Sunday, May 15, 2011

Game On: Marathon of Play

So this is what we're doing: Today is the last day I allotted myself for playing Lost Odyssey; tomorrow, I start the onerous four-day task of writing an eight-paged paper based on 157 pages of incomprehensible notes (and counting). So, I've decided to go for a "completition or bust" sprint, in a vain attempt to reach the end of the game before the day is through. I'm operating on a less than full night's sleep, my thoughts are sluggish, and my patience is thin. Let's do this thing.

10:00 am. Started up game.

10:21 am. Note to would-be game designers: Using a long establishing shot of the protagonists at the start of EVERY battle does not disguise a hidden loading time. Also, a mechanic where the characters are slowed to a crawl when trudging through sewer water may be realistic, but it's not particularly fun.

11:40 am. An hour later, and I've gotten the option to view the "Escaping the Sewers" tutorial. Every time I play a sewers level in an RPG, I think, yeah, it was good, but it was no Chrono Trigger. And then I feel old.

11:47 am. Incidentally, "Escaping the Sewers" means piloting an underwater vessel through a narrow channel while giant monsters shoot fire at you. Which comes down to pressing a particular button when the game tells you to. The music and graphics try very hard to convince me that this is exciting.

12:24 pm. Attempted a side quest wherein you fight baby dragons. Each round, there's a chance they may call another dragon, and a small chance they may call the boss dragon. I spent half an hour in a single fight, drawing dozens of dragons, before checking an online forum. Apparently, the boss dragon will only show up if you fight a group of four, not three. Thanks, game.

12:35 pm. Finished the Boss Dragon fight. The real annoyance was that the mini dragons summoned a new mini dragon at the rate of one or two per round, so I was fighting a long-scale battle to reduce their numbers. In essence, I created a lizard genocide. At first I felt bad, but after the first dozen, I just got numb. Videogames desensitize the players in regards to slaying giant lizards. (That was a joke, people. For the record, I'm still a card-carrying member of PETIGL, People for the Ethical Treatment of Imaginary Giant Lizards.)

12:47 pm. Killing the Lizard Boss helps the Gohtzan refugees. But the player character's motivation is for the reward the merchant promises, in terms of unique items. Ah, the moral motivations of an RPG quest.

12:53 pm. I realize that save points have gone out of fashion in video games in favor of "Save anywhere" options, but I did like the way "old school" RPGs such as Lost Odyssey used them to signpost an upcoming boss fight. If there's a save point in the middle of nowhere, you could be fairly sure you're about to go through something painful.

1:19 pm. I spent the last few minutes navigating through the "Burning Cave." A fire level. Man, this IS an old school RPG.

2:08 pm. Okay, spoke too soon. Enemies aren't fire based, and some rooms have geysers, some have one way paths, some have poisonous mists, and some have geysers, one way paths, and poisonous mists, but no fire-based stuff. And the boss of the area is an ice-based boss. Least fire-like fire dungeon ever.

2:27 pm. Oh, something I meant to mention: one of the interesting stylistic choices of Lost Odyssey is this:

There will be a scene, and then there will be a split in the screen that allows you to see multiple characters react or interact in close-ups. The split or close-up happens simultaneously with movement on the other part of the screen. It's a neat effect; I can't think of another game doing something similar except maybe the still frame boxes way back in the Genesis' Phantasy Star IV (and since the boxes are static, it's not really the same thing)--although Wikipedia tells me Farenheit uses it. In film, it's usually an effect that's highly stylized, but here, it's presented as just another thing. It's obviously nondiegetic, but feels natural because it's used so often. At the same time, I feel as if the device is never used to its full extent. What I'd really like to see is something as mind-boggling as the perpetual use in the Tracey Fragments,, but the result is almost always that one side of the split has a character say something, and the other side has another character react. It creates a closer flow of conversation, especially when the group is large, but it feels like it could do more. (I don't know how it fits in with my image/text dichotomy especially--if it does at all.)

2:37 pm. Enough prognosticating! On to disc 4!

There will now be a short break as I install disc 4 onto my X-Box drive.

3:03 pm. And we're back! After a few lengthy cinematics, I'm free to roam the seas with my brand new water vessel, Nautilus. Literary reference FTW!

4:12 pm. A split party puzzle set. This one is pretty basic: follow the path till you unlock something for the other group. That said, it's still an annoying mechanic. Especially since we were just split for a long portion of disc 3. FFVI is the only game I can think of off hand that really made something of these split-team things.

4:17 pm. My X-box has just informed me I've received the achievement for defeating 1000 enemies. Or, alternatively, I've just unlocked the "Go Outside Already" achievement.

4:21 pm. I just noticed that I've been playing the elementals wrong for the past 50 hours. Most fantasy-based games have an elemental based magic system, with inherent weaknesses. Fire enemies can be dowsed with water, and so forth. I assumed this game was a binary-based system, ala Pokemon: each type's strength is its opposite' weakness. Thus, fire is weak to water, water is weak to fire, earth is weak to wind, wind is weak to earth. What I've finally figured out is that it's more a rock-paper-scissors system: fire is weak to water is weak to ground is weak to air is weak to fire. Because that makes a lot more sense. /end sarcasm. The annoying thing is that the game has told me about this system time and time again in the loading menu, but I've ignored it because I thought I already knew it. Another example of marginalizing the info presented in text form?
What's even more annoying is that earlier today, between battle animations, I was reading a Rock Paper Scissors post circa 2008 about stupid mistakes players make in video games. This definitely qualifies. And yes, comment by PoC on the last page is me.

5:04 pm. The random battle sequences of older JRPGs never used to bother me, but right now, doing these exploration split-team puzzles, it strikes me how odd they are. I'm constantly shifting mental gears from "Okay, where haven't I explored yet" to "Okay, what's the quickest way to destroy a yodelling flame enemy?". In your modern day RPG, like, say, Dragon Age, you would fight all your enemies, clear out the area, then worry about the puzzle. Then again, in your modern day RPG, calling them "puzzles" is a little overly generous. Or is it that people have less patience for puzzles when any solution is a google search away?

5:11 pm. There's a puzzle where you have to drag weighted objects across a fair distance to force down a floating platform. Because it's fun to move very slowly over a long distance with the controller vibrating at you.

5:30 pm. To be fair, though, the weighted objects and moving platforms combined with the split team dynamic at least make for a puzzle-like atmosphere.

6:01 pm. Died on boss fight. Poorly balanced team choice, etc. Thing is, I forgot to save immediately before the fight, so I'm back to the 5:04 point. This too is part of the old school RPG experience.

6:56 pm. Back and won. Take that, game. Admittedly, after spending a little more time on tactics this time around, it went a lot faster.
Something to note: even though Lost Odyssey has way too many cutscenes, all of the scenes really do manage to give it a feel of an ensemble cast--I know how each of my main characters feel about each other, even if it's just a surface feeling. Other large cast RPGs I've played of late--Radiant Historia and Mass Effect 2--stumble at that mark. I get a sense of who each of the characters are, and how they relate to the main character, but the group as a whole never really interact--it's especially bad in ME 2, where the sole instances I can think of when the interaction is emphasized is when the characters are fighting with each other. In this scene, the old man on the team, Sed, bonds with the kids, Mack and Cooke, over how they're teasing Jansen for his hesitancy to grab the magic stone, given that his first attempt triggered the boss fight. Nearby, Seth quietly points out to the new member, recently deposed and rather young King Tolten, that Jansen showed a bit of bravery in going after the stone in the first place, which both furthers her ongoing attempts to toughen Tolsten up, and shows how she's developed a grudging respect for Jansen of the course of the game. It's not award-winning writing by any measure, but there's a definite sense that these people are close.
(I'm a sucker for good ensemble cast stories, in case that isn't clear. It's why I'm a big fan of the comic series Avengers Academy, and still a fan of the TV series Firefly, both of which get the balance of their cast just right. Community can be really good with this as well. Large groups are hard, narratively speaking.)

7:19 pm. Aw, crud. I tried to land in the wrong place, and now I'm forced to battle a giant Godzilla-like monster without having saved from my last Godzilla-sized monster fight.

7:26 pm. False alarm; I won. And unlocked the 1000000 damage points inflicted achievement, aka "Seriously, It's Nice Outside. It has the Sky, and Stuff."

7:34 pm. And now there's a minigame where I have to reach and kill three of them before they reach the city, or it's game over. Thrilled, I am.

7:56 pm. Gaaah. Beat the four of them. I have to admit, it certainly racheted up the tension. In a "If I have to replay the last two hours, I swear to God there will be blood" kind of way.

8:16 pm. I trigger the first dream I've received today. Oh yeah; the text-based dreams. You know, the reason I'm embarking on this masochistic nonsense anyway. (Okay, deep breath.)

9:38 pm. Stopped for supper, then finished dream. Man, those things go on for ever. The story: A little girl is left behind when her mother dies and her father goes to the city for work. She starts lying to everyone, and Kaim takes it on himself to listen to her anyway. It's an interesting piece on human need for lies, but what I found most useful was the bit where Kaim decides to stick around because he has no real place to go: "A journey without a destination is an endless journey." I'll probably use that in my presentation; sums up the "theme" of the immortality stories nicely.

11:12 pm. Took a break to watch an episode of Sliders. They were tortured by Cro Mags. I know how they feel.
11:47 pm. That was a pretty short one--only 18 screens long. And it still took a solid half hour to document and comment on. Anyway, "Beyond the Wall" is a story about the day they take down a wall between two nations that used to be one. Kaim talks to a xenophobic young former wallguard on the day. It's a reasonably straight forward allegory about letting go of things that create division. The visual effect is simple--the gap in the wall in the background changes with the story, and the young man's lone shadow is joined by a young girl. Even the text pitches in--"one side of the wall" descends on a line while "the other" rises to it--and thus become unified on the same line.
12:19 am. Another Dream: A Hero's Return. In a nutshell, a soldier goes to war with a gem stone, but for every person he kills it goes a little darker. He tries to redeem himself by saving a life--ironically, Kaim's, the immortal that can't die. But the stone doesn't change. The story feels a lot like a fairy tale. Thematically, it's a common theme for the stories--the futility of war. There wasn't a lot of fancy word effects. Rather, there was a shift in the color of the background to depict the moods of the scene, and a lot of diegetic sounds--pouring liquids, ambient conversation, walking, slamming down of cups.

12:45 am. And yet another dream sequence. "In the Mind of a Captive." Kaim is in prison, solitary confinement. He throws himself at the wall again and again so that he can be certain time is passing. He attracts the attention of the guards, and starts laughing, because a private beating means even more of an indication of the passing of time. Then he awakes. The memory/dream slips away, and he asks himself again if he ever lived such a life. It's an intense one; and very interesting, because it's not the first time we've seen Kaim imprisoned in these dreams--"They Talk in Shells" has him spend years in a place without light. But it's the first time we've seen any indication that they've had an effect on his mind. He's usually a dispassionate observer for these stories. It feels different to have him be a participant. There's a connection to be fleshed out here concerning Stiegler, memory, and time. And more to be made of the slip between memory and dream. As for visual effects, it's mostly the appearance of the cell in the background, but there's also a portion where four red lines appear one by one on the screen, and all the text is enclosed is this box--it's a great visual representation of Kaim's isolation and captivity.

I'm starting to get groggy. This 24 hours of play thing is perhaps not the genius stroke I thought it would be.

1:31 am. Another dream. Ye gods, there were none for ages, and now it's one after the other. Wait to balance, game. "A Mother Comes Home." The story: A wife leaves her husband for a traveling merchant, and the father becomes a drunk. Kaim befriends the son in the process of bringing the drunken father home in the middle of the day. He offers to help the son escape his circumstances, but the son refuses. The mother returns, and they reunite--with the son acknowledging it may be temporary. This one is personal as well, but in a way different from the previous story. It suggests that Kaim, in his wandering, has forgotten what it means to have a home to come back to--that even the boy's broken family is better than Kaim's wandering without end. The visual is simple--mostly the city at various times of day. But when the mother contemplates leaving, there is an open door, one that slams shut when she goes, then disappears. Subtle. And the moment when the son sees the mother return is interesting--the letters appear in a violent whip, as if they mean something really urgent.

2:27 am. I picked the exploration of Gongora's Mansion as the one side quest to do before the Final Battle stuff. And I'm glad I did. More than the swag and experience it nets, the area has Gongora's journal, which fills in some of the plot details. Namely: Gongora, Kaim, and the other immortals were sent to investigate this world after people from another world realized that it was wreaking havoc on them. Because time flows differently, a single year of their time was 1000 years on this planet, making the investigators effectively immortal. They were to observe, and find out what was causing the effect on their world. Gongora's findings are ironic--the world's history, the rise and fall of its empires, its technological advances--have no effect on the other world. What does affect it is the everyday emotions and feelings generated by the people here--either feelings of common happiness, or feelings of great ambition. Gongora likens it to a virus, and declares he has become addicted to the virus of ambition created by indulging himself in this world. It's finally a theme that speaks directly to the short stories' theme as well--the big wars and the rise and fall of kingdoms don't matter so much as the everyday struggles. And speaking of everyday struggle, it's time for me to get on with this one.

2:44 am. You know what? Executive Decision. I'm calling it a night. From what I recall about the game, what I have to look forward to is long boss fights, annoying dungeons, and unending cutscenes. And while the results of my tiredness have been very interesting so far-- you can't spell sleep deprivation without "depraved"--I think I know myself well enough to know that isn't going to hold out much longer. I'll finish up tomorrow, and extend slightly into the designated "writing" time. I think the results I made today are worth the extra effort. So we give up on the dream of 24 straight hours of gaming... for now.

Still, 17 hours isn't bad, right? And I'm on page 199 on my notes. That's almost noteworthy!
Later Days.

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