Becoming Heroes

Like many, I was a fan of the first season of Heroes…. right up until its “epic” last battle with Sylar. The thing is… as you might’ve noticed… that last battle was not epic at all. As I do so many things in life, I’m going to explain this in Dragon Ball Z terms…

So we are offered a Goku in Peter: a nice guy who just wants to do good – who also happens to have the potential to be the most powerful humanoid in the universe. He even trains a little bit to try and sharpen his skills. Good for him! We are also offered Vegeta in the form of Sylar: maybe not a bad guy, but certainly with a great capacity of evil – who also happens to have powers that could come to rival the protagonists, if not quite as naturally/effortlessly, and with a head-start.

We have supporting cast: Hiro/Krillin, Glasses Guy/… I don’t know… Piccolo, Buff White Chick/Bulma, her boyfriend/Yamcha, Cheerleader/… Chi-Chi? Is Nathan Raditz? And Parkman… In any case, we have a great ensemble and many potential heroes, but none who are quite on the level of our protagonist/antagonist… so obviously when it comes down to a final, epic battle… yes, some teamwork is involved – but overall, the expectation would be that the final battle would see the two most fitting rivals converging. This is something Dragon Ball Z has shown us over and over again – but that Heroes took one look at and balked. Perhaps they thought it they gave us a Peter/Sylar show-down, we’d be satisfied with that and forget about the show entirely? Alas, they underestimated our extreme excitement to see such show-downs over and over and over again. I mean, seriously: how many fights did Goku and Vegeta get into? And now how many actually bored you? (Well… you know… besides for the episodes-long power-ups).

That’s just one of my issues with Heroes. When the moment came for Peter to live-up to the title of the show, he wussed out, and the “final battle” with Sylar amounted to a bunch of people taking a whack or two at Sylar. Now, I know that Yajirobe is the one who cut-off Vegeta’s tail, much like Hiro was the one who stabbed Sylar with a friggin katana – but removing Vegeta’s tail was far from a final blow, and it only demonstrated that the defeat of Vegeta was arduous… not just a gang of people randomly pot-shotting one (admittedly bad) guy.

This makes for an easy comparison to the final battles of video games: typically, you have a team. That team stands by you throughout each battle; you begin to think of them as a single unit with your hero. In Persona 3, you can have the protagonist, Akihiko, Aigis, and Koromaru or Ken or Mitsuru or whomever. In KOTOR, you actually get to face off with Malak alone, which is awesome (and basically the hardest fight ever… or maybe just for me)… but up until then you have Bastila, Carth, Zaalbar, the ever entertaining HK-47, and T3-M4 – who basically won my entire penultimate battle against Malak single-handedly (immune to many force powers and able to heal my party when Malak fled; I hardly leveled HK-47 at all due to my insistence on playing mostly-light side). Final Fantasy always gives you your teams. But because you are controlling all members of your party in these fights, the accomplishment feels like a win for you – the player – who has trained and leveled-up and tried every tactic after death scene after death scene (my tactic when fighting Malak? Stock-up on grenades, especially shock ones/ice ones, run really far, throw a grenade, hit him a little bit, then continue to run like hell).

You feel satisfaction in those wins because it took effort, and it was challenging and utilized the sum of your training. Because it was the fruitage of one person’s struggles against a worthy adversary: yours.

So yes, in TV shows like Heroes, you do track the progress of several different characters of the arc of the series. That’s a trend continuing more and more. You don’t want writers to just drop the ball entirely by forgetting about the characters once shit gets real. But you don’t want to totally neuter the main character either, by rendering their efforts useless in comparison to a few slaps in the face by auxiliary characters. I think, in this case and despite my many problems with the movies itselfMan of Steel did well in that department: we followed a determined soldier trying to protect his country from beings vastly out-matching him… and win (sort of) – throwing back a catchy little jab at said beings, at that. Meanwhile, the ultimate, most difficult victory was still Clark’s.

For our own game, we face the same difficulty all game creators do: making boss battles feel meaningful and difficult – without being impossibly frustrating. While we’re a little limited with the Pokemon-like battle-system, acquiring skills and leveling up will vastly aid us in this quest.

Stamina Meter

One of the infuriating, yet totally understandable, aspects of Harvest Moon was the stamina meter. Remember in the SNES/Gameboy, especially, when you’d be busy chopping wood, clearing your field, planting crops, smashing rocks, whatever, and it just ate and ate and ate away at your stamina? And then you’d have to eat or go to the hotspring or just call it a day all together? That drove me nuts. I was on a mission, dammit! Those fields needed clearing!

Now, though, in developing our game, stamina is a feature that we’re looking into. If it bothered me so much in Harvest Moon, why is it something that I’m pushing for now? There are a couple of reasons.

With the more-open world we’re striving toward (despite the need for load screens, etc), a player could be tempted to speed through a game without ever setting up camp and getting the chance to converse with your party, have your party create items, or build relationships with either of the two girls. It’s fine for second or third play-throughs, but that type of play sort of ruins the experience of the whole game if that quick-play version is the only one the player knows. The player can just keep running and moving and lose all the other elements of the game.

Unlike KOTOR, another game with a homebase, there’s no way to force a player into the homebase as there is with KOTOR (the base is the ship, the player needs to enter the ship every time one world is finished to move on to the next). The stamina meter will encourage the player to take a breather and enjoy these other aspects of the game.

But, of course, there still need to be ways to keep this feature from being an infuriatingly dull-point for the players who do just want to finish – or to assist players who traveled a little too far and are now stuck in an area with no campsite and enemies all around. So it’s likely that food, potions, and other items will assist in alleviating stamina to keep a player going through moments like those.

What do you think of a stamina meter? Have you played any games with a similar concept? Was it a help or hindrance in your enjoyment of the gameplay?

Setting Up Camp

One option I want to incorporate into The Lotus War is the ability to set-up camp. Sometimes, I find the time spent in the homebase to even be some of the most interesting moments of the game. It’s a good cool-down time to talk to the other characters and get a feel for the stories, or even enrich the one you’re playing out.

KOTOR, my obvious favorite, is a good example of this. Because your ship is the mode by which you traverse from one world (or level) to the next, it’s a necessary break you need to take to advance in the game. During this time, the player can talk to Bastila, Carth, that cat chick, that annoying girl, the hilarious kill-bot, and get them to make great and useful items for you (btw, the aforementioned kill-bot was not the little droid, though T3-M4 was an awesome asset. I would not have survived my first fight with Malak had it not been for him!)

Setting up camp really came up as an idea because I wanted to be able to trigger conversations and events with the party members – and waiting for towns or specific buildings could’ve made the events sparse. Now, because the player can choose to bypass campsites, the events may be missed – but there will still be more of them. I really hope to use it as a way to keep from having the same, repetitive conversation with the party on every occasion (because we can set up events unique to each campsite).

The system by which the player travels the map is like FF7’s – the MC’s avatar is the only one present on the map during all of the running. The party members, then, are not visible all the time and therefore cannot be talked to at a whim to further story lines. While that may be a downside in the mode we’ve chosen to represent the party/travel, the upside is an un-cluttered screen and a less ridiculous look (it does look pretty silly for the party to be running in single-file like a game of Meerca Chase (am I the only one who remembers Neopets?) or you know… Caterpillar or whatever it’s called.

Not only does the party-travel mode look silly, but it does have draw-backs in progression and conversation. For example, it will be more difficult to script new and different dialog, or progressive dialog. At best, we could randomize the conversation. At least, we’d have to program a short greeting to each of them but save the meatier conversation for certain points in the game.

Setting up camp not only allows for the progressive conversation we want, but also for the ability to have characters craft items for you/the party, which is another fun aspect in itself.

 

What do you think about games that retain a home base? (even if that base is mobile)

The Importance of Realism in Video Games (or lack thereof)

Quick! Name some of your favorite video games!

Some may stick with the good ol’ stand-bys of long-gone days when life was simpler and games were simpler and your joy in playing was simpler. Mario. Classic Zelda games. Pokemon. Ah, the good ol’ days when you could be fully healed by walking into a town or finishing a level. When your Pidgeot would fly you from Cerulean to Pewter, or whatever. Realism wasn’t the focus. Living a fun little fantasy was.

Others may favor the hyper-realistic games of now, like Bioshock or Skyrim, with beautiful graphics and a detailed, textured world. The Amnesia series takes it to another level by being completely first-person, monitoring your character’s vital signs, and mechanism of chase by the monsters.

Still, even some of the more realistic games feature the fantastic: Diablo 3, PoE and many others have waypoints to save the player the frustration of running over the same terrain every time he dies or completes a quest. Several games don’t have a night/day system and even more, make you plant several vital shots into your enemy before he dies. Or one of your party dies… and then your throw a potion on him and he recovers. Save points. Guards that lose interest in chasing you after three minutes.

But wildly cartoony video games can (obviously) get away with a lot more. Super Meat Boy, for example, is the story of… a little slab of meat… that runs, jumps, and sticks to walls to avoid landing on giant, rotating saws.

Does the style of our video game aid or hinder our intentions with it?

Really, having throw-back graphics is pretty great. It enables us to focus less on the visual graphics and more on the story. We can make more visual jokes – and even the unrealistic aspects of gameplay can feel overall more authentic than an ultra-realistic game can with the same aspects. We more readily accept the game-logic bits – just as we accept cartoon antics more when drawn than when acted.

Still, we have real-world features. We have metered time. Weather conditions. Medicine. Player choices. But overall, the game is focused less on making you feel like you’re living in the real world with events that could actually happen and more like you have your own little open-world map to explore.

Anyways, what kind of games do you prefer? What are some of your favorites?

What Can I Get for You? (A Word on Shops)

I bet if you thought really hard all the way back to the 90s, to sitting on the couch maybe with a friend or your siblings, playing Ocarina of Time, you could still hear that familiar chime in your head as you enter a shop (de dededede duhhh, da da da da da da dadadada duhhhh, da da da da da dadadada duhhhhhh, de dadadada dedade… something like that). And really, what RPG is complete without a shop or vendor or hobo who happens to collect medpacs?

Yeah, like that guy. Btw, this image is clearly not ours.

Yeah, like that guy. Btw, this image is clearly not ours.

And some of the shops are really pretty fun.

Yeah, like this one... the image of which is also not mine.

Yeah, like this one… the image of which is also not mine.

But all in all, I don’t know that I liked getting items from shops as much as I liked just finding them. I mean… the Master Sword wouldn’t be all that cool if it were something you just bought for like 10000000 rupees, right?

The game loses a little fun for me when all the best items are ones that I have to shop for.

Games like various Zelda titles do kind of have a median – you have to find the best items through questing, then after finding and thus unlocking the item, it becomes something purchasable in stores. That makes for a nice middle-ground: you gain your sense of accomplishment in unlocking said item while avoiding the irritation of unlocking a really b/a item, using it up because it’s so fantastic, and then never finding any again because who really just finds stuff in the bushes? (You know… besides for Link)

A bit I liked in Path of Exile, though, was that rather than straight-up buying items, you really more… bartered for them. That’s a more realistic practice for many games, and it makes more sense.

In The Lotus War, I do believe there will be currency, and I believe that many of your items can be bought. However, I hope to blend in a few features of newer games. For example, I hope that using items found in the world, the character or his party can synthesize more useful items. Synthesized items would sell for more at the shops and vendors.

More than that, however, I look forward to the questing that will lead players to all the cool gear.

What do you prefer? Shops from which you can buy anything – even buying better gear than what can be found – or the necessity of questing to gain the top gear?

-D

Playing a Role vs. Creating a Role

Back before role-playing game meant what it now means, back when people were playing D&D, role-playing meant having full control over said role. You’d come up with the player’s stats (including Charisma); you’d come up with the lines; you’d attempt the actions. Usually you or a friend could choose the setting, the quest, the costumes, etc. You could even choose your gender.

The nineties came around and started the RPGs we think of today: you’re playing Link or Ash or Cloud. It’s more like acting in a movie. Or sometimes just watching it. You’re watching what happens to them as you help them achieve their goals. But no matter how well you play Cloud, Aerith always died. Link always (in a successful game) defeated Gandalf and saved Zelda. Ash became a Pokemon master. There was a set role out there, and you fulfilled it.

Now, with advancing technology, the act of creating a role has come back around. Granted, Bioware games (and others with strong stories) more often contain several roles, and you select what role you fulfill through your choices. Truly open-world games like Elder Scrolls, or MMORPGS like WoW and PoE, though, are bringing back the act of truly creating a role. You choose your attributes. Your look is customizable. You choose how you interact with your environment, the words you say to fellow players who are also shaping the game play experience. It’s no wonder that people get so sucked in when you can quite literally be whomever you want.

Still, despite the availability of this kind of game play, you still have people like Hideo Kojima or games like BioShock that set out to tell a story. And often, they succeed wonderfully. Why?

I think, for a large part, it’s about making the audience think like the protagonist. “What would Solid Snake do in this situation?” “How would Booker talk to Elizabeth?” It creates a mindset in the audience that helps us to empathize with the character, and in that capacity can help us to accomplish a lot.

I read recently that Eiji Aonuma (producer for Zelda) wanted to make clear that upcoming Zelda games are not influenced by Skyrim, and tons of fans posted on the site, relieved. An interesting comment was “Zelda should always be an influence for other games, not the other way around.”And I think it’s because, in part, people like to relate to Link. People want Link to always choose the side of right. They want to rely on his noble honest-heartedness. They don’t want a Link who can “fall to the darkside.”

That’s really important for a plot-driven RPG. Because you’re pushing your player to be the character, the character should be someone that people want to be.

Now, it’s fun when games like KOTOR or Jade Empire allow the player to choose “darkside” or “lightside.” Heck, they can choose to sink the Republic and end freedom and democracy for all, with Revan living on as a malevolent tyrant. Or Revan can reach redemption and restore balance. But if the game has only one ending, one story line, and it’s one that the player must take part in, the character has to, overall, stand for the greater good.

Booker DeWitt is a good example. A troubled man with a dark stain on his past: he sold his infant daughter. If the game had ended that your character just ends up becoming the vile Comstock, would it have received the amount of acclaim it did? Instead, you have Booker sacrifice his life for the greater good, and the interpretation exists that he undid his past error. That kind of redemption is what draws audiences and elicits an emotional response from the audience (after all, who does not want to be redeemed of some wrong?)

It’s a fine line, though, between telling a story through an RPG or handing someone a visual novel. While I had a lot of fun with Phoenix Wright, I (initially) did expect that the cases could be won a number of different ways, with a number of different arguments and pieces of evidence. It was frustrating when I could figure out a way that a particular piece of evidence could support a certain defense, but due to the game play (and the fact that the game can’t read my thoughts), it was invalid. There really only exists one key argument that will enable you to progress in the game.

In The Lotus War, we do have a strong character present in Ren. While there are things about the plot that will depend on your actions overall, the game carries out one solid plot. Being this story-driven game, we hope to deliver something that leaves a good taste in your mouth. Since the player does not create the role that needs to be carried out, we hope the one we thrust you into is one you enjoy occupying for a little while.

Benefits of Video Game Storytelling

One time, Justin told a friend that we were excited about creating this game because we really want to play it ourselves. I don’t know that that’s my reason, to be honest. See, as much fun as that would be, and as much as it’s true, that’s never been my purpose in creating anything. It’s never just for me to enjoy or just for the self-satisfaction. And I think that’s what’s held me back from a lot of other projects: the looming thought that no one else would ever read/watch/play what I’m making, so what’s the point?

But video games are fun and exciting – it’s an interactive medium that catches attention and engages the audience. I mean, I’ve read (even made simple versions of) experimental comics in which you can make choices to affect the story you end up reading (it’s complicated but a lot of fun!) – but ultimately, you’re always aware that the parallel plot lines exist, physically, right on the next page – so there’s no sense of urgency. The same satisfaction in attaining an ending is gone.

In video games, and well-done RPGs especially, not only do you feel challenged and your competitiveness excited, but you may feel that impending doom looms unless you, the player, follows through and succeeds. Knights of the Old Republic was incredible in this regard. Every decision made could affect the ending but you didn’t know how. The universe hung on you! I loved the possible endings. The potential connection with Carth or Bastila – or the betrayal you could inflict. They actually cut one of the better endings for female jedi, which was a dark-side character still with a Carth romance (although I always went light side).

Anyways, off topic. Though we cannot possibly even attempt that level of control over the ending using RPG Maker, there will be significant events that can be averted or allowed based on player interactions – and it will be more than just who the player ends up with at the end of the day.

Arinnel-Blush Taya-Blush

 

Although, you know… I do want to know which one of them your character would end up with 😛 (please say there is one… if it’s neither, what a fail!)

Needless to say, though I’m a thorough fan of the written English language, and though I go to the local Barnes & Noble just about every week, and though I love DC’s New 52, video games have a little something special in their storytelling magic. It’s really exhilarating to become part of that magic, or to at least emulate it.