Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Danganronpa and Trustworthy Reviews

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is overrated.

The game is basically fine. It oozes personality with a distinctive aesthetic that's serviceable at worst and compelling at best. It boasts some clever twists and well-done mysteries. It's also a bizarre mishmash of mechanics, some of which work and some of which don't (the "Re: Action" system is flat-out the worst attempt at conversation branching I have ever seen in a game) featuring paper-thin characters and a bevy of plot holes. (There are also a few moments that are shockingly insensitive or offensive, but that's another story.) It borrows heavily from influences including Ace Attorney, Zero Escape, Persona 4, and Battle Royale, but almost always in shallow ways that fail to emulate what made them great. The end result is entertaining, flashy, and kind of dumb.

The game's producer has even said in an interview that the characters are deliberately exaggerated and that the variety of game mechanics were sprinkled in after the story was already written because visual novels are on the decline:

[Gamasutra:] A lot of the characters fit into really strong stereotypes. The concept of being "The Ultimate" whatever means they stand out as stereotypes. Can you talk about why you went in that direction?

[Game Producer Yoshinori Terasawa]: What were we thinking about? It's hard to answer that! [laughs] The scenario writer, Kazutaka Kodaka, he's the one who basically thought of those stereotypes, and he created those characters. He's the one who thought it up. When I spoke to Mr. Kodaka, I requested that he make [the player character] Makoto as non-special as possible, and make the other characters stand out in their own way a lot, and that's why there's this balance. That's how Mr. Kodaka was able to create these characters.

Unlike a lot of other visual novels, there are a lot of other gameplay elements such as free exploration, and the trials having multiple different gameplay elements. Did that grow from the story or did those ideas come first?

YT: It was originally a basic visual novel, but visual novel games are not that popular in Japan anymore, either. So we figured that if Dangan Ronpa were to be just a visual novel, it would not be as popular we wanted it to be, these days. So that's why, in order to show that the game is really interesting, we decided to add a lot of different features -- after the scenario was written.

—Christian Nutt, Dangan Ronpa: Death, stress, and standing out from the crowd

Still, there's a ton of potential here. If they've learned from their missteps, the sequel could be amazing. So we just have to wait for the Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair reviews, right?

Well, here's the problem. The English-language outlets that cover these kinds of games tend to love them rather unconditionally.

"Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is easily one of the most intriguing games I've played in quite some time. It’s as if Persona and Phoenix Wright got together and had a little demon spawn that I didn't want to put down -- no matter how disturbing it can be at times. For fans of adventure/visual novel games, this is an easy must play on Vita this year. But it’s also a great entry for those who tend to find this type of game a little on the slow side and well worth the time."
—Wesley Ruscher, Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

"It's a seductive mystery with a winning cast, a handful of great surprises and an undeniably appealing tawdriness at its center. The cast is great, the voice acting is strong, and the writing is bizarre in a very good way. The court battles have a dizzying momentum."
Kirk Hamilton, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: The Kotaku Review

"Danganronpa's exactly the sort of thing I've come to expect from Sony's handheld in recent months: a memorable, stylish and effortlessly cool experience of the kind you simply don't get on any other platform. It's a brilliant game, a wonderfully crafted murder mystery, and one of the most engaging stories I've had the pleasure to plow through in recent months."
Pete Davison, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Vita Review: Don't Despair

"If anyone ever again argues with me that games can't hold literary merit, I'm going to point them to Danganronpa. . . . Danganronpa is ultimately the richest game narrative I've experienced in some time, and it's a game I'm going to need to play through a couple of times to fully comprehend its full value as a work of storytelling. . . . [T]he game is the greatest melting pot of philosophical concepts that I've come across in a game to date. . . . In short, Danganronpa is a strong contender for my favourite game ever."
—Matt S., Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita)

And so on and so on. Even the reviews that admit the game isn't perfect tend to only complain about minor details:

"Danganronpa isn’t without flaws: It desperately needs an option to turn off the back touchpad during the trial scenes, panning around a room can at times be awkward due to the set camera angle, and with as much voice acting is present in the game, I would love to have had every line of dialogue voiced. Yet those are small bumps along what’s otherwise a fantastic (and fantastically twisted) trip through a tale of despair and hope. If titles like Gravity Rush and Tearaway are reasons to own a Vita for any standard gamer, then Danganronpa is a must-have for those of us fueled by a love for experiences a little less ordinary."
Eric L. Patterson, EGM Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

I'm not going to say that all these people's opinions are wrong. But I have to wonder if some of these reviews aren't really about the game so much as they're about what it represents. Danganronpa is exactly the sort of game the gaming literate should like. Its unique aesthetic makes it feel like the work of an auteur. While most of what's in it is recycled, there's nothing else out there with this particular combination, so it feels like it's full of bold experiments. It's loaded with references to games you already like and it's from a developer known for quirky titles. It has many, many words and some intelligent plot twists. It's even got an unnecessary Japanese title (the title means "Bullet Refutation"; they easily could have translated it to "Bullet Points").

If your favorite games aren't all named "Call of Duty" and none of them are playable on an iPhone, then Danganronpa slides in alongside games like Shovel Knight, Super Meat Boy, and Psychonauts as a symbol of everything good about videogames. But the problem is that these aren't just symbols - they're games, too, and imperfect ones. Shovel Knight is too punishing for its steep difficulty curve. Super Meat Boy lost sight of its own admirable design goals and its levels got too big. And Psychonauts... okay, Psychonauts was really good. The Meat Circus level was awful, though.

I'm not supposed to say these things. Not if I want to be seen as a "core" gamer who loves indies and innovation. Most reviewers won't say them either. (Except for the Meat Circus thing. It's okay to hate the Meat Circus.) And most reviewers aren't saying the bad things that there are to say about about Danganronpa either, so how can I trust them to tell me whether Danganronpa 2 is any better?

I did find one, though.

"[Danganronpa] happily follows in the genre's footsteps--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. If you're looking for a narrative-driven experience unlike just about anything else out there, Danganronpa delivers handsomely and weirdly. . . . As far as entry points go, Danganronpa is a great one, even if 999 and VLR are better games. If you like what you see here, more strangeness awaits you. Danganropa's tongue-twisting sci-fi (or is it?) narrative will have you constantly second guessing, and while the game-y parts aren't its strongest point, they work well enough."
Patrick Klepek, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review

Patrick Klepek gives Danganronpa a very even-handed review, listing out both its strengths and weaknesses and arriving at the conclusion that the game is flawed but worthwhile. I trust this. I'm looking forward to seeing what he thinks about Danganronpa 2.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Disney Magical World is Full of Surprises

I've been playing Disney Magical World recently. It's well-dressed busywork without a lot of depth but there's a good variety of activities (including some surprisingly nontrivial combat) and plenty of customization options (I want some of those shirts in real life). It's also consistently warm and loaded with treats for the longtime Disney fan - for example, one of the quests is to find a pumpkin so that the Fairy Godmother can make you a coach to ride to Cinderella's ball. If you're nostalgic about Disney, it's a good way to relax after a long day. But there are two particular things about it that have caught my attention.

The first is non-gendered outfits. The game has a ton of clothes you can buy or make, and some of it is traditionally male or female. The game doesn't care, though. It doesn't distinguish at all. Anyone can wear anything, and nobody bats an eye - the only comments that you'll get are compliments on your fashion sense if your outfit is coordinated. My character still runs around in pants rather than a dress, but I appreciate that it's a choice.

It's especially refreshing after the recent controversy over Tomodachi Life omitting gay relationships. It's a silly "life simulator" that encourages you to create characters based on yourself and your real-life friends, who can then fall in love and get married - but only in heterosexual arrangements.

"It's more of an issue for this game because the characters are supposed to be a representation of your real life. You import your personalized characters into the game. You name them. You give them a personality. You give them a voice. They just can't fall in love if they're gay."
—Tye Marini as quoted in Nintendo says no to virtual equality in life game

As noted in that article, Nintendo's initial response to the controversy was to state that Tomodachi Life was intended to be "playful", "whimsical", and "quirky", and that it was "never intended to make any form of social commentary". Which is a weird thing to say about a development decision that must have been deliberate. They had to put in "if" statements and check character genders to prevent homosexual match-ups. I do find it very plausible that they didn't intend to make social commentary, but it's what they ended up doing. (Nintendo later followed up with a much better statement.)

By simply omitting such flags and checks from its clothing options, Disney Magical World is quietly inclusive (of a different group - there are no homosexual relationships in Disney Magical World because there are no relationships at all outside of the canon Disney couples). It was easier to code that way, too.

The second thing that caught my attention is how freemium-like some of the mechanics are - but without the evil. Several of the activities are time-gated - some resources can only be gathered a couple of times per day, it takes a while for your cafe to serve the meals you have prepared, some plants must be watered a few times over the course of an hour or two before they can be harvested. But you never run out of things to do - there are resources and plants that move much faster, and plenty of other activities that are just always available. And just as importantly - you never lose anything. The resources will wait patiently until you show up to gather them. Your cafe won't suddenly become unpopular because it's out of food; it just won't serve any customers until you cook more. The plants won't wither or die if they go unwatered; they just won't grow until you do water them. If the game killed your crops and removed your customer base just because you'd had a busy day in real life, you'd be forced to evaluate whether you wanted to start over or whether you wanted to do something else with your time. But since Disney Magical World never punishes you for having other things to do, it's always pleasant to come back to it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

How I Didn't Learn Guitar by Playing Rocksmith 2014

I was intrigued when the first Rocksmith came out - a guitar tutor disguised as a videogame? Learn guitar by basically playing Guitar Hero with a real guitar? It sounded promising, but I wasn't totally sold on the concept. Mixed reviews prompted me to leave it alone and try Rock Band 3's pro guitar mode instead. I didn't really stick with that long, though, as it had the unfortunate combination of (a) being really hard and (b) not actually teaching me to play guitar.

Some time later, I thought of taking up the axe again, rescuing my dusty guitar from where she was languishing in the corner of my bedroom. I got another nudge in this direction when a musically-inclined woman on OkCupid called me out on my profile photo where I'm holding a guitar. ("Can you actually play, or is that just to impress the ladies?" "It's to impress the ladies. Is it working?") Then Rocksmith 2014 went on sale and I read a glowing review of it, and I took the plunge.

(Incidentally, this is the first game I've ever played where I thought, "Man, I actually wish I were playing this with a Kinect." It's obnoxious to have to take your hands off the guitar and grab a controller to do basically anything. It would be amazing to be able to just say "Riff repeater, 50% speed!" and have it drop into the riff repeater at 50% speed.)

The game advises you to play for an hour every day, which I tried hard to stick to. Daily play was easy enough to achieve, but I didn't always manage to last a full hour. At first, it was because I felt like I was learning a lot very quickly, and needed to take a break to digest. But after a few days, it was because I was getting frustrated.

I hit a bit of a wall, and the wall was called "chords". Chords are hard, and the game didn't seem to acknowledge this, which made me wonder if I was just an idiot who didn't have what it takes to learn the guitar and I should slink off back to the keyboard. (I acknowledge that I may be biased by the fact that I took piano lessons from age five to twelve, but the keyboard is WAY more usable of an instrument. You don't have to memorize weird hand positions in order to play chords. You just put your fingers on the keys. But the guitar is just so much sexier.)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Little Inferno, PISS, and Doing Real Things

In December of 2012, I played a game called Little Inferno. My purchase followed that of my friend Iceman's, and both were due to Chris Franklin's video on the subject (warning, total spoilers):


(By the way, if you aren't familiar with Chris Franklin's work, I highly recommend you rectify this situation.)

The game isn't perfect and one can argue over the price point for a 3-hour experience you'll probably never revisit, but it stuck in my mind and left me thinking. The obvious reading of the game is an attack on freemium games of the time-and-money-sink variety. I think one could make a pretty strong argument that its themes apply to games or trivial entertainments in general. But for me, the game is about growing up.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Parenting Lesson from Athena

One day when my brother was a young boy, he decided to expand his meager collection of Nintendo games. Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda were great fun, but Brother Professor wanted something new.

So he enlisted the aid of Mama Professor, who took him to Toys R Us. With maybe fifty dollars to his name, Brother Professor surveyed the $35 NES games, inspecting the boxes of the games he did not already own. He found the one that looked the coolest, boosted by its ties to Greek mythology, and took it home. Unfortunately, Athena was the game inside.

When he began playing, my brother quickly realized it was an awful, awful game. Graphically ugly with no plot to speak of, featuring poorly designed levels and suffering from major control issues, the game didn't even have any real connection to Greek mythology besides the name.

Brother Professor tried hard to like the game. It had been a major investment, and who knew when he could afford another one? But Athena was just too horrible. He couldn't do it. He gave up. From then on, there was a self-enforced rule in the Professor household: rent before you buy.

Decades later, I was talking to Mama Professor and asked if she remembered when my brother had bought that one awful, awful game. "Athena," she said immediately. I was impressed she remembered the title so easily. It turned out she remembered much more than that.

She'd been watching my brother inspect the game boxes. She knew this couldn't possibly be a good way to pick out a game. She wanted to tell my brother to check reviews or talk to someone who had played the game. She wanted to forbid him from buying the game until he knew it was good. But she didn't.

My mother held her tongue, and let my brother make his own mistake. And thus instead of resenting her treading on his freedoms, he learned a valuable lesson. A lot of parenting, my mother said, is knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Achievements are Broken; Here's How to Fix Them

Fundamentally, an achievement is just a publicly-viewable checkmark indicating the completion of a particular action. The Xbox 360 added points gained from each achievement that accumulate into a total across all games. The PlayStation 3 followed suit, as did Apple's GameCenter. (Notably, Steam did not. Steam achievements have no point value and do not add to a cumulative total.)

In order for these points to be meaningful, there has to be some kind of equality across games. The 360 mandates that each full retail game must provide exactly 1000 points worth of achievements (it's a bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes let's keep it simple). The PS3 has a similar rule, though its numbers are obfuscated (for convenience here, I shall refer to their point value as also 1000). This prevents oneupmanship between game developers, who might otherwise put out games with ever-increasing amounts of achievement points available, which would quickly render the running total meaningless and destroy much of the marketing value of achievements.

So what happens when a game launches with bad achievements? It's become standard for games to be patched, but it's unusual for achievements to be patched, and even then it's generally just to avert controversy via a cosmetic change. Because of the need to keep a consistent point total, you can't add new achievements without removing old ones - and removing or replacing an achievement is almost certain to upset people. No matter how ludicrous the achievement, somebody out there has it - and they don't want the proof of their hard work stricken from the record. If you leave it up on their profile but make it no longer available for new players to get, then the new players may feel slighted that the opportunity to earn it has been taken away from them.

But the inability to add new achievements is severely limiting. It means you can't fix problem achievements (of which there are plenty). It also leaves out a powerful way to grow a game - just look at how Valve has kept Team Fortress 2 fresh by adding, among other things, batches of new Steam achievements. (Steam achievements don't have points, so they can freely be added without running afoul of point imbalance.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amazon Opens 3D Printing Store

So, Amazon has opened a 3D Printing Store. The selection's pretty limited, though, and you can't print arbitrary designs. It's hard to get excited about this in a world that already has shapeways, sculpteo, pinshape, etc.

I've honestly found it difficult to get excited about consumer 3D printing in general, because what I consider to be the obvious use case - printing your game characters - is incredibly underserved. You can print your World of Warcraft characters, you can print your Minecraft worlds, and that's about it. (You used to be able to print your Rock Band 2 characters, but that stopped when Rock Band 3 came out.) I would pay a lot of money for a print of my City of Heroes main, or my character from the Saints Row games. This would be great even for games where you just customize an existing character - I can get a Team Fortress 2 Medic, but I can't get him wearing the right hat.

I hope we get to that world someday. I do enjoy iconic, established characters from beloved games, but I have much more personal attachment to the characters I've actually created - they've been imbued with a piece of myself. Nobody else has one quite like them.

Relatedly, with Nintendo coming out with game-enabled figurines of their cross-game characters called "amiibos", it's a perfect time to ask again - why can't I get a print of my Mii? More than one of the amiibo-using games allows you to play as a Mii, so why not sell amiibos of actual Miis? I know it can't possibly look as nice as the other amiibos, but it would be yours in a way the others can't be. I know I'd get one.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sony to Lure Nintendo Gamers with a Fractured Platform

Wait, Sony's plan to win back Wii gamers is to sell them games they can already buy, but charge more for them?

"...House is keen for Sony to remaster old PlayStation games for this new audience on PS4. We're already seeing the fruits of this with The Last of Us Remastered on PS4, due out soon. Naughty Dog's game launched on PS3 in June 2013, and Sony believes there are a significant number of PS4 owners who never played it."
Wesley Yin-Poole, Sony: PS4 targeting Wii owners who skipped PS3 and Xbox 360

If the greatest hits of the PS3 are a substantial draw for the PS4, then maybe the console should have been - oh, I don't know, backwards compatible? Maybe they shouldn't have fractured the PlayStation platform to begin with, so that they wouldn't need re-releases to try to patch it back up.

I'm sure somebody thought it was a great idea to repackage these games and sell them for launch prices again. But this comes off as an argument that now is a great time to buy a PS3, not a PS4. You can get one and the same games they're using to sell the PS4 for a fraction of the cost, with a much larger library of other games available to try out next. And if you're coming from the Wii, the graphical jump from SD to HD will be plenty impressive - way bigger than the jump from PS3 to PS4.

I don't know who this is really for. If you already have the games, there's no real reason to pick them up on PS4 again. If you don't, it's still better to get them on PS3. A backwards-compatible PS4 would have been more appealing for new and existing customers alike.

"It seems like [a] crazy decision. Consoles gain value as their library grows. They also gain brand loyalty. If I have a bookshelf full of Xbox games at home when my Xbox dies, then it's a safe bet I'll just replace it with a new Xbox even if there are other, cheaper, more popular, more reliable devices out there. I'm tied to the machine by the library, and the longer I'm with the machine the bigger the library gets. It's almost like a cell phone where the penalty for cancelling the service grows over time. A lot of other businesses would LOVE to have this kind of soft, incremental lock-in.

But if the new generation isn't backwards compatible then I'm cut off from that library. The incentives tying players to the platform are gone. When you break compatibility you're setting your customers free to dabble with the competition and begin a process of gradual lock-in with them."
Shamus Young, Experienced Points: Why the PS4 Doesn't Do PS3 Games

For my part, I still have no PS4 and I still have no concrete plans to buy one.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Boobs are Not the Enemy: Videogames and the Male Gaze

Fancy CarSuppose I'm making a film about street racers. The film's characters have a great appreciation of cars, so when they first see the fancy new car that just might enable the hero to win the race, there's an establishing shot with a long, slow pan across the car while dramatic music plays. Later, there's a scene of the villain in his fancy car which the audience is seeing for the first time. There's again a slow pan and dramatic music, even though there aren't any other characters around. This time, the scene is establishing what a badass the villain is - not to any other characters, but to the audience itself. The way the camera lingers over the car's lines isn't showing a character's appreciation. It's to allow the audience to experience their own appreciation.

Probably the people watching my street racing movie like fancy cars, so they will appreciate the scene with the villain's car. But now suppose I make another movie about a small-town high school teacher rallying the community for a local cause. When I first show the teacher driving to work, I use the same cinematic tricks I did in the other film - slowly panning along the car while playing dramatic music. Then the teacher gets to the school, and the story moves on.

Someone who really likes cars may still enjoy this scene, but to most people it's going to be distracting at best. The car isn't important to the story at all - why is it receiving so much attention? Why would I assume that the audience of this completely different film would be into cars? If I keep doing this, with more and more films on various subjects all treating cars in this same way, people who don't care about cars may start to get annoyed with my work. They might feel that I'm being exclusionary in my film-making, privileging part of the audience over the rest for no clear reason. Plenty of people aren't obsessed with cars - why can't they enjoy my low-budget monster movie or my railroad magnate biopic too? Why do I insist on shoving in these totally distracting segments that damage the experience for them?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Uninformed Economic Voters

Recently, your friend and mine Cliff Bleszinski wrote an essay defending microtransactions in general and EA in specific. There are a lot of things to be said about this essay - some of which are said expertly by Jim Sterling here, and some of which touch on concepts discussed by Shamus Young writing a couple of years ago about Bobby Kotick here and here.

Cliff's main point is that game developers exist within an economic landscape, and as such they will do what makes them money and avoid what doesn't. As consumers, our job is to vote with our wallets, supporting what we like and boycotting what we don't.

In response to this, I'm going to finally post something I wrote back in October 2011. I never put it up before because I couldn't find a way to turn it into a full article. It's really just one simple idea. But as foreseen by Nathan Grayson and proved by the recent SimCity debacle, if anything it's more relevant today than it was a year and a half ago.

Here it is.