10 is the same as 0

Reviewers have always been influenced by the producers of goods and have been enticed with gifts to influence their reviews. Bribed, in other words. It’s an open secret how this happens all the time, though social media and how current reviews, especially with movies and games, are being influenced is laughably transparently covered. For example, back in 2014 when Watchdogs was about to come out, Steve Hogarty admitted how Ubisoft had put up an exclusive preview event for the game in Paris, where they gifted reviewers with Nexus 7 tablets. While this one event got some coverage, it’s far from being a rarity, though a normal consumer who doesn’t have any access or ties to any media houses wouldn’t know. Press kits for game journalists in events like this, and outside, tended to be rather expensive. Kotaku may be one of the worst sites around when it comes to objective news and articles, but a post from twelve years ago about Capcom sending them a three hundred dollar chess kit, while mentioning off-hand how EA offered to give them Porsche driving lessons so they’d get to play more of then upcoming new Need for Speed, shows how much the publishers and developers want to influence the media. It isn’t surprising that for each one who declines, there are at least two who say yes. This is an old topic in itself, and this sort of lack of independency between media and providers is always an issue. Sometimes kicking off consumer revolts. If you look up video game press kits on eBay, you can find journalists selling their gifts away. It should make you question why these kits include statues, backpacks and other goodies. If these bribes didn’t work, they wouldn’t be made.

Social media has changed the game quite a bit, especially with Youtubers. The providers don’t work with just media houses any more, but have tied single content creators around their pinky fingers as well. With Star Wars we saw large amount of media applauding the new movies, but after few years these reviews look suspect when the same writers repeat criticism consumers had with the movies in the first place. You can always argue that the reviewers bought the hype and had more objective lens after some time had passed, though that just means these people are terrible reviewers who let their own feelings and views influence their work. Youtubers often are fans making content. Fans’ love towards something is traditionally strong and can be easily exploited. They feel like they’re doing something right for the community and the brand by promoting it, and more often than not the big hits are hanging off from the companies’ strings. If you’re connected to the provider and manage to get exclusive behind the scene views or clips, the more views you manage to rack up. If you get on their bad side, this lifeline will be cut. These are fans hyping up other fans. That’s their job, in effect, and it’s not even a real one. They’re doing these companies’ PR and advertising, hyping titles up to high heavens, and they don’t even get properly paid for it. There is no self-respect at play here. Let’s not get into how Youtubers, influencers and press often get pre-release review copies, sometimes to own, sometimes with a bunch of the merch. You scratch their back, they scratch yours.

We of course come back to The Last of Us 2 and it being review bombed all the while the gaming media is praising it. Oh there are proper review scores all around for sure. It’s just telling how screwed up the system is when customer reviews are being bombed to the ground with zeroes while similarly the official side is hitting it with perfect tens. An old joke in video game reviews is that it’s really just a three-star system, or the range of score goes from 70 to 100, but that’s sort of the reality of it. The more you find popular Youtubers and press media repeating the same points in almost the same wordings and ways, the more reasons we have to ignore them. The modern review system is bust and completely tied to the providers. Social media might be completely screwed with this, outside the ones that are truly independent, but the Internet also allows us to completely ignore content creators who are just marketing, shilling, products to your face. Give all channels and sources you use a hard look. If they’re championing something that’s transparently false or hyping something overtly, they don’t have your best interests in mind. They might be fanboys hyping, they might’ve lost their independence as content creators, the end result is the same nonetheless.

I have to admit that I did go overboard with the Muv-Luv stuff when the Kickstarter was on, but none of that was from the company’s side. I’ve got only friends in the translation team, no connections to the company proper per se, and it’s highly probably nobody at âge is even aware of this blog.

Nevertheless, the Internet has given us the chance to review everything we want on multiple sites, aggregate or not, and voice our own experiences. The onus is put on the consumer in this, which is why aggregates exist to make going through reviews easier, but as you probably know, that’s not exactly a system without faults. Still, if you look at item reviews on e.g. Amazon and read through them, you notice a pattern of mid-range star reviews usually having the best pros and cons. Top and bottom reviews can often be just one word and be left that. That’s pretty much what all these 0 and full score reviews are, empty hate and hype with no value. Not many want to do the legwork themselves, going through review histories and search up opinions from people who haven’t written reviews, resorting to these Youtubers they like and find likeminded to deliver the condensed version. There’s also something about wanting to enforce your own believes and sticking with the group mentality. It’s either cool to like or hate something, join the mob, despite the mob being driven and created by providers for profits. Nothing is more profitable for providers than zealots and true believers, as dropping something that they agree with can get you nice profits. However, bet on the wrong horse, and you’ll alienate the rest of the consumers. If you bet worse and the horse gets injured behind a bush like Silence Suzuka in 1998 Tenno Sho, it’s not hard to find yourself with diminishing revenues on the long run despite all the influencing and hyping.

As stupid as it sounds, stealth marketing has crept into every area of media we consume. It’s tiresome to take everything as suspect and wage through dozens of options and reviews just to find if something like headphones work for you. The amount of reviews and opinions will ultimately always overwhelm you, and in the end, the only proper way is to educate yourself on the subject to some extent base your decisions on that. A bit hard for video games and movies, but just like with everything else, having experience and foreknowledge about the subject helps you a long way. In the end, intuition is learned through experience. The good ol’ argument of giving something a go before you make a decision or the like doesn’t really apply with games and movies, or any entertainment media, as the provider gets your money even if you didn’t end up liking the product. Movie trailers rarely do any justice to the movies, as they’re made to market it. Game demos on the other hand almost died out completely, because they ended up representing the games a bit too well and impacted sales negatively. Piracy of course is the great controversy, as it’s claimed to negatively impact sales even when in reality people tend to use it as a method to test drive movies and games before committing to a purchase.

Any time you see someone holding a torch to something, giving it higher quarter score, go through it with extreme criticism. Reviews on Disney Star Wars, Marvel movies, The Last of Us 2 or any other high-profile piece, including Star Trek Picard, are under suspect, and through them, every other reviews these content creators have. If their standards and level of criticism yields 10/10 with only minor issues here or there, there’s something amiss. Look for authenticity in the reviews you look for.

The war on difference of culture inside Sony

I’ve covered Sony’s and their censorious practices on the blog for some time now, for a good measure. While Sony themselves haven’t spoken much about their censorship they practice much in the public, outside on particular interview with The Wallstreet Journal, all the other information we have are from developers’ own words and actions. For example, Senran Kagura 7even has been significantly delayed due to the game needing to be be reworked because of Sony’s censorship wall. However, with the release of The Last of Us 2 their practices of censorship must be put under scrutiny. If Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s Tifa had to go through a redesign, where her bosom and clothing was altered due to concerns of offence, how does a sex scene, where one of the participants is cheating, work under Sony’s internal rules over games’ content? While this seems to be double standards, that’s not the case from Sony’s end.

Let’s call the scene what it is; pornography. The porn scene in The Last of Us 2 is different from e.g. Omega Dungeon‘s titillation because it’s not overtly intended as fanservice, to use the term loosely. The difference between the two is that Omega Dungeon is wholly slightly naughty in content, but it’s treated with levity. It doesn’t take itself seriously and knows that it’s in good fun. The Last of Us 2 however takes itself completely seriously and tries to treat itself as a great work of drama and art, in which it fails when the developers introduced self-congratulatory scenes across the game and allowed the story to take precedence over the game. The porn scene itself is the developers masturbating over their characters and the setting they’ve built around them, what it implies of the characters’ actions and motivation in the same manner a teenager would usually do. This is a cultural divide how the United States and Japanese approach sex in their games. For the US, it can only be served in games in this manner of self-patting porn and in no other mean. For Japan, sexuality and cuteness are more tied to each other, and sex is fully explored across the board as porn. Rather than shying away from it, the Japanese media tends to have a healthier view on it, where different approaches are explored on multiple levels, from just having something as the background material to visibly explicit on the screen. Sometimes intended to arouse and titillate, sometimes just as a major part of the work itself. Visual novels are a great example how Japanese media can handle sexual content in all of its variations. Sure, the US has its share of porn games, yet the most people can cite is Custer’s Revenge and even then the rest of the whole US Cavalry Commander raping an Indian takes precedence. As the old saying goes, American media cuts away all the sex and leaves all the violence. This seems to be rather accurate when it comes to how Western games are seen in Japan, and how Sony’s current censorious practices are. Then again, Canada is to be blamed for the Harlequin novels, which is just porn in text.

Omega∆92 made an interesting supposition regarding Sony’s censorship reasoning, which isn’t all that far-fetched compared to Sony bending a knee to the Chinese censors as well as to gaming disorder. In short, it compares current Sony to Sega of America of 1996 to 1998, when Bernie Stolar was adamant not to allow Japanese titles on the Sega Saturn. He notes that during the first years of the 2000’s the PlayStation 2 saw success in visual novels, like Clannad and Tokimeki Memorial, though I’ll drop Kimi ga Nozomu Eien in there too, despite it being an All-Age port. The note that Japanese developers weren’t familiar how much development time the HD Twins, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, required rings true, as noted by developers of Final Fantasy XIII where they where overwhelmed how much more work HD consoles required. They ended up dropping the towns and making the game a corridor run. The rise of the mobile market was lucrative and required less work, something that still hits home (though games like Magicami put some console games to shame in multiple fronts, especially the DX version.) The rising cost of HD game development was noted, and the financial crisis at the turn of the decade did make a dent on what games got developed and localised. Japanese games didn’t sell or weren’t popular, but admittedly it was also a cultural gulf. Video games that the Japanese audience prefers aren’t the biggest sellers in the West, and vice versa. Many Western games are treated as overtly violent kusoge, shitgames of the worst kind with no other reason but to present ugly death and gore.

The global economy got better around 2015 and more games begun getting localised with bigger fanfares. While Yakuza had been a cult classic since its first game, it had gained momentum to punch through to the general audiences, similarly how Persona games had become successful alongside titles like Nier: Automata. Not to mention Monster Hunter making its first big Western breakthrough on the 3DS, which paved the way to the success of World. Japanese games, while always popular, saw niche titles getting attention from the general public. Cult classics were becoming true classics. This was the exact time when Sony moved PlayStation headquarters to California and installed their internal censorship. Omega∆92 makes the argument that Sony of America wants to humiliate Japanese games on the global stage after most Sony’s own Western IPs were flopping, while Japanese titles were gaining ground. This is also the reason why Sony wants to keep certain third party IPs and creators close to their heart, because that’s all they really got to entice people when it comes to top tier exclusives. While this connects lots of dots, as he puts it, this seems to be dismissive. Rather, this is Californian PlayStation HQ wanting to drive culture and politics.

We know that the Californian HQ is the one handling the assessment and censorship of games on PlayStation platforms, and that is causing issues not just in language, but in culture as well. The people who are spearheading Sony’s current censorious ship don’t have issues with nudity and sex, as they’ve given The Last of Us 2 free pass (though that scene was directly cut out from the Japanese release because it was against CERO rating system.) What they have issues with is when it’s not depicted the way these heads want it to be, and the way Japanese culture shows sexuality is very much different. You can’t have skinship mode in Senran Kagura RE:BURST, but that doesn’t mean it could have similarly blatant intercourse without censorship either. Arguably, shoving bare titties on the screen while being penetrated from the back in rough sex is worse than the player building digitally physical relation a game’s character. The politics of course is apparent in the situation, as The Last of Us 2 is rather clearly a political game, and the porn scene is part of it all. Naughty Dog got far more freedom to do whatever they wanted with their game and its supposed art than most Japanese developers for no real reason.

A game like The Last of Us 2 would not have been made a decade ago. Not because of its contents, but because of the financial state of the world. We are better off now than what we were ten years ago, though that might change soon. The game was in-development just at the right time and was released at the brink of economical uncertainty. Even entertainment goods are suffering. If we had similar macro-economics five years ago, The Last of Us 2 would not have entered production, and Star Trek Discovery or Disney Star Wars probably would’ve been in the same boat. At least not in the manner they are now, as positive economical climate allows businesses to give trophy-freedoms, allow their staff to create works that clearly wouldn’t sell any other time. Sony isn’t really concerned about this, not at this time, as the powers in California aren’t thinking in terms of game quality or sales, but what’s acceptable in current politics. Politics always change, and while I believe this era of California driven PlayStation will be pushed softly into the annals of history as end-page references, publishers and developers have made note of these policies and moved their titles slowly towards the Switch and Steam. The aforementioned Senran Kagura RE:BURST is fully uncensored on Steam, and only its Western PS4 release is censored. It managed to come out in Japan before Californian censors were at full throttle. The political pendulum has swung too far, everything is taken to its extreme to protect one side of the discussion while attempting, and sometimes succeeding, to drown the other. Sometimes it appears as taking over a district, sometimes as censorship of cartoon tiddies. Whatever standards Californians at Sony think they are enforcing aren’t global and barely even US-wide.

Mass Effect Trilogy: From the magic of an interstellar community to the action blockbuster

Mass Effect was a beloved franchise for many. We’re jumping straight into past tense here, as it’s one of many franchises that just got worse every iteration and jumped off a fucking cliff when it was time to end the (planned) trilogy.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Today you’re treated with an guest post from the editor / proofreader, A9. Hello again, it has been a while.

This whole article will assume you’ve played Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 and various plot details will be spoiled if you still want to play it one of these days. I won’t go into any of the side material such as the comics, or the newest game in the franchise, Andromeda.

I will have to apologise to the reader ahead of time for the ramble that is this post, as this whole post was inspired as it were by the soundtracks of Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3. It’s not meant as an informative post, but more as a critique and my frustrations with the series. Or more informally, a ramble that was created out of endearment for the first game.

Mass Effect: An Introduction

Mass Effect is a third person shooter role playing game set in a semi-hard science fiction setting. What is hard science fiction? Without getting too much into it, a science fiction story that abides to the rules and logic of the world and can explain why certain things work the way they do, for example faster than light travel. Why do I categorise it as semi? It all hinges on the ‘discovery’ of a fake element, element zero.

Throughout the Mass Effect trilogy you follow John or Jane Shepard, commander of the Earth’s Systems Alliance Navy on his quest to stop the Reapers, a highly-advanced machine race of synthetic-organic starships. Why does he want to stop them? Because they want to erase all organic life in the galaxy, and that’s a pretty big deal.

The thing that actually made the series so beloved for many was the world in which this story takes place, with a vast amount of different and unique looking aliens, each with their own cultures, interesting locations to visit and with some nice space politics sprinkled on top. For example, the colossal space station called the Citadel, which houses tons of different aliens and hosts the Citadel Council, which is the ultimate authority of Citadel Space (the space inhabited by all members who recognise the authority of the Council). The galaxy itself worked even if the threat of the Reapers wasn’t there and it’s clear a lot of time and effort went into making this galaxy feel ‘real’.

This combined with the fact that save files could be transferred to the next game, made players quite invested into their character and choices. A decision made in the first game could have repercussions in the next two, or if a quest hadn’t been completed in the first game the quests also won’t pop up in the later games.

The main theme for the Mass Effect games, from which melodies will carry through to the soundtracks of the sequels in diluted form.

Commander Shepard

The most important thing that separates Mass Effect from movies or books is the interactivity with the protagonist. With a selection of three backgrounds (sole survivor, war hero and ruthless) you start your journey. While still limited by a binary good vs evil alignment system (paragon and renegade) which lock some conversation options, from then on you choose most of your dialogue options. Within the confines of the story of the games, you choose who to ally yourself with and who to piss off. You get to know your crew, which consists mainly of humans (you are in a human space navy after all), with a couple of aliens you pick up on your travels, each with their own goals and motivations. They don’t just join because the plot demands it, they all have their own goals and tagging along with Shepard will get them closer to their goals. To top it off, most of these motivations tend to intertwine with other crew members offering different perspective on the problems of others and span over three different games.

Take the character Garrus, an ex-space cop who investigated the top special agent of the Citadel Council but kept being blocked on every corner, despite any evidence he had. After having made no real progress (since everything was classified), the case was ordered closed. Not satisfied with this, he teams up with Shepard to bring this agent to justice. But on this journey, he will have to learn what justice really is when not simply backed up by laws and regulations and he will often lean to the darker side of ‘justice’, to get the job done even if it means killing the suspect. Shepard can influence him, by encouraging this, ignoring it, or reminding him that just killing guilty parties isn’t true justice. This provides the basis of their cooperation and friendship.

The role of humankind

The universe Mass Effect is very comparable to the likes of Star Trek (but not constrained by costume budget). As a video game, the lore and setting had to be established right away, instead of getting the opportunity to create a basis and gradually building upon it episode after episode.

The biggest parallel between Mass Effect and Star Trek is the intergalactic community. You have the Citadel with the Council on one hand, and the United Federation of Planets with the Federation Council on the other. Yet the key difference here is the role humans play, and how we get to those end points. In Star Trek, humankind starts World War III, after which First Contact with the first alien race happens, the Vulcans. With their advice they band together within a hundred years into one United Earth. The humans then play an integral role in the foundation of the Coalition of Planets, which will grow into the Federation.

Yet in Mass Effect, humankind is the new kid on the block. While the early history of the Systems Alliance (the name of the united earth government) isn’t exactly clear, the foundation is: the discovery of a ruined alien research station, which revealed humankind wasn’t alone in the universe. This discovery sent Earth almost into a panic, as there was no telling if the aliens were still out there, or whether were hostile or not. This provided the cornerstone for the nations of Earth to band together, in a “us vs them” kind of way, which took only less than a year since the discovery. The Systems Alliance was formed, and the Mass Relays were discovered allowing interstellar travel, but even then there were no aliens to be found. Only after years of rapid expansion featuring many new colonies did they encounter their first aliens, the Turians. According to the interstellar laws created by the Council (which was all unknown to the Systems Alliance) randomly exploring Mass Relays was forbidden and a battle ensued, with only one human ship surviving and limping towards the closest human colony. It got followed, and subsequently the whole colony got invaded.

Only after a short war (that was lost) did the Systems Alliance get introduced to the galactic community and only then did they realise that other races have been gallivanting around the galaxy for hundreds of years already. Humans were just so insignificant up till that point, that the other races just didn’t bother. During the course of Mass Effect trilogy the humans climb in the ranks (quite quickly) and join or lead the Citadel Council, almost turning it into a Humanity Fuck Yeah story.

Story, lore, codex

The story, which by some accounts should not be the focus of a video game was one of Mass Effect’s defining features. In principle, I am of the opinion that gameplay is the most important aspect of a video game (or computer game as this blog’s owner would say) and that story is complimentary. Yet some video games have a nice synergy between gameplay and story.

The entire Mass Effect universe has an immense amount of lore, filled with many different aliens and technology concepts. The first game makes ample use of that, yet so much stays just in the codex, the in-game encyclopedia. It’s nice supplementary reading for sure, but why wasn’t it tied into the main story? Did they just run out of time?

Rather than making use of the rest of the codex, ME2 supplemented it with extra material and new places. One cannot fault them for that, it’s normal to add new stuff, but so many things are left unexplored and rarely visited again. How do the species govern their own people, their own homeworld? What is really happening in the galaxy outside the reaper threat?

The introduction to the Reapers in general, and the reaper Sovereign. You won’t see this again in ME2 and ME3, unless you count the Catalyst which I hope you won’t.

The promise of a trilogy with a great story was there, as the set-up was very well done, with many story threads being left open and the real mystery of what the Reapers are. Yet main trilogy ends with such a wet fart, that the thing that most people enjoyed the most, utterly failed them. Hey, remember the threat from the first game? Yeah now they’re just everywhere but we’re doing OK. Oh, and by the way, we found an ancient superweapon design on Mars, so let’s build that. And before we forget, here have this utterly forced psychological trauma of seeing a kid die during the invasion of earth. We’re going to show it to you throughout the game, that kid that you saw for about three seconds.

Even the iconic dialogue wheel could be disabled at this point with the cinematic option to just watch cutscenes without any interaction. Let’s not even start the infamous “skip combat” button debacle again.

In Mass Effect 3 everything is action or drama, and the space adventure is only there as a legacy of the previous games. It’s replaced with doing missions for all alien races to unite everyone into building the giant superweapon to defeat the big evil badguys. But these missions feel insignificant and are just time wasters. Oh, thanks for unclogging our toilet Mr Shepard, I guess we’ll help you combat this galactic threat.

Gameplay, along for the ride

Gameplay has always been along for the ride in Mass Effect, yet even that gets worse over time. ME1 kicked things off as a fairly standard third person shooter with many abilities: biotics, tech skills, you name it. Each skill has its own cooldown, and ammo is unlimited. Run around the map, shoot enemies, hide behind cover, ignore your brain-dead teammates, drive a odd low-gravity moon rover, and repeat.

Gunplay is one of the most important aspects in a third person shooter, and my personal weapon of choice is the pistol in ME1. Accurate, fair fire rate and not bad reach.

Instead of polishing the combat options you had in ME1, BioWare decided to limit the player instead of making combat abilities flow better into each other. In ME1, each ability had its own cooldown, but in ME2 it’s an universal cooldown. BioWare thought it would be great to go from a cooldown ammo system to an actual ammo system with an hard cap on the maximum amount of ammo you can carry for a specific weapon. With just a small magazine of ~30 for the pistols, you’re fucked if you run out so have fun with the other weapons! Instead of giving the player an incentive for using the other weapons, they limited the better weapon to force you to use other weapons which were often inferior unless in specific situations. Except for the submachine gun, I hate everything about that popgun. The weapons are oddly distributed among the classes so good luck if you want the assault rifle, since you have to give up every interesting ability to get it.

Equipment was a big deal in ME1, thanks to it’s RPG roots, yet was found in such abundance that it boiled down to Weapon Model 1 to Weapon Model 10. Sure, there are different variants… but good luck with the inventory management system.

“One of the most controversial changes to the combat was probably how ammo works,” Hudson goes on. “It was something that wasn’t part of the main game design but instead was implemented as a test by a gameplay programmer. The Lead Designer was against the idea, but tested the ‘ammo’ version of the game for several weeks in total secrecy before concluding that it made a huge improvement to the tension and pacing of combat.

GamesRadar+ – The Making of Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 is the perfect middle ground between a game that needed a few more months in development, and a very polished turd that is Mass Effect 3.

New players in an ongoing story

Mass Effect 1 was a great starting point for a trilogy, but they never properly followed that up with anything substantial. ME2 has little to no relevance to the main plot, it only explores a single part of the whole story, and also establishes a minor ending point for ME3 to profit off. The series was constructed as a trilogy, but was this the correct idea in hindsight?

But I think mostly we wanted to create an experience that was less about being a game and more about being an experience. That might be the theme behind everything. I’m not saying make the systems thinner or anything specific like that, but let the game get out of the way of the player having an experience. I think that’s the goal of any artist in any medium, to get out of the way of what the game is trying to be. To make it less mechanical and let people interact with it in a more natural way

JoystiqInterview: BioWare’s Casey Hudson on the making of Mass Effect 2

With the first game being a clear hit, how to approach the sequels? The first game wasn’t perfect by any means but things can be fixed with the sequel. But you still want new players to get into the series. How do you get new players invested in the second game while still understanding the story? In ME2 they used a interactive comic book, that would create a ‘save file’ for the game to import, along with Shepard having to answer a few questions to make sure he’s ‘alright’. The classic approach is giving the player a character that’s unfamiliar with the story at large, such as Jacob Taylor in ME2, and James Vega in ME3. They both serve the same goal, but are handled very differently.

Jacob is a former Systems Alliance marine that defected to the human-survivalist paramilitary group called Cerberus. His reason for joining was seeing an ineffectual bureaucracy in action against systematic attacks against human colonies by an mysterious attacker. Yet, he’s hasn’t disillusioned himself about Cerberus, which is commonly known as a humans-at-the-top group and frequently remarks how he doesn’t always agree with their philosophy and methods. He’s brought into the plot to comment on Shepard’s actions in the previous game, whether or not the player actually played it, and partially serves to introduce Shepard to this new organisation

James got fired from the cast of Geordie Shore and got chucked onto the Normandy since he was near Shepard when Earth got invaded. He’s a marine. And a meathead. Always describing and comparing things right in front of him. He gives stupid nicknames. It’s no secret he’s specifically made to cater to new players that would probably rather play Gears of War. Really, that’s all he serves for.

Original Sound Track

The decline of this series can be seen, or more appropriately heard in the soundtrack. A funky, somewhat slow electronic sound filled with synthesisers gradually transforms to a overly forced dramatic slow piano piece that changes to generic action music. The thing that is missing is the spectacular. The focus isn’t on the spectacle of the galaxy anymore, the focus has shifted to solving the problems in the galaxy. The spectacle is almost taken for granted and takes a back seat, or gets stashed in the trunk.

An example of the main theme being used in other pieces can be heard in The Lazarus Project, in which the deceased Shepard is being rebuilt. It has the uplifting notes of the original theme, but goes downward from there. This is in line with the themes of the game, working for a dark organisation and also turning your back against the people you’ve worked for in the first game.

Where the soundtrack begins to decline in the second game for me, is the more frequent use of the piano. Just as the same main theme gets reused around the rest of the soundtrack, so does this piano theme. It’s not an overly emotional theme though, it does sound a little sad, but for me this captures mystery and having questions.

And then we have the main theme of Mass Effect 3, a theme that just uses the fucking piano while tooting a harsh horn throughout the theme. It’s forced, there is no subtlety. Hell, is this even science fiction anymore? ARE YOU FEELING SAD YET? I’m struggling to make clear how much I absolutely detest this theme.

For me, it comes down to the following: While the first game does has its dramatic themes, they’re better built up to.

The past and future of Mass Effect

As Aalt wrote in this post:

The worst decision that franchises like this do is writing prequels. By doing that, the staff is essentially tied to defined future of the story. If they break the future, the overall story and canon makes less and less sense with each little breakage. One drop doesn’t break a damn, but enough drops turn into a tidal whale. For long time fans of any franchise, they know how prequels often turn out. Not all that great, sometimes even sullying the story they’re based on.

Yet I cannot help but wonder, if you have a legitimate starting point for such a prequel, can you fault them? The biggest event in the Mass Effect universe is the discovery of the effects of element zero, the mass drives, the Prothean beacon and then the Turian war.

But what about the future in-game? The way ME3 ended the trilogy was a real letdown, can you follow it up with anything good? The rebuilding of the citadel was already done in ME2 and 3. Do you just want to skip ahead a hundred years and introduce a new bigbad evil guy? Or will all the mass relays be rebuilt? As faster than light travel is gone from the galaxy, the story would have to be a very contained one that’s restricted to one solar system.

Finally, the future of the franchise. With the disaster that was Andromeda, it will be a while before we will get a new game. Won’t this be the perfect moment to translate the games to TV or a movie? This way, the ‘cumbersome’ gameplay won’t get it the way of the story. I’m only being semi-sarcastic here. With a bit of luck, they’ll pull a Witcher success story (yes, I know that’s also based on a book) and they can even diverge from the ME2 and ME3 script and take a look back at their original plans for the trilogy.

I might just come back to this post to clean it up some more and include elements I dropped in the end. A lot of development stuff, gameplay changes and stupid corporate decisions.

 

Double the Fantasy

An element video and computer games have to them is the necessity for the player to suspend their disbelief twice. The first is, and the one players are most aware of, is within the game’s own setting. We can suspend our disbelief that Mario can jump as high as he can or run endlessly without exerting himself. Take any game and you can find any number of elements that we freely suspend our disbelief about, because they are games. Not many games overall, outside sports, have a need to adhere to the rules of reality. There is no magic, yet there are no issues of understanding and using magic in a given fantasy game. It’s part of the system. However, even before that we have to suspend out disbelief with the technology, on the matters that are not about the game itself. Things like having save slots, passwords to continue or even creating a character are separate entities from the game’s play itself. We expect these things to be part of the whole deal. We expect the games offer a fantasy world we can escape, but we’re still in need to use the tools that the games are built to function on.

While game worlds exhibit elements of different worlds, they’re tied to their social functions. Using somewhat old terminology, the fantasy of these games crosses with the necessity of cyberculture. The player, as part of the cyberculture, often demands elements that do not fit with the fantasy of the world, like Non-Player Characters directly talking to the player rather than to the player’s in-game avatar, like whether or not they would like to save their game. Players’ socialising is also completely apart from the game most of the time, though some players do play their role properly, not breaking their character in-game. The human brain is capable of handling two opposites as true, as players treat the fantasy the game offers as reality just as much as the true reality the game functions in. The fantasy of the world, while contradicting its necessity to be tied to being a software that can only be on a screen we control via input devices as dictated by the game’s rules, is no less is not broken by the necessity of reality.

To use Monster Hunter as an example, we know humans can’t wield the kinds of weapons the game shows. There is no in-game explanation either, it’s part of the deal. The same with monsters themselves and many of the fantastic elements the game has to offer. Controls is an example where the dualistic mindset steps in; we can’t simply do Action X, because the game’s design and code doesn’t allow us. This is part of the rules of the game, despite the games often showing movies how the hunts really look like within the context of the world itself. Items are part of the mechanical elements of the game, where you can carry only this many items in a given number of slots in your inventory, though nothing actually shows on your character that you have them. No backpack or the like on the character.

Some games aim to dissolve the distinction of the two layers. Rather than having the player save their game, the game makes the player write a diary entry and does not make references to the player’s own actions. It’s the player avatar writing the entry, keeping the layer of fantasy unbroken. Yet this is rarely done in favour of making clear to the player what function is what within the game’s rules. To use Ultima Online‘s saving as an example, the player could not open a menu and click Save Game, as that breaks the game’s fantasy. First the player must gather the necessary equipment to camp, like a tent and firewood. Then the player must find a fitting spot to camp and initiate camping procedures before he can log off from the server. The player can’t simply cut the connection at any time he wishes, as that gains him a penalty, where the player character is forced to lay still and possibly be mugged by thieves or mauled by wild animals. EverQuest handles this differently by the game announcing camp preparations with a countdown. The fantasy is not broken, instead it has been replaced with a narrative element in both examples. With games like Final Fantasy, there is no consideration for the fantasy itself. The game and its in-game external functions are treated as two different things.

Games like Baldur’s Gate allow breaking the game’s fantasy even further through constant renewing of the player’s party and character, being able to rewrite the backstories as many times as they want and renew pretty much everything about the party as much as they want. In online mode, a player can bring in a character from their single player campaign that might be significantly higher in levels and progression in the single-player campaign. The fantasy of the game requires moulding that sort of character back into proper spot in that online campaign’s progression, otherwise the fantasy of the game world is broken down by the game’s own in-game external functions. Baldur’s Gate treats itself as a hybrid of what it is, thus allowing its fantasy to be very easily broken by the necessities of its Dungeons and Dragons roots. The game doesn’t try to mask majority of its mechanical functions with its fantasy. Incidentally, while the aforementioned Monster Hunter doesn’t go its way out to include any real ways to keep its narrative functions, a lot has been discussed if the monsters’ Life energy and states should be shown to the player. The game’s design relies the player to further themselves into the fantasy and observe the behaviour and actions of the monsters to determine how badly they’re hurt or if they are enraged. While the game’s rules makes these very apparent by drastically changing the monsters’ actions and adding new elements to the monsters, like raised spikes or glowing eyes, it has moved an element of the technical into the fantasy.

The separation of the fantasy and its mechanics have become clear, and the two-layered fantasy is mostly gone. It has become more a meta subject for some of the developers and designed to toy with, with Metal Gear Solid being one of the best examples how a game’s world can intentionally break the fantasy by using the mechanics accessible to the players themselves, like reading contents of the Memory Card to enforce the idea of Psycho Mantis’ psychic powers and necessitating the player to use the second controller port to fight him. That, and using the controller’s vibrating function as a massage device. This kind of meta approach, while breaking the fantasy, also ties the two layers together, making it meta. However, in the same vain other developers have been chasing the cinematic and Hollywood presentation of Metal Gear Solid to the detriment of the medium, fracturing. the game’s fantasy further.

Video and computer games’ main narrative elements comes from the player’s actions. Each play, in themselves, is the story the game has, not the readily made framework the player progresses through the game. The play’s narrative can easily mask the necessities of the game’s rules and mechanics by giving them further narrative elements. While the players themselves will break the fantasy by meta-discussion about the game, the fantasy of the game world itself can be kept wholly cohesive. However, the wants of the players themselves often necessitate breaking the fantasy in order to offer them things like Quick Saves or the like. While we can argue that we’ve advanced in designing games and their interfaces, the modern electronic media and cyberculture is very much different from what it was ten, twenty years ago. Video and computer game designs reflect this, where the player driven narrative and story has been replaced with an emphasize on the pre-determined framework, despite modern technology allowing far more complex game progression to be designed and realised. The paradigm in current game design however wants to fight this, as it has been separated from the technological fantasy of controls, mechanics and rules. Rather than games being presented as a cohesive whole, with the layers being as melded as possible, the current paradigm in design wants to present the games as sectioned as possible. Perhaps it is because different teams are working different sections of the game, where the need to make clear-cut definitions betweens them becomes apparent. However, the consumers at large don’t see to mind this and are capable sidestepping the necessity to suspend their disbelief with fantasy due to simple nature of games running on rules.

Music of the Month; Major Demon

Whenever I find myself discussing electronic game history and culture, I’m always surprised how much information out there is heavily biased towards the American view. Take the 1984 video game crash for an example. It’s touted as an industry wide destruction that was dooming the whole industry. Rarely you see anyone mention that arcades were doing just fine and neither Europe or Japan (and by that extension, rest of Asia) felt the effects. Nor is it often mentioned that this was the second time the video game industry felt a crash, as the first one was experienced in 1979 with the death of Pong clones. Atari managed to survive that market, but the saturated Pong consoles didn’t experience a smooth transition to the Second Generation as much as it was a truck driven to a wall and whatever could be salvaged was put together and out. Then again, only in the US. Japan had its own thing going on with Cassette Vision and other domestic consoles going around with Atari’s consoles being mostly a niche, a side dish at best. European markets have always been more driven by computer markets rather than consoles, hence why the British and French microcomputers mostly get a glancing mention in US sources based while European memoirs celebrate them. Because of these microcomputers, every console in until the PlayStation had a hard time to penetrate the markets, especially if they were disastrously mismanaged like the NES and its high-cost cartridges. The Sega Master System managed to nab important countries under its belt due to decent marketing and cheaper titles. In the meanwhile, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and similar computers were making strides, alongside later entries like Atari ST and Amiga. The only real place the NES pounced its competition like there was no tomorrow was in the US, as even in Japan Famicom faced serious competition from the PC-Engine.

It’s understandable how a lot of misconceptions about the electronic game market of the 1980’s have come about. Not only it was an era where Japanese economy bubble was rumbling across the world, but also a time when the industry was still brand new and saw its most dramatic high and lows. After those growing pains, electronic game market has been rather stable, though it becoming a behemoth of all entertainment industries has also translated to rising costs across the board. Nevertheless, with the NES striking gold in the US, lot of assumptions and deductions where made based on the local market synergies, as Nintendo was represented somewhat homely device as were its games. One of the reasons why Nintendo saw so much effort to localise certain Japanese big hits, like Dragon Quest, with loads of extra content in the package, as well as their now infamous censorship rules. Due to the sheer separation of markets, the US wouldn’t see the progression of Japanese developed games until the NES hit the shores, effectively skipping many genre’s and NES’ own growing pains, and pretty much all of the classic NEC PC titles, outside some that got ported to MS-DOS at a later date, like Sorcerian. This would lead into old arguments about some games being ripoffs of others or companies copying style and design from others, while the matter might be around. The previous post can be said to be about this to some extent.

Europe of course had all the trickling effects, and Nintendo never even enforced the need to properly convert NTSC 60Hz games to PAL 50Hz. Funny that, it also goes backwards, with some European developed games run unintentionally faster on NTSC systems. Not that Sega cared either, and the industry standard of not doing the necessary conversions stuck. Video games are a business after all, you put limitations and rules what can be in these titles to encourage sales, and flaunt your stances and values in the best ways you can to show the customer how much trust can be put on them.

Not exactly my usual month’s breaker, but I don’t really have much plans. Due to changes in career and job description, my usual work days have become longer and while work in itself might be easier with robots, it is more stressful with its own little issues that I have to learn from the mud. Moving these posts’ release schedule to 16:00 GMT0 have made a significant different in how much time I can put into typing stuff down. Hobbies shouldn’t feel like work, and I’ve removed quite a load with that simple change. I’m not exactly sure if there is a notable difference in quality or amount of text I’ve produced during as of late. With summer heat hitting the streets more and more each day, I’ve found myself wanting to spend more time out, hence there might be times when I’ll just miss a post intentionally. Not that I’ll abuse this decision, breaking a decade long habit is rather difficult. I’m also adamant on returning to make reviews at some point, but that really depends if anything interesting comes at hand. My heart still lies in reviewing controllers, but the sheer lack of need for new ones and nothing peculiar coming my way has thrown a monkey wrench in those gears. Ah well, I can always make those short series introductions.

The Big N Creation Myth

One of the best marketing tactics a corporation in the creative industries can employ is to represent their product as something completely unique and new, or as something that has evolved the formula beyond the competition. The whole This game/genre has evolved! schtick is especially common with sequels, and was rather common in the Japanese ad media during the first decade of the 2000’s. You don’t see Japanese developers mentioning their sources of inspirations much outside few notable exceptions like Hideki Kamiya, who has been vocal about his love towards arcade games. Western developers often do the opposite, citing examples what their game is like. The difference between cultures here is rather contrasting to the point of American audiences preferring to refer their games ‘as like something’ even in genres, like Doomclone, Soulslike, Metroidvania and such.

Japanese like to invent new genres for specific games though, though this is in order to endorse the whole idea of these games being something completely unique. Shenmue‘s FREE, Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment and Mega Man Legends‘ Free-Running RPG are the ones I cite the most as examples, mostly because both of them are full of bullshit. Sometimes you can find these redefining genre names as a game’s subtitle as well, with Metal Gear Solid‘s Stealth Espionage Action being a prime example. By introducing something as new and wholly created by oneself or one’s own team, prestige, reputation and face can be gained. A culture most of the credit, if not even all of it, can be credited to one person alone while putting all the faults and mistakes unto lower staff members, it becomes understandable why Nintendo wants their customers to believe that they have created their games in a bubble of creativity, free of whatever is around them.

Staff at Nintendo have always been aware what’s around them. They have always been as much trendchasers as they have been trendsetters. With their pre-Famicom era Pong clones to the very early era of making Hanafuda cards, they’ve always taken something that exist and given it a whirl of their own. What I mean by this is that Nintendo, especially with their video games, have always taken a game and looked at it how it could be given a different spin. This sometimes improves the formula, sometimes it doesn’t. Devil World is a great example of a failed attempt at improving the Pac-Man formula.

The game is actually pretty bad. It has one nice tune, but overall you just wish you were playing real Pac-Man

The Legend of Zelda and the Action Role Playing Game myth is probably the biggest one out there. As touted by Nintendo Power during the game’s release, it was the first game of its kind. In reality, it of course wasn’t. Even Link’s Adventure, a game which is considered to be an outlier, adheres to pre-existing games to a large degree, trying to improve on mechanics and ideas that already established. However, it must be said that The Legend of Zelda was the first true mainstream success of its genre in the United States, as the closest relative the game had at the time was Ultima games. There are links missing between Ultima and The Legend of Zelda, though not many.

First of the links is Falcom’s 1984 Dragon Slayer, which more or less takes the Ultima formula and simplifies it down to one massive dungeon.

Zelda would adopt this same top view perspective. All the base building blocks are here that would be seen in The Legend of Zelda down the line, though battling is still done with statistics. You can expect a hard defeat if you don’t have proper stats or magic. Dragon Slayer wasn’t the only game in town to get inspired by Western RPG or use an early version of bump combat that year.

Hydlide has become a sort of punching bag on the Internet for being terrible, but in reality it’s no worse than other RPGs of the time. Visually there are similarities that we’d see in later games like Dragon Quest, which in itself is a combination of Ultima’s top-down view and Wizardry‘s in-window battles. The way both these games hit the scene in 1984 is telling how much impact early Ultima and Wizardry had on the Japanese PC gaming. Falcom’s influence on Nintendo wouldn’t stop with Dragon Slayer, as 1985’s Xanadu‘s battle mode very much like Zelda‘s overall play.

The difference of course being that all of the games still use statistics and experience as a play basis, not removing them from Ultima too much. The Legend of Zelda changes the formula by removing experience and the need to grind for experience points to item statistics. While Link doesn’t gain any visible statistics during the game, the player progression and curbing is done by gaining stat growth via weapons. This makes the game easier to approach and opens all of the game map to the player from the start, and encourages the player to wander around to adventure even more. Falcom’s influence on the series can also be seen in Link’s Adventure, which more or less uses Xanadu‘s changing battle-mode to shake things up, but keeps things viewed from the side. While not exactly new at the time. While Link’s Adventure is seen as a kind of black sheep of the series, despite historically it outselling its stock and being an excellent title on its own rights, Falcom released their own game using the same side-view concept Link’s Adventure had in Sorcerian.

The two games were developed about the same time, though Sorcerian sticks to the side-view throughout its whole game without changing perspectives. The play itself is dramatically different, structuring the game on particular quests and scenarios. Combat itself is surprisingly downplayed, though player has to directly attack enemies in similar fashion to Link’s Adventure. Having four party members means you can have mages shooting fireballs while melee characters hack with their swords. Sorcerian can be traced as one of the ancestors of Wanderers from Ys rather than be coined as a Link’s Adventure clone. Influenced without a doubt, just like Falcom’s and other companies games influenced Zelda overall.

Zelda just happens to be one of the better examples, where most of the influences never arrived to US. European micro-computers had their own games depending on the countries, with Sabrewulf being the most popular example. Another would be F-Zero, in which Nintendo can’t really deny influences of other racing games. The game was developed as a tech-demo for SNES’ Mode 7, which largely explains why the series has been left on the side. F-Zero X showed how fast and furious games can be on the N64 and improved the concept leaps and bounds, but Nintendo never really knew what to do after that. For them, the lower revenues and lack of ideas how to introduce a new kind of gimmick to the game has left the series dormant. AM2’s F-Zero GX is effectively just an improved version of F-Zero X, but the genre doesn’t exactly offer the best chances of installing new gimmicks without breaking the purity of play. Mario Kart on the other hand does, and gets all the attention instead.

In the absence of new futuristic racing games, Wipeout hit the scene of fill the empty niche. Games like Redshift have continued this sort of tradition, but more games in the genre are being inspired by Wipeout rather than F-Zero, similarly how Nintendo’s games inspire other titles rather the original sources

Not all influences are in the open or traceable. Argonaut Software’s Croc: Legend of the Gobbos was stated to be a primary inspiration for Super Mario 64 according to the studio’s founder Jez San. In an interview with Eurogamer, San goes over how they had a completed Star Fox 2 and had made a pitch for a 3D Yoshi game to Nintendo, but appropriated much of their Star Fox 2 code into Star Fox 64, and have people would never see royalties from Star Fox 2‘s release on the Super Nintendo Mini or through Switch’s online service. Super Mario 64 is very similar to what their pitched prototype was. Despite Croc released year later than Super Mario 64, these similarities they carried from their original pitch are evident, even having similar movesets. It’s easy to see Croc as an alternative skin to Yoshi, changed enough not to infringe copyrights. Shigeru Miyamoto has effectively admitted lifting the 3D game idea from Argonauts to San despite their close relationship.

“Miyamoto-san came up to me at a show afterwards and apologised for not doing the Yoshi game with us and thanked us for the idea to do a 3D platform game. He also said that we would make enough royalties from our existing deal to make up for it. That felt hollow to me, as I’m of the opinion that Nintendo ended our agreement without fully realising it. They canned Star Fox 2 even though it was finished and used much of our code in Star Fox 64 without paying us a penny.

Super Mario 64 would go cited as the first ‘true’ 3D game, which in itself is patently untrue. Despite the hype around Mario 64, 1980’s already saw games like Star Wars and Battlezone, which used wireframe models to create a 3D environment. We can cite Ultima Underworld as one of the earliest examples of 3D game that didn’t use wireframe models. Alone in the Dark can be cited as an example as well. The distinction of course becomes whether or not all the environment is modelled in polygonal 3D or not, in which case we need to give the first ‘true’ 3D distinction to Quake. We shouldn’t forget Sega’s Virtual-On series either, which offered full 360-degrees of free range of controls via its twin stick control scheme. Ultimately, the pretty much everything Super Mario 64 did, from its 3D nature to having game designed to be controlled via a stick, can be traced to numerous other titles and sources.

 I fully admit, I never liked Quake

However, cultivating the idea Nintendo, and every other company out there, is some kind of single creative force makes good money. It’s a PR dream to have a product that stands apart from the rest of the shelf, but is familiar enough for the consumer to understand at first sight. One you manage to gain a position as the one who defined a type of product, yours is the standard that is compared against. The Legend of Zelda doesn’t have much direct competition any more, though games like Nier: Automata are effectively in the same Action RPG genre, but a distinction is made between the two to make a separation for marketing reasons. It’s all about the money and position at the end of the day, and if you can claim to be at the top, you’ll get the most fame and money.

A touch of medieval magic

During the last three to four decades the worldwide popular culture has enjoyed large amounts of content that hits itself back to the middle-ages with a touch of fantasy. Dungeons and Dragons is first on the tongue of many who play it and it would be dismissive not to mention the influence of Tolkien’s works played in part. Some of the largest video game franchises stem from these sources when traced back enough, while games like Ultima Online and EverQuest almost directly were inspired by. The influence of the The Lord of the Rings movies as well as Harry Potter, and even Shrek, the modern revisionist fantasy is strongly felt. We can go ever further back from the early 2000’s to the 1980’s as well, where titles like Dragonslayer and Conan the Barbarian were making ways in the genre. They all share the same fantasy tropes of castles, swords, dragons, fairies and magic ties them all together in one massive heap. Not only that, but IT books used to be full of lingo directly related to fantasy, with titles like Dreamwaver 4 Magic or The C Wizard’s Programming Reference. Hell, even when installing a program you might open up something called the Installation Wizard.

All these are tied to old stories about knights and dragons, fables and tales of lords and gods. Stories like King Arthur, Waltharius, Prose Edda and whatever story your countrymen tell as their national epochs all contribute to what we see in modern popular culture, especially in electronic gaming where games across the board freely borrow concepts, names and places from. While you have games like Valkyrie Profile that adapts Ragnarök as its background while exploring humanity and its effects on a divine Valkyrie, other titles simply take the names and drop them into a given setting like how Final Fantasy does with its Summon spells more often than not. While we lean back to these old tales to large extends, the modern world has allowed to continue telling stories in more effective ways. Movies, books, comics, animation and whatnot you have in the popular culture can be often put breast to breast with old epics and make comparisons between the characters and events. Captain America, in his own ways, is the United State’s very own Samson.

Using these names and concepts is an effective way to convey to the customer what are buying into at any given time. The aforementioned Installation Wizard works like magic, with the user not needing to concern themselves with the details in installing a program. It’s like magic, no need to explain how this works. It’s not always the classical terms or works that get referenced. Band names are often an example of this. Names like Shayol Ghul and Lanfear are both references to the Wheel of Time books, where both carry rather sinister and dark connotation. You wouldn’t be surprised the former is a Black Metal band while the latter plays Power Metal. Modern fantasy has played a major role as the inspiration for large amounts of rock and heavy metal. A game example to refer an idea through name alone would fall to Nihon Falcom’s Ys-series, as it is a direct reference to the city of Ys, or Kêr-Is in Breton, which sank in the ocean. Not much else was lifted from the original story other than a vanished city that had to pay for its foolishness.

While fantasy (especially the medieval fantasy that reaches well into the Renaissance) has been rising in popularity slowly but surely, works that could impact the cultural mind have become relatively rare. Not since Harry Potter have we seen a true fantasy work that turned people true believers of sorts. Perhaps the latest fantasy work that left a permanent impact was Dark Souls and its lieu of copycats and a forced genre naming Soulslike, which harkens well back to the day of Doomclone. As a piece of story, Dark Souls may not offer much and heavily leans on its own inspirations, one of which is the fan-favourite Berserk. However, as a game it offers one of the best modern examples of ways people share their own particular stories. The framework of Dark Souls is nothing special in itself, not even its method of leaving the player to tie the background story together through environment and item texts, something even Metroid Prime utilised through its logs. However, it offers one of the best examples where player actions is the bulk of the story. Sharing these stories, how an enemy was faced with a particular weapon, or how they were battling another player, is an essential part of the overall experience. Sometimes its shared through streaming, where the player effectively becomes a theatre performer and the game is his stage. Maybe they’ll just ragequit after Pinwheel kills them, ending that particular tale right there. Here lies the Hero Skarnix, yet another dead. Dark Souls took what was already there and mixed it all together to create something new from the old, though it must be mentioned that FromSoftware had already laid out the framework with Demons’ Souls and King’s Field series of games. However, Dark Souls is the one that truly broke through the cultural wall as a defining work.

Classic sword and sorcery fantasy seems to be a sort of thing that’s easily accessed by anyone. We understand the romance between a hero and the sword, the dream of heroic tasks we could undertake and overcome. Sometimes the twist is macabre and depressing, lacking in any hope, but even that we understand without much explanations. Life’s unfair and only we ourselves are in charge of our own lives. Make the best of it. Perhaps there’s a bit of nostalgia as well in there, as the World Wars tolled so many to the point of needing to invent Dada. Despite fantasy games offering complex mechanics and vast storylines, at the core there is simplicity that modern day doesn’t offer. Some prefer even historical stories prior to Renaissance due to lack of cannons and other similar projectile weapons, when all you had was steel and catapults.

While Science fiction had a similar rise as fantasy when we had the great writers, from Doc Smith’s Lensman and Asimov’s Foundation to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Arthur C. Clarke’s A Space Odyssey, modern science fiction hasn’t seen much success either on print, video games, films or television. Whether or not it is because of modern audiences simply being tired of science fiction, or that most modern writers can’t build a story that’s as entertaining and brain racking as the aforementioned authors’ works, the genre’s a passé. Fantasy, on the other hand, is ageless as it creates a false history to build upon. It doesn’t need to make guesses or assumptions what might be in the future or ask What if… Thus even science fiction weapons that have entered the general lexicon as most powerful are based on extensions of cultural history and fantasy, light sabre or laser sword being probably one of the best examples.

In time we’ll see new forms of media popping up and new ways to create content to tell stories of heroes, of might and magic, or wizardry and quests for glory. They’ll still stand on top of what we have now, just as the works we consume are standing on top even larger giants. After all, the culture of telling stories and playing games is ever-evolving.

Almanic and Givro

Almanic Corporation might be a name some Super Famicom/ Nintendo fans recognise from the E.V.O.: Search for Eden as its main developer. Enix worked mainly as their publisher, as one of the founding members, Takashi Yoneda, was an ex-Enix employee. They also had connections to Technos, who similarly published some of their works with a similar connection to another founding member, Noriyuki Tomiyama. These names themselves aren’t significant, neither is the lack of mention for ex-Aicom Takashige Shichijo, but to illustrate Almanic’s background from their staff point. The company would later be renamed as Givro sometime after Shichijo left to work for Quintet, and that’s another tale.

I remember when an old friend hyped this game to me and proudly claimed Enix having invented a way to make 2D platformers significant and meaningful. He didn’t exactly sell the game for me

List of Almanic’s games is rather strange. Despite most of their (relatively) well-known titles are with Enix, like the previously mentioned E.V.O., one of their other earliest projects they were part of was The Combatribes’ SNES port, which is more known for its intentional simplicity and punishing difficulty. Other weirdly notable titles include Cosmic Carnage for the Sega 32X, which more or less used an improved engine used in Mega Drive’s MazinSaga 1v1 fighting mode. The company seemed to have a short love affair with fighting games, as they were the main developer for Fighting Masters. For a company known mostly for their RPG-ish games, they have a significant history in action and fighting. The split is best seen in who published the games. Enix of course picked up the ones their image the best, while Sega, Technos and Vic Tokai employed them to work on the more action oriented titles, but not always as the main developer. For example, Technos hired them to work on some of the larger sprites for Shin Nekketsu Kouha Kouha: Kunio-tachi no Banka.

What CG sprite work they did for the game is unknown, but it might the sprites used in the intro and the like

While E.V.O. probably is Almanic’s most recognisable title, 1994’s Wonder Project J is not far behind. The game represents the best Almanic would be most remembered for in style, where animation is high quality with well designed environments and characters. Sometimes Almanic’s games didn’t exactly have the best play mechanics, but they got polished a little bit more by each title. Another element that got polished was how each game’s thematics got handled. If the title wasn’t a straight up license game, like their CB Chara Wars for the Super Famicom, themes of the games would seem light at first, but with that fairy tale paint of coat would have something more serious underneath. Wonder Project J may be a action/raising simulator kind of game, where the player has indirect control over the mechanical boy Pino with a comforting Osamu Tezuka-like fantasy world to walk about, yet the themes the game touch upon range from prejudice and bigotry to blank slate of men and consequences of one’s actions. Some of the themes are less direct than others, but are nevertheless there.

The game’s not exactly subtle in some spots

Wonder Project J2 would be published in 1996, with even more increased frames of animation and emphasise more on the simulation side over the action. By this point the corporation was renamed as Givro, but most of the same muscle would be behind the game, which is why the game’s flow is very similar. The game being on the N64, there are some awkward 3D moments. Enix announced a PlayStation port of the game, enhanced with more animation sequences, but this never came to be. The whole style and approach the previous game had would be taken further to a more storybook kind of direction, which is especially evident with the opening of the game. Similar themes would be present in the game as with the first one.

Both of these games were developed while Almanic/Givro was working on action and racing games on the side, but not even the hardcore enthusiast tend to remember their role in such games as Super Mad Champ, probably because nobody remembers rather obscure Japanese bike-racing games like that, though it goes for stupidly high prices on the second-hand market due to its relative rarity. However, none of the titles Almanic/Givro would ever see massive popularity and would stand as niche titles all around, which ultimately led their final fairy-tale like adventure, 1997’s Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari, to be their swansong on the Saturn.

In some manner, the game is a kind if end-point for the corporation, and Enix had Crowd, Buddy Zoo and Two Five as part of the developers to realise this game. Whatever action game Givro were part of are side-mentions to Wonder Project J games, and sadly so is Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari despite it being a shining example of slow, steadily paced play. The aim is for the player to control a fat dragon named Gaapu and find the titular seven winds to solve what is ailing the island he lives on. While the overall view is similar to Wonder Project J games, the game plays more like slow-paced cinematic platformers, except the emphasise is on puzzle solving akin to PC adventure games. The motif of showing something light hearted to house a darker tone towards the end is carried well into The Tale of the Seven Winds Island to the point of esoteric horror during its last steps. The game is an extremely polished piece of software, with absolutely masterful world design and soundscape, but it being a niche title on a dying console didn’t yield great sales. The title was never localised, and ultimately fell into obscurity.

Almanic/Givro is an example of a developer that has made games that should stand out from the crowd by their sheer quality and polish, but never experienced mass success. Many of the games they were part of never got official English release, though fans have tackled Wonder Project J games over a decade ago. While Enix re-released those two on mobile phone some years ago, Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari is fated to stay on Saturn, as no Saturn game has its master or source code intact. Unless a game is based on a code from another platform, or plays through emulation like Princess Crown‘s re-releases.

Almanic/Givro had a somewhat unique life, going from mostly action and fighting games to finish with a game that has effectively no action in it. While they worked on multiple projects at the same time in different capacities, the titles they handled solely usually had that special spark in them. Spark that has kept Wonder Project J and its sequel on the top of relatively obscure Japan-exclusive games people recommend to try out.

Rebooting the honeymoon period

Before a franchise becomes a running success, it goes through golden days of sheer creativity. This lasts until certain unwritten rules become commonplace, which are largely determined by both success of entries in the franchise itself. Take Mobile Suit Gundam for example, where this period of exploring what Gundam as a franchise could be and how it was to be depicted lasted about a decade and arguably ended with Gaia Gear, a series of novels and audiodramas set into the far future of the original’s timeline. While the story and setting is very much what we could expect from a Gundam entry, it separated itself from the series by not having the title Gundam anywhere and its titular mech Gaia Gear had only a passing resemblance to mainline designs in the series.

On the left you can visually identify the mech as a Gundam-type. It has the distinct white-blue-yellow colours, the right type of structure with the cockpit in the chest/stomach region, vents on either side of the chest, a pronounced cockpiece and now-iconic Gundam head. Gaia Gear breaks basically every rule outside the vents on the chest. It could be argued that because it’s not a Gundam in name it doesn’t need to follow the conventions. However, most Mobile Suits in Gundam follow similar structure in body designs with only special cases deviating heavily from them. That is not to say that Gaia Gear didn’t get a repaint later on that matches with Gundam colours, but that’s really neither here or there. As a whole Gaia Gear was one of the last entries that broke with decade long exploration what Gundam was and what it could be, until Mobile Fighter G Gundam would present with the first alternative timeline on television, but the designs would still stick to the already established mould.

Sometimes this period lasts only one entry. Take the Halloween film franchise as an example, where the third movie veered off from the first two movies’ setting and characters in attempt to make the series different with each entry. With the backlash the movie got, the period of experimentation ended and all future films would stick to the first movie’ shtick, exploring only its characters and set-ups while not entertaining the idea of an anthology series. It could be argued that the two first movies already set the what the franchise as a whole would be in stone, and isn’t exactly comparable to changing designs in Gundam, but the gist is the same; Something is made in multiple entries and tries to find its sweet spot, and once it does, it sticks to it like glue.

When the honeymoon period with the franchise’s golden days ends, it leads to formulaic entries one after another. This doesn’t mean the quality drops automatically. Rather it means the consumers have certain expectations of the brand and creators behind the brand are expected to deliver. They can improve the formula bit by bit and explore it to some extent without majorly changing elements. Usually turning things completely on their sides of changing the core concepts massively is reserved for spin-offs, and ultimately for reboots when a franchise is considered to be too heavy on history and pre-established lore.

The Gold Key comics followed, or perhaps enforced, the standard Trek formula that DC and Marvel would break a bit more later down the line in manners TV couldn’t

Star Trek is probably a common example here, where majorly affected spin-offs were relegated to comics and games, while small but major tweaks to the formula were represented in Voyager and Deep Space Nine. With the J.J. Abram’s rebooting the franchise, and requesting only his take on Trek to maintain any presence, we’ve gone through the whole period of exploring the franchise again in the comics, while the movies stuck to the formula right after. We can see the reaction the studio and creators had to the receptions of the Abram’s Trek take in Discovery and Picard, where this new take on the series followed the modern action line it was restructured to be in place of exploring the human condition though guise of science fiction. Sometimes reboots are used as a way to gain a recognizable property to make business with while ignoring the existing wants and needs.

A franchise that has established itself builds up expectations with each successive entry, especially if there’s a series of entries that improve the core concepts one after another. This is best seen in video games, where styles of play and elements that exist in a franchise often are built up, and about just as often began to fall apart at some point for multitude of reasons. Take the Splinter Cell franchise as an example.

Those three green dots became a well recognised during the golden days of Splinter Cell. Not so much now

The Splinter Cell franchise was Ubisoft’s golden cow at one point with receptions like no other. Sure it came in the wake of Thief and Metal Gear Solid, but the franchise is most well known for its three first games, nowadays titled as the Splinter Cell Trilogy, while the rets of the games are more or less pushed aside. This mostly is because the first three games emphasised stealth as a play mechanics, especially using the shadows as the main point of play much like Thief did before it. The first three games expanded on the whole (relatively) open stages and ways the player could tackle mission specific targets in a stealthy manner. The first three games in the series build up the mechanics and laid down the core structure what could be expected of the franchise, but after that the most common criticism has been the franchise moving away from stealth and becoming a more generic action play with less freedom players has per stage, relying on a linear design. With lacklustre entries that fall between the cracks and not meeting with the expectations the franchise had already built up, UIbisoft hasn’t put out a new entry in a while.

Not that many teams would like to tackle Splinter Cell all that eagerly, as each new title is expected to return to the glory days of the franchise that would stand to the original tagline of the Splinter Cell, Stealth Action Redefined. It wouldn’t be surprising if Ubisoft would simply reboot the whole franchise, effectively nullifying expectations the franchise has, cleaning the slate for developers and riding a recognisable name all the while.

Kagawa prefecture’s gaming restrictions have weak scientific basis

Back in March, Japanese prefecture Kagawa announced their local assembly had passed an ordinance to limit the time children spend next to a screen, specifically stating that the excess usage of the Internet and playing video games lead to such results as socially reclusive behaviour and causing sleeping disorders. They admit that there are no ways to enforce the ruling properly and that it is more a recommendation of sorts. This of course comes in the wake of WHO classifying a gaming disorder without any proper evidence that such exist, something I’ve covered on the blog. While it seemingly has majority support, we have no real way of telling what sort of sample size there were that gave the over 80% positive support.

The ruling states that children are to have one hour of play time during weekdays and an hour and a half during weekends, as well as giving guidelines on the hours which devices can be used. Naoki Ogi, an educational pundit, praised the ruling as a way to give parents who are at loss to deal with their children’s smartphone usage. By giving specific guidelines parents are now able to create the proper household rules. This was echoed by a 43-year old mother of two children, who can’t stop her kids from playing games about two hours a day. At this glance, it would appear the ruling shows more support towards parents who can’t really handle their children, or know how to limit their screentime with games or phones. Kagawa’s ruling is about trying to curb the gaming disorder WHO has determined, and as such has an extremely weak leg to stand on as the scientific evidence ICD-11 stands on is weak at best, misinformed at worst.

This is why a teenager who goes by the name Wataru has decided to crowdfund a legal action against Kagawa and its ruling. He states that the government has no role to step in to rule over family matters such as these. Then again, this being Japan and the culture they have does rely rather heavily on pre-set rules and not wanting to rock the boat, so it is most likely a helpful thing for parents to have guidelines to work with in issues they have no real skill in. The generational gap between children and their parents when it comes to electronic entertainment and digital interactions is relatively strong, and parents who don’t understand why video games offer a way to release stress or entertain oneself most likely will only cause a negative impact. Some find solace in gaming as a hobby and thus belong to an extended world wide community. Argumentd that claim that gaming encourages anti-social behaviour is, to put it straight, horse shit. Gaming is one of the most social hobbies out there, connecting people through discussion groups or multiplayer sessions. People may not be meeting face to face in most cases, but people who share the same interests in the similar kind of games often find themselves forging new social ties. Of course there are children and adults who use gaming as a way to cope with their issues via escapism or such, in which case the issues isn’t the games. While there are cases where a person does end up being addicted to video games, the reasons have been less explored. It’s easy to blame the way these people have been coping rather than trying to deal with the underlying reasons.

Wataru argues that the guidelines Kagawa prefecture has put out have no scientific basis on the same grounds. He states that it is a false premise that gaming causes truancy and addition, when truancy is caused by external factors like issues in school and gaming is their way to find relief. Despite the ruling intended as general guidelines rather than solid law that should be enforced, Wataru has experienced being kicked off from servers after 22:00. It should be noted that 595 people signed a petition against the ruling when submitted, though now the count has growing towards 900. The petition is being still shared and supported. Wataru’s lawyer, Tomoshi Sakka, also sees the ruling to violate Japanese constitution, as it ensures a person’s right of self-determination. Taro Yamada, a House of Councilors member with experience and knowledge on the Internet’s usage and freedom of speech in Japan, has stated the ordinance to be nonsense and only targets time of usage and doesn’t account how integrated digital communication is in our, and our children’s, daily lives. This should be especially noted in Japan, which has a longer and richer history in usage of mobile phones as a form of daily interaction than in most countries, and why flip phones were a pop-cultural icon for almost twenty years (and in many ways, still are.) You can see Wataru’s interview on the topic and of his intentions on Youtube, but do note that it has no English subtitles.

Apparently, Japan has more rulings of this kind. Wataru noted that there has been an increase of rules to deter children’s right to have fun, citing an example how playgrounds have banned football, or the use of balls of any kind. Perhaps rulings like this are a symptom how Japanese population is growing older and considerations towards children are falling. The ageing population would find themselves passing rulings to support themselves first and foremost, but it might backfire and create a gulf between the generations. Kagawa’s ruling was the first of its kind Japan and the education board of Odate (Akita prefecture) intends to follow their blazing trail and introduce similar restrictions to combat video game addiction by submitting their own ordinance by March 2021. Not to say that an ordinance is all that unique. Back in 2014, Kariya of Aiichi prefecture banned children from using mobile devices after 21:00. Well back in 2009 the Japanese education ministry banned elementary and junior high school students from carrying phones at schools as they didn’t consider them a necessary part of education, but last year they revised their stance after ten years of technological advancements, noting that such devices had become essential in the classroom studies. The Education department of the Osaka Prefectural government had already allowed the aforementioned to carry phones into the classroom, mostly due to the earthquake that took place in northern part of Osaka in June 2018.

While it is uncertain if Wataru is able to sue Kagawa over its ruling, these past months, especially right after the ruling itself, social media has been buzzing about it. Politicians like Kenzo Fujisae of the independent Upper House lawmaker has opposed the ruling on his blog. He echoes statements the public and Wataru has made, questioning how valid is an ordinance that can’t be enforced or overseen as well as stating that combatting “gaming disorder” in this manner has no scientific basis. Fujisae also points out that by limiting the time of play like this retards the connections that can be through online games, which breaks connections between promising future partnerships. He notes that the interactions through the Internet and games can also save people, probably meaning that online intercourse may be some people’s only way to connect with the like-minded. Tokihiro Matsumoto of Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward also questioned the ruling by pointing out how it would directly affect local eSports participants as well as how he thinks how old fashioned it is to apply such restrictions. While these are just two examples, the buzz did get a reaction from Keizo Hamada, stating that they’d be open to discuss the contents of the proposed regulations back in January, but seeing Watasru is crowdfunding his a case against Kagawa would be a sign that no significant changes were made. It is doubtful that anything comes from the lawsuit, if it even gets off the ground. However, Kagawa’s ordinance relying on WHO’s gaming disorder is a dangerous precedence, as now other cities and prefectures can apply similar reasoning on other weak cases.