certain ending.

Be warned that I'm going to spoil a lot of things about the story and mechanics of Undertale. Read only if you've played it, or don't care about spoilers. I'm going to explain some things about the game, just to establish them, but in general I'll be assuming the reader knows the game. 

One of Undertale's greatest virtues is in how many ways it can be played. Enemy encounters can be handled in two distinct ways; you can either attack the enemy until it dies, or Act to convince them not to fight you and Spare them. This is the first RPG I've seen that has an actual 'Mercy' button in its battle system interface.

Now, due to this option, you can play the game without harming a single creature. This is referred to as a Pacifist playthrough by most people. Completing a Pacifist playthrough is the only way to get the true ending. Now that's established, let's get straight to the point.

You cannot get the True Ending without first getting a Neutral Ending, which is a simple ending consisting of a phone call briefly discussing or demonstrating the consequences of your choices; even if your first playthrough is 100 % Pacifist, you'll still be pushed into the neutral ending. The reasons why, and what this means for the design, are what I'd like to examine.

The in-game reason why you're prevented from getting the True Ending is simple. To get it, you need to befriend three major characters: Papyrus, Undyne and Alphys. You have to befriend them in order; you cannot befriend Undyne before Papyrus, and you cannot befriend Alphys before Undyne. However, you're arbitrarily prevented from ever befriending Alphys until you see the Neutral ending. To complete her sidequest, you must deliver a letter from Undyne, which she simply won't give you until after having completed a 'neutral run.'

From a narrative perspective, it makes little sense for Undyne to only give you this letter until after you've seen an ending. After all, when you get the letter from her, as far as she's concerned, the "ending" never happened since you returned to a prior save. Regardless, this wouldn't be much of a problem in and of itself, as Undertale plays around with the idea of memories from previous timelines or "save points" carrying over into new ones.

The problem is simply this: Alphys doesn't cause the crucial difference between the Pacifist and Neutral endings. The penultimate boss of the Neutral Run is Asgore Dreemurr, the King of Monsters. On a successful pacifist playthrough, the battle will start, but Asgore will then be knocked offscreen by none other than Toriel

Toriel is the second character you meet, and the first major boss. She disappears from the story fairly early on. So, how come it's her that makes the difference? Why does she only interrupt Asgore after you've discovered Alphys' backstory? This all doesn't make a great deal of sense, until you realize this:
You're supposed, or at the least expected, to kill Toriel on your first playthrough. 

Maybe that's a hasty conclusion to draw, but think about how much sense it makes considering the 'flow' of the narrative. She's the defining difference between the ending of a Pacifist and Neutral playthrough. But if you're not convinced, allow me to delve into the mechanics of her battle.

Toriel's battle sticks out compared to other battles. In Undertale, as a pacifist, every battle is solved in one of two ways: You either solve a puzzle using the Act menu, or outlast the enemy until you can show Mercy. In Toriel's battle, however, you have to specifically choose Mercy and then Spare many times in a row before she'll finally give up on fighting you - and it takes several Spares before Toriel will actually start to show any signs of being affected. Compare this with, say, Papyrus, who you only need to Spare at the very start and end of the battle. He also literally spells it out in red text.

So, consider the design here: In terms of explaining how to Spare bosses, Papyrus might as well be the first boss because his battle's design is perfect for it. The reasons for this are simple:

The battle won't even really start until you either Fight or Spare.
The battle shows clear progress, with Papyrus saying something new each turn and constantly hyping up his 'special attack.'
Papyrus literally tells you when Mercy becomes an option. 

Most bosses after Papyrus work similarly, with only minor differences between them. But Toriel, in spite of her role as the game's tutorial, has no such structure or clues in her battle. Attempting to talk to Toriel eventually leads to the game stating outright that "talking isn't the solution." As it takes several Spares to show visible progress, it's not unnatural for a player to assume that Fighting is the only option. 

I think it's important to sidetrack for just a minute here. You might have your doubts about that last statement, because actually, a lot of people do seem to successfully Spare Toriel on their first playthrough. This boils down to a related but seperate issue that I'd like to address in the future: Undertale's design assumes you're playing the game 100 % blind. The moment you hear the word 'Pacifist', or see that trailer proclaiming that 'no one has to die' in Undertale, the jig is up. One could say there's a conflict between the game's design and its marketing. It's important to realize this to understand where my "problems" with the design are coming from. In the future, I hope to look at Undertale's marketing in more detail.

So, now that we've established that, let's get right back to the heart of it. Comparing the design of Toriel's battle with Papyrus', it seems clear that either the game is explaining itself in the wrong order, or that you're expected to kill Toriel. And Undertale's design in general is too complete and well thought out for me to assume the former. 

Toriel's battle isn't the only evidence supporting this theory, however. The fact that you cannot get the True Ending when completing the game for the first time also supports it- being unable to acquire Undyne's letter seems little more than a mechanical failsafe to ensure that. However, I'd like to present one more compelling piece of evidence:

I briefly mentioned him before, but now we're going in depth: Asgore Dreemurr, Toriel's ex-husband and the second-to-last boss of any Undertale neutral playthrough. Like Toriel's, Asgore's battle is completely different from any other you encounter on a Neutral or Pacifist run. When the battle starts, Asgore destroys the Mercy button from your interface. This implies that there is no way he'll accept Mercy from you. But surely, if you're a Pacifist, there is some clever way to talk yourself out of it, right? Like with Toriel, there is some hidden way to convince him not to fight, right? The unfortunate answer is no. Even if you didn't touch the Fight button a single time, on your first run it's inevitable: you have to Fight him. 

Not only does this seem out of place in the narrative, the battle also represents a major difficulty spike for Pacifists who aren't properly equipped. To compensate, a Pacifist is allowed to speak to Asgore to decrease his Attack and Defense, but that seems like a band-aid for the underlying issue; logically, the battle shouldn't even happen for a Pacifist who managed to spare Toriel. Fortunately, Asgore can be Spared once his HP reaches a certain point, but that doesn't change that you had to Fight him to get to that point.

With all of that said, it seems pretty clear that on your first run, a neutral playthrough wherein you kill Toriel is expected, which leads to the inconsistencies I've pointed out. 

With all of that said, it makes a lot of sense for Toby to want you to see the Neutral Ending first; after all, at the end of it, Flowey will reveal how to get a better ending if you Spared him. 

This ties in with Flowey's role in the story, and the critical part he plays in acquiring the True Pacifist ending. After all, it's Flowey who gets Papyrus to call everyone together to interrupt the battle with Asgore - again, except for Toriel. 

So, that's the gist of it; both the narrative and game design of Undertale expect you to kill Toriel on your first run, which seems to have lead to some small inconsistencies. I'd like to stress, though, that Undertale's design and story are amazing in general. That's really the only reason why these details stuck out to me. Also, nothing I've concluded here is factual. In fact, I hope to write a follow-up piece based on responses and feedback, so please do respond in any way you can!

Thank you for your time! Hopefully, we can discuss design again soon.