Taking an axe to a dead horse

Let me start this post by not just kicking that one dead horse, but again mince its meat and turn its hooves into glue; the story of a game is in its play, the rest of framing. The thing that makes electronic gaming so interesting is that the framing is considered equal, if not more important in some cases, than the content it is framing.

A game’s framing narrative will always be second to the play of the game, that’s part of the medium. The framing can never escape the play part, and ultimately has to be break itself apart and into segments to satisfy the needs of play. This could be, for example,  the need for the player to move a character from locale A to locale B in order to continue the narrative segment. Or in case of Xenosaga, walk from a room to another to continue from a fifteen-minute FMV. The narrative also has the option to cover game mechanics as part of the world, but that is not specifically necessary.

The game can cover rules of the play by other means as well, but for the sake of game’s own narrative consistency, more often than not the rules are implemented as part of the framing narrative. Sometimes it makes sense, like how Trails in the Sky has the whole orbs-in-slots system, something concrete that the player sees and collects, and other times it’s rather abstract like Junctioning Magic to Guardian Forces in Final Fantasy XIII. Nevertheless, the framing itself matters less than the function and rules of the play the provide.

Of course, depending on the game, the framing device can be extremely important, or matter very little. Modern audiences are used to having everything in FMVs and pre-scripted sequences that take control out of the players’ hands, but in the arcades this context was delivered via cabinet marquees and attraction screens. In the best cases, games were laid out and designed to deliver the framing without much words or time wasted. For example, the subtitle of the first Street Fighter II was The World Warrior, referring to the world stage the player’s chosen character would be in. The selection screen itself presented this concept with the world map and plane flying here and there. Much like any other visual medium, games excel in the visual side of things. Certainly, many arcade games slapped a text to give you the base framing and that was that, which is effectively an equivalent of any modern FMV. More abstract games didn’t need any. Pac-Man eats pills and tries to avoid the Ghosts. That’s the minimum amount of framing a game needs to fully justify its play. Funnily enough, that is also the description of the play, getting two birds with one stone.

The framing fights the player agency because it’s not the content, the play is. Nowadays we take for granted how large the overall framing is to give a whole world for the play to be justified, which is overreaching it rather hard, but it is one of the easier and most accessible aspects to analyse regarding games. This is because we are taught to read from a young age and how to analyse media overall. Film criticism comes a bit later, but often we build our own preferences based on certain aspects of films, which makes the whole analysing this framing device very easy.

It’s not as easy with other media, where specialised knowledge is more or less necessary to understand how the content is being framed. To drag the remains of the horse’s corpse here for a moment, not many people concentrate on the frames of a painting or on the pedestal of a statue despite the possibility that they too could have seen masterful works themselves. A painting is being elevated further when an unique frame has been designed and carved for it, accenting its strokes and colours properly. Often they just get overlooked and whatever readily made models are there on the table gets picked up, because the frame isn’t the main point. Not many know wood-crafting well enough to begin to appreciate the necessary skill and knowledge master framers have built up throughout the years to pair a painting perfectly to a frame, and proceed to frame it in an equally skilful manner. Everything from material selection to the attaching itself must be taken into account. Or, y’know, just nab that proper sized black frame from Ikea and go with that. Sure, same thing. I’m overstating this point because handiwork and craftsmanship isn’t something we all learn too deeply. We dabble in it and may learn base skills, but we aren’t taught them to any deeper extent. Craft lessons at school mostly just play rather than building up any true skill, unlike your native tongue lessons.

Games that rely heavily on the framing narrative also tend to decrease the agency of the player, the freedom of play. This doesn’t matter too much in games that are laid out as fields of challenge, like almost every action and racing game out there, but raises its ugly head when it comes to RPGs. More often than not, RPGs do not offer a whole lot of ways for the player to realise their own play. Some RPGs allow completely free character creation and follow in suit, but even then framing device is ready and sometimes can’t even be affected. When the developer concentrates on emphasizing their framing as a single narrative, the player agency is effectively nil. Very few times the framing allows the player to have a large agency on its course and in cases like YIIK the narrative is overwhelmingly more important than the play to the point of it having been designed to hate the player. The greater the narrative design, the more it has to rely on the techniques from other media, but marrying it to the play also requires an equal amount of design decisions regarding the play. For example, Kojima may have made his titles long-ass movies at times, but simply allowing the player to turn on the first person camera and look around for clues and easter eggs add to the player agency. While the player can’t continue the scene on their own terms, they are given control over an aspect nevertheless. A small thing that adds value to otherwise lengthy scenes of doing nothing.

While the framing narrative sees ever-rising budgets and effort to have the most well-scripted stories to be delivered, there is an immense lack of any effort to meld this narrative within the content. This, of course, would necessitate far larger scale of stories and pathways the player can take, making it necessary to consider completely opposite directions of their current framing narrative than intended. For example, imagine if during a Call of Duty campaign the player could at certain points make a decision to change sides. Perhaps this could be a multi-campaign element, where the player could choose to effectively change one campaign to another, but at the same time changing the way the framing of the campaign works from thereon. The rules of the game don’t change, but rather than being one of the Allied, he might end up playing a soldier who now fights for the Axis. This would offer the developers ways depict a more complex narrative as well as offer the player more options to explore. Perhaps even allow a third option of abandoning the war altogether and be chased throughout the fields by both sides. These aren’t RPG elements or the like, these would simply be options to be presented to the player in a similar manner that optional routes are. All this of course goes in the face of the current paradigm, where the narrative must one whole that the player must experience. The Last of Us 2 aimed to make the player uncomfortable by making enemies lament on their friends’ deaths while the narrative didn’t offer any other options but what the developers intended. It didn’t work out.

This isn’t exactly railroading the player as much as the paradigm for video and computer games haven’t shifted to consider these a valid option. Not that they necessarily should, as these spreading games are more or less considered gimmicks. Surprisingly, the Drakengard series, including Nier, has taken strides in this. Their multiple endings can be unlocked by player actions to different degrees, though usually, the first round is always the same. Nier: Automata has one of my favourite examples of this, where you can turn around as 9S when you first get control of him in New Game + and just fuck off from starting point, you achieve an end to the game. Another example would be when the player reaches the peaceful robot village, and despite their pacifism, the player proceeds to murder every robot there, gaining another ending. Again, these are minor things and yet they show how the developers considered possible player actions or at least their want of certain kind of action, and realised it as a solution or a path as part of the framing narrative. None of this, of course, would function if the frame wouldn’t have designed to house these deviating rules of play.

The thing is, with games making the framing is easier than making the content. The content isn’t as freeform or artsy, it requires intensive labour hours and demands a lot of skill even if you use a ready engine. The designs of play and choices made have to function, each and every programming error and design mistake compound on top of each other faster than it does in the framing narrative. Creating the framing for a game is the fun part, but creating the game itself is where the true difficulties lie. It’s no wonder that a multi-branching game that would allow the frames to change at the player’s decisions are still rather rare, and even then some franchises make clear-cut marketing that this is an element of their play, that routes are a franchise gimmick. That’s not even what I’m truly trying to convey with this post.

Let me try to rephrase the whole thing in short; Computer and video games still rely on methods of film and literature in their framing narrative and have not been able to truly marry it to the play. This some times comes through as route selections, sometimes as exposition being spouted during a boss battle. The main split is whether or not the player is in control. The marriage of the frame and the content would need to be as with painting that has specifically made frames for; a player should have large agency, perhaps even control, to move the framing narrative. This way the story, that is the player actions during play, would be part of the narrative. This is just a solution. Furthermore, the more the framing device aims to be the main point of the game, the more the game will suffer as it still has to accommodate the play. This is why video game adaptation on the silver screen can’t work as intended because they are written and planned around the game. Point of a game is to be played, to be the active participant.

Here’s a point where this is apparent. During TGS 2020, Square-Enix released a trailer of the new Final Fantasy because overseas customers wanted to see a trailer that shows the game’s play footage. What SquEnix did first was to offer the game’s frame, as that has always been their forté. However, what the customer always wants to see is the content and that applies to every field. You can jingle shiny keys in front of the customer however much you want, but at the end of the day, they want to go for a drive too.

Review: Streets of Rage 4

A very Sega cover

The original Streets of Rage games are a prime example of how Sega of Japan mishandled the Mega Drive in the Western markets. The three original games were never really popular in Japan or in Asian markets in general, but they were hits in American and in Europe. The whole thing about Streets of Rage series being cool at the time, hitting the rights spots with the popular culture phenomena in especially in the America with influences taken from the then-current music scenes across the pond made these games stand out, though the third game’s music splits opinions harshly due to its experimental nature. Sega was extremely good with this for a short period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s as numerous of their projects managed to capitalise what was way cool. Sonic the Hedgehog is without a doubt their shining example of this, blending polygonal visuals that were popular in advertisement at the time with a great soundtrack, with emphasize on environmental themes that were around to a point and mixing them all in a blender to produce the most attitude ladden mascot to that point. Streets of Rage harkens a bit further back to the 1980s than Sonic, with the movie Streets of Fire being a heavy influence thematically. Other contemporary games, like Final Fight, were a massive influnce, with Street Fighter II being played at the developer Ancient Corp.’s offices and having a great impact on Streets of Rage 2. If the second game was evolution of what made the first game a success, introducing more moves and wider variety of enemies, the third game took that and gave more emphasize to the stages themselves. Branching paths became a more common thing, further moves were introduced, and for better or worse, the game’s story got more emphasize with cutscenes and dialogue. Unlockable playable characters made their first entry in the series.

 

However, the fourth game didn’t materialise for some two decades. 1994 was the deathknell of the Mega Drive, advent of Sega Saturn, Darkstalkers saw a release in the arcades among other things. Streets of Rage 3 didn’t even scratch the top ten most sold games for that year. Despite the third game attempting to push everything the second game layed down, in most terms it was a commercial failure. The beat-em-up as a genre was moving out from its golden days with Konami and Capcom still making some of the best entries, leaving Streets of Rage behind both in terms of game play, design and visuals. The fourth game in the series was attempted few times around, one of which ended up as the PlayStation/N64 game Fighting Force, or Metal Fist in Japan. One of Sega’s attempts turned into Dynamite Deka series, which was used as the basis for the Die Hard license. Ancient had been working on a Streets of Rage 4 for the Dreamcast as well, but supposedly, execs at Sega of America closed it down very early in development. Nevertheless, the DNA of Streets of Rage was carried over various directions. Ultimately, these kind of 3D action games would end up as being similar to Devil May Cry, which are a far cry from the first Final Fight and Streets of Rage.

 

The reason I wanted to include this whole bit is to show that despite all fans and fanfare the two original games got, the third game was a miss despite it taking the series further. The genre moved onwards with other games and Streets of Rage was mostly used a launchpoint. Fans have been making their own games based on the IP, and all things considered, Streets of Rage had become a dead franchise. That was until 2018, when DotEmu announced they’re working on a new entry with Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games.

The initial trailer split opinions, some liking the new style while other hating it. It showed nothing too much on the play outside few seconds, but the later DotEmu would release more footage as the game’s release was closing in. However, from the very first on, it was rather apparent that the game wouldn’t push forwards what the franchise had been back in 1994. That’s probably the whole review in a nutshell.

A revival like this can be don in two ways. First is to stick to the guns and not change much, or anything, about the formula and roll with that. You won’t disappoint anyone and you know you’re catering to the core fans who just wanted a new entry no matter what. This is effectively what Capcom did with Mega Man 9 and 10, and Nintendo with the New Super Mario Bros. line. This kind of catering to nostalgia first and foremost works few times around, but it can’t be milked. The other option would be to take core essence and see how far you can push it. With two decades and then between the SoR3 and 4, it would be rather easy to see what sort of design innovations the beat-em-up, or action games in general, have made during that period and how they could be implemented. Both are very different routes, and DotEmu and co. ultimately decided to stick with the core guns of the franchise and not deviate.

Good amount of research into the characters was apparently done

When it comes to SoR4‘s play, it’s as pure action as you can get. It’s methodical and orthodox and even fights against players who want to blitz. Timing is everything in these games, alongside positioning. The wide variety of enemies use different tactics to get away from the player, with some having moves that allow the to traverse across the screen or move in the air the way the player can’t. If you’ve ever plaued, or even watched footage of a beat-em-up, you already know what to expect from the play. However, the player is ultimately limited in their actions, even if the new control scheme does dedicate a button for picking up items and such. There is no running or dashing, nor there is a dedicated button or combination for sure certain grab and throw. You can only punch and jump, and grab when you’re close up. In terms of play and controls, there’s nothing pushing the Streets of Rage forwards. At the same time, once the slow pace clicks to you few stages in, the game becomes a bit more open. You can’t really device your own ways of approaching and playing it, however, as the design doesn’t provide the tools for that.

This approach has cost the game’s design some points. While many of the normal enemies are fine tuned, some of them exhibit unnaturally large amount of invincibility frames in their moves, something the player is lacking. Benefits are given to the enemies to the point of game feeling annoying rather than hard or challenging. There’s no point trying to counter moves, when you can almost break the game by grabbing and throwing things around. This is further examplified with the bosses, as they gain similar Star moves the player has access to, but with the difference they can use them in a pattern willy nilly without thinking about their life being drained or such. Some of the bosses are just lacklustre, like the helmetted DJ that feels like an unnecessary thoraway just to have a boss in there, while others give a satisfyingly levelled challenge with their own twist, like with Shiva.

Outside Shiva’s bullshit-bunshin, the fight’s really on the even grounds

The game is also rather long, longer than it really needed to be for a beat-em-up. This is further emphazised but that slower paced game design mentioned earlier. Cutting one or two stages out and make it an even ten, or even just nine stages with multiple paths would’ve made the game more interesting on revisits, but in one sit-through Streets of Rage 4 begins to slog and overstays its welcome rather hard. However, the game has embraced modern sensibilities in that you are able to continue with the stage you left off with a save file, with 1 Coin challenge being offered in form of Arcade Mode.

In tersm of visual design, the game is top notch. It looks great with all the lighting effects and colours being used in proper manners. It looks like a French cartoon with heavy Japanese influences thrown here and there. In this the game is rather contemporary, slightly revolting against how the original games tried to level with realistic look. The way the visuals have been realised and executed is probaby the best part of the game, testifying how 2D is still the best way to realise the age-old dream of games looking like cartoons on telly. Animation work is terrific and nothing to be scoffed at, characters are easy to tell apart and while stage designs and environments can be lacklustre, they still come through strongly simply because how well they’re visually made. Despite all this, the edge in the visusal style is rather rounded and maybe even dull. The Y Twin, the end bosses, don’t really jump out in their design, and the fact that they utilise a giant robot during the end battle is uninspired at best.

On the music side, you have what we could call classic SoR tunes. It fits and doesn’t intrude on the player’s nerves. Some tunes stand out more than others, so overall a well done soundtrack that’s not too uncommon nowadays.

The story doesn’t matter. While I fully expected some scenes to be voiced, I found myself more annoyed by the cutscenes more than anything. The difference in visual style becomes drastically evident during these, which also emphasize how it ultimately doesn’t fit. Within the series narrative, it’s almost like the the early 1990s never moved onward, yet we see contemporary factors dropped here and there. Perhaps fully embracing that early 2000s aesthetic would’ve been a better option rather than create this sort of fetishised hybrid of 1980s/early 1990s nostalgia through rose coloured goggles.

This game sounds, looks and plays like a standard Streets of Rage 4 fare. We’ve played this three times before. If this game has been released in the 1990s, it would’ve scored low. Now, far removed from its setting, it stands out as a classical example of well made and polished game, but a game that offers nothing special on its own. Expecting this game to deliver anything else than that will be met with gross disappointment. It’s a game that does get the franchise, it fully embraces what it is, but at the same time, it makes itself rather hard to recommend if you’re already familiar with the series, or the genre overall. If SoR5 will be a thing down the line, it can’t surf on nostalgia and has to find its way to create its own indentity and expand on already-explored play of the franchise, or go bust. I can’t fault what the game was designed to be, as that’s extremely well realised. It’s just that design was already out of date twenty years ago.

Pizza Pizza

As long as I can remember, Domino’s Pizza has been the butt of jokes to the point even my Vietnamese associates know a few. They had a massive problem with PR and their pizza for numerous years and found themselves in a downward spiral in the mid-2000s, striking the all-time low in 2008 when their stock price was just three dollars. Nowadays they go for around 380 bucks. It wasn’t the easiest route.

Despite Domino’s hitting their lowest point, they experienced a massive PR crisis following Michael Setzer’s and Kristy Hammond’s Youtube video showcasing how much they loved to ruin the food they were preparing. They pleaded guilty a year later. This video effectively confirmed how Domino’s food was prepared in the minds of the consumers, further enforcing the jokes that were made and pushed customers away. It didn’t help that the video ended up being one of the top search results if you searched for Domino’s at the time. Even disregarding this incident, Domino’s was seen as some sort of crime against food and ingredients, or as Adweek’s short story put it on their focus testing, it’s startling to hear the degree to which consumers regard Domino’s as the embodiment of culinary evil. During this and numerous other focus tests Domino’s pizzas were called all sorts of names and claims of them using fake cheese and the like in their products were common, hence the jokes of the time. Some of them have survived long enough to be part of pizza-eating culture.

Domino’s decided that they need to turn their ship around and hard. Ever since their record-low stock price and the whole PR disaster with Setzer and Hammond, Domino’s began to comb through their complaints and reviews for the most common negative mentions and comparisons, as mentioned in their four and a half minute documentary what they were doing. This video, while being a corporate produced piece, is one of the things Domino’s did to have that boat turned. They went back to the recipes and worked on them and revised what they were doing wrong. Supposedly more training was given to the workers to prevent the mishaps the aforementioned video caused. Domino’s, in all effect, owned that they were rather shit company with workers who didn’t care if your pizza was terrible or not. The linked video shows how proud Domino’s was after they went and created new pizzas, which were more or less made from scrap. Everything from the dough to toppings was tested multiple times over and changed wherever needed. Whether or not this is all true will probably be always an open question, yet even from this video it is evident how much money Domino’s spent to revise their image by revising their image through their product. They even went as far as providing their focus group members with these new pizzas to test and get their opinions. They made these into ads, no less.

Domino’s Pizza owning up and takings steps to deliver to the customer the kind of pizza they wanted while making a public, transparent stunt out of it all has made them the most valued pizza restaurant chain. While some still retain the image of Domino’s being the worst kind of pizza you can have, that’s rather outdated view by about a decade. That, and they probably never had Greek pizza. Domino’s stocks have been in constant rise, and they’ve been trying to renew customer interest in various manners after their renewal, like collaborating with Hatsune Miku in Japan. part of their whole shtick of being transparent to at least some extent, they’ve allowed Food Insider to make a short video how their pizza is made and delivered, though personally, I have to say I’m not exactly excited by the idea of the dough being made elsewhere from the spot. Delivery food is making some nice bucks at the moment, so Domino’s made some nice bucks earlier this year as people didn’t want to leave their homes.

What’s your point? I hear Wes asking me there. My point is that Domino’s pizza listened to their customers, changed their product and working methods to better fit the demand. Not only they were willing to take in feedback and were honest about it to themselves, but were willing to make rather transparent transition from what they were to what they wanted to be. Customers love that, and that made them a billion-dollar company.

This same set of ideas can be applied to any industry on their basis. While the creative industries want to sell the image of one creator or a team of creative individuals delivering an earth-shattering piece that can only be experienced in so many fashions, the reality is that any product needs to be carefully planned out and balanced between the original intent and the customers’ wants. That is far harder than you would expect, as some corporate cultures do everything by data alone, which can lead to discarding feedback in total and the only thing that says anything is sales data. This can be combined with long-term career businessmen, who are hard stuck on their own methods of working, as it has produced large revenues up to that point already, making the total renewal of their productions hard if not impossible. In the foodstuff world, this is easier to do than e.g. in automobile production or the like, where you can only begin to start this process with the next series of cars rather what you already have in production. With games, music and film this could be implemented in an easier manner, but it requires humility among these egos, and that’s something the self-clashing creative industries do not see too often. Imagine if, for example, EA would make a public announcement that they’ve listened to all the feedback they’ve gotten through the years and have begun to consider how they produce, develop and publish games, as well as how they tackle advertising in their games or in which manners lootbox mechanics function. It’d take years for them to root out these methods and manners they’ve cultivated throughout the years and end up putting efforts into making games that wouldn’t nearly kill their workforce or would contain whatever is currently the most underhanded way of making that extra money. Something like this happening in the creative industries is as likely to happen as a pig flying through your window. It happens on occasions, but extremely rarely.

Few posts ago I wrote how I’m tired of the PR game. Domino’s Pizza turned their PR disaster into a chance of renewing their image through transparency. Because transparency to that effect would necessitate losing face first in order to gain higher PR wins in the long run, you won’t see this happening with franchises like Star Wars or any of the botched film franchises. You will never see one of the head honchos stepping up, admitting the money they spent on a movie bombing like no other was a mistake and that they will look into renewing and satisfying the customer. That would go against how things are presented to the audience, the whole Hollywood/ creative myth, how glamorous it is to be a successful creator. Yet even sure-shot franchises like Star Wars, Alien and The Terminator have slumped, the latter two effectively becoming more or less dead thanks to the latest movies. Hell, even the Predator franchise is back in the casket after The Predator managed to fuck up the series. As much as it often goes against the corporate grain, transparency and honesty are two things the customer values. If a corporation manages to be open about their faults and missteps about themselves and is visibly improving themselves, that creates almost natural emotional connections to both your current customers and your possible customers.

The one place where transparency should be the most important bit is in crowdfunding like Kickstarter. If you’ve run a Kickstarter and have managed to each your funding goal, every single thing you do with the money or with the project should be logged in without censorship shared with the backers. All the good you do is doubly more worthwhile when you admit fucking something up and explaining the methods of either supplementing or fixing what’s gone wrong. With crowdfunded products you have to remember that these aren’t your customers; these are the people who funded your project. Being transparent with them is the least you can do. The PR game wants to mangle and twist every screw-up into something positive in false manners, and more often than not the customer can see through that. It’s up to each individual customer how much leeway they might allow the PR game, and most often you can see it in the form of taking their business elsewhere. Of course, if you proceed to attack the customer when you want them to buy something from you, well, not everyone is masochistic.

Perhaps Marvel and DC should take after Domino’s Pizza. Japanese comics have been outselling American Superhero comics for some time now. In the face of this fiercer competition from beyond the ocean, it would be a good moment for American comic companies and creators to stop for a moment if they’re doing something wrong.

Yet another post about the old argument about something making money and its relation of being good

The few main things this blog has covered multiple times is how good is a terrible determinant in any comparisons or discussions and that financial success is a form of determining whether or not something is the aforementioned good. You know the argument, just because something sells doesn’t mean it’s good. Mark Hamill continued this with something along the lines of It only matters if it makes money. The two, of course, don’t exclude each other, as often products that are well-made sell just as terrible products bomb like no other. Cue for references to the latest Terminator and Charlie’s Angels movies, because a well-made product doesn’t equate to something the customers want or need. Those two movies are competently made, have high production values and realise what the staff wanted those movies to be. It wasn’t something the audience wanted or fit the franchises per se, so what does it matter if they were well-made movies? The customer is the ultimate reviewer who decides whether or not your effort and time were worth it. Nobody is required to purchase or consume products you make, just as you don’t need to appease them (if you don’t look for financial success.) Often you can veto some objective point of review, like how arts used to have. There films that are seen as cornerstones of overall motion picture history, as perfect examples of how to structure and build a movie. The same can be applied to music as well, I’d have to guess, though I have no Citizen Kane of music to reference. Whether or not it is because of technology changing and evolving too rapidly to have a proper point of reference, or people thinking video games are completely separate examples from other forms of play, electronic gaming doesn’t really have that objective point that majority of the gaming industry could look at and consider as an exemplary pinnacle.

We do have those games though and they’re all watershed moments. Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Super Mario Bros., Ultima, Wizardry, The Legend of Zelda and a whole slew of other 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s titles should be considered as points of comparisons, but of course, things get muddled down when you consider how modern gaming has changed the way video and computer games are pushed, even if that’s not exactly working all that well. The gaming industry would like you to believe that electronic gaming is a method of storytelling over a method of playing. To repeat this point to ad nauseam, the story of a game is the story made through play. The “story” bits in FMV sequences and all those are just framing devices to justify the action of playing.

Some shirk at this notion, saying the story is the thing that keeps them playing games. That only would be natural, as each and every game has to have a core reason why it is being played. At the core level, winning against the opposing player or team is the most basic reason to play something. However, the act of playing is what makes it enjoyable. The player himself feels that it is his own actions that are carrying things forward. This is the player’s agency, which is lessened with each moment the play, the control of the game, is taken away from the player. This is why, especially in the Deep Red Ocean market, not having a Skip Movie option is considered almost a criminal offence. As a side note, you can skip PlayStation’s Final Fantasy games FMVs by opening the console’s lid and closing it again, as that forces the console to seek the next bit right after the FMV sequence. This is pretty much the only way European FF9 players can get Excalibur II due to terrible PAL port screwing with the game’s timing.

This whole post really came together because Fall Guys became the most downloaded title on PlayStation Plus. Fall Guys is nothing short of entertaining, made in a relatively short time compared to its top competition, meaning its financial results will be that much greater than Triple-A games that spend the better part of the decade on the development table. Most often you can see people citing how it beat The Last of Us 2, which is rather apt. TLoU2 was intentionally made a narrative-driven game and mentioned that it wouldn’t be fun. It would end up as gritty and gruesome, wallowing in dredges and trying to be bold as a video game. Despite the game making some kind of bank, we can’t really call it good just because it made money, right? For all intents and purposes, the play of TLoU2 is very generic and overall uninteresting. Its film-like qualities have been at the forefront and whatever agenda it’s supposed to have is a few years too late, if not whole decades. Whatever debacles it had around itself is no real interest, but Fall Guys becoming the most successful PlayStation 4 game of 2020 really says it all; the customers prefer games as games. You could say there is one core, ideological difference between Fall Guys and The Last of Us 2 and that’s in the attitude of the creators.

Fall Guys was created for profit, thus it had the need to satisfy customer wants and needs in some manner other titles on the market really didn’t. Its play is entertaining and makes for a good competition. The developers had the craftsman’s mindset and it allowed them to make a game that was good. Or as this blog often puts it; the game good enough in every aspect to satisfy the customer. The Last of Us 2 development cycle didn’t clearly consider the profit part being a question, but a rather a thing that would happen anyway, as long as they stuck to the mould. After all, the series had its fans and that already would bring in the dough. Thus, it followed the artist’s mindset, which is antithetical to craftsman’s mindset. It’s against the customer, expecting the product to sell despite it ignoring the customer altogether. TLoU2 outright hates the player at times, something that has occurred more often nowadays than it did in the past, which fights its own nature as a game. You can easily make something like this with a product that’s supposedly a guaranteed success, especially during times when macro-economics are in fine shape. If the game had still been in development and would’ve published next year, its success would’ve been smaller. The entertainment industries are feeling the effects of plummeting economics. It’s become more expensive to produce anything and customers don’t have the same amount of money to throw around willy nilly. Games like Fall Guys will become a necessity for the next few years, where the customer and their play will matter more than the creators’. The trophy project mindset hasn’t been beneficial to the game industry or to the customers overall, so perhaps forcing all the developers to re-examine their methods and games on the publishing list. There won’t be nearly as many sure-shot games in the near future.

To roll it back around, sure. Being financially successful doesn’t necessarily mean something is great by some standards, but it does mean it does scratch the itch people have had and find a superior product over its competition.

Additional media is a sacrificial lamb

The concept is well tested and solid; have your main story supplemented with additional works, such as comics and novels, that expand on the core work. This sort of franchising has become extremely popular to the point of being a standard practice and very few standalone projects get made any more. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen its stories expanded in aforementioned media. This always leads to the question of canon, where the main piece always trumps over whatever the side material has stated. Hence why canon barely matters, when anyone in charge can say what really happened, sometimes wiping few comics away, sometimes erasing whole decades of supplementary material.

Nevertheless, they’re secondary at best. Licensed works to make some money out of the IP while the main thing is wiring its next stuff up. The stories and characters told in these works don’t really matter, and never have. Only decades later, when fans who grew up with these materials, may make references to them in proper works, giving them some legitimacy in the eyes of fellow fans. That’s all fine and dandy, no harm done by having someone in the background mentioning Life Day and reminding the people in the know how bad Star Wars Holiday Special is. It’s butt of the joke, it’s done to death, we get it.

Star Wars and Star Trek are great examples of this as both have extremely extensive supplementary material to go with the main works. The general rule has always been that what’s on the screen overrides whatever’s in other works. While they’re advertised as further adventures of our heroes, and for the time being they probably are, they’ll always be overridden when the IP owner comes up with something new, something that can be capitalised on. Prequels and midquels are sort of comfortable ground to many, as they’re mostly based on sayings and history told in the main works, so it’s easy to take the premise and go town with it. It doesn’t exactly require creating something completely new from the ground up. Hence why you often see sequels lifting material from the old stuff or reusing characters and settings. Jean-Luc Picard and all the re-used assets from the cutting room floor in Disney Star Wars movies are examples of this.

All this a somewhat inconvenient arrangement, but it makes two things possible; it doesn’t demand the audience to rummage through hundreds of pages to understand a new TV-show or a movie, but also allows them to engage with the IP and characters further. There’s this silent agreement with all the parties that it is probable that all the side content will be ignored when a new movie or show rolls in. Which happens all the time with pretty much every single large franchise out there.

There are of course times when this fails. The Rise of Skywalker had a collaborative event in Fortnite, where Emperor Palpatine’s speech was introduced. The returning villain and one of the major points of the plot, which was used in the beginning crawl, The Dead speak, was introduced and used in the aforementioned event. This effectively cut a section out from the movie, the message Palpatine send to the galaxy to announce his return, something the characters all react to and is the impetus behind the movie’s events. If you weren’t playing Fortnite at that time, you effectively missed something the core work, the film, should’ve had.

Too often Star Trek and Star Wars novelisation have been used to correct mistakes and loopholes in the main body of works. Loads of Trek novels based on The Original Series episodes were used to effectively fix continuity and conceptual errors within the episodes themselves. Similarly, The Rise of Skywalker‘s novelisation reveals that the Palpatine in the movie was a clone. Whether or not this is canon is of course for the fans to debate, as none of the corrections and fixes are rarely talked in the main body works. It’s not uncommon to see books and comics being published that fill in holes with some plot putty, sometimes even explaining whole backstories and events that were completely lacking from the main works. We can understand that a movie can’t set up decades worth of background story in a short time, and sometimes it doesn’t need to. The original crawl at the beginning of Star Wars Episode IV is work of sheer genius, setting up the premise. Further into the movie, short discussions about the Clone Wars as a background material elaborated on some bits, but those there to colour the world further. With Disney movies we have the gap between Episode VI and VII, which is just a void. Even after the last movie we barely know what happened, where did the First Order truly come from and why did the Emperor allow the Empire to fall just to wait thirty years building Star Destroyers under ground with gimped navigation systems. Maybe it’s Abrams’ mystery box killing the work again, maybe it’s just outright bad writing. These explanations of course are found in the supplementary material, meaning the work can’t stand on its two feet.

You could of course argue that this weaves the main work and the supplementary works together better, that it allows exploration of these events and concepts in a grander scale compared to what movies and television could. This is completely true and has been supported by multiple franchises for some decades now, mixing and matching each other punch to punch. The problem is of course the future. Be it removal of old canon or a new “real” work taking place of that timeframe and overriding the current works, supplementary material never really can stand the test of time. Not unless the creators are adamant on keeping one continuity and will always take notice what happens across the whole franchise. That task is nearly impossible, though if you were to hire bunch of people just to follow what the hell’s going on in your setting across all media, it would become manageable. Imagine if your day job was to read every Star Wars book and comic just to tell the future writers of whatever series or movie they’re making what stories and settings have already been used, and what are their historical consequences. Somebody’s dream job right there.

While you could boil this down to Canon doesn’t matter because it always changes, but that’d be missing the point here just slightly. We’ve seen the main work been put on the chopping block and some of its important elements have been cut off, only to appear elsewhere. This weakens the main work, but it also makes the story’s canon that much weaker. If you’d need one more example of this, the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie doesn’t ever tell what Nero was doing in the past after he came through the wormhole. In the movie, he’s just sitting there doing nothing and waiting for Spock to pop in. However in the comic he was captured and enslaved by the Klingons, making his escape and reclamation of the Narada that much more important. After seeing his home world destroyed, seeing Vulcans’ inaction as betrayal despite putting everything he had in their hands, and then forced to the past and for years being unable to do anything to prevent that from happening, Star Trek could’ve had its best and most understandable villain. All that was from the movie, making him just a jackass with a vengeance. It’s only a matter of time before someone writers a new book or a comic that explores this further, erasing already established events in the comic, which already is questionably canon. The comic version’s story is that much stronger compared to the movie, but it’s the not the story. It’s just an alternate take, which some people supplement the movie itself with.

Here’s a way you could make cross-media function for their own benefits without taking away any from the main work. The Mad Max game from 2015 was supposed to be tightly connected to Mad Max Fury Road, but ultimately wasn’t. The two would have supplemented each other, but only in a manner that there would not have been anything missing from either work. For example, the Pursuit Special is missing its spoiler in the movie. Not a huge detail, something most people probably missed altogether. However, in the game it would’ve been a collectable item with some story tied to it, adding to the overall story of Mad Max. We don’t know what these details were going to be, as the game was completely revamped and reused two decades worth of abandoned concepts alongside concepts for possible future movies. If you’re a fan of Mad Max, the game should look and feel extremely disjointed and somewhat schizophrenic because of this.

This is really convoluted and lengthy way to say how works, even sequels, need to be standalone enough to be consumed as-is without any surrounding media taken into account.

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.

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.

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.

Well done, Turner!

We have more electronic games at hand than we’ve had ever before. Same with television, with Youtube and other streaming services allowing each individual to put their own show and tell what’s on their mind. The same way how blogs and such are the newspapers’ opinionated pieces of the Internet. The more we got everything, the less the little gems pop up, the less we’ll know about those single pieces of media that are being lost in the twenty-four/seven information onslaught. We can talk about how nothing is lost to the media and how every game or show gets reviewed by someone and you’re able to find some bits of information about something, but that’s not even the case with English language games. Less so with titles that are only in a language you personally don’t understand. There’s absolutely nothing about African video game industry on the overall Internet, as they’re all extremely local and do not do well in comparisons. There are no reporters or interest looking into what’s happening there outside curiosities. You’d think this wouldn’t apply to Japanese markets, but even then you have stupid amounts of self-published titles that haven’t been listed anywhere, despite later being introduced to digital stores like DLSite. Big names roll the most, and looking at the titles that are the most hyped and on the nose of the market, there’s nothing new on the table.

From what I gleamed quickly at a casual glance, the Internet’s all about the new Doom game, the new Animal Crossing and about Final Fantasy VII Remake. There certainly are some other titles there too, but these are the ones that seem to pop up the most frequently. All three are titles belonging to long running franchises, and you could argue Doom Eternal is a remake of sorts of Doom II. All three have been selling like hotcakes and not many people are complaining about any of the three. They all have different target audiences, and all three resort to combination of the two Ns; Nostalgia and Novelty.

Good ol’ saying from the business world is that the customer is afraid of everything new. That is largely true, as people tend to find the most comfortable spot with the things they are most used to, the things they know the best. The things they’re connected with the most. With games this is easily seen in genres some people prefer over other and sometimes aren’t willing to step outside their comfort zone to try out something completely new. For example, a person who has always played Role-Playing Games ‘knows’ he wouldn’t like a semi-realistic hunting simulator. It just isn’t something he’d like. Customers are strange beasts in that we don’t actually know what we like or what we want. While our purchasing decisions are based on complex sets of decisions on merits of a product compared to its competition and how it’d do in our personal use. We might deviate from the usual product we buy if there’s something cheaper at hand that does the job better, or we want to change things up. It’s more common to abhor a new product or its competition though, and we want to change things even less if we’re emotionally connected. All things corporations capitalise on, hence why you see one company offering multiple different kind of sauces on the store shelf. On one hand, you might like that runny tomato sauce from X Brand, but that chunky tomato sauce looks pretty good and now they’re having a sale of three for price of two. Plus, that new sauce with seeds and chopped stuff in it looks good too and I know this brand has good sauces, so trying that out won’t lose me much. Turns out you love the chunky sauce and wonder why you never tried it out before.

I tend to default for mint ice cream.

The three aforementioned games are like that. They’re safe options for anyone who has experienced a game in their series or have a passing experience within the genre. All three titles also belong to games that have made an impact on the cultural scene, though Animal Crossing‘s the least of three. It’s effectively Japanese Sims with anthropomorphised characters, a simulator of everyday activities in a more peculiar environment. Doom created the modern first-person shooter, while Final Fantasy is effectively the golden standard series for role-playing games as a whole. You can contest Dragon Quest or some other franchise here, but as a global phenomena they can’t really hold the candle. They’re safe bets, titles that will deliver profits even when handled in a half-assed manner. They’re a franchise, something will keep ’em afloat just fine. With title like Final Fantasy VII Remake, there was never any questions if it made any money. The question was how much money it would make. Not because FFVII Remake would ever be reviewed or seen by its own title, but because it is a remake of a game that is perceived as one of the pinnacles of modern-day popular culture. Because the game this remake was based on managed to attach consumers emotionally to the brand and the name, striking just the right time in the right place. Whether or not the game was put into production because the developers felt they could do FFVII more justice with modern tools and methods doesn’t really enter the equation, when the game was a safe bet. It has been requested for years on end and it would be gobbled up no matter what the end result was, and the sheer power of personal emotional attachment would colour however the game would end up being. All usual business, and I’m ranting about this again.

We could split the history of video games in slots where certain genres or certain styles were the most popular. The First electronic game Generation saw large amounts of Pong clones, with the Second Generation trying out a lot more stuff with titles like Pac-Man and Space Invaders. From the Third Generation onward we saw the 2D platformer surfacing as the most common type, but whether or not 2D action was the game that was best done in that manner could be open to debate. PC side was doing 3D stuff at the time already, but not all that well. Come to modern day, and most games, even RPGs, are third-person action. While mechanics may be a bit different, they’re effectively the same kind of game all over again. The coat of paint might be different, yet third person is the way to go now. In reality, that’s not the case, is it? Despite some of the most spoken about games in last years, from Nier: Automata to Metal Gear Solid V and even Senran Kagura are all variations of this same core game concept of controlling a character’s actions from behind them. Despite the third person view, it isn’t uncommon for players to refer the character on the screen as themselves in action. “I have to sneak there,” for example. Even with VR the most titles are some kind of variation of the first person type, because there’s nothing much else you can do. Perhaps that’s part of the equation, where gaming isn’t exactly able to do anything else what we’re now having. After all, playing with Star Wars dolls is in effect the same action as playing Knights of the Old Republic or how Doom is like taking a toy gun and going outside to play war with your friends. The framing and limitations are just different, the act of playing is still the same

The game industry is already feeling a moment where they are having workers who have grown up with video games. Logic would dictate that these workers know how a game functions, but that becomes a limitation and a liability. Games like The Legend of Zelda are based on real-life experiences, the adventures and explorations a child does in a forest with a wood stick as his sword and finding a cavern. Pokémon is about insect collecting and finding the biggest, baddest one and then to compete with your friend. When your life experiences are with games and the game media all around, you ultimately end up resorting to what you know best, your experiences and nostalgia. Games based on other games become saturated by its own culture, inbreeding itself. The concept of the play has already been somewhat lost in modern gaming, where story is considered to come from pre-existing narrative rather than from the act of playing. Interestingly, it is common for games to section themselves into story bits and game bits, and has been doing this increasingly so as time has passed. Perhaps nostalgia and experience with previous generations of games has produced this approach with experimentation being left out. The inverse of course is if a person doesn’t have any experience with games and comes from another industry, like film, a game might lose its play in favour of film elements. This arguably already happened with the FMV titles in the 1990’s, when gaming was being pushed to become a second Hollywood and abandon the element of game in favour of video, and left a crater on the gaming as a media. That said, it’s easy to pick up one of the modern games offered and trace its influence in gaming back at least a decade or two. Easier still with titles like the FFVIIR, where you see the connection with the original FFVII and Kingdom Hearts in terms of gameplay and how progression is handled. History of the developers on the showcase.

The mainstream gaming doesn’t see many truly innovative games, or games that try to tackle the pre-established mould all that often. When it does, it’s often tacked unto a pre-existing IP. While Mega Man Battle Network still splits some opinions, it is a game series that doesn’t have much imitators. Its combination of RPG elements with real-time action with card collecting makes it stand as a unique piece, but something that didn’t necessarily need the Mega Man IP name to carry it. While it certainly helped with the recognition of the game at first, we’ll never know of Battle Network could’ve been bigger if had been something completely original.

That’s where the whole thing rolls back around to itself. Customers know these things, they’re familiar with certain kind of things, execs and investors want to make the best bucks and developers end up making games according to these points. However, it’s also a point that while developers are chained to this leash, often devs also want to make a game similar to this fashion or that fashion, a game in this particular genre and this way. Japanese may showcase some of their titles as unique titles with no real connection to the past, but that’s PR speech and trying to pass yourself in a higher degree compared to the lower tier workers in the company hierarchy. Shit rolls downhill. You look at a developer like Platinum and their library of games, and you don’t see any real innovation and chances. All of their high profile games are effectively one-horse tricks. There’s no innovation in them for the medium as a whole, they’re “just” well made games in a given genre. Just like the big heads sitting in the board meetings, the devs resort on pre-established patterns and methods which have been found to be working and a success. No need to fix what’s broken, and that applies to the creatives just as much. Sometimes you find the perfection combination of chance, time and people with the rights wants and intentions that push the envelope, even if by mistake, but combining all the right parts of past in a way that creates a new tapestry. To use an old example, whole Super Mario Bros. wasn’t anything new, the way it was put together and as to end the cartridge games on the Famicom, the genre gained a completely new lease in life and a the franchise in itself was reborn more Super.

Games are now more than entertainment, supposedly

The Finnish National General Broadcast News, or YLE news, recently had a piece about video and computer games being more than entertainment nowadays, that they now comment and depict social issues as well as touch upon hard philosophical as well as explain stories. This naturally is horse shit at its best, as this would imply the half century games have been around didn’t consist of wide variety of games that were exploring topics that other forms of media have. Ultima alone made its legacy of creating a game where the player’s Avatar creates rules and virtues to improve people’s lives and give them faith. The follow-up games was all about perverting those ideals and how they can be abused the worst way possible. That’s just one example, with the Japanese PC platforms also containing their own adventure games with even more exploration of culturally relevant topics. I don’t mean VNs, think more along the lines of Sierra adventure games and you’ll be on point. Then you had titles like E.V.O. The Theory of Evolution that still stands as unique simulation-RPG, that the SNES sequel doesn’t exactly stand up to.

The issue of course that entertainment was depicted as something that doesn’t handle topics that require the audience to think. Literature, music, all forms of games, films and television are all *just” entertainment. Something being entertainment doesn’t suddenly mean they wouldn’t be able to discuss topics that would make the audience’s head ratchets clatter. Some people find their entertainment to be all about the discussion about current topics and politics, where they are required to consider issues that oppose each other as well and weight on the benefits of unsavoury actions. Other people like bang band woosh flash kind of entertainment where you can watch Iron Man punching Hulk in the face for fifteen minutes. Both are as valid as entertainment, but they’re different kind of entertainment. Both offer their own thing for the audience and the audience consumes them at their own pace. The difference is, of course, that games are active entertainment. The player is required to make the decisions. This isn’t what the news meant, as it had the classical approach of pre-written narrative being the core. After all, that’s the narrative about video and computer game storytelling, rather than the significance of playing and player being the most significant part of the story by creating a unique tale through player’s own actions and decisions. It’s strange that there are no news or studies made how much decision making in any given game situation affects the play or the player’s current mind set.

Because games are a form of entertainment the player takes place, player’s actions and decisions have all the ramifications within the game’s world itself. Sure, most players will blow things up just for the fun of it because they can and there are no repercussions, but in the same breath we can say that the same actions wouldn’t be taken in real world. That’s why games don’t work as a training device for general population without being conditioned for it and help of external real-life devices, as games are played. It’s interesting to see how little the media discussed playing being the most essential part of games, with terms like gameplay, game-loop, designs and whatever is the current buzzword thrown around to describe the simple of the player taking in the game rules and acting on them both physically via the input device as well as playing in their mind the role the game is giving for them. While it’s quint to see papers wondering how people can relate themselves in the characters on screen and refer their actions and events in first person rather than referring to the character on the screen, it also tells that it is common to see video and computer games as a separate thing from usual playing. There is no difference in a player controlling Mario in Super Mario Bros., controlling the horseshoe in Monopoly, playing the role of mother in playing house, referring to yourself when playing with dolls or being the dwarf in Dungeons and Dragons. All these forms of play have the same point of putting the player in the actor’s role and being there. For whatever reason this is seen as a more juvenile form entertainment, and all the forms of entertainment that are passive and ask the viewer to be a non-participant in are the more elevated thing. Funny that, that was one of the arguments what separates art from video games, where art can only be observed and not interacted with, despite interactive art and instalments have always been a relatively common thing.

Is this art, or is this a toy?

Toys are some of the best of entertainment. The toys we play with changes as we grow up, but the act of playing with something doesn’t. It’s also interesting to notice that at some point we “grow up” from something, but much later in life we return to them. Action figures and model kits are an example of this, but the best example might be doll houses. For whatever reason, at some point doll houses become a passé to a teenage girl who abandons childish toys, but just as often she finds herself playing Sims on the PC to pass time. Later in her life doll houses become a thing again, but this time she might build everything herself. From readily made toys to serious hobby, but in the end, it is still playing around. Just with more gusto and more expensive toys.

Video and computer games, much like all the other forms of entertainment we consume, don’t suddenly evolve or step up from their lower-ranking or childish spots. Games are, have always been, entertainment that put the player into uncomfortable positions to make hard decisions due to their nature of play. Often through competition either against the machine or the other player. However, these are momentarily events and something we can’t pass to anyone else, just like all play is. It isn’t that people stop to look at the veneer on the surface, but rather the simple lack of understanding how electronic gaming is no different from the rest of the play cultures we have. The form may be the different, the underlying actions and intentions are the same. Despite we’ve had few generations that grew up with electronic games now, they’re still treated as a second or third tier entertainment compared to the more classical form of media. Then again, modern comics are about a century old now and the view on them haven’t changed despite multiple generations have passed and their status as a form of proper art and storytelling has been challenged every which way. Perhaps this is another form of classism, where we have to create hierarchies instead of accepting that one form is no better than the other, as they are intended to be consumed in different manners with different end-goals. What is expected from a challenging piece of media has been relatively common due to sheer lack interactive element before, and now that we do have a whole new media dimension in our hands due to the digital revolution, the expectations are all fucked up. Perhaps in order to justify our interests and hobbies we often prescribe already accepted nominations and expectations of others. That way if we love to eat a BigMac and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, we can describe it in the exact same manner as we would describe the most high calibre steak. This sort of reflection is sadly somewhat common, which forces arguments to lean on existing media and views rather than building new arguments and perceptions for the benefit of electronic gaming. Whatever the kids are into now can’t be better than the thing you grew up, after all.

Entertainment doesn’t need to be mindless and stupid. Some of us find it entertaining when the media challenges us to think, or in case of games, challenges to base and act our decisions that have ramifications larger than any other form fiction can depict directly with the inactive consumer. It only depends which game we are playing. We’ve always had games of all needs we’ve ever wanted.