Solo Game Vacation: The Conclusioning

So as the curtain rises for the most successfully addictive mini-game I’ve been treated to in my MMO gaming career known only as Player Housing, I need to put the moratorium on my endeavors to play solo-games exclusively.  Not that solo games will ever truly die in the vast dusty old library of entertainment I’ve amassed.  Surely there will be days where I brave my hand long enough to wipe away the cobwebs and pull out an oldie and a goodie.  Then of course my repeated promise of doing more videos where you get to watch me beat my head against a monitor repeatedly while jabbering like a monkey to try to unravel the puzzle box to unleash whatever cretins of good old fashioned joy lie within.  I will do more of those. I promise.  I like them.  They give my ramblings a sense of purpose beyond listening to my screeching echo off the walls like some confused crow carrying on with himself like he’s hot ****.

I suppose I should close this out with the one thing that stands as a monument to the difference of online gaming versus offline gaming.  That sin of the solo game experience that has been stripped away and beaten with a shame stick in the lights of “always online DRM” and achievement whoring.  I speak of course of cheat codes.  Be it a cipher for some hidden unlock or a rhythmic dance of button punches, I’d wager we all at one time or another knelt before the altar of Up Up Down Down B A Select Start and praised the name of Justin Bailey, whoever that happens to be.   Stop looking at your feet, there’s no shame in using these arcane rituals to further your own career. Some of us don’t want to dick around with dying four billion, three hundred and seventy two thousand, eight hundred and six times to see what idiotic scheme Doctor Wily hastily slapped together in his garage.  There’s no shame to be had, because SquareEnix has said so.

What’s that? SquareEnix you say?  Didn’t they make that Final Fantasy game we all hated?  (Take your pick, and you’ll find someone to agree with you that we “all” hated that one.  My money’s on 10. Bite me, Tidus.)  Well to close out this solo game vacation I decided to try out my copy of Final Fantasy VIII on Steam.  Unlike my romp with NOTANACRONYM against Psycho Bishie who thankfully did not ask me to swap controller ports, I actually HAVE played Final Fantasy VIII before.  I don’t remember a ton of it.  I recall adventures with a weather phenomenon named protagonist who is part of a group whose name is not exactly an acronym…  wait. But I DO remember enjoying it enough to debate the “mythology” and “lore” with my fellows in Chemistry class at public high school which may explain the D grade I received (I also kept eating the experiments). However, in retrospect and thanks to some videos by an internet reviewer named after silverware, I recalled that indeed there were some tedious annoying bits too.

So why play it?  Well, to remember, I guess.  To recall what it was like in my salad days when Final Fantasy was more than just a broken mess of tropes assembled into a statue of a teen with a funny sword.  I mean, I still like the games.  Still play them, but I think that the series has subsided some.  Like a great wave that smashes across the shore, the impact is still felt.  It ripples across the beach and its presence stains the dry sand dark with its influence that will color the genre for a good long while after.  But all waves retreat, lose their muster, and surrender to the next great wave to come.  But every now and then you want to look back at an old photograph, smell the age of it, and stare off in stupor as you recall how things used to be.  Nostalgia, there’s no worse drug for a gamer.

Now my point in all this is that the Steam version of Final Fantasy VIII, like the Steam version of VII has built in boosters to help you out.  In VII, you could raise your HP, MP and money to max.  In VIII, through the same methodology you can add 100 draws of about a dozen or so common spells to your inventory.  That’s it.  Or so I thought.  While magic draws are amazingly useful once you start junctioning them to things like strength or HP or whatever you want which unlike shoving a D battery into my Walkman actually improves the quality of whatever I’m shoving it into, it is a fairly limited boost.  Only a dozen or so spells, and not even the good ones.   But then I found out via the lost tome known as the store page that there actually additional boosts only accessible from within the game.  Well, I scoured the menus for these damned boosts.  I might as well been ordering my cheat Jamba Juice at a bloody Kentucky Fried Chicken of a GUI.  Because it was no where to be found.  I had been lied to.  Cheated.  Swindled.  There were no boosts.  No cheats.  My retribution would be swift and apathetic as I planned to re-shelve my rose tinted glasses game for something else.

Then your faithful blogger remembered that Google existed now. Oh.  Right.

Would seem that instead of some kind of shamanistic button presses that pound out a song to the ancients to gift their dark and wondrous powers, that a simple stroke of the F1-F5 keys unlock these treasure troves of tribulation tripping triumph. They include such blessings as nearly every hit delivering 9999 damage, being nigh unkillable in battle paired with limitless uses of limit breaks which I suppose would just make them “breaks”, max out all magic draws and gold, level up any and all equipped guardian forces (Those are summons for older fans, and GFs for those who are only familiar with the games somewhat random use of truncated language), and finally a fast forward button to speed you past conversations, battles, and cut scenes.  Each of these abilities can be used at-will and 3/5ths can be toggled on like a light switch that manipulates the very light of god but without the risk of unleashing the apocalypse, the Armageddon, or the Al Roker on us all.

This means of course that nearly every facet of annoying bull**** can be counter acted with a single button.  That is of course, except for the card game.  That card game.  A menace to the free peoples of whatever world this game takes place on.  Even the all powerful cheat codes cannot circumvent those blasted pieces of cardboard that taunt and mock with their every changing rules and regulations like some sort of totalitarian threat that transcends borders of nations, class, and good sense.  But beyond the card game, you can mostly deal with anything you want using these cheats.

Overall it means that you have been given divine sanction from the creators at SquareEnix themselves to plunder one of their classics and gut the thing like a floundering fish whose dead eyes hide the guilt of its own follies so that you can enjoy the game the way you want.  Speed up those long summons, kill everything you want, and by the grace of Cid by the time you finish the prologue you can get the Diablo GF,  max out its AP using a cheat like plunging a needle of metaphorical steroids into the literal ass of the devil, and unlock the ability to skip random encounters for the rest of the game.  Done.  Finito.  And since another cheat guarantees you 9999 damage on basic hits you have no need to grind out levels, magic, or weapons upgrades. Sweet Planet almighty I’m free at last.

And you made this possible, SquareEnix.  You who in a world full of those who turned their backs on gaming’s shady heritage to give a sense of “fair play” to the sycophants who pray to the altar of multiplayer, online gaming, have looked back at the old days of drive by level skips, power up smuggling down dirt back roads, and rigged debug modes to get the world and everything in it and said “Yes, we will not ignore what we are.  We are gaming.  We will have cheats!”  I’d say that you were true Americans, SquareEnix, but you’re Japanese and I am lacking in the proficiencies of culture exchange to make an appropriate equivalent compliment, thus you are true Americans, SquareEnix.  Planet bless you.

Solo Game Vacation: Stick a Masamune in me, I’m Done

Cloud shares my feelings

Well, time trudges on and games get played.  And I have finally finished Final Fantasy VII and put it back on my metaphorical shelf to sit.  You know, I don’t know what I can say at this juncture that won’t invoke the ire of many internet dwelling denizens.  Final Fantasy VII has taken on this mythic larger than life position that has rendered it untouchable by so many, like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Mario 64.  And part of my really gets why that is.  It’s solid from a game play standpoint, even if the materia gets a bit grindy toward the end.  The minigames are fun, and reminds me so often how much I’d LOVE a Gold Saucer style area in an MMO with racing, PvE arena battles with handicaps, little arcade minigames, etc to win prizes and have fun.  And for the time, the technology was indeed a huge leap forward in the genre and it is really easy to see how it would endear itself to a generation of gamers both as a jump forward and as a first glimpse into the Final Fantasy series.  I mean, the Playstation was how many people’s first console?  FF7 was how many people’s first Final Fantasy?  Yea.  There’s a nostalgia factor and it’s not hard to see why.

I suppose all this complimentary stuff is being dumped up front because I am trying to build a shield with it.  You see, after completing the game. Doing everything I could save for the Ruby and Emerald Weapon and mastering 100% of the materia, I can honestly say that I found the story to be ATROCIOUSLY LACKING.

Did I get your blood boiling? Good. I’ve just gotten started.  I talked about this with some people on Twitter yesterday, but I keep coming back to it as the greatest single problem with Final Fantasy VII.  The gameplay, solid. The music, beautiful. The technology, amazing for its time. The story? OH MY GOD WHY?!  Not only is the plot so complicated to Evangelion proportions (Starting to see why this one is so popular with anime fans), it is told is the most sideways methods that David Lynch would stop the game to say “Wait. What?” with buckets of exposition tossed on you combined with misinformation that has some fans of the games stunned when I mention the bit that Jenova ISN’T a bloody Cetra.

Worse yet, the way the story is conveyed is usually via the party talking, which means you spend most of the time with the characters trying to figure out the story instead of getting to know these character’s personalities.  Combine that with the fact that so little time is spent with their individual stories save for usually one town on Disc One that serves as that character’s “backstory town” and then you move on and never bother with them again.  Red XIII does a complete heel turn about his father.  Any and all resentment is just dropped and now he is the proudest frickin’ lion dog thing ever to be the son of Soto.  If it was that damn easy, why didn’t Bugen just tell him that crap years ago?  “My dad sucks.” “Your dad was a hero.” “I love my dad!” “Good, now heal the party and don’t be relevant till disc 3.”

I know I’m really harping on this, but come on people.  With the exception of Cloud, Tifa and maybe Barrett, these aren’t characters.  They’re cardboard cut outs that can cast spells.  Even Aeris falls victim to this, hence why I had no emotional weight to her death (Spoiler warning for a 15 year old game by the way).  She was cheerful?  And she offered Cloud a date in exchange for protection?  And then she was a Cetra.  And she summoned holy.  And she’s dead now.  Sure, you get a bit more time with her if you do the Gold Saucer date, but by that point I didn’t give a damn about her and was much more interested in the childhood friend who clearly knows something isn’t right with her friend and shares an emotional tragedy with the loss of their mutual hometown and their parents.  And you know that much about them by the time you get your first chocobo.  Aeris’ backstory is…  she’s a Cetra. She dated Zach. Her mom died… somehow? And she’s a Cetra.

Wait… I’m WHERE?

Not convinced?  How about Cid?  Cid who becomes the de facto leader when Tifa stays with Cloud at the hospital for a few missions on Disc 2.  Captain of the airship in the game.  Clearly an important figure.  Why does he join this mission to save Planet?  Well,  in his own words:  My time in that town is over, and my business with Shinra is through…  So yea, why not?  Why not indeed.  Why not join a bunch of terrorists?  Got nothing else to do.  And it’s true.  He has no reason to get involved, but he does because the plot says so.

It just drove me nuts.  I’d take a simple plot with great characters over a complex plot with bland characters.  I mean, if I can have both, sure. But this ain’t it.

So I’m glad I played it.  I enjoyed the game.  But I wish the story were handled better.  It wasn’t a bad story. Just… not told well.  I remember the problem being similar in Final Fantasy 8 – another on my list to revisit someday – but right now we’re going back to a game I know I love that I’ve been wanting to replay forever.

A game beneath cerulean skies

Oh! I suppose I should note in terms of offline gaming, my fiance and I picked up Age of Empires III on sale and decided to give it a try.  First impressions were…   mixed?  I guess it’s like an historical warcraft game essentially?  I think we were both hoping for something more like a more realtime active Civilization, but hey at least it’s on the cheap. And it fulfills that “Lets blow up the other country!” feeling.

The Hero of Your Own Story

With my recent return to Star Wars: The Old Republic, I keep finding myself mentally comparing things to World of Warcraft.  I have no ill feelings toward WoW in my heart, and it still stands as a fun game.  In fact, I will be one of the first to defend Mists of Pandaria in a conversation.  After all Mists has done wonders for the way that Blizzard has decided to portray story in their games.  However, there is something that has been gnawing at me since I’ve come back to SWTOR.  Where do I fit in the story?

Dating back all the way to the Ruins of Ahn’qiraj, WoW has had an ever shifting sense of perspective that seems to draw less on the player characters being heroes and more that they are the upper echelon of the nameless grunts.  More and more the stories, especially for raids, have focused on large organized armies assaulting the dungeons/bosses/whatever to accomplish the goal, with you simply being the tip of the spear (or in some examples the rest of the arrowhead with an NPC being the tip).  No longer are you the hero, but simply the ones more likely to survive out of a massive attack by a hundreds if not thousands.

For example, the Shattered Sun Offensive’s assault on the Sunwell, the Ashen Verdict’s battle in Icecrown, the Guardians of Hyjal in the Molten Front and assaulting the Firelands, backing Thrall and the Aspects during Deathwing’s Fall, The Sunreavers or Kirin Tor breaking through the Thunder King’s walls, and the entirety of the Alliance or the Darkspear Revolution during the Siege of Orgrimmar.

In each of every one of those examples, you are not the heroes or saviors.  You are simply one part of a much larger effort to defeat the enemy.  This has even extended into questing in Mists of Pandaria, where it no longer matters if you’ve killed C’thun or defeated Kel’Thuzad the master lich twice, you are just another nameless faceless piece on the board along with so many others.  Now this isn’t universal either.  There have been raids and dungeons throughout the expansions that have you and your group as a small team working your way into a dungeon to silence a dark big bad all on your own.  Historically, these usual are the first tiers of raids in each expansion.  Karazhan, the Molten Core, Blackwing Descent, Mogu’shan Vaults…  there’s no army with you for these.  It’s just you against the dark.  Imagine if all of Ironforge joined together for a massive assault against Ragnaros with an army that took over the Dark Iron cities with Magni leading the assault.  Magni who steps on Majordomo Executus’ tail and demands to be let into the Firelord’s chamber.  Magni who proclaims victory once the Hand of Ragnaros is firmly planted in the earth and the enemy vanquished.  Would that be better?

Compare this to Star Wars: The Old Republic where you are cast in the role of the hero for the entirety of the narrative.  YOU the Jedi Knight confronts and battles the Sith Emperor.  YOU the Bounty Hunter who wins the Great Hunt and goes after the Supreme Chancellor single handedly. YOU the brave imperial that freed the Dread Masters from their prison.  The game devotes itself to you and you alone being the central figure of your tale.  Compare Rise of the Hutt Cartel Imperial Side to the Horde side start of Mists of Pandaria.  In both, a small tactical squadron lands in the area to cut a swathe of it and get what is of interest to their respective faction.  The big difference is that in Mists, you are a lackey to General Nazgrim who is leading the team.  You report to him and he tells you what to do.  In the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, you are the leader of the small team.  Mostly guiding the narrative and giving the orders to your subordinates who provide support and information to you, their leader, to help carry out the mission.  Star Wars: The Old Republic goes to great lengths to make you feel like you are the star. Even in the Operations (Raids) and Flashpoints (Dungeons), you are treated by the NPCs like they HAD to get you because you are the best of the best and only you are capable of handling this problem, not because hey, you’ve got a better health pool than the grunts, so you make it to the end.

However, that’s not without it’s drawbacks either.  When you see five bounty hunters rocking the ‘Champion of the Great Hunt’ title, it breaks the illusion a bit since your brain stops for a second and goes, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t I win that?” And the answer is yes, yes you did. This isn’t the worst thing ever, but I will admit it’s a drawback to the immersion.  But ultimately it comes down to experiencing the story and the feel of leading the narrative along.  I say feel, because honestly there are no dead ends, and no real way to break off the rails that Bioware has laid down for you.  This may cause issues with role playing a character when everybody has followed the same path, but I’m not a real hardcore role player in game so I am not even gonna attempt to go down that road.

So which one is better?  Well that’s for each to decide for their own.  I personally enjoy feeling like the hero and leading the story forward, but I can see that there’s an allure to the whole thing.  And honestly, when you sit and look at all the NPCs that are aiding in raid boss kills or massive armies tackling the citadels of evil, that’s really our fault from the get go.  Since I can remember I’ve heard things like “It’s ridiculous that X boss can be killed by 10/25 nobodies.”  Well, okay then. We’ll have a somebody do the killing. You just help.  And it’s not for me. I won’t lie, it makes World of Warcraft – a game I LOVE the lore to enough to create an entire site like the old Oddcraft blog and do things like the Warchief Election – a little bit harder to get in to and enjoy.

So what about you?  Which form of storytelling do you prefer and why?  I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, Internet.

5 Endings I Hate More Than ME3

For the record, I don’t have a single issue with the Mass Effect 3 ending.  I really liked it.  Maybe it was because I was really to please.  Maybe it was because I was expected something truly god awful based on what people were saying on Twitter. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen much MUCH worse.  Here’s a handful of endings that pissed me off in ways that Mass Effect 3 never could.

Battlestar Galactica: If there is way one to quickly push my buttons it’s a cheap cop-out ending.  It was all a dream? Bite me.  But one that gets going even more so?  God did it.  And that’s what we get at the end of the new BSG re-imagining.  No real explanation.  Just ‘God did it and that’s why it all works.’  You have got to be kidding me.  No.  You don’t just get to wave that wand around because you have some pseudo-religious themes in your show.  You have to EARN ‘God did it’.  There has to be reasons.  There has to be motives.  God doesn’t get a free pass because it’s God.  It doesn’t work that way.  

So unless you can actual give me an explanation as to why ‘God’ decides to wipe out the Cylons, sends them to a mysterious planet that they dub new ‘Earth’, destroy all their technology and jump start humanity.  Cause as it stands there is NO REASON for them to do most of that other than to cram in a stupid message that technology is bad and God is good and they are somehow mutually exclusive.

Ranma 1/2: What’s worse than a bad ending?  Well, how about a non-ending?  Ranma 1/2 wrapped up after hundreds of pages of manga with a complete and utter non-event.  The two closest things we have to main characters in a cast of dozens seem to be about to be married – something that was a LOOOONG time coming, and then POW! The whole wedding gets ruined by the baker’s dozen of other potential suitors and the massive series ends with a still shot of the two NOT married teens running off to school like they always do.  No real conclusion.  The end message is: put the last few volumes on a loop and read until the end of time. Thanks.  Fabulous.

Teen Titans: Things. F-ing. Change.  The biggest middle finger to the fans I can possible think off.  Let’s bring back a very important character that was thought gone for good a few seasons back, make it super ambigous about whether its a look alike/clone/etc by giving them amnesia and a bunch of other weird hints, and then don’t resolve it giving one of the main cast a nice heaping helping of woobie angst in the process. Oh, and by the way: SERIES FINALE.  This episode never existed as far as I’m concerned.

Neon Genesis EvangelionOkay, so you spend 24 episodes of a 26 episode series building up some horrific apocalyptic ‘Third Impact’ event that will wipe out everything.  So how do you start episode 25?  Oh, with a text screen that proudly announces that the apocalypse already happened and the following two episodes take place AFTER that.

Beyond the fact that the last two episodes are entirely philosophical debates that take place within the main character’s head, there is never any explanation as to how or what the apocalypse was.  You actually get the feeling at the end of Episode 24 that they just stopped the last risk that could have triggered it!

Luckily, we get a movie that explains what happened.  Or maybe it’s a ‘what if’ alternate universe thing.  No one is really sure if they are supposed to be in the same continuity.  I always assumed they did.  But the movie is just as whack-a-doo as the show or more so in some cases.  And as a giant middle finger to the audience they made an even MORE non-sensical ending.  Complete with utterly irrelevant imagery, vague dialogue and little to no context crammed in for the last minute.

Chrono CrossSo you’ve spent dozens of hours hacking your way through a plot more dense than Akira meets the Kingdom Hearts franchsie, and defeated the final boss.  Finally we have a chance for some clarity as that last piece slides into place and puts all of this in some kind of conte-  Who is that?  Why is there some random live action girl wandering around live action Tokyo? Why does she have the magic pendant?

The ending of Chrono Cross requires more work in trying to decipher what it is supposed to be than the entirety of the rest of the game.  And in a game that involves alternate universes, time travel, body swapping, conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies…  that is saying A LOT.  To be honest, I have no clue how anyone figured out what’s going on here without some kind of supplemental material.  Which considering Square Enix’s fondness for companion books may have been the case.  Anyway, it confused the heck out of me in an already confusing game.