Why Gamers Should be Clamoring for Dragon’s Dogma 2

dragonsdogma

As I pointed out last week, Japanese role playing games have a habit of lazy game design taking away whatever points are earned by conceptual originality or gameplay depth. As a result of Western properties dominating the AAA role-playing scene in recent years, some Japanese developers have begun abandoning their native established anime format and borrowing heavily from us with good results.

FromSoftware has become a perennial favorite amongst hardcore gamers for combining Western fantasy mythology with ruthless old-school video game difficulty and exceptional combat mechanics, but at one point last gen, Capcom produced a true gem as well. Dragon’s Dogma became the fastest-selling new intellectual property in gaming for the PS3/Xbox 360 era and featured some mechanics that could have been real game changers. The expanded edition, Dark Arisen, has recently made its PC debut after all this time, but the late port has just served to raise the question “where is the sequel”?

Well technically, there has been a sequel, albeit a free-to-play multiplayer title only released in Japan last summer. The results are encouraging, with Dragon’s Dogma Online’s success leading Capcom earlier this month to reaffirm their statement after the first game’s release that they are discussing plans to continue the franchise. This is potentially great news (if you can call such a vague declaration news), but I think it’s about time we started asking for more than possible plans.dragons dogma hydra

Personally, I’m a little baffled that after over three years of anticipation, the best they have to offer Western gamers is a PC port and some maybes. The first game was a true breath of fresh air; a rare innovative JRPG that was thrilling all by itself, but seemed to promise so much more to come. Dragon’s Dogma is a flawed but rock-solid foundation to build a franchise to rival Dark Souls, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, and The Witcher for fantasy role-playing supremacy. It just needs Capcom to commit to it.

In case you need a refresher or haven’t yet played it, let’s review what made this game stand out from the competition. Well, there’s the combat, for one. What Dragon’s Dogma brings to the table here is borrowed from the PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus. instead of lamely hitting and running while hacking at gigantic beasts’ ankles or whatever, you can actually climb onto the larger enemies and attack them that way, which makes for a very epic feel to monster battles. I’m surprised that this hasn’t already become as standard in real time melee combat as cover mechanics have become in shooters. I miss it already.

But the most important and tantalizing innovation that makes me pine for more is the pawn system; Dragon’s Dogma’s persistent multiplayer element and the AI that drives it. Basically, every player creates his or her character along with a single “pawn” to accompany them. Each player’s pawn learns as it adventures and this is where it gets interesting. They’d remember enemy weaknesses, quest objectives, hidden treasure locations, and the like. And each pawn is placed in an online pool from which other gamers can add them -along with their skills and expertise- to their own party. This was an awesome experience.

dragons dogma pawn creationIf you had a pawn in your party who had experience fighting a given enemy, they would not only choose appropriate attacks, but they’d shout out their weaknesses and also pathfind on quests they’re familiar with. You could review other players’ pawns based on their performance and receive reviews of your own pawn from players who’d borrowed them as well. This player-driven companion system might be the most promising innovation RPGs have seen in a long time and coupled with the intense party-based combat, made for a truly engrossing game in spite of a pretty small world and meager story.

That is to say that while Dragon’s Dogma was one of the most exciting games of 2012, the most exciting thing about it was the prospects for the future of the franchise. As great as it was, there was plenty of room for improvement. More pawn customizations, a larger persistent world, better characters and story, co-op multiplayer, even better AI; in some ways the original game almost felt like a precursor to a forthcoming game that would take the role playing genre to another level. And although Capcom has been beaten to that punch by The Witcher 3, I for one am still waiting for them to continue what they started with the first game and deliver a proper AAA sequel to us.      

I’m haunted by memories of in-game nights spent lost in the darkness and being ambushed by unseen horrors, delighted by recollections of running up a path to a rocky precipice while my pawns engaged a huge armored cyclops and leaping onto its back from above, causing it to rip off its helmet in a rage to get at me as I stabbed at its neck, and nostalgic for the time I journeyed with Tyrion Lannister in pawn form, eventually sending him back to his owner with the message “It was an honor”.dragons dogma cyclops climb

But I’m also itched remembering constant backtracking across a small map, bland characters, and so many pawns ending up looking pretty alike due to a pretty small number of outfits. That, and Tyrion should’ve had an axe, not a sword. More weapon variety would be awesome. These are the sorts of things that would likely be remedied in a sequel, and some were already addressed in Dark Arisen. But damn it, we still want more.

Capcom is a major studio with the resources to make a massive mark on the RPG market with a series as exciting as Dragon’s Dogma. It’s bad enough that Western PlayStation and Xbox owners are deprived of Monster Hunter, but I really can’t understand their tentativeness to go all in while FromSoftware continues to garner accolades and rack up sales. They’ve explicitly stated that the reception of and feedback from the PC port is going to be a deciding factor on whether or not we ever see a new game, so if we’re going to support this franchise and encourage Capcom to make it into the rampaging genre behemoth it could be, now’s the time.

If you’re a PC gamer and you haven’t checked it out yet or are looking to relive your time as the Arisen and take a fresh new generation of pawns out to slay massive beasts once again, that’s plenty of incentive to travel back to Gransys. The rest of us can commence begging Capcom to please allow us to give them $60 for a new installment -or at the very least, a localization of Dragon’s Dogma Online .

It’s been almost four years and although there is not a shortage of quality games vying for our time and financial attention, my mind keeps wandering back to the theoretical sequel to a RPG that is too seldom discussed. It’s time we started discussing it in order to help make that sequel a reality.

  

Advertisements

Five Things Modern RPGs Need to Learn to Stay Relevant

modernrpg

Role playing games have been my favorite video game genre since the early ‘90s and my list of all-time favorite games reads a lot like a list of the best they’ve had to offer. I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting ideas or just a really solid role-playing experience, but more and more often I’m finding myself underwhelmed by what I find. 

Even with the many games I really enjoy, it seems like there’s always something that just bugs the crap out of me. Something that would have made a good game a great game or a mediocre game a good game if the developer had just thought it through a little differently. There are a lot of cliches and bad habits that have become standard operating procedure, especially in low budget turn-based JRPGs, that need to be reconsidered to bring the genre back to a place where they can be the toast of the gaming world again and not just something hardcore gamers play out of force of habit.

There’s still a lot of quality out there, but it can sometimes feel like you’re playing a retro title even when you’re paying a premium price. Here are five things that aspiring role playing game developers should keep in mind if they want to get on the level of BioWare or classic Square and crank out some modern RPG classics instead of forgettable bargain bin bait.  

persona 4 dialogue laundry

I feel like we might be meandering away from the main plot a bit…

Gamers gotta game

First and foremost, some developers need to learn that when we purchase a video game, the thing we want to do the very most is PLAY IT. I feel like maybe I should have typed that in Japanese. At some point during the original PlayStation era, RPGs fell in love with cutscenes. At the time it was pretty amazing. I mean, a video game with movies in it? Best of both worlds, baby! But I think the sheen has worn off. In fact, it’s downright dilapidated at times and AAA games like Final Fantasy tend to overdo it. Making epic cutscenes is an expensive process and I can’t help but feel that the money could be better spent at times, considering it’s something that stops the gameplay dead in its tracks and keeps gamers from the game.

The visual novel format is a cheaper way to make cutscenes that use series’ of static or semi-animated images combined with voiceovers for a more comic bookish effect. It’s become the favorite storytelling tool for low budget JRPGs and it’s still effective, but the problem with that is with fewer budgetary constraints sometimes the writers don’t know when to rein it in so scenes can go on too long. More on that later.

The biggest problem with both of these is that they pull the player out of the game. We are no longer gaming, we are just watching. In small doses, this is fine, but especially in the early going, games need to find better ways to introduce the story to players and keep the gameplay rolling at the same time. Gamers are getting older and our free time is getting less, so modern games need to learn how to keep us playing lest we become disinvolved. The differences between film and video games are becoming more apparent and if anything, games have more storytelling potential due to their interactivity. It’s a shame to bog dynamic interactive entertainment down with too many lengthy bouts of passive storytelling.

Persona 3 and 4 were the gold standard JRPGs of their generation, but each of them took several hours before the player did much more than watch characters converse. That’s just not going to work anymore. I’m hoping Persona 5 puts players in control of their destiny right off the bat and unfolds the story through more actual gameplay segments rather than just showing us a bunch of epic-length visual novel movies as an intro.

skyrim-book

Cool story, bro. The hundred hours of gameplay would’ve felt totally empty without it.

Don’t text and drive

My opening theme for this list is video game writers who don’t seem to have editors. Interrupting gameplay for hours at a time is going is maybe the first and foremost sin that modern RPGs are struggling with these days, but some games feel the need to barrage you with information almost constantly and that can be annoying as well. And it’s not mostly Japan doing it this time.

Last week I praised Wasteland 2 and its old-school sink-or-swim approach to party-building and gameplay. This week, I’m criticizing it for making me have the exact same conversations over and over and over and interrupting my explorations with walls of text describing things I could see for myself. It seems like every character you meet has a long list of dialogue options and they were all differently worded ways of saying the exact same thing. You can get good information and quests in unexpected places so all available options need to be checked out, but asking every NPC the same line of questions and having them give you the same answers in return just led to me mindlessly skipping through the conversations because I just didn’t care, and that is a big no-no.

If I, the gamer, don’t care about what’s currently going on in the game, somebody is not doing their job. Redundancy is the father of boredom and while some gamers are all about the lore, I think we can admit that a lot of games overdo it. The beloved Elder Scrolls series throws piles of books at you, all filled with flavor text.

Part of me wants to read it all -I’m a reader and I naturally want to absorb every word placed before mine eyes- but most of me wishes they’d take that enthusiasm for their world and use it to give their characters more personality instead of writing satirical in-game erotic novels that few gamers are going to have the time or patience for in a game that will eat at least a hundred hours of your life in exploration alone. Anything that stops you mid-game and beckons you to read completely unnecessary or redundant information for minutes on end is a liability. Keep the story flowing instead.  

omega quintet text quiet

So all this silent texting as dialogue is your doing, Teeny?

Give voices to the voiceless

Moving along in this same vein, the excess of writing has led some games to not bother with voiceover at all at times. And the ones that do this are also the ones who are prone to half-assing in other areas as well. I’m an old schooler so I’m well aware that gaming didn’t always have fancy voice acting and most of my favorite games of all time did not. But in the modern age you’ve got to pick your format and stick with it.

Classic and retro games work with only text dialogue as a single format and it’s effective. Undertale used different tones for characters to convey the illusion of individual voices without voiceover. These are immersive because they are consistent. But some modern games flip back and forth between formats and as a result, they break immersion and often annoy the player.

Switching between voiced and unvoiced dialogue is something that just shouldn’t be happening anymore. It’d be like watching a blockbuster film and having it switch between speech and silent film acting from scene to scene. Unless it’s some deliberately weird artistic experimental indie thing, all it’s going to do is annoy the viewer. And even if it is, the result will be be the same for most. Ni no Kuni was terrible about this. Let’s hope the upcoming sequel does better.  

Right now I’m playing through Omega Quintent and I’ve got to say, this is killing me. There are all of these inane conversations that drag on and on and seem to almost go in circles. Sometimes the characters’ mouths are animated and they speak, and sometimes they just stand there and there’s text.

Look, man, if you’re going to visual novel us to death, I think in this day and age we at least deserve full voice acting. If the character dialogue is so unimportant that you convey it with only a static image and some text in a full retail release, why even have it in there interrupting our gameplay? It’s hard to get invested in character and story when you’re constantly being reminded that the developers totally half-assed it. If it’s not important enough to bother with voiceover for it, it’s probably not important enough to leave in the finished product.

mass effect 2 planet scan

Sooooo glad I spent the last three hours searching for Element Zero and finding every other possible element instead. Really fulfilling. Seriously, thanks BioW…..zzzzzz…

Time is (not) on my side

Like I said before, most gamers are all grown up now. This means fewer carefree weekends and summers spent gaming until six in the morning. We’ve got jobs, families, alcoholism, clinical depression, and various other adult responsibilities to attend to and that makes game time a privilege. That is to say that we need to get more content in less time as opposed to when we were little gamerlings with nothing but time on our hands.

To put it in RPG terms, adult gamers have enough grind in our real lives that we don’t really need more of it in our video games. The constant running back and forth performing menial tasks and farming random drops that still defines the genre is becoming outdated as other games focus on meaningful content instead of filler. Thirty or forty hours is enough time to tell a great story and give players plenty of game for their dollar. And really, few games have more than that. But a lot of them double and triple that length by running players around in circles just for the hell of it.

It’s often disguised as incentive, but said incentives usually feel pretty mandatory. As gamers, we want the best gear and the most options and the coolest skills and will inevitably feel that if we skip past all of the side missions we’ll be missing out on a serious chunk of the experience. We want the rewards, but getting them shouldn’t feel like a chore. It’s a game. Nothing should feel like a chore. And making enemies overpowered so you have spend hours fighting weaker ones in areas you’ve already cleared to level up and progress? Just no.

This is another trope that Japan is slow on the draw to change, but Western devs fall into the trap as well. Mass Effect 2 earned some criticism with their planet-scanning mini-game, which had gamers combing over the surface of random planets in order to obtain materials for upgrades, many of which were necessary for your crew to make it to the end of the game alive. BioWare actually took gamers’ complaints to heart and eliminated it in the next game, creating actual side quests and multiplayer content (you know: fun things) instead. It’s time other devs started respecting their players’ time a little and keep the fetch-and-farm quests to a minimum.    

final fantasy XIII sazh figure it out

Jesus, man, I just wanted to know what all this fal’Cie, l’Cie, crystarium nonsense you guys keep spouting is about. Don’t bite my head off.

Keep it (semi) simple, stupid

A lot of the same games who are committing these sins against modern storytelling try to make up for it with opaque, esoteric gameplay mechanics. I get that there is a subsidiary of role playing gamers who live for this sort of thing; the stacking and linking of skills and stats and memorization and calculation of optimum efficiency to create overpowered builds and invincible tactics.

I’m not saying that these things shouldn’t exist, but they really need to be introduced in a manner that is more organic, lest some poor soul trying to get into RPGs to see what all the fuss is about wanders in out of curiosity and gets the genre ruined for them forever after being presented with gameplay that appears to be some form of advanced calculus on top of a nonsensical plot.

Games like Record of Agarest War 2 and (again) Omega Quintet look and sound like great, inviting concepts. Adventure with a diverse array of pretty ladies in a fantasy landscape and choose one of them to father your child, who grows up and repeats the process in the next segment of the game! An idol simulator where you manage a J-pop group right down to costumes and dance moves and use music to save the world! Then after being subjected to a metric ton of inane anime cliches you get to actually play and realize the game has done a crap job of explaining how it works.

You’ve got all of these options and complicated mechanics and the tutorials state only the most obvious or useless things and leave the rest to give you a headache while you clumsily trial-and-error your way through. Some players are hardcore enough to stick with it and spend hours figuring it all out, and others can just power through using only the basics and ignoring the finer points but it’s not at all hard to see why most gamers avoid this stuff like the plague. All that time spent on characters putting their boobs on each other and yelling in text, and almost nothing explaining these complex battle and leveling systems.

This brings us to another growing problem with RPG storytelling. Either there are a bunch of vague and specific things you MUST DO to get the “true ending” -which we often find out too late- or there are other similar features or aspects that are made inaccessible to beginning players. Who really wants to play a game for for fifty-plus hours and then find out they missed out on something important or get a crap ending after feeling like they did everything right because they needed to play the whole game with a walkthrough in their lap, making sure they checked off the list of ridiculously specific things that were never referenced in-game yet needed to be done, to get the not crap ending? Goddamn nobody. That’s who.  

In the case of Final Fantasy XIII, the convoluted plot and its bizarre terminology wasn’t really explained at all until dozens of hours in, leading some confused gamers to tap out early from sheer aggravation. Nobody wants to listen to gibberish for hours on end and gamers not only want to know what’s going on, but they want to know what’s expected of them beyond “kill those things” as well.

If RPGs as a genre are ever going to find their way back to a Final Fantasy VII level of popularity, they need to remember how to marry depth to simplicity and excite players to learn the mechanics without burying them in unnecessary, unexplained complexities early on. Leave the depth in the game, but ease gamers into the mechanics bit by bit. Put plenty of secrets and bonuses in, but don’t make them an absolute necessity to get a decent ending. Make games with story and gameplay that can be enjoyed by everyone from start to finish with minimal stress or a feeling of missing out. Do that and we may see another role playing golden age on the horizon. 

Wasteland 2 Shows Modern RPGs How to Party

wasteland

Late last year, a PC role playing game made its appearance on consoles with surprisingly little fanfare considering it arrived a month ahead of its blood relative which just happened to be the most anticipated game of 2015 for many. In 1988, the first Wasteland introduced many gamers to the post-apocalyptic RPG. That Interplay Productions classic laid the groundwork for what would become Fallout and was then practically forgotten as its spiritual successor’s popularity took off.

Since then the Fallout franchise has changed hands and become a universal open-world role-playing standard among gamers under Bethesda, but PC old schoolers never stopped pining for the classic games. Well, Interplay founder Brian Fargo -now running inXile Entertainment- finally picked up where he left off all those years ago and returned post-apocalyptic exploration to its turn-based roots with Wasteland 2 and console gamers were invited too when the Director’s Cut edition made its way to the PS4 and Xbox One last October.

You’d think this would have been bigger news, and I admittedly bided my time a bit to make sure I’d have time to enjoy this one to the fullest without Fallout 4 looming right around the corner, but I knew this game and I would be meeting one fine day. And once I got around to it, I pretty much fell in love with Wasteland 2 before I even began playing it in earnest for one simple reason: you get to build your own party.wasteland 2 character creator

I hadn’t thought about this, but it has been a really, really long time since I had the opportunity to craft a party of my very own. I mean when was the last time I got to create a full team of adventurers from the ground up? Some Ultima or Might and Magic game from the 90’s? I CAN’T REMEMBER! And that, my friends, is just not right. It’s one thing to choose from a selection of existing characters or shape their skills as they level up, but another experience entirely to make them exactly who and what you want them to be from the get-go down to clothing, ethnicity, and even an optional biography. It’s been so long I forgot how satisfying it can be.

The next obvious question in that train of thought was “why don’t more games do this?” What kind of filthy casual wouldn’t want to lovingly craft their very own group of adventurers? Why are we being robbed of this classic gaming experience? It’s pretty much standard operating procedure to have gamers create their lead character in modern solo RPGs, but in party-based games you pretty much get what you get and have to work from there.

The focus on story and characters is one reason we don’t see these kinds of games very much any more, but another reason is the increased prevalence of handholding. As games have become more popular, more casual folk are playing them, and while they may fail at hardcore RPGing, their money is at least as green as yours or mine and there’s more of them, so they win.

In the old days, you’d hit a brick wall in-game and could spend hours just searching for a way to proceed. These days, if you run into a locked door, relax; the key is almost certain to be in the same room with you. Ditto any passwords or what have you that you need to progress. And rest assured the game will make damn sure that there is a character is in your party that will have any skills you might need complete with on-screen prompts to make using them insultingly obvious.

wasteland 2 statistics skills

Choose wisely.

In a game like Wasteland 2, if you don’t think about your character builds and necessary skills, you’re going to have a bad time. The game doesn’t give a damn if you didn’t think to give any characters enough hacking skills or the ability to pick locks. You ain’t getting in that computer or door until you beef up your skills. Sucks to be you, loser.

Need more charisma to get the outcome you wanted? Should’ve thought of that before. And keep in mind that different conversation options demand specialized posterior-themed social skills to boot (Smart Ass, Kiss Ass, Hard Ass) so raw base stats won’t get it done either. Didn’t think you’d need anyone with a demolition skill or high perception? Have fun being decimated by hidden traps and mines. Thought it’d be a good idea to make a team of AR specialists? Good luck finding enough ammo for everybody’s rifles while the game gives you endless shotgun shells and pistol rounds. Hope you’ve got some leadership to stop your followers from running into the enemies’ teeth and getting themselves killed too. Oh, and your characters will permadie if you don’t have a surgeon on hand to operate promptly when they go down.  Flee, casuals! Flee from this game!

Using angles and cover wisely, gauging distance, assessing risk and reward based on your characters’ individual skillsets; this is what strategy role-playing is supposed to be about. The industry has largely moved towards real time combat, but I hope and pray there will always be a place for thoughtful, stat-crunching, turn-based SRPGs because for those of us who enjoy that style of gameplay, there’s no substitute for the real deal.    

wasteland 2 combat

100% is the sweetest number.

Wasteland 2 may look and play like something from the early ‘00s, complete with scattered voice acting, regular crashes when loading, a Bethesda level of bugs, and way too much redundant text conversation, but given the fact that they pretty much do not make games like this anymore, it’s more than worth it if you’re the kind of gamer who cringed at the thought of Fallout becoming a FPS franchise because you actually enjoy having your successes and failures hinged on cold, unfeeling percentages and statistics.

Given the lack of coverage for the long-awaited sequel to the game that was Fallout’s daddy, I’ve got to assume we’re a dying breed. Modern gamers don’t really seem to want the traditional role-playing experience where life and death rests on the roll of the virtual dice and your characters are exactly what you make them and nothing more, but hats off to inXile for keeping the torch burning.

My bumpy trip to the original post-apocalyptic RPG franchise was totally worth it if for no other reason than to once again experience the increasingly rare video game-exclusive joy of creating a party out of nothing and sending them out to explore a hostile and indifferent world not knowing what to expect, but hoping they have what it takes to succeed. And as a bonus, many other characters can join your party and offer their own skills and commentary letting you practically recruit your own army to support your core party.

With great customization comes great responsibility and playing a game that puts my own progress and survival on my own head is rewarding more often than it is frustrating. There’s always a way to proceed, and always a way to obtain the means to do so; you just have to plan for all contingencies and work for what you don’t have yet. Such is life, both in the radioactive wasteland and out, and that’s why the industry needs more games like this.

Not every gamer wants to be pampered with a mandatory party specially designed to beat the next level or limited to a bunch of cookie cutter standard classes. Sometimes, win or lose, we want the option to make a party that’s all ours and Wasteland 2 gave me just that. That and a massive stash of virtual E.T. cartridges buried in the desert, a raider who sings “Bohemian Rhapsody” to himself, and a countryside full of screaming goats. What more could a gamer want?     

Lemmy Kilmister: A Life Immortalized in Games  

lemmy

Last week the music world lost one of its greatest legends. Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister was the living incarnation of rock and roll and an ageless beacon for hard rock fans to rally behind. The old joke was that when the bombs fell, cockroaches and Motorhead would still be standing. He was the man who proudly declared that he wanted his band to make your lawn die if they moved in next door and made music that would send the members of AC/DC scampering for cover with their hands over their ears. In other words, the dude was badass.

The world is way less metal without Lemmy in it and although it was amazing that he lived to be seventy considering his insane lifestyle, I’m genuinely sad that future generations will never see his like. But he has left behind a legacy, not only of awesome music and crazy road stories, but in video games. He famously spent every possible moment of his free time gaming at his favorite bar, was reportedly a big Star Fox fan, and has appeared in and inspired multiple video games over the years. Here are six of Lemmy Kilmister’s contributions to the gaming industry.

Iron Fist

lemmy motorhead game

It’d be wrong not to open with the fact that Lemmy starred in his own old-school beat ‘em up game named after his band. 1992 was an exciting time to be gaming. If you had a Super Nintendo or at least a Sega Genesis, that is. Amiga, maybe not as much. But at the very least they had Motorhead, a game whose endearing title screen approximation of Lemmy’s musical stylings alone justified its existence.

The game itself consisted mostly of Lemmy brutalizing onscreen representations of other musical genres and healing himself with booze, which actually strikes me as a pretty solid tribute to his life and career. After the rock legend’s passing, some enterprising souls took it upon themselves to convert the game to modern PC format and post it online for free for posterity to enjoy.  

And prior to Lemmy’s demise, the Bulgarian Steam-based fantasy RPG Victor Vran was prepping an expansion pack titled “Motorhead Through the Ages” that will introduce elements inspired by the band’s forty year career of demonic imagery and nasty attitude. Expect an announcement soon.

Born to Raise Hell

lemmy killmaster brutal legend

In 2009, Psychonauts mastermind Tim Schafer unleashed upon the world the most metal video game ever created. Brutal Legend took Double Fine’s trademark charm and humor, Jack Black’s manic energy, the sounds of metal, and some of rock’s greatest icons to make the world’s first and only open world action/RTS/racing/heavy metal tribute game. And you’d best believe Lemmy was at the top of the list of contributors.

He shows up on a gigantic motorbike to aid in your quest as a unit in your ever-growing horde of hellscape-dwelling metalhead revolutionaries. In an amusing irony the iconic bass (strung with the webbing of metal spiders, natch) he used to sonically assault audiences for decades actually HEALS in the world of Brutal Legend. Ironic in a way, but somehow fitting. After all, where the harsh sounds of heavy metal offends most people, for us it’s just what the doctor ordered.

(Don’t let ‘Em) Grind You Down

tony hawk pro skater 3 grind

Gamers who popped Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 into their consoles were smashed in the face with Motorhead’s seminal signature hit “Ace of Spades” right off the bat as it was chosen for that game’s intro sequence featuring real live stunts from some of the X Games’ best. The series was always known for having the coolest music of its day, but this one song is arguably what made this entry memorable.

The sheer chaotic energy of that song is what’s made it an instantly recognizable classic in spite of the fact that I’ve never even heard it on the radio. It’s a natural fit for skate punk culture and the experience of hurtling down a ramp, spinning in midair, and grinding across ledges to that kind of song just perfectly encapsulates the feeling that Pro Skater was always trying to capture. Sometimes, you just need the right soundtrack to bring it all together.

Enter Sandman

lemmy guitar hero metallica

If there was ever a game that Lemmy should star in, it was Guitar Hero (is Bass Hero a thing?). The series had its fair share of playable legends at its peak, but it wasn’t until Metallica got their own game and they insisted on bringing their personal hero along that gamers got to rock out as the man himself.

Lemmy (who can be seen jamming with Metallica irl in the appropriately-named documentary Lemmy) was an obvious fit for the game as one of the most iconic metal singers of all time and “Ace of Spades” was also appropriately featured in the original Guitar Hero and again as DLC in the second game. Needless to say, there’d be a gaping hole in this series without Motorhead’s music.

Love Me Like a Reptile

lemmy new super mario bros

It doesn’t matter what kinds of games you like, your experiences have been touched by this man in one way or another. When Nintendo product analyst Dayvv (if that’s your real name) Brooks was called upon to name the new villains in what turned out to be arguably the NES’s greatest game, Super Mario Bros. 3, he turned to his love of music and Lemmy Koopa was born.

In a recent Kotaku interview, Brooks declared the long-standing rumor that the character was named after the singer to be true, saying “This Koopaling struck me as being the kind of character who would do his own thing, no matter what anyone else thought. I think it was those crazy eyes. Lemmy Koopa was in the crew.” Both Lemmys are also noted for their massive balls.

If you’ve ever played through a Mario game, odds are you’ve met Lemmy and now you’ll always remember his namesake too. Damn it, I really want to hear Motorhead score a Super Mario Bros. game now…

Ace of Spades

lemmy video poker rainbow

The most iconic line from Motorhead’s most iconic song reads “You know I’m born to lose/and gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t want to live forever”. But if any performer should have lived forever, it was Lemmy Kilmister. No other performer’s live sound and presence is done less justice by mere recordings. It feels appropriate to close this journey through the gaming history of a true legend with the fact that the man died gaming. Even more appropriately, considering the song, it was a video poker machine.

When he wasn’t recording or touring, Lemmy passed his time at the Rainbow Bar and Grill in Los Angeles. The two rock institutions are so intrinsically linked that if you googled “lemmy bar” the Rainbow’s official websites were the first three results. He was known for always sitting at the same machine and when he was diagnosed with cancer (just after his birthday party, fuck you very much) the bar’s owner let him take the game home with him. Days later, he passed away in front of it, gaming up until his final moments.

He wasn’t playing League of Legends or Starcraft, but in terms of sheer hours spent playing video games, this man probably has us all beat in the hardcore gamer department. Seventy years old, an unshakable legacy of timeless music, legions of adoring fans, and immortalized in multiple video games; you can’t say it wasn’t an amazing life. Goodnight, sweet prince of darkness.  You are already dearly missed.

Living in the Database: Log Horizon’s Epic Monologue Captures the Essence of Gamer Culture

loghorizon

With all of the nonsense that surrounds modern gaming, sometimes I start to wonder if this hobby is worth it.  With all of the Metabombing, comment section trolling, political crusading, scandal-gating fanatics polluting the culture, the progressive corporatization shaking our last dimes loose with questionable DLC practices, subscription fees, excessive hype, and general oversaturation sometimes I think “Do I really need all of this in my life at my age?”

An the answer is always “Yes. Yes I do.” But why? We live in the age of Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu and I still trek to the library and order comic books through the mail. I’m not really short on things to entertain me. In fact, I’ve got too many interests to ever indulge in full. Objectively, gaming would be the first to go, if only for the sheer cost of it. There’s clearly something else there even beyond my three-and-a-half decades of history with the industry that binds me to gaming. Yeah, it’s fun, but lots of things are fun with a fraction of the baggage. Why be a gamer at this point?

log horizon kaname japan

I wish, Kaname-chan. I wish.

I was on Crunchyroll watching the second season of Log Horizon -one of an increasing number of anime/manga series that have taken to gaming as a source of inspiration and creativity- the other day and I had the answer laid out for me. I’ve already written about a number of Japanese animated series with similar premises, most notable Sword Art Online, which treat gaming and gamer culture with a kind of respect we simply are not used to in the West. That isn’t to say that otaku are cultural heroes with massive sex appeal in the Land of the Rising Sun either, but even if they are still looked down on by the popular kids at school, the media at least sees the value in targeting them as a legitimate demographic.

Log Horizon takes place inside of a video game.Whereas SAO took a conceptual science fiction approach to explain how people could get trapped in a fantasy MMORPG, this one is contentto let you wonder about the “Apocalypse” that brought them into the gaming world of Elder Tale and focuses instead on the lives and times of the players adjusting to a new state of being, one they are actually better at than “real life”.

For the most part the series focuses less on conceptualization and more on plotting and putting the actual characters in interesting situations and the typical anime tropes of pining for senpai and  kicking perverts in the face, but in the tenth episode of Season 2, at least half of the show is spent in a single monologue unlike anything else I’ve ever seen or heard on television. It’s the kind of inspirational speech that, if given at a massive gaming conference like E3, could incite the geeky masses to overthrow the tyranny of sports and reality shows and remake this world in our own image. Or we would if we weren’t too busy playing games all the time.

The context is that a large guild has spent weeks on a large-scale raid. But where their real life had become a video game, the game itself has started to become more like real life with no rules or balancing. As a result, the raid bosses suddenly stopped behaving like raid bosses and left their designated areas to team up on the party, making for a bad situation where the party was surviving by the skin of their teeth against a single boss and then wiped out following the arrival of two more. After respawning, the entire guild is miserably considering giving even after having put so much work into the raid. And that’s when their guild leader, William, haunted by memories of the social scorn he endured to be the gamer he is, reminds them of why they are even doing this. Cue inspirational guitar solo.

Abridged somewhat.

Is spending all of your time gaming stupid, impractical, not real, or (to quote Scroobius Pip) absolutely batshit, factually inaccurate, engaged in the inanimate? Maybe. But it’s how we choose to spend our lives and that is, in itself, a beautiful thing. We CHOOSE to wholeheartedly invest ourselves in another person’s art; to so completely immerse ourselves in virtual worlds that we often neglect the “real” one in order to be somebody else someplace else.

And in a society where the vast majority of people invest themselves in the televised love lives of celebrities and grown men getting paid millions to play with balls while seriously considering voting for Donald Trump to occupy the highest station in the free world, fuck you if you tell me that’s wrong. I choose to game not because the media and my social peers are telling me it’s important. I do it for me and only me because I enjoy it. Gaming isn’t just a something to occupy time or argue about or be persecuted for; it can be a powerful declaration of one’s individuality.

And let’s not just accept that the time we spend occupying the databases of servers instead of drinking ourselves sick in bars -or whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing- is time wasted. We learn valuable life lessons well beyond the old “hand-eye-coordination” standard we used to justify it when I was little. We learn never to quit, we learn organization and how to work together as a team, we learn to analyze the details of our surroundings for anything we can use to our advantage, we overcome our fears and our doubts and find out that there is always a way through it you can just change your perspective a little.

I’m different from other people. I see things they don’t see. I do things they don’t understand, and I get results that they struggle to replicate. A lot of these things could be arguably be traced back to a lifetime “wasted” on video games. Or is it just that these are the things that attract me to gaming in the first place? I’ve been gaming my entire life. There’s no way to even separate one from the other.

log horizon william gamer speech

Preach it, brother.

If I was ever considering selling my consoles and investing in sports memorabilia instead or perhaps spending my time falling in line to cheerlead some social parasite’s malformed self-serving political opinions, William’s speech would set me right. I don’t define myself by those standards. I shouldn’t define myself by those standards. I’m a gamer because I choose to game and I choose to game because that’s how I enjoy spending my time. Any objections?

Log Horizon may lack the level of conceptual sophistication of a Sword Art Online, but what it somewhat lacks in originality, it makes up for with heart in scenes like this. I wonder if American television will ever have shows that speak for gamer culture this way after the rampant demonization and marginalization that had been the media status quo for so long. But even if it never happens, we’re still not going anywhere.

Those of us who decide to break left where everyone else stays right and choose to actively participate in the worlds of our escapist entertainment where everybody else is content to just be a passive observer and get more hardcore in an increasingly casual world aren’t doing so because it’s the easy thing to do. We’ve always done it under a hail of double-standard mockery and projected shame and if that never changes, so what?

Even if it gets worse and we’re blamed for the planet’s economic and ecological hardships on top of the violence and social discrimination that’s already scapegoated onto video games (in spite of the fact that these things have decreased exponentially during our generation), we will continue to do what we do if for no other reason than it’s what we ourselves have chosen to do. And that’s what separates gamers from somebody who occasionally plays video games.

When we win, we press on. And when we lose, we try again as many times in as many ways as is necessary until we win and then we press on some more. It may have taken an anime character’s rant to crystallize this concept for me, but I suspect it’s always been there in the back of all of our minds urging us on with stubborn defiance. Like the adventurers in Log Horizon we may be living in a database (at least some of the time), but in its own way, our virtual lives just as vital as anybody’s real lives, if for no other reason than we say so. Thanks, William.

The Cost of Failure: Five Harsh Ways Gaming Makes You Pay for Your Mistakes

failure

You know the old saying: you can’t win ‘em all? Gamers tend to take that one pretty hard. Our pride is based around overcoming and achieving so in a way, we measure our worth based on winning. This is a big part of why so many of us are so damn aggressive. You never accomplish anything in a game by sitting around or letting others have their way and this translates somewhat to our worldview.

Video games have taught us some hard lessons over the years. While some may hold our hands with constant auto-saves and instant respawns, most of them take a psychological toll when you fail, for better or worse. Nobody likes to be in respawn time-out or see hours of progress erased, but inevitably if you persevere it will make you a better gamer and that’s what we all should want at the end of the day in games and in life: to get better. These are five of the approaches that games have taken over the years to kick our asses and force us to learn how to win instead of lose.

coin bioshock infinite

They can take our money, but they will never take our freedom!

Busy Unearning

A lot of games have taken to auto-saving after every battle or free respawns so you can die and die again without losing anything. This makes for maximum fat-paced fun and encourages experimentation, but others refuse to reward your lack of focus and take it out of your ass.

In a lot of MMORPG’s the cost of a respawn is financial or worse: they take it right out of your character, banishing your hard-earned experience into the void as if it never happened. Bioshock Infinite augmented the free respawning for babies feature from the first game by liquidating a portion of your currency when you died, quickly draining your hard-won resources and leaving you with almost nothing when you hit a rough patch. It drove me insane.

There are few things nastier than taking what a player has earned and scattering it to the winds. In the MMO-based anime Log Horizon they translated the XP penalty as literal memory loss. Life is literally made of experiences and when you lose them, you lose a piece of yourself. In video games this holds true to an extent. It can take hours to build up money or XP, and it can be lost in seconds like you never earned it at all in a title where every little bit counts hurts.

Harshness Rating: Screw You

dark souls you died

Lot of that going around I hear.

Progress Lost

This is most common punishment in JRPG’s and it’s a classic. Save points. Limiting the player’s ability to save their progress is probably the most fair way of encouraging gamers to think before they act, but it’s still horrible at times. The dungeons of classic Final Fantasy or modern Persona games were often unforgiving places that required supplies and preparation and once you were inside it was all about risk and reward. Back then, fleeing a battle or even the entire dungeon was often the only way to keep your earnings and make progress.

When you only get a save point every hour or so the stakes are a lot higher in everything you do. It combines the massive unpleasantness of losing all of your earned gold, loot, and XP with the added aggravation of erasing that entire stretch of gameplay as if it never happened. Now it’s really hitting you where it hurts. You’ve not only lost assets in-game (including any rare drops that are hard to replicate) but you’ve lost the time in real life it took you to make that progress. As the kids say: shit just got real.

One of the nastiest series of all is Dark Souls where you literally cannot progress your character unless you improve every time you run at an area. You lose all of your XP and currency when you die and if you want to get it back, you have to make it to the spot where you died and collect it, otherwise it vanishes and you’re back at your last save point with nothing to show for your struggles.  It’s like that line from The Simpsons: “Your game shows reward knowledge. Here, we punish ignorance.

Harshness Rating: NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

mass effect miranda death

Finally… a scene where…. the camera *cough* isn’t on… my asssss…..

So Long, Old Friend

This one has been gaining some momentum over the last couple of gens: the looming shadow of permadeath. When a character dies, they stay dead and there’s nothing you can do about it. As characters have become more lifelike, this has become increasingly distressing, and it adds a massive shot of tension into any game where it’s possible for a character to permanently die.

Tactical RPG’s use it as a way to discourage sacrificial tactics and make you really earn your victories since the stakes are higher. Is victory even worth it if you lose a beloved character in the process? Story-based horror games are making use of this concept as well with Until Dawn and Heavy Rain threatening permanent death for any character should you make the wrong decisions or slip up at the wrong time.   

We are becoming more and more attached to video game characters by the year and as we do the penalty of permadeath becomes harsher. Whether it’s losing them as a commodity, all of the time and experience points you spent building them up, or simply facing the prospect of playing the rest of the game without their presence, we feel the loss.

The Mass Effect series is arguably the gold standard here, as it’s possible to lose almost anyone and with each character having a deeply involved story, losing them means not only one less party option, but losing a chunk of the story along with them. Make good decisions. The lives of your friends may depend on it.    

Harshness Rating: Buckets of Tears

sonic game over

Admit it, old schoolers: you’re hearing the music right now.

It’s Game Over, Man

Ah, the old school standard. You’ve got a long stretch of challenges laid out before you and a limited amount of lives at best to get it done. When you run out of lives and/or continues, you start all over again. It’s the brutal tried and true method that defined video games for the first two decades when arcades dominated the industry landscape. Consoles followed suit and delivered enduring challenges like Mega Man, Battletoads, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Back then this was simply how it was so it’s only in hindsight that we realize how goddamn maddening it is to have to start back at square one. It made a lot of sense for an industry dominated by coin-op machines to be unforgiving because more challenge = more quarters = more profit. And with save files not really becoming standard operating procedure until the 90’s it made sense that console games utilized a similar “better luck next time” do-or-die structure for most of their formative years.

Now that we’re all spoiled with checkpoints and anytime saves it’s almost unheard of to wipe out a player’s progress upon dying with the dreaded “Game Over” screen. At worst you repeat a level from the beginning or go back to your last save point. And we’re still pissed about it. Even extremely challenging retro-styles games like Hotline Miami let you take as many runs at a level as you need. There’s just no real market for those kinds of games anymore, but there is at least one holdout that comes to mind.

The Way of the Samurai series drops you into feudal Japan with but one life to live and many possibilities to make your mark on the world, but as the ancient quote says “the way of the samurai is found in death”. If you die, your save file is wiped and you have to start another game from the beginning. And if that’s still not hardcore enough for you, there’s an option to eliminate health bars and make every strike a deathblow. The prospect of a true Game Over is what made gaming so intense in its formative years and I hope at least some piece of that can be carried forward to infuriate future generations.

Harshness Rating: So Many Broken Controllers

persona 4 bad ending

Translation: you are a bad gamer and you should feel bad.

Player, You Have Failed This Game

This is possibly the most dreaded consequence in all of gamedom: the prospect of failing at your appointed task and not finding out until it’s too late, having poured hours into a game and its story. Normally, it’s fairly easy to avoid if you’re a veteran gamer, but having it happen can literally ruin an otherwise glorious experience or at least give a great game a horribly underwhelming finish.

The first game I remember utilizing this was the original Prince of Persia in 1989, where you were tasked with rescuing a princess and given a short time to do it. A literal clock was ticking and if you weren’t fast enough to beat the baddies, avoid the traps, and navigate the levels that was it. The game was hard enough as it was, but the time limit made it seem murderous to somebody like me who routinely gets lost exploring. Doing everything right but still failing and having to start all over was just a bad feeling, but it would get worse in later years as games got longer and the stories more involved.

Games like Ogre Battle set the standard for failing while succeeding in the 90’s with the introduction of multiple endings. In that amazing tactical RPG you not only had to overcome insane military challenges in no-save battles that often lasted for hours each, but you had to abide by extremely strict restrictions (for example, no attacking lower level units) or lose your reputation. If you beat this monumental challenge with a low reputation, you received terrible endings as a reward for your countless hours and wars of attrition. Wing Commander punished failure to complete mission objectives by putting the results of war effort as a whole on your shoulders. If you coasted through the game or just couldn’t get it done, you had a crap ending awaiting you.

In later years, games like Shenmue and Persona 4 would punish you with lame endings if you didn’t meet their occasionally hazy standards. In most games with multiple endings, you almost have to deliberately be a tool to get the bad ending. In Persona 4 you’re almost always under threat of a game over if you don’t take care of business in a timely manner, but when it comes down to the end game, it was extremely easy to get an unsatisfying ending to what was otherwise an incredible story. Heavy Rain sets the gold standard by leaving the murder of a child as punishment for failing to get it together hanging over your head, making the stakes of the story very personal while making it clear that it will carry through with the threat. It’s fair, but still extremely nasty.

We’ve learned over the years to keep as many saves as possible as a safeguard against exactly this sort of thing, but it’s a lesson a lot of us learned the hard way. If you’ve ever poured dozens of hours into a game and gotten tricked into a shit ending with the only option to rectify it being going through the whole thing again it not only sucks, it will literally change the way you approach video games from there on out. Once it happens to you, you will always prepare for the worst with that experience in mind and even seek spoilers online to stop it from happening ever again.

Harsh as they are, game overs are expected in certain kinds of games and character deaths add gravitas to the proceedings while lost progress and earnings are necessary for the sake of challenging the player to do better. But having you miserably fail the game after playing through the entire thing? The only punishment more hardcore would be a game that bricks your whole system. Oh God, I hope I didn’t just give them an idea…

Harshness Rating: Antidepressant Prescription Incoming