Character’s Freewill

As gamers, we never stop to really question why. Why are we mowing tons of enemies down? Why are we progressing left to right in a seemingly endless fashion? Why are we tapping rhythmically to floating notes?

More than the why, I question the what if. What if your character doesn’t want to proceed? What if your motivation for completion goes against the character’s will to survive? This is something that rarely gets touched on in games.

Murasaki Baby actually has a small segment that inspired this blog. The game is an indie platformer for the PS Vita that makes heavy use of the systems features (in that pretty much every feature is used). The basic mode of transportation to by grabbing your characters hand and yanking it to move forward.

The game follows some weird looking child on a search for her mother. Your bar of health is a single balloon that must never pop. Other than that, it’s basically solving simple puzzles that require touch, are time sensitive and sometimes make you tilt the whole system.

It’s a neato little game, but the part that struck me most was about mid-way through. The main character has been through some major stuff at this point and becomes scared to proceed. You have basically failed at your job keeping her safe, since she has had a few near death experiences.

Until you manipulate the world around her, your character will not move. Yanking her hand fails to produce any action. She simply stands her ground and refuses to listen. She doesn’t like what you’ve done so far and isn’t going to blindly obey anymore.

While Murasaki Baby never comes back to this, it got me thinking about how some characters may not actually believe in the gamer’s goal. Why would they want to senselessly murder hundreds of people? That makes them look like a sociopath.

I remember awhile back reading about how Dom Santiago from Gears of War was supposed to be the voice of the player. In the sequel, he was constantly shouting about how pointless the war was and how killing the Locust was fruitless.

While I don’t agree with the statement of him reflecting my views, it makes for an interesting idea. Dom in Gears of War 2 is ready to die. His wife is more than likely destroyed and he’s got nothing to return home to. While he may help the battle, once the war is finished, what will he fight for?

In that regard, the player controlling him and making him kill isn’t so much representing Dom coming to terms with his eventual mortality, but outside pressure making Dom react in a way he doesn’t want to. War is controlling his mind and he’s, basically, a cog in the gears of war (pun intended).

Grand Theft Auto IV also had a little of this, though the plot is far more convoluted. Niko Bellic wasn’t a heartless person. His past was dark and vicious, but he simply wanted a new chance and a new life.

The criminal underworld of Liberty City does not allow that for Niko. Since killing is his business (and business is good), Niko gets roped into a conflict without his consent. That his cousin is a big failure contributes a lot to Niko’s failure to live his “American Dream.”

At the same time, Niko isn’t really going against what he desires. The whole point of the plotline in GTAIV is that you cannot escape your past. Eventually, you will have to answer for the sins you commit, either in life or death. Niko falls back on a skill he knows because it is the easiest thing for him.

He also throws away his desires to reform himself when his family comes under fire. After time Roman is captured, Niko goes on a literal killing spree. He doesn’t gun down innocent bystanders (unless you make him), but he doesn’t pull punches on his “enemies.”

His kind of dichotomy makes Niko one of the most interesting protagonists in the Grand Theft Auto series. While Rockstar wrote the rest of the script without much thought, Niko was well fleshed out. He, ultimately, represents the idea I’m talking about.

An idea like this is mostly why games don’t try to focus on the inner humanity of a character. If you are forced to not do something, suddenly the game is becoming a scripted plot. Without player input, why even bother making a game?

Tomb Raider (2013) had a major problem with this. Lara Croft was traumatized by killing, but she eventually employs the same tactics her enemies do. That doesn’t make a lick of sense. She shows no remorse, either. She just happily plunges axes through her victim’s necks.

Spec Ops: The Line reveled in this. It made you, the player, want to try a different method. Your enemies don’t deserve the punishment that Cpt. Walker doles out on them. His mind breaks due to the trauma of war, so he feels every action is justified. It’s a reversal of what this blog is talking about.

For the most part, you won’t find many objecting protagonists. For a game to make the most sense, the main character must want the end result. Since a lot of action games focus on killing, trying to have a person abstain doesn’t make for an intriguing game.

Then again, I always play Deus Ex without killing anyone, so maybe I’m the weird guy?

Walking Dead: Season Two – Quick Thoughts

I wasn’t one of the many that were blown away by the first season of Telltale’s Walking Dead. I thought that Telltale hit on to something great, but that their current technology didn’t match the vision they had for interactive storytelling. The season wasn’t always sublime, but Telltale showcased some great writing and retained enough gameplay elements to make a standout title in the 2012 landscape.

It was also quite a big bonus to have a game where female characters were written as actual characters. Clementine is also the first real example I can find of a child in a video game that isn’t a liability. So much social progression from a game about people killing each other over food and shelter. Now I get why Tool sounded so somber with their song, “Right in Two.”

Upon seeing the initial trailer for Season Two, I figured  Telltale was going to improve. The only vision I had was that Clementine would be alone, lost and sorrowful. That is pretty much how the season kicks off. Placing players in control of a character they tried desperately to save the first go around is genius. Now her safety relies squarely on you, instead of being a mediator with another human.

OH MY GOD! MEDIATE BETTER!

Depending on the choices you make during Season Two, Clementine can become the very epitomose of a selfless hero. She is courageous, observent, kind-hearted and always willing to help. Even when the adults cower in fear, Clementine can hold her own. All those lessons from Season One definitely paid off.

The story is much darker in Season Two. Every event is nearly like treking through the Valley of Death. That so much emotion can be wringed from a simple premise shows how well Clementine was written. Gamers are willing to see her tale to the end and would never wish anything bad on her. That is quite the accomplishment for a character who isn’t even real.

For all the strides that were made in making the narrative more dramatic, Telltale took a step back in gameplay. Focusing more on QTEs and action, Season Two pretty does away completely with puzzles. There is one instance where Clem has to turn off a turbine and it just stands as rather silly. How can adults not figure out to take the key and twist it?

There also aren’t any hub areas to redezvous at. Some gamers may enjoy the brisker pace, but I liked having centralized areas to gather my belongings. It was also nice to take a break every now and then and learn about the characters you were helping. You get stripped of that in Season Two, making most of your decisions based on logic rather than emotion.

Logic dictates you return the bag. You’re also not a douchebag…

This leads to the game feeling more fomulaic than before. You do make snap decisions, but only get around 30 seconds to let anything sink in. Then you’re quickly running to the next area where you get a few minutes to breath and are thrust into more action. I suppose there is something to be said of Season Two not wasting any time, but people need time to ingest what they have done.

The big trade-off is that Season Two is far harder to put down than the first season. Since you can finish every episode in a little over an hour, you end up not wanting to stop. You’ll never hit a brick wall or get stuck and you can quickly bang this out in a day after work (or school).

But that also leads to the side characters getting little to no extra development. Clementine is the most well rounded of the cast and a returning character from Season One adds some truly difficult moral dilemmas to the mix. All of the new characters feel mostly forgettable and don’t offer much in terms of sympathy or weight.

I won’t say that a life is worth wasting, but if I only met you 20 minutes ago and I’m tasked with picking between two people, I’m going to go with the one who seems more beneficial. It would be the only way to protect my sanity in such dire straits.

The final episode’s conclusion definitely stands taller than the first season. Instead of having one set-up finale that everyone will play out, you now get to make some actions that will determine who you end up with (if anyone at all). They are all confined to that last scene (which seems to be an ugly trend in these types of games), but your actions are now more of a reflection of your inner concious more than your ability to follow a script.

Hasta luego, amigo.

As for the other individual episodes, none really stand out. Episode  Two is perhaps the most meaty and exciting, but everything just moves so fast that the events begin to blur together. With some more time dedicated to fleshing out the supporting cast or some tougher moral choices, I feel like Season Two could have surpassed the first in every conceivable way.

Hopefully with Season Three, Telltale will remember that human interaction is more important than drama. Even some puzzles would go a long way to making my actions feel more worthwhile. As in real life, everybody just wants to be heard. There are more stories and emotions to cover than simply death.

Instead of sticking strictly to inflated drama, maybe we can get an episode where nobody dies next time? How about a big puzzle that takes the entire episode to finish. I like the idea of that.

Something like this was perfect. More of these scenes.

Fez: A Shift of Perspective

Gomez lives in a relatively flat world. The people he meets don’t utter more than a few words to him and everyone just moseys back and forth. Gomez is stuck in this same situation, too. When the village elder grants him the gift of the almighty fez, Gomez’s life takes a dramatic turn for the better.

Not only is he suddenly important, but he can finally witness the world in multiple dimensions. Different angles and new shades are all bewildering to him. That distant island in the sky from his house can suddenly be skipped over to with a quick twist of perspective.

Fez is an interesting allegory for life. Sometimes everything can seem blissful until you look at it from a different angle. The reverse is true as well. If you are frustrated and cannot solve a problem, simply getting a new angle might change all of that.

Many of the solutions to puzzles in Fez are completely improvised. Instead of looking up a walkthrough and taking a set route, players just need to tinker with the camera until they finally see something click. Improvisation for a non-linear platformer is something that really hasn’t occurred in gaming before.

The soundtrack sells a lot of the crazy worlds. Most of the graphics appear similar, even with perspective warping, so players can easily get lost without trying. A confusing map screen doesn’t help problems, but the music fits a mood completely different from the last.

A graveyard towards the end of the game has ominous and dreadful music while an infinite waterfall is given mysterious life with a theme that sounds almost like 2001. Walking down towards the lighthouse, watching the sunrise and tuning in to some heavenly chorus is just grand.

A scale of adventure not unlike a Zelda game; Fez really does know how to appeal to the nostalgic side of gaming. Gomez jumps a bit like Mario. He’s very floaty and can be controlled mid-air. He thankfully learned to grab ledges (unlike his NES counterparts), so at least Gomez isn’t a total numbskull.

Gomez can even climb. Fez literally takes the best parts of Mario’s control scheme from Super Mario 64 and adapts them into a 2D realm. Nintendo hasn’t even taken Mario that far in his New Super Mario Bros. games. It’s interesting to finally get a game that acknowledges that characters should be doing more than just running and jumping.

For all of the mind-bending that Fez throws at players, the game does lack difficulty. Gomez can easily twist his way out of a fall, but even death doesn’t stop the short little guy. Falling from a great ledge just plays a rather cute animation and Gomez is back.

This sort of signifies how life shouldn’t be quit. If Gomez were to quit, what would happen to his world? His family and friends would vanish and he will have failed everyone. A small thing like death isn’t going to prevent Gomez from accomplishing his task. Gomez likes to spit at the reaper.

Even if Fez isn’t the grand scale masterpiece that critics have been claiming, the game definitely mixes up enough genre conventions to feel wholly unique. It even provides a great space to just chill out and think about life.

Sometimes people create bigger problems than actually exist. If one simply turns his/her view of a problem into someone else’s mindset or re-evaluates the situation, any problem can be overcome. Surrendering to the burdens of life will get you nowhere and fast.

Even if I don’t agree with a lot of what Phil Fish says, he definitely knows how to craft a game. Let’s just hope his next title doesn’t take an additional five years to finish.

Batman is a Jerk…

Gaming has been host to plenty of superheroes. For the most part, their games have been either entertaining or mildly annoying. Batman has produced a couple of pretty good hits, but his big turnaround happened with the Batman: Arkham series. Traveler’s Tales, developers behind the Lego games, must have never got the memo.

When I started off with Lego Batman 2, I didn’t really know what to expect. I gave up the Lego games because they were all essentially the same. I gave this a shot because a friend of mine came over and urged me to play it. Well, not only is Lego Batman 2 a fairly mundane and annoying game, but the story ruins it.

For starters, Superman makes absolutely no sense in regards to the game. There are numerous puzzles where Batman and Robin will be trapped on the other side of a pit of fire, yet Superman cannot fly them across.

Traveler’s Tales has never been at the absolute cusp of quality, but its games have had charm to spare and plenty of low-pressure fun. Lego Batman 2, though, reverses that. Batman is portrayed as a headstrong blowhard and Superman is a bumbling idiot. Poor Robin has to deal with these people and you wonder why he hasn’t quit yet.

There is one instance early on in the game where Batman throws Robin off of a platform and jumps after him. They are pretty much dead at this point, but then Superman sweeps in. Batman has no regard for Robin’s wellbeing and ends up looking like a jerk.

batman_2

After that level, Batman learns that The Joker and Lex Luthor are planning on using Kryptonite to power some gun that disintegrates objects. Robin knows this is Superman’s weakness and tries to persuade Batman to tell him. Batman yells about how they aren’t calling Superman and ends up looking selfish. Some kind of hero, right?

To make matters worse, the rest of the Justice League are only present for two levels. Their role in the plotline is so contrived and ham-fisted that I wonder why Traveler’s Tales even bothered. I understand that having all these characters gives the game a greater longevity, but when their powers end up replacing all of Batman’s suits, you wonder why they weren’t called in sooner.

That’s my chief problem with this game: necessity. I fully understand that no game is ever a required part of being alive, but what exactly does Lego Batman 2 provide over its predecessor? A large, Lego-fied Gotham City isn’t enough to keep me going.

There are so many instances of lazy writing that I don’t even know where to begin. One of the very first levels has you building Robin’s helicopter so that you can chase Joker. You manage that and Batman ends up almost falling into the ocean. Well, he thankfully calls his own jet in at the last second. Wait, why didn’t he do that to begin with?

Later, Batman and Superman somehow trade places to fool Joker and Lex Luthor into revealing their plan. The plot works and the two heroes then give chase to the villains. But wait, The Joker used Kryptonite to weaken Superman, who ends up being crushed by an anvil when he’s Batman. Shouldn’t he be dead?

The final nail in the coffin is how the last boss is defeated. Batman calls down a laser from space with the help of the Justice League. A giant robot is rampaging throughout Gotham and Batman waits until the very last second to utilize his laser … which could have ended the conflict immediately … and was extremely easy to acquire.

Really, what does this all say about the actual gameplay segments? Well, with Superman in tow, why are there segments where he is arbitrarily disabled? Superman cannot walk through electricity. I guess it must be made of Kryptonite. Hell, the Man of Steel can’t even swim!

Then you have the Justice League member, Cyborg, who can use Superman’s laser eye technique. Well, that’s just wonderful. Why bother with Superman? Oh, he can fly. Well, so can Wonder Woman and Green Lantern!

Lego Batman 2 is so dedicated to stuffing the roster full of characters that it forgets that these heroes should have individuality. All the villains manage to have distinct battles, so why can’t the heroes have some form of differentiation?

batman_3

Then the floaty controls come into play and make you wonder why the entire thing couldn’t just be built around Superman. I know that an already easy game would be practically on auto-pilot at that point, but I’m so sick of backtracking with Robin’s stupid hamster ball thing when Superman can just pick him up.

I will say that the co-op works surprisingly well. For once, you aren’t locked to a single screen. The game has some weird split that tries to morph the screen based on a character’s position in the room, but it beats being confined to a small box. It also makes the other player envious that he can’t fly!

On the whole, I do not like Lego Batman 2. It tries very hard to provide a different world for a Lego game, but sticks to artificial puzzle challenge to lengthen the game. When the universe of the game contradicts the powers of its heroes, you know something is wrong.