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Graphics: They do Matter

Audiovisual media has been around since the dawn of Arts. Earliest examples coming to mind would be Greek plays, performed in an amphitheater. Distinct from books or poetry in that it was something that stimulated both your eyes and ears, hence, Audiovisual.

However, during the middle of the 20th century, Audiovisual media reached its Golden Age with the advent of Television. Unlike theater, which requires present actors to give the performance in one sitting, in front of a live audience, while Television (unless it’s live) is based around transmitting previously recorded shows, with non-present actors that can rehearse and fail their lines without fear of ridicule.

Videogames became part of this in the mid to late 90s, mostly because pre-rendered full motion video was becoming the norm for cutscenes and other animated segments, such as backgrounds or the whole game, in some infamous cases.

Part of the audiovisual entertainment value comes from the artistic portrayal of visuals, music and story, blended together to create an experience for the spectator. It’s common knowledge that all of these factors are equally important to the experience, in the grand scheme of things.

Videogames add another factor the the mix, which is Gameplay. Long has there been a debate over which is more important of all the factors. Is it the plot? The Gameplay? The graphics? (no one seems to care about the sound, for some reason).

It really depends on who you ask, some people will say that they play games for stories, and bad graphics, music or gameplay can be excused in favor of a good plot, while others say that Gameplay takes priority over any other aspect of the game, under the grounds of it being a game, you need to be able to play it.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I’m no one to claim to be right. But then again, I’m writing this, you’re reading, so, by natural law of the internet, I’m right, unless someone claims to know better.

The general consensus is that a game can’t rely on graphics alone to sell, and if you buy a game for how it looks, you’re an ignorant, stupid 13 year old Call of Duty playing homophobe who wasn’t even alive when gaming was good. And I’m not here to argue that subject.

What I’m here to actually present is the case that the graphical aspect of a game is actually quite important to the game in question, and doesn’t deserve the treatment it’s given.

As I’ve stated earlier, Audiovisual entertainment media is an ensemble formed by various factors. Videogames, we have Graphics, Sound, Story and Gameplay, that all go hand-in-hand to reach a good immersion for the player. Also, as I stated earlier, if one of these is given a larger priority than the rest, if so is the case, why is it that people seem to neglect the graphical aspect of games?

Well, let’s deconstruct "graphics". Firstly, we have the Graphical Design side of things. This refers to the overall tone and design features of the world, characters and environments. Everything  that can be seen within the game falls in this. In short, how it looks.

The other is Graphic performance, which refers to the technical aspect of things. This means framerate, polygon count, textures, resolution, HDR, all those nifty little things that make the game look smoother, sharper, more detailed and overall more realistic or more aesthetically pleasing.

The second factor is the one most people talk about when they refer to "graphics". And, of course, this is the part everyone acclaim, or hates.

Most people agree that graphics are no more important than a good story or good gameplay. Which, is true, however, in this regard we’ve seen plenty of people take this sentiment to hearth, going as far as to say that graphics don’t matter in the slightest to a game.

As I stated earlier, audiovisual media is a merge of various elements that have to come together to become something enjoyable, even art. Which implies that none of them are any better or any worse, less so are any more important than others.

Every aspect that forms a game or movie or TV show is equally as influential and requires the same amount of care being put into it. It’s part of a whole. Like the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Let me give you an example of what I mean, with the game Hat Fortress 2, the world’s first war themed hat simulator. Hat Fortress 2 is a stylish game, to say the least, and most people will tell you they only play it because of how much fun it is, and it is pretty fun, don’t get me wrong, it’s a really fun Hat simulator where you can trade, craft or buy hats for nine different classes (some hats are even class-exclusive). Oh, also, I think you can also shoot guns or something, I don’t know. Well, here’s how Hat Fortress 2 actually looks:

Sans the hats, of course

… And here’s how it was supposed to look originally

You can pin Hat Fortress‘ success on plenty of factors, but it’s quite hard to forget its cartoonish, yet over-the-top violent graphical design. It’s part of the game’s essence, it’s "soul" if you will, being one of the first things you’d think of when you think of the game. However, what if the game had looked like it originally was meant to look like? a bland, mediocre looking generic military setting.

It’s obvious, the game’s unique and distinctive look creates a very recognizable look that we can immediately relate to the game in question.

This is one of the instances we look at a game and don’t even mention graphics or how inconsequential they are to the game, because it looks good, it blends well with the game’s more comedic tone while starkly contrasting its near-gratuitous levels of violence. And the hats.

Graphics, just like gameplay, require some level of innovation to be good. For the same reason you don’t recycle the same gameplay without some serious flak, you don’t reuse the same graphics or the same look as another game because that’s highly frowned upon (and worryingly common these days), not to mention lazy. This is something a lot of First Person Shooters get flak for, as if the whole genre was nothing but samey brown desert themed shooters. To which I’d like to bring up games like Half-Life, Borderlands, Zeno Clash, the aforementioned Hat Fortress 2, Fallout, etc., which present very stylish and unique environments and designs, not at all like the common "sameish brown desert" image of a shooter.

Of course, I can’t stress enough that just because graphics are not less important than gameplay, sound or plot, doesn’t mean it’s the most important factor of a game, either. I appretiate a game with good graphical performance and/or design, it shows effort on the graphical design aspect, but this doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a game with technical limitations or with lesser graphical capabilities. I said it once and I’ll say it again, every part of the whole is equally as important, and you can’t just shrug off one side to focus elsewhere.

That being said, I can’t admit without shame I have at least once played a game solely for its graphics. And that game was Final Fantasy VIII.

Final Fantasy VIII was a bad game. There, I said it. The plot makes no sense and it’s rendered completely moot by the end, its characters are stupid, unlikable and just… stupid, the music is sub-par and the gameplay is so incredibly grindy it pretty much feels like menial work. But I couldn’t stop playing that stupid, unplayable mess because of how fucking pretty it looked. The graphical design, stage design, FMVs, it all looks really, really good. I kept grinding through the game because I wanted to see just what it was going to throw at me next, and, while the ending was horrendously lackluster, I can say that the overall quality of the cutscenes and art direction made the game pretty much worth it.

But then you say "Oh, look, there goes X again, that hollow shell of a human being, who hates everything that isn’t rendered in full 3D with polygons and crap, that nasty waste of air, him", to which I say, chill the fuck off, and no, I don’t have a gripe against 2D games, or, as I stated earlier, games with limited graphical capabilities. Quick, what are my two favorite PC games? Dwarf Fortress and X-COM: UFO Defense.

Heck, 2D-sprite based graphics can look amazing if done right. Look at an example I mentioned in a previous blog, BlazBlue, Guilty Gear‘s sister series’ and spiritual successor. It looks damn good, while the main plot moves in Visual Novel styled narration, the in-game characters are all very well animated and detailed sprites, while the background and effects are rendered in 3D. It looks really, really good, in fact, I’d say it’s the best looking sprite-based fighter this generation thus far. Every stage feels unique, disctinct, as do every character.

What I’m going for with this is that good graphical performance and design can help plenty to immerse you in the game’s world.

In that regard, look at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and tell me that the graphics don’t matter in that game. Tell me you didn’t feel chills down your spine when the trailer unveiled the beautifully rendered mountainsides and other landscapes. Tell me every time you play the game and reach the top of a cliff, you don’t look down at the rest of the world. Skyrim may very well be the best example of how great visuals can help make a great game. Mind you, the game has a plethora of other merits that contribute greatly to the games quality, but at the same time, you can’t help but wonder if the game would be as good if it didn’t look as well as it did. (Well, Daggerfall was fantastic almost a decade ago, but that’s beside the point)

But, everything good must have a downside, and we all know what happens when you put too much time into the graphics, or not enough effort into them. Look at, for example, Red Faction Guerrilla , Good game, terrible artistic design. The wholeness of Mars looks awfully generic, uninspired and forgettable. It looks like there was little to no effort put into it, there’s nothing but brown hills, brown buildings, brown mountains, brownish-red desert, and it all breaks apart if you so much as look at it. The game eventually needs to rely solely on its destruction engine, and when the entire appeal of your game is to blow up the depressing martian landscape, you’ve got a problem in your hands.

Urban design is pretty hard to get right, too. Since cities all around the world pretty much look the same, how do you make it look so that it’s not just grey concrete against gray asphalt with gray-suited people walking by?

One game that gets it right is the Ryu Ga Gotoku series’, or, as us Americans call it, Yakuza. Specifically, the third game, which is divided into two different urban areas, as I mentioned in an earlier blog. At least there, there’s a distinct look to every new area, everywhere you go you can recognize visual patterns or common buildings, for example, Kamurocho lights up during the night, being full of lights and neon sights, not to mention Millennium Tower, which looks like a glowing monolith. Or Okinawa’s more homely, generally less metropolitan look. As much as you navigate, you’ll learn to recognize landmarks within the cities, which greatly helps navigation. Not to mention the excellent cutscene direction, great and stark color contrasts and fantastic pre-rendered cutscenes and character designs.

Or, how about Saints Row 2, which resorts to the classic trick of making every sector of the city different than the rest. Some are downtown business sectors, there’s the poor side of the city, the Hispanic ghetto,  there’s suburbs, a marina, etc. all which have their own buildings, color schemes and models for pedestrians, which helps give each sector of the city its own look and traits that define it, thus helping separating said sector from the others, which in turn translates into you knowing your way around the city.

Where I’m going at is that, in these cases, the graphical design actually helps out in gameplay by letting you navigate a relatively closed sandbox environment. It helps out, when you need to go from one place to the next, and without good visual design, city-based sandbox games would be nigh unplayable, because you’d either be too busy looking at your map to find your way or trying to figure out what goes where.

I’ve rambled long enough already, so here’s my mighty conclusion thingie: Saying "Graphics don’t matter" or "graphics don’t make a difference" is hispterish, close minded thinking that undermines the importance of pretty much the main sensory factor in gaming. Gaming is a visual medium, and the visual side of things deserves better recognition than it gets. Just because graphical performance or design isn’t more important than a good story or gameplay, doesn’t mean one can go all the way as to ignore this factor altogether. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and videogames, like any other form of audiovisual media, is a chain composed of different elements that only together can for a good or great experience, never alone.

Now commence flaming this.

Quick Time Events and flow

Videogames are a medium which requires a good hand-eye coordination. Naturally, this doesn’t apply to Turn Based genres, so, for the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to “games”, “gaming” and “videogames” not counting Turn Based games.

As I stated plenty of times beforehand, gaming has grown to be more of a storytelling medium over the years. In more action-oriented games, this can be conflicting, since it’s quite hard to blend in the plot with the gameplay so that one does not conflict with the other.

Cutscenes are often the easiest way to tell the story between action sequences. Pre-rendered FMV cutscenes are not always well received, since they take up a large amount of space in whatever storage medium the game comes in, and they are completely non-interactive. But you must be wondering “X, you hollow shell of a human being, what do you mean non-interactive? cutscenes are not interactive by definition!”  well, that’s when QTE’s come into play.

Quick Time Events, or QTE’s for short, are interactive segments during cutscenes that let the player interact with the action on-screen via action commands. However, QTE’s are a hit or miss aspect, since, when not implemented correctly, they can break the immersion and flow of a game completely, but when used properly can create a better experience all around for the game, and give the plot a better sense of urgency.

The conception of QTE’s is commonly attributed to Shenmue, a 1999 Brawler/RPG for the Sega Dreamcast, however, the first instances of these being used in cutscenes stems from 1996’s arcade hit Dynamite Deka 2, where the player characters would be seen running from one section of the stage to another, and sometimes would be prompted to press a button quickly in order to either avoid incoming hazards, or hit moving enemies as they appear. Failure would mean the players would have to fight an extra group of enemies, or would lose health upon entering the next section

A.N.: I’ll be brutally honest, I haven’t played Shenmue, so this is all information I’ve researched.

QTE’s as we know them today, however, stem from Resident Evil 4, which implemented them in cutscenes and while getting grabbed by an enemy. There was even an entire boss fight that played in one cutscene, and the penalty for failing every time was instant death. There’s a good reason RE4 doesn’t do QTE’s well, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

As much as I hate to agree with this guy, I’ve got admit Ben Croshaw (Of Zero Punctuation fame) got this subject spot on. QTE’s are not a bad thing, so long as they are implemented as an integral part of a game’s gameplay. To illustrate, imagine if the last boss of Assassin’s Creed was a 10 minute cutscene that suddenly started spewing action commands from nowhere. Chances are you’d fail them, thus breaking the immersion and flow of the game.

That’s the important factor, a game’s flow. What I mean is that a game needs to move along naturally, which helps the immersion. This isn’t to say a game has to be all action and never stopping, but action has to reach a climax, then the exposition and talking can begin, the game has to keep a mood balance in order to be effectively compelling.

A good example of how QTE’s work is seen in Shenmue‘s spiritual successor, Ryu Ga Gatoku, known here in America as the Yakuza series.

In Yakuza (or at least in the third one), QTE’s for a major element during combat. Since all the fighting takes place in RPG style “encounters”, most of the time one of these may begin with a QTE, where the main character deflects attacks or fights to grab a goon and send him through a crystal window. Or, sometimes, special moves will require action commands to be executed effectively (either stopping or failing to deal damage if the action command is not input correctly), which is especially true for the finisher moves against bosses, or while a boss executes a move on you that you can deflect or counter via quick time events. And, even in combat, sometimes special moves can be triggered when the player is prompted to, which can take place in a window of time as small as one second or less. This blends in with the combat nicely, and gives the battles a sense of booth urgency and awe that the game benefits from in the sense of making combat more enjoyable and challenging without necessarily ramping the difficulty too high.

Another good example of this would come from the Dynasty Warriors spinoff based on the Fist Of The North Star series’, Ken’s Rage. In Ken’s Rage, it’s only implemented against the final bosses of each chapter, which, after depleting their lifebars, will drop down on one knee and have to be killed using a finisher move. This then takes the player into a screen in which one has to input a series’ of (completely random) button sequences. If the player fails, the boss recovers a portion of their health and gets back up, if one wins, the player is treated to the rest of the attack, then the end of the level. And the enemy exploding into a thousand tiny pieces. The sequences become way longer and the time way shorter as the game progresses. The rush one gets from reaching this point (especially in the latter stages) is almost unmatched. And to get past them feels incredibly rewarding, since not only are the fights progressively harder as the game progresses, the game’s cutscenes are fantastic, and it feels actually rewarding to get past the harder levels. That is how you put QTE’s and action commands into a game properly.

Now, of course, as I stated earlier, this can’t always work properly. Sometimes QTE’s are implemented just for the sake of having them, which can lead to some undesirable results.

For example, take Splinter Cell: Double Agent (I swear, this game is the bane of my fucking existence), where after the third stage, every mission introduction segment has a quick time event. The problem here is that they’re not marked or stated by anything. For example, the first one was Sam jumping off a plane into the north pole. While he was falling, you’re supposed to guide his hand and grab the cord and pull it. I saw it not coming until I realized the little green circles that indicate Sam’s hand and the cord. While it wasn’t entirely bad, it came completely out of nowhere, had no significance, and was only there to stall the game, with absolutely nothing of importance being lost if you fail (you die and try again), nor anything of importance happening if you do it (you land and continue normally). See, just having them there to be there, with no bearing on the plot, is completely unnecessary to the gameplay in itself. QTE’s need to have a reason to be there, to be important in some fashion to progress, so that you want to do it, so that you want to complete the event to continue on. If they are just there for the sake of having them, it really demotes the importance of the event in question.

As I stated earlier, Resident Evil 4 doesn’t quite get this concept well, since every time you fail a QTE, it ends invariably in you dying. There’s never a different penalty, nor is the any incentive to complete them other than just continuing. It bears no impact beyond just moving the plot along. At least in Yakuza, they  let your enemies off guard for a moment, or in Ken’s Rage the animations and continuing on the game is a reward in on itself (plus, sometimes you gain a new move), so it feels satisfying to complete them. With the exception of that really awesome cutscene/boss fight, RE4 doesn’t reward you for completing them, so it ultimately feels pointless.

That’s my conclusion. QTE’s can be a good resource to make a game more immersive or more rewarding, so long as there’s something that the player can aspire to after the cutscene. Quick Time Events can be beneficial to a game so long as it feels satisfying to actually succeed in them, instead of it being ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of things, and in the end, as I stated earlier, games need to give you a sense of accomplishment within themselves to drive you forwards.

Reaching a conclusion: Endings

As some of you may recall, a while ago I made an entry regarding how to continue and end a series’ of games, from a storyline perspective. 

As I stated there, a story is a self contain medium which can either be stretched upon more than one iteration of the same story, but most of the times, we can see standalone stories within their own series’.

What I mean is, most of the times, a series’ of games or movies, books or any other media is not just one long story being told in different acts throughout. The vast majority of the times, an iteration of a series’ is its own self-contained story within another story. That’s actually pretty meta.

It’s a very common practice, the sequel will always lead the way to the ending, or another sequel, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story to be told in the first place. Sometimes, the whole overarching storyline and every arc within it are planned out from the beginning, which is fine, though some other times, the story in question is made up on the move. One such example, is the X-COM franchise, where every game was made in its own, without necessarily leading to a major overarching plotline, and every game told its own story through its own series’ of events, except for the last one, but I’ll get back to that on a moment.

A good ending is the one that gives the story closure, that’s a given. While open endings are a common artistic resource, unless it’s handled carefully, it doesn’t quite work the way it was originally intended. Look at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where the whole game boasted a post-modern style of narration, reaching a climax where almost no questions are answered regarding the plot (and, in fact, some more questions were raised). My point is that this ending works in every way, contrary to what many fans may believe. The ending for the game leaves enough questions unanswered to lead up to a sequel (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of The Patriots) that retconned and explained the entirety of the plot (and, as I’ve stated earlier, it’s the greatest way to end a series’ as convoluted and often stupid as Metal Gear), while at the same time giving the character’s own personal arc a sense of closure, regardless of how things turn out. Because that’s what life is, in the end, some things are just not answered. Granted, his arc was brutally deconstructed in the sequel, but for what it’s worth, the game stands as an experience that you can just pick up and play at any moment without necessarily knowing the rest of the series’. Something only the PSX along with this one game can boast in this series’.

A.N: I can’t seem to make a post without mentioning Metal Gear, now can I?

That’s a good ending, it provides closure to its own story arc, and leads the way to a sequel. However, the presentation aspect of it is also a very important factor to be considered when making an ending. The plot, ultimately, is just a series’ of events that lead up to a conclusion. As such, the player is expected to have invested himself to it and eventually expect a climax of the events, the stakes to be higher and to reach some sense of accomplishment towards the goal the characters had been striving to achieve. An Anti-Climax can be a good resource to be used some times, for shock and artistic effect, depending on the pacing of the story. However, just like loose ends in the plot, most of the times this leads to a poorly executed ending, such as the following example.

Recently, I decided to play Splinter Cell: Double Agent, in an attempt at finding a good stealth game besides Metal Gear, so naturally I decided to pick this one up from a trade-in shop I frequent (the same one from my entry about piracy). I’ve fallen out of touch with the Tom Clancy series’ (and so has Tom himself, since he doesn’t seem to be involved in these games in the slightest), but I had played the old Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell games, so it couldn’t really be that bad.

Other than the extremely glitchy and wonky engine the game was running on, I had no complaints up until the final section of the game. When the difficulty skyrockets like this was Half -Life and one shot will kill you instantly for no good reason.

The premise of the games is that the daughter of Sam Fisher, the series’ main protagonist, is killed, leaving Fisher in an emotional wreck (for reasons not explored upon until the sequel), which prompts him to take a mission as a double agent in the JBA: James Brown Army, an American based terrorist group trying to reach control of the White House via infiltration, sabotage and acquiring Red Mercury, a nuclear component that could level Manhattan if used in a bomb. The idea was that fisher had to remain in the good sides of both the terrorists and his agency, since this was an extremely top-secret black op.

The last act of the game has the player go back to the JSA’s headquarters to find Sam’s CO and friend captive, and he’s ordered to kill him. If you do, the JSA will not suspect of your treason and you can go back to stopping the launch of the nuclear device. I didn’t kill him and was presented with an insanely hard situation where outside the door I was in, there were two armed guards ready to kill me. And they did, plenty of times, in fact.

The illumination system, which is implemented to let the player know of Sam’s visibility is toned up so that it’s virtually impossible to reach anywhere without being caught, and to top it all off you’re stripped of your equipment.

After the terrorist’s leader decides to blow the installation up with them inside (sort of counter-productive towards their goal of reaching control of the white house, but whatever), you have to stop him, get to the bomb, disable the nuclear device (which Sam can apparently do), all within a small, highly illuminated series’ of corridors riddled with cameras and guards (although, if I’m not mistaken, you can take out the camera crew in the base and the cameras will not launch an alarm state when they see you), all without most of your gadgets that you’ve learned to rely on throughout the game.

Then, the credits roll with the game’s trailer in te background and a very vague narration of what happened after the ending. Then there’s an epilogue (if you can call it that) where Sam SOMEHOW manages to get aboard a boat that contains the second bomb in Manhattan, so you need to kill the remaining character, defuse the bomb and leave. Which I did (and, due to shoddy programming, one of the enemies that wasn’t dead managed to shoot me ONCE during the scripted event of Sam jumping off the boat while it explodes, and that counted as a game over) and then, the boat explodes, Same gets out and we’re greeted with the same black-on-green screen that you get during a Game Over that reads "To be Continued". Then you have to reset your console to get it to work.

I can’t stress enough how absolutely hideous this ending is. I felt, for the first time ever, that I wasted my time and money with this game. The thing is though, there’s a technical reason why this ending is so bad.

You see, the rest of the game is good, if not for plenty of flaws that can be overlooked, but having a climax that reaches such a high difficulty, that requires to memorize the whole map twice, to end with the trailer playing over the credits and a black screen reading "TO  BE CONTINUED" is just lazy design, and I’m calling the creative team for it. Their work was shit. Their ending was so utterly shit that it tainted the whole game, making it even more of an unplayable mess every time I tried to replay it than it already was. It is, quite literally, the worst ending ever, of all time. I’ve seen NES games that give more closure to their stories. Like fucking Contra. This game is the reason I started playing more Japanese games.

The excuse was mostly "there’s a sequel", but having a sequel doesn’t mean you can put less effort into the previous game. as I stated in my Metal Gear Solid 2 example, it is very possible to have an ending tie in to almost nothing, yet be utterly genius. Double Agent‘s ending was a spit in the face of every gamer who bought it. Ironically enough, there was a second version of the game, incredibly superior, released to the PS2 and Wii.

Let’s go back to that X-COM example I provided earlier. This is another god way to end your games, when your series’ isn’t made with the idea that there will invariably be a sequel in the future.

The first X-COM, named X-COM: UFO Defense game revolved around an Alien Invasion on earth, the idea was that the player had to manage X-COM, the eXtraterrestrial COMbat force, to combat the aliens, investigate their origins, their biology, their technology and eventually take the fight to them. It’s truly unique in the way the plot will moves. It’s not about how many missions you complete or how many alien crafts you capture, it’s about how much you can learn from the aliens until you’re ready to strike against them. The game ends, without needing a sequel. the aliens are defeated, and the earth is now safe and boasts a whole lot of new technology, courtesy of the  invaders.

There were four sequels to this game, Terror From The Deep, a more Lovercraftian approach to the plot, where the an ancient aline civilization surges from the bottom of the ocean, Interceptor, set in the future when X-COM has become defense contractors for Earth’s offworld mining and living facilities, the game kept the base building, research and development and managerial aspects of the earlier games, but instead of being a strategy game, Missions would be fought in space flying simulator, a la Wing Commander, but not nearly as good; Apocalypse, set in the future, when earth’s surface is almost uninhabitable, save for the city of Mega-Primus, where X-COM has to deal with an invasion from a new and unknown enemy from another dimension, And then there was Enforcer.

Every game in this series’ is almost completely unrelated in terms of its own plot (with the exception of Interceptor, which is an Interquel set between UFO Defense and Terror From The Deep), and it works well enough that no game conflicts with each other, since every plot is entirely self-contained within itself, and as such it works for what it is, just the plot, no tying in loose ends, no Retcons (well, a few, but nothing vastly important), every game was fresh, plotwise.

However, as it is with every  series’, there was a Black Sheep, which was Enforcer, an arcadey shoot ‘em up set during the fist invasion on earth that contradicts plenty of plot points from the previous games, but that’s an issue for another day.

The point I’m making is that, the X-COM games need not to worry about insignificant details, so every game’s plot and conclusion feels equally good, every game feels rewarding towards the end, because of how the plot moves, and how well made the endings for each game are.

Sometimes, however, an ending can be not as fulfilling as because of the lore  behind it. Let’s take, for example, the gameCommand & Conquer 4 : Tiberium Twilight, released on the PC a few years ago.

Tiberium Twilight is Electronic Arts’ final attempt at showing people that they don’t give a fuck. Some background, first. If you’re already familiar with the series’, skip the next paragraph.

Command & Conquer is a series’ of Real Time Strategy games originally made by Westwood Studios. The series’ is divided into two main sub-series’. The one we’ll focus at is the Tiberium saga, set from 1990 onwards and based around the plot that an alien meteor crashes on earth containing a rare self-duplicating hydrocarbon that works as a clean, efficient renewable energy source, that revolutionizes every aspect of our society. The first game, Tiberian Dawn, introduces Tiberium into the series’, and the villain, Kane, an  immortal leader of an international group named the Brotherhood of NOD, while the main protagonists are the UN’s Global Defense Initiative, or GDI for short. GDI starts off by taking active control in NOD  insurgencies all around the world, beginning the first tiberium War which ended  with Kane getting shot in the face with an orbiting laser. The Sequel, Tiberian Sun, takes place almost a century later, and deals with how Tiberium has almost destroyed the whole world’s ecosystems, by polluting and spreading itself. As Kane reveals himself to be still alive and kicking, NOD once again launches its attacks towards GDI (which is now a de facto peacekeeping force in the whole world, almost to the point of governing it), starting the Second Tiberium War, and ending with Kane being impaled through the chest. After this, the series’ was meant to end as a trilogy, however, due to Electronic Arts’ desire to cash in from the franchise as much as possible, and thus, after 2 games and 2 expansion packs, we got Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which was an admittedly good game, that retconned the origins of Tiberium as a meteor sent by an alien race to turn the world into a giant harvesting  ground for tiberium. The main plot is, Kane is alive, NOD blows up GDI’s base satellite, the Philadelphia, then Scrin arrives to  harvest the Tiberium and kill everyone on the planet to make way for more Tiberium. Easy enough, and to be honest, the game wasn’t bad in the slightest. Worth mentioning is that the idea behind Kane as a villain comes from Cain and Abel, being heavily hinted in the games that Kane was, in fact, the first murderer. Sort of confirmed in Renegade, where the player can find Abel’s sarcophagus in Kane’s temple. Then came  Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight.

Tiberium Twilight reaches a new low for the franchise by basically spitting on everything it ever stood for, and every aspect of its plot. Again, we’ll focus on the ending. the plot is basically, that GDI and NOD have reached a truce in order for Kane to help build the Tiberium Control Network, in order to restore the earth to a functional state. And it works, however, within the ranks of GDI and NOD, civil war erupts over various unimportant issues. Skip to the ending, where invariably, no matter what faction you play as, it ends with Kane revealing himself to be actually an Alien stranded on earth for thousands of years in his search to lead humanity into creating the technology to help him ascend… Ascend where or how, it’s never explained.  Which contradicts the entirety of the series’ up until then, in absolutely every fashion possible. Kane was meant to be working to use Tiberium as a means to reach a higher evolutionary position for all of humanity, via mutation, infestation, exposition, and all that. His goal was to bring down oppressive governments in the world and have humanity ascend to a higher evolutionary plane. Instead, they took the "ascend" part literally and had him go somewhere somehow for no good reason. It completely mutilates every single aspect of the franchise up to that point. You might be wondering why I didn’t bring it up when I talked about finishing franchises, that’s because the series’ is far from over, for better or for worse.

Alright, I’ve rambled long enough, here’s my Thesis for today: An ending in any game can be artsy, open ended or leading up to a sequel so long as it reaches fulfillment of its own story. A game has to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something within the game itself in order to be a successful story told, you can’t give the excuse that it’s an ongoing story to have half-baked resolution. You need to feel the closure after you’ve ended the story, even if, like in Metal Gear Solid 2, you only feel emotionally fulfilled and the plot has more holes in it than a cheddar cheese factory. Because, in the end, a story is only as good as its conclusion.

How much Retro is too much Retro?

If you’re reading this entry, chances are you have some interest in videogames. If so is the case, you probably know a thing or two about them.

Which was the first videogame ever made is a very controversial issue. The answer can be pinpointed to three games. One of the earliest examples of a video game goes all the way back to 1958, called Tennis For Two (that’s right, folks, the first game ever was a sports game of all things), which consisted of a small tennis game assembled out of decommissioned Radar equipment. This is commonly disputed with PONG, one of the first Arcade cabinets to hit the mainstream market and make itself popular, which came out in 1972 and 1975 with an official home version.

During the 80s and 90s, geek culture and computer games were one and the same, and at the same time, younger gamers were introduced to the medium via home consoles like thew Atari family consoles, or most prominently, the Nintendo Entertainment System, otherwise known as the NES. And, sure enough, later on we’d see its successor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which by itself drew in another generation of gaming, and so forth.

Flash forward to the present day, that generation of gamers who grew up on early consoles like the NES or SNES is probably still playing, ow in the more advanced home consoles like the PlayStation 3 or the XBOX 360, which are both good consoles in on their own terms.

Thanks to the advent of the internet, a great deal of people have banded togheter and started sites, forums or blogs dedicated to old school games. Then, with video and the expansion of sites like YouTube and whatnot, people started discussing, reviewing and chronicling these games and their memories of them. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, indeed.

Eventually companies would start capitalizing off this sentiment in various shapes. While Nintendo had been doing this as their main gimmick since Animal Crossing came bundled with an NES emulator, and then the Virtual Console on the Wii which is a collection of old school games for download, other companies like Capcom or Konami decided to start making some money off of this a while ago. For example, There’s the reboot and remake of Bionic Commando, the namesake being a sequel to the original, and the remake calledReArmed, which added a bunch new features to it. I’ll get into detail in a moment.

In order to cash in from this, Capcom (company known for cashing in on to anything) released Megaman 9, a continuation to the NES Mega Man franchise. And it was made to look like an old NES game, pixelated graphics, music made to mimic the 8-Bit console’s sound chip, easy controls, terrible box art, excuse plot, etcetera.

And here’s where I start getting skeptic. You see, the reason NES games looked and played the way they did was because the system had technological limitations to what could be made in the first place. The console had that limit to deal with, it wasn’t just an aesthetic choice.

While I can appreciate an old school game, and if you ask me, most of my favorite games are from before ’03, I cannot stand the current trend to make games look, play and sound like this was 1987 all over again. Take, for example, Mega Man 9 and 10.

The Mega Man franchise is, like we all know, a hit and miss game. While some really good Mega Man games have been made in the past decade, most of them fall under games that range from Mediocre to plain bad, with the honorable exception of the Mega Man Legends series‘. And we all know how well that ended. Truth is, the franchise’s only real direction could be backwards, being how wildly praised the old NES and SNES games are. So, naturally, Mega Man 9 was made to look, play, and feel like the old games. And it was showered with praise, and money. While some attribute this to the actual effort put into it, some others just allude its success to the rose tinted glasses most gamers were wearing while playing the game, metaphorically speaking.

To be fair, the game is not bad, but it’s definitely not the kind of game I’d want to play. If I wanted to play an old school Mega Man game, I would gladly go back to play Mega Man 2 on the NES While I appretiate the effort of making an old school game, I can’t help but wonder how would the game had turned out if the developers had thought to draw inspiration from the game rather than making a hard copy of it.

The way I see it, no matter how good a game was, like any other aspect of technology, Games need to move forwards.

Now, there are other games like 3D Dot Game Heroes and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Movie: The Game that use a retro style look , without necessarily being based directly on one. And then we run into a similar issue. While 3D Dot Game Heroes is more of a tribute to old school adventure games, Scott Pilgrim‘s main selling point was the graphics and music (and the movie and comic book license). Again, this isn’t really good. How is it any different than getting the same game yearly rehashed?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m against 2D or sprite based games, or that these games are bad. Mega Mag 9, 3D Dot Game Heroes and Scott Pilgrim are all really good games. And there are also some other great 2D sprite based games like Shank, which is a beautifully animated 2D side scrolling Beat ‘em Up, or, say BlazBlue andGuilty Gear, both sister series’ which feature very well done  sprites and backgrounds, all neatly animated and detailed (although, in the case of BlazBlue, they would benefit from some more frames of animation).

But the difference between Shank and Scott Pilgrim is that Shank doesn’t promote itself as “Old School Action”, it’s just the game it is. Does it draw elements from older games? Of course, and older films too. But it needs not to dwell on this to be a good game, and it uses the console’s capabilities to make the experience richer, rather than aiming to some retraux look just for the sake of capitalizing off people who believe gaming hasn’t been good since 1990.

Let me bring up another example. The makers of Dynasty Warriors recently made a game based no the manga and anime Fist Of The North Star, titled “Fist Of The North Star: Ken’s Rage” (Though the version we received was slightly altered from the original and was re-released in Japan under the title Hokuto Musou International). I’ve never played the other Dynasty Warriorsrs games, so I wouldn’t know how it fares from them, but as far as I could tell, the game was pretty damn good. But there’s one thing I wanted to mention.

Throughout the game I found various elements and gameplay tidbits that reminded me of old school arcade beat ‘em ups. For example, in order to progress in the game you’re supposed to kill all the enemies on screen, like most beat ‘em ups, also, you fill up a meter that lets you pull off special moves, or go into a state where if you filled another bar, you can pull off even stronger special moves that sometimes worked as one hit kills for tons of enemies, there are segments where you can ride on motorcycles and run over enemies (albeit it’s not a very effective way to kill large amounts of enemies), sometimes large enemies jump and you have to avoid them stomping you by looking at their shadow, etc. It has plenty of old and perfected elements in gameplay, but it never feels like it’s trying too hard to draw on those or at least not intentionally so.

Finally we have Remakes of older games, which follow a similar formula, but differently so. Of course, we all know Remakes are a hit-and-miss thing, where they are either really good, or really bad. Let’s take for example, the aforementioned Bionic commando ReArmed . ReArmed pulls this off well enough. The game is completely modeled after the original, but everything that was lacking due to the time and console it was released has been polished and made to look as a proper modern game. The translation is not intentionally bad, the graphics are not forcefully pixelated (in fact, the whole game is rendered in 3D and in 720p HD), the music, although it takes cues from the original soundtrack, sounds more appealing to the ear than a forceful chiptune soundtrack, and the game plays a lot like the original, but tweaked to be both more fun and to work better with the system in question. This is a good remake, because it doesn’t blatantly copy everything from its original without deviating too much from its formula.

Or, how about X-COM: Enemy Unknown, upcoming game by Firaxis software, remaking the original X-COM: UFO Defense for the PC. For what we’ve seen so far, it remains true to its source material and at the same time is manages to put a new twist to it to better adapt to modern audiences. It’s not exactly the same game, but it still feels like the original, without having to shoehorn itself to the player.

Or, for a last example, we got a few years back, an arcade port (or, as I call them “Arcadort”) of After Burner Climax, for the PS3 and 360. As a sequel of such an old franchise it works well, while it’s true it lets you turn on the old After Burner II music and sound effects, the game makes full use of the console, while not deviating from the After Burner formula in the slightest, aside from the new “Climax Mode”, which is essentially bullet time with planes and missiles. It’s nostalgic, yes, but that doesn’t mean the game dwells on that fact, it just compliments the experience.

My thesis: It’s OK to draw inspiration from older games, it’s perfectly fine to be nostalgic, but gaming is a medium that should move always forwards, and while it’s OK to enjoy old games, to play them again and all, it’s not right to dwell on them to the point of blindly praising any game that looks or plays like an old game. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Nostalgia, heck, that’s the reason sites like Abandonia or Good Old Games exist, so you can go back and play those games, and if it’s a PC game, you can always find mods and custom campaigns for them to make the experience fresher; however, if companies kept going back to release the same product again, over and over, just cashing in on nostalgia, would that be any different from releasing the same shooter with new guns every year? I’ll leave you with that thought.

Author’s Note: At the time of writing this, ironically, I was listening to old games’ music. Please note, I’m not a hypocrite.

Getting Closure: The end of a series’

Videogames have been a storytelling medium since text adventure games on early computers became popular among the early gaming crowd.The plot factor started taking more and more prominence in the early and mid 80s, thanks to the advent of computer Role Playing games, like Ultima or Wasteland. The common use of excuse plots, lacking basic descriptions or motivations to motivate the events, which became a staple of gaming for a long time, came about with the Arcades and cartridge based home systems like the NES or SNES, which couldn’t contain as much information as a computer, so most of the time games wouldn’t have much of a storyline, with the notable exception of Role Playing Games.

As time went on, the genre matured along with its audience. These days, the idea of a game without a plot is unacceptable. Stories have become part of the experience as a whole, and as such they get better over time, with a few exceptions that either remained grandiose since the beginning (The Elder Scrolls, Point and Click adventure series’, Fallout, etc.) or remain bland even to this day (Metal Slug, which resorts to the old technique of not having any in-game plot; or the Mega Man franchise, which has gotten convoluted and almost unapproachable due to massive amounts of retcons, just to end with games that rehash the old nearly absent narrative), but today I want to address an issue which you’ve probably already deduced from the title, unless you’re stupid.

In media, in general, sometimes a story is told as itself, being entirely self contained and requiring no further development. However, it’s very common to see franchises that span beyond a single iteration. This normally means the progression of the plot will stretch out over multiple self contained entries within the same series’.

While there’s nothing wrong with this, since it gives the story a bigger focus and more time to develop itself, at the same time it can lead to unfortunate side effects.

It can happen that a series’ will become stagnated in a single point in its progression. The cheapest way to profit from a series’ is to make the plot move anywhere but forwards, which is becoming alarmingly common in the videogame market.

This phenomenon is by no means something originated as of recent years. Take, for example, Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise.

As most of you may know, the second iteration of the game was updated and released multiple times over the course of the 90s, due to how immensely popular it was both in the arcades and home consoles. This is not good. Having the same game be released over and over again eventually leads to the creators thinking they can spit out anything and we’ll pour money into it.

A more modern, negative example of this effect can be observed with Namco-Bandai’s Ace Combat franchise. Ace Combat is a series’ that’s spanned since the early 90s to this day in the Playstation family of consoles. It’s a Arcade style flying simulator set in the world of Strangereal, a world similar to earth with plenty of counterpart cultures to our own, but with it’s own history and mythology.

The third game in the series’, Electrosphere, was set in the future, where corpocracies had taken over the world and kept fighting their own personal battles with each other for personal profit. The game featured entirely non-linear storytelling that branched out within the missions and led to 4 different endings, all with animated cutscenes. Sadly, the American release of the game had almost the entirety of the game cut off, leaving it a plotless game with no end. However, that is not the issue I’m addressing right now.

After 3, every game in the series’ has been set within the period between 1990 and 2015 within its own world, and has dropped various hints and has lead up to the events of 3 (The most prominent examples being The Unsung War and Advance). However, ever since Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, the plot hasn’t moved forwards in the slightest. Zero was a prequel to 5Fires Of Liberation was almost completely unrelated, and the last two games (not counting a remake of 2), Joint Assault and Assault Horizon, have been set in the real world, completely ignoring the established canon.

Now, let me contrast this with another very long series’ with a huge fan following, which I’m quite fond of myself, Metal Gear Solid. To my experience, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of The Patriots is the best ending for a franchise as far as videogames go. Don’t go to the comments section to verbally assault me yet, allow me to elaborate.

The Metal Gear franchise is a mindbogglingly complicated plot which I will summarize some other time. To give you an idea, it’s divided into three main series’. There’s the original games on the MSX and MSX II computers back in the late 80s and 90s, the Solid series’ on the Playstation consoles, and the prequel series’ in the PS2 and PSP. All of them tie in together in 4, which makes about 10 games, not counting special editions, which, in turn, give way to a gigantically overstressed plot with a great deal of plot threads and unresolved plot holes.

Now, Guns of The Patriots is often criticized because of having approximately Nine hours of cutscenes in the entire game, the ending cutscene and epilogue alone lasting for a good 3 and a half hours. If you miss a single minute of it, you might be left behind in the whole series’.

Yet this is necessary, because having to not only tie in to a game with an ending so surreal it’s been analogized as the 2001: A Space Odyssey of videogames, without ever being in space; but also needing to have its own plot (otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a game).

And yet, it pulls the whole thing off perfectly.

See, the thing is, it gives closure to absolutely every aspect of the games that could raise questions. Everything, minor as it may be, is addressed and eventually sorted out in the course of either the game or the ending. It leaves no room for a sequel, since all but seven of the main characters (out of nearly 20 recurring characters in the games) remain alive in the end (one of them having but a few months to live) and need no more development. The series’ in its entirety reached its apex, and ended. The only other game to be released was the last of the prequel series’. There is absolutely no need for a new game in any segment of the story. It’s over. Not that it stops the developers from having a new installment on the way in the form of a spinoff title, with the creator having jumped ship a while ago.

That’s the thing, any sort of story is ultimately just the buildup to its conclusion. Not giving it proper closure is diminishing the importance of every event in the story up to that point. And as such, it might as well be left open to interpretation.

I’m not against the idea of making money off of a given series’, or if the creators want to make more installemnts or expand upon the world. Worldbuilding and Expanded universes are a good thing, if you don’t believe this, go ahead and take a look at the Star Wars franchise. A universe so rich and large that you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by it, yet every plotline has reached its end within the series’.

Another current example of a series’ overstaying its welcome comes from the Kingdom Hearths series’, which after the second game has gone nowhere, plotwise, releasing prequels, gaiden games, and a plethora of other materials, but the ongoing plot remains unresolved.

Now, sometimes this can be done right. See, for example, the ‘Final Fantasy series’, where every new game is set in a completely new world and storyline than the previous one, with a few exceptions. Here, the franchise can theoretically go anywhere, since every installment is a new story almost completely unrelated to the previous one.

Or, if you don’t like Final Fantasy, there’s Bethesda’s excellent The Elder Scrolls franchise, which have a similar structure for each new release, only it all occurs within the same universe. Yet, every game always reaches the end of its story. It leaves a few open strings, but the story in question is over.

My thesis of the week, like any other storytelling medium, videogames need to get closure in their plots, One thing is trying to flesh out the story, maybe make money on the way, but if you purposely hold back the plot to a grinding halt, it undermines the importance of the whole thing, and eventually it will cost you a sizable portion of the fanbase. And when you’re making a videogame, what’s more important, money, or the game you’ve been working on for years now?

A sense of exploration: Are our hands being held?

Earlier this year, I decided to give The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a whirl, when I found the game of The Year edition for cheap on a local store.

The very first thing I did after buying it, as always, was to open up the manual and give it a read. Now, I have very strong opinions on how game manuals should or shouldn’t be, and I’m glad to say that Oblivion‘s instruction booklet was one of the best I’ve seen this generation.

It opens up with a letter from the development team speaking about how many possibilities the game gives you in the sense of exploration and role-playing, directed to appeal to everyone who is playing the game.

The part that catches my eye is at the beginning, though, with this fragment:

“So, if you like wandering and exploring, that’s what you should do. [...] And fortunately, there’s a lot of wandering and exploring involved in finishing the main quest.”

Open world sandbox RPG’s are becoming more and more famous thanks to Bethesda’s Fallout and The Elder Scrolls franchises, which are often praised as superb role playing experiences.

I’m not here to argue that point. I’m here to discuss an issue with modern Open World games that’s been buggering me for a while.

Let’s give you two examples from relatively similar games, Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, both running on the same engine, so they’re fairly similar.

One quest in New Vegas involves going into various different underground Vaults in order to find old salvage components for the air purification system of an underground bunker.

In the context of the game, Vaults are the places that people hid in after the nuclear war, and as such they’re big,  labyrinthine structures that are made to  house great amounts of people. But that’s not it.

Each Vault was meant as a social experiment under different circumstances. With the exception of a couple Control Vaults (13, 101 and 3), all of them had a fatal flaw or intricate system to control the people on it. For example, one of them was populated by one man and 49 women, one had its residents enclosed in suspended animation inside virtual reality pods, one was populated by one man with a cloning device, and so forth.

In this quest, you’re tasked with searching inside three of these. One is a control vault that was overrun by wasteland raiders once it was opened, one has a device that requires one person to periodically die in order for the vault not to malfunction and kill everyone in it (thus creating a reverse-democracy where candidates ask for you not voting for them), and the last one had an overstocked armory.

These designs and concepts make for interesting, chilling quests in closed, claustrophobic environments populated by irradiated mutants and insects. For the most part, it does its job at being athmospherically immersive, but it’s all killed by one aspect.

In order to find your way around the world, the game’s map sets a cursor in the place of your destination, and the cursor guides you in that direction, in the form of an arrow in your map and compass. If you’re inside a building or the objective is in another area, the arrow points towards the nearest exit and so forth. The problem is that in this quest (and every other), the arrow points directly over the spot the objects you’re looking for are. As a result, all you’re doing is going in and taking the object, the process of “finding” it is rendered completely invalid and almost nonexistant.

Let’s go back to Oblivion for a minute. One quest has your character accept the task of finding an ancient magical pendant in an uncharted temple from the times of a great war, almost a century ago.

You’re given the diary of a soldier stationed at that fort and a translation of it which tells of the entrance to the mountain pass where the temple is located, which the arrow points you to. Once you’ve reached the other side of the cave it marks, the arrow dissapears, and you’re left on your own to find it based on the clues you’re given in the diary.

I found myself very much immersed in this quest. You’re asked to find this temple and retrieve the amulet, and you’re not given directions, it’s your own sense of scouting that will get you there. And that’s what made it fun, for me, since on the way you’ll fight trolls and ice monsters, and eventually you’ll reach the underground fort. Granted that the way there is pretty streamlined and straightforward, but the fact that you’re expected to find this place is what makes it worth it, and gives you a better sense of accomplishment once you’ve done so. It’s a good moment in the game.

I bring up both of those factors to make this point, role playing games shouldn’t have those markers to guide you by the hand to your objectives.

A role playing game is mostly based on the immersion factor, and that depends on how much the game can draw you in while you’re playing it. A good, immersive role playing game will make you feel as though if you weren’t playing the game in the first place, it’s immersive enough to have you worrying about the characters, it’s immersive enough to give you the chills once you’ve accomplished a very hard dungeon crawl.

Part of this effect is accomplished by seeing the events unfold through the eyes of the character, not as an expectator. Which is why, for example, Dead Space had no in-game Heads Up Display within the screen. The more “real” the game looks, the more we see it as such.

Going back to Oblivion, one of the main storyline quests revolves around trying to decipher a secret code in a series’ of books to find a message and joined the secret cult that assassinated the emperor. After gathering the books, you give them to a researcher at the arcane university, where she tells you she’s found that the first word of every parragraph seems to make up a message, and she’ll tell you later what else she finds.

The first time I played it, my first thought was to quickly get a pen and paper and start writing down and trying to crack the code, which I did, the idea was that you had to wait for midnight so a courier for the cult would welcome you and begin your initiation. But, the game wouldn’t move on until I had waited three in-game days so that the researcher got the same result, only then I could go there.

I won’t put the blame on this on the development team, because it was supposed to be a plot point, and if you solved the riddle yourself, it’d make the introduction of that character completely meaningless, but at the same time, I feel like the game could’ve used this as a great puzzle, decoding the code and every day that passed you received a new clue, with a limit on how much you can wait around without messing the quest up. That way, the character would remain relevant (giving you the clues in case you can’t figure it out) and the game would have you thinking a little bit more.

Let me put this in perspective. Remember Ultima IV: Quest of The Avatar? The game opened up with next to no indications of where you were supposed to go or what you were supposed to do, while at the same time,  there were many puzzles that required you to actually think in order to get them done. Quest of The Avatar is renowned as one of the greatest RPGs in history, due to its great philosophical background and rewarding gameplay in general. The game was great, and it didn’t need to grab your hand in order to be played, and because of this, your eventual success was all the more rewarding. Games had a more profound emotional effect with success and reward.

To give just one more example, I recently traded in for Yakuza 3, a japanese game where you play as an ex-Yakuza stuck in a conspiracy that puts his newly formed orphanage in jeopardy. The game is an open world Beat Em Up where you alternate between the areas of Downtown Ryukyu, Okinawa and Kamurocho, Tokio.

The thing is, though, it has absolutely no pointers or markers, you’re given a GPS map and instructions to finish all your objectives in the game and its side missions (to give you an idea on how big this game is, it has 11 chapters of plot, and they amount to 14.83% of the game)

Again, after completing a mission or progressing in them by finding your objective, the sense of reward is rooted deeper still, since some objectives require you to take hints, follow people, and look in every spot of the game to find what you’re looking for. It’s good, it’s fun and it feels like you’ve actually accomplished something by doing all of these. You feel more comfortable walking the streets, and you begin recognizing and remembering locations for further reference. Again, immersing.

With this, I reach my thesis: games shouldn’t guide you by the hand towards where you have to go. True freedom of gameplay includes being able to decide how you reach objectives without being shown the way, true immersion means to be able to find your own way through the game world. A good designer knows how to make the clues guiding your way subtle. Good design doesn’t shoehorn instructions into gameplay, and good games reward your intelligence and clever solutions to situations within itself.

The One Thing I know (I Learned From Piracy)

Ever since the dawn of mankind, man has held onto various concepts and Ideals that seem to be latched upon our minds. God, Life, Death and survival spring to mind. Yet the one we seem to quote the most is, in fact, not present in nature, which is the concept of Justice.
What is justice, anyways?

While commonly mistaken, Justice in itself is not fairness. Depending on who you ask, Justice can be a divine, earthly, lawful or unlawful concept of moral and ethical retribution for our acts. In its purest forms, it means simply “To be Just”.

A similar concept is that of “Law”. “Law” In itself is the rules and guidances that enact Justice in our society. The first code of Law was the famous code of Hamurabbi, the brainchild of the society whom we thank for the development of the written code of language. The code was made so that the laws of Men could be represented equally for everyone, so that no man could abuse another man in the name of the law. An eye for an eye, was the rule by which they lived.

In the present day, almost every single democratic system in the world is tied to the concept of Law and Order. However, our society has grown the beard since we first created the code of law. In today’s world, a great many aspects of our society are mostly subject to interpretations. While Hamurabbi’s code was written in a time where the biggest of your issues was how many donkeys were a pig worth, our present society has many more needs than those that can be solved “an eye for an eye”.

Naturally, courts of law are the countermeasure for this effect, but that doesn’t matter. In the concept of Law being made in order to protect the common man from their own laws, we’ve come full circle into what I like to call “The Biggest Irony in History”.

Recapitulating what I said earlier, Law itself is written so that it can’t be manipulated for one’s personal gain. Yet, ironically, that is the exact oposite of what most people think of the wetern world’s Justice system. Specifically, whenever the interests of a big name coporation are at stake.

A “Corporation” is a group of people with common interests, who profit from a certain bussiness. They are mostly responsible for the rise of Capitalism worldwide in the late 17th century. In the American Legal System, corporations are given atributes and rights similar to those given to individuals. This is mostly to protect their own product or service in the face of competition. As an individual, you have the right to your own private property, as in, something that belongs to you cannot be appropiated by anyone else without your authorization. This is the most basic concept of “property” and “theft”.

However, it wasn’t until the early twenienth century where Intelectual property was acknowledged as an atribution of individuals and groups that needed to be protected, just like any phisical products or pertenences. And as such, it was made a crime to use a person’s intelectual property without consent, just as it’s illegal to run over pedestrians in your neighbour’s car.

Now, the concept of Piracy is an old one. We all know about Bucaneers, Privateers and Pirates, plundering away at ships for their cargo. While sea pirates still exist to this day (one of the few groups declared collective enemies of mankind by The UN), the concept of Piracy in question is most commonly used to refer to the act of profiting from an individual or company’s work or products, in the form of Movies, Music, TV Shows, Videogames, Books, basically, anything that can be uploaded to the lawless wasteland that is the internet.
While there have been numerous attempts to combat this issue in one way or another, none have been more controversial than the two bills that the Senate of The United States of North America is currently evaluating (Technically, the bill is “shelved”, but discussions about it are still going on), the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, SOPA and PIPA.
Surprisingly enough, I have not come to talk to you about them today.
The idea behind both of them is to stop Online Piracy, as the name implies. I am here today to talk to you about Piracy in gaming.

I’ll not lie, I used to do piracy, a lot. And during that time I managed to make observations on the subject, and most importantly, I drew one conclusion, the one thing I know.
It’s not worth it. You will always be better off paying more for a better product than trying to squeeze by with their cheaper counterparts, or in this case, piracy.
Before I go on in detail, allow me to better explain my situation:

The country I live in (Chile) has intellectual property and copyright laws, however, we don’t enforce them. At all. You can walk into any household with someone under the age of 25 in it and you’ll find a bootleg PS2 with a small folder full of pirated DVD’s next to it, or a Wii or PS3 rigged to an external HDD. Anywhere, it’s always the same. Only if you intend to pass those through the frontier you can get in trouble, and even then, it’s all very lax.
Naturally, this means there is no taboo on the subject. The general view on things is that we don’t live in a country were we can afford to buy originals (which is complete bullshit).
To give you a better perspective on the subject, here’s a conversation I had with a couple of people at school earlier this year regarding my desire to buy the then upcoming Ace Combat: Assault Horizon on PS3.

Me: [...] So basically, I save the money, and for [$60 USD] I get the game brand new as soon as it gets here.

Other Person: [Laugh] What kind of lifeless idiot wastes [$60 USD] on a videogame?

Worth mentioning is, the person in question owns a jailbroken wii with around one hundred games in an external HDD, none of which were acquired in any “legal” fashion. This should get you the Idea.

I could go on and on about how people in my country don’t believe that entertainment has any monetary value, or any sort of value for that matter, but that’s not the Issue to disscuss here today.

Well, on to my story then.

‘Twas the winter, circa 2007, when I acquired as a birthday gift my own Nintendo GameCube, bundled in with Zelda: Collector’s Edition and Pokémon Colloseum, one controller, and no memory card. You can see I was in quite the situation, where I couldn’t save any of my progress in any games, and all five games I owned were not the kind of game you could just pick up and play. I still had an old SNES with a bunch of games, which I keep to this day.
I don’t intend to excuse myself with the following statement, but during that time, my family was in great economical distress. Eventually, me, my mother and my brother had to move back with my grandmother (with whom I live to this day), later the same year. Because of this, we couldn’t afford any new games for my console, nor could we afford to have it Jailbroken with a modchip, since that process in itself is quite expensive.
Come december with the summer (south hemisphere, before you ask), where I recieved money to buy a game, for the first time since I got the console.

I went for Madden ’05. Because I was a fucking idiot.

Well, not exactly. I went with that game because it was the only one I could afford, since all I had was [$20 USD], and I wasn’t getting any more money until my birthday, which was in July. As a 14 year old idiot, I couldn’t plan ahead. So I bought a game about a foreign sport I didn’t know anything about.

Over the course of 2008, I acquired two more games which, while are not particularly good (or even decent), hold a special place in my hearth as precious memories. Yes, I’m that nerdy. These games were ATV Quad Power Racing 2 (One of the disasters that drove acclaim to the ground) and Dave Mirra’s Freestyle BMX 2 (Which I still defend as the greatest BMX game ever made. It was downright fantastic). That is, before I knew of the magic of Trade Ins.
In the following year I proceded to obtain my videogames via trading at a small electronics shop in my town I still go to to get most of my games, which also provides me with a good couple of SNES games every now and then. It should be noted that due to the fact that no one uses original software, there are no stores that provide that service to their customers, and this one almost never got new inventory. There are some stores that sell original Software, but those same stores always try to push you into jailbreaking your console with them, and they would often leave something to be repaired by them in your console.

The only other games I recall trading in at that store was R: Racing Evolution (an underapreciated gem of Arcade Racing, which also came with Pac-Man Versus) and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. I also bought Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance later on at that same store, and I still get my PS3 games from there every now and then, and I got Soul Calibur II as a birthday present that year. By the time I sold my GC off, I only had four games, Madden ’05, Soul Calibur II, Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’05 (I LIKE GOLF, OK!?) and fire Emblem. My copy of Zelda Collector’s Edition was “misplaced” when I lent it to someone.

When I entered our equivalent of High School, I was asssigned to a new class with new classmates.

Because I was 15, and stupid, I eventually gave in to peer pressure and by the end of the year, asked for my christmas present to have my console jailbroken, in order to gain pirated games for it.

From here on begins a journey in which I discovered that Piracy is absolutely not as good as advertised. I am writing this in hopes that it provides a good precedent for any of you who might want to go pirate.

First thing off, I sent my console to the shop the day after christmas. I had to wait for three weeks to get it back, with one game courtesy of the store.
Here is where I learned the first lesson about pirates:

Lesson One: Pirates are still bussinessmen, only not bound by the law.

And as such, they’ll try to scam you whenever possible.
Firstly, by “One Game”, they meant “One DVD”. When I got the game there in december 26th, they asked me what game I wanted with my console to come out of the operation with. I chose Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. I chose the game Three weeks in advance, and when I got there I was told they sold off my copy with another console, So I had to pick between the games they had at the store. They only had an incredibly beaten up disc with the words “SMASH” on it (which I assume was Smash Brothers Melee), so I took the one without a label or anything written on it. It was a white Ridata disc. I took mystery disc with me to start playing with my now pirated console, only to find out it was the first disc of Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and The Lost Ocean (you know, the one where the good guy turns out to be the bad guy). It read clear as day “DISC 1” on the title screen. I was baffled. I was promised one game and I got half a game. So I rode my bike back to the store and asked the counter clerk if they could provide me with the second disc of the game. An understandable request, since I wanted to see through the whole game. Now, before I go any further, I think you probably have the image of some deadbeat gangster selling this thing like crack. This was just a regular, somewhat overweight man behind a desk with a bunch of consoles opened up for examination. The store didn’t sell pirated games (or any games, for that matter), instead, they were a console repair shop. Very bright, and the guy in question was also a rather nice person. At least that was my initial impression, of course, but as I said, he’s a bussinessman, therefore he’s just showing that side of his. In thruth, he was just as scummy as anyone, plus I couldn’t complain because technically, this wasn’t entirely legal, even if the authorities didn’t particularly care about the subject.

I got there and I asked the man if he could give me the second disk. He said he didn’t have it. I asked him if he could get it off the internet, he said he’d charge me the same as a new game. See, this people didn’t see things as “games”, they were just selling Mini DVD’s. So I just walked home. Didn’t make much difference, since I never got past the first disc anyways.
Later that year, at school, Another guy who also happened to jailbreak is GC taught me how to download and burn the games to the Mini DVD’s.
There’s a trick though. You see, the GC is not a particularly easy to manipulate console. The disc reader is designed to read the ClearVu GOD’s (Gamecube Optical Disc, the name of the Format. Yes, Nintendo Patented the GOD), which were different from any other DVD’s of the same size in the market. The only ones that worked for me ever were the Ridata brand. And those weren’t cheap. They went for at least [$3 USD] one by one, but most of the time came scratched or dirty, and the disc wouldn’t record right. This is the second issue with the games.

For some reason I will never quite understand, Everytime I recorded the game with Nero or Alcohol 120%, the game wouldn’t read. I had to run it through a piece of software called “GCTool”, which “Realigned all the data packages so that the console could read them” (whathever the hell that means). Obviously, It had to be done on a .ISO file, and I had to used that program to burn them into the DVD too, otherwise it wouldn’t read. I wasn’t told this, I tried the same ISO on two different DVDs, and only after going through all that trouble it worked. After much research, I found out why.

When I had my console Jailbroken, I didn’t take into account that there were various Chips one could use, specially on the GC. The one I got was an early version of XENOGC, one of the absolute worst ones out there. Of course, I was never given a choice in the matter, but I never tried to replace it in any form, anyways.

In the end, I burned a huge deal of DVDs with little to no results until I asked the guy to burn the games for me, for a small price. Most of the times, they worked. Some other times they didn’t. It wasn’t like I could complain, anyways.

That went on for about a year. In that time, I managed to obtain the huge sum of somewhere around thirty games.
The year was 2010, this marked the last year I used piracy, and in my own social life I call it “The year I stopped trying to fit in”. But that’s another story.
Also, it’s the year I learned my second lesson about Piracy:

Lesson Two: It’s not cost effective in the slightest

By this time, I must’ve shelled out somewhere around $100 USD on games that after a month or so wouldn’t work anymore, So I decided to cut the middleman and start burning them myself. Key words being “Burning” and “Myself”.

I didn’t have a computer at the time, and I did all of this at a cyber-café (of the kind without coffee) just around the corner. I made an agreement with the owner, that I would fill his HDD’s with games and he’d give me a computer to work from 6 PM to closing time, which was midnight. I asked another guy I knew and he lent me his own portable HDD with somewhere around one hundred PC games.

During that time, I would download a game from a forum I usually frequented back then, It had its basic sections and some sort of “basement” in which the stuff they weren’t proud of went on. Specifically, everything Piracy related.

They had a catalogue of around 80% of the GC’s library. The community was also quite a nice group of people. All of them were cooperative, almost friendlike. The kind of online community were there never seem to be any fights in the forums. I remember this one time one of them got arrested in Argentina for trying to pass a bunch of pirated movies through the frontier with Brazil, and the entire forum shelled out the cash to bail him out. Says a lot from a community of online Pirates.

I say this not to be condescending with them, but because chances are you have a pretty demonized image of Pirates. All I want to stress out is that these were a group of people who just wanted to play games and pay nothing. Obviously, they weren’t too proud of stealing (most of them, anyways), and they all had their reasons. Again, not evil scallywags with e-scurvy.

Back on track, I only joined the place to see the links to file sharing sites which contained them. The games were almost always divided into various .RAR files, most of the time up to thirty, or just four (500 mb each). GC Games were about 4.71 GB each.

The routine was always the same. Download the game, run it through GCTool, burn it, go home and play it. Nine times out of Ten the game didn’t work and I had to get a new DVD just to record it again.

Speaking of the DVD’s, as I mentioned earlier, the DVD brand was specific. I needed Ridata brand DVD’s. Any other brand I tried to work with was unreadable by the console, or stopped working soon thereafter. At least the Ridata discs would sometimes work better if the planets were alligned, and if I was extremely lucky a game would still work flawlessly for a couple months. Only a few stores sold these discs, mostly at outrageuos prices (for DVD Standards, at least). I finally managed to find a store that sold them for cheap, but I always needed to check if they weren’t dirty. There was always one thing that killed DVDs the moment I bought them, and that was a small, almost unnoticeable black dot in the recording area. If a DVD had it, and I didn’t see it before leaving the store, I was screwed. Had to buy another one. Again, the law wasn’t with me on this one.

Another issue I’d run into was that some .ISO’s were simply broken. And more often than not, it was the really good games. Twilight Princess would freeze after twenty minutes, The Twin Snakes had all the audio lagging far behind the image, Animal Crossing wouldn’t load some Textures, Mortal Kombat Deception would stop working for no good reason. Yet, somehow, I could still play Qubivore, Gauntlet Legends or Conflict: Desert Storm for hours. I was cursed. I had a zillion games, yet I could play only a few. And that was just the beggining.

Then came to me the realization: Perharps I was doing something wrong? So I decided to learn a bit more about the software in question I was going to use.

Now, remember how I said there were various kinds of modchips available for the GC? And that the one I had wasn’t particularly good? As it turns out, the Internet had pretty much blocked out all information regarding the chip I had. Software, user guides, mostly buried under thousands of forum threads regarding just how bad it was, or asking for said software, only to end up reminding you just how bad it was.

So I decided, Maybe it’s time to get a new one. The problem was that I didn’t have the money to buy it or have it installed. So I went to plan B, which was to see if there was something wrong with my GC.

As it turns out, the GC had some sort of mechanism that rejects the chip naturally after some time. From what I’ve read, this also happens without a foreign modchip, so that you eventually have to send in your console for repairs. There were two ways to combat this issue with a modchip (That I knew of), firstly, to open the console and fix the problem myself. Secondly, to send it to a repair shop.

Obviously, I didn’t want to break my console anymore, so I decided to just shell out [$20 USD] and be done with it. They were done with it in a week. As it turns out, it was all just dirty, had nothing to do with the chip.

So I went home and played fine until a couple of weeks later It started to not want to read the games, giving me a red error message everytime I tried to boot a game. So, it was back to searching online for answers.

The most prominent solution for most DRE (Disk Reading Error) related antics was to open up the console and move the suitch that controls the reading mechanism’s revolution speed. Of course, it always made the case that this was extremely dangerous to do without any professional supervision. So naturally, I avoided this procedure at all costs, and I wasn’t paying to have it done because I had no money.

Other alternatives included pimpin’ out your console in ways that would make Doctor Frankenstein blush. For intance, plenty of users said that using regular sized DVD’s gave them better results, but in order to do so they had to enlarge the disc tray and replace the opening mechanism, and say goodbye to the reset button. Others got around this by rewiring the button and LED light into different positions and just working with it from there. Others flat out built new shells for the console and moved all the insides of it to their new home. The problem was that If you know any nintendo console, you’ll realize they’re made from Nintendium (Nin), our earthly counterpart to Mithril, and thus cutting it open was really, really, really hard and/or expensive. In the end, there was just one thing left for me to do, which was to just give the console a spring cleaning, since I didn’t have the Know-How to dissassemble it or reassemble it without it breaking down. I cleaned the lens, the ventilators, the discs (one by one), the tray, et cetera. If you know anything about hardware you might be rolling in the floor in laughter at my pathethic attempt at fixing this, know that at the time I knew next to nothing about this and I was smart enough to not mess with it.

Finally, I realized a weird pattern. Homebrew software like emulators seemed to work near flawlessly, contrary to games. I have to admit, I still miss my collection of every NES game ever made (plus a good deal of Famicom and Unlicensed ones) all in one comfortable disc, played with an incredibly smooth controller.

And, of course, there were also means to watch movies, listen to music, run PSX emulators, Dreamcast emulators, even a couple of PS2 games adapted to the console (obviously missing some buttons). The most fun of all was a perfectly emulated Super Mario 64. Sadly, outside of SM64, which came ready to boot, I could never get any of the others to run properly.

Strangely enough, that was the one disc that seemed to last forever. It almost never broke down or stopped working, other than just some times it would just freeze up.
I also managed to run an SNES emulator that worked pretty well, but took almost half an hour to boot up for no discernible reason, and once a game was loaded the menus lagged so much it became virtually unusable. Still, I added a couple games I couldn’t get on my SNES and gave it a go.

In any cases, I also tried learning to run the emulators myself with my own other programs in, again. This time… It did not work. I tried to put all of my videos (all of those terrible YouTube Poops I used to post at ScrewAttack back back then, for example) into one DVD, and surprisingly, while they didn’t work, they would read just fine in a regular DVD player.
When I said that my games worked when they wanted to, I generalized a little bit. There were a couple games that I somehow got right and I could play almost endlessly. Such games as Spiderman 2 (The Game of The Movie Of The Comic Book), The Mega Man X Collection (which I never got around to finishing), et cetera. I did play these, but with them crashing every now and again, I was better off just trying to get other stuff running.

Later on that year, my console pretty much gave up on me. It would rarely if ever read anything non original, it would crash all the time and I couldn’t do anything about it. At this point we were better, economically speaking, and so I eventually bought a couple games. Fire Emblem, Soul Calibur II and I got Rogue Squadron III from a friend. Needless to say, being the kind of guy who sees a game to the end (even if it means just seeing a different Title screen, like in SCII) I was very interested in those and as such I kept on playing, with my trusty NES emulator and my SNES with some games I had.

But, the console would still clog up and not read anything, so I had to send it to get dusted almsot preiodically, which costed me a lot of money, money I could have used to buy games. The irony is so obvious you couldn’t hide it behind the moon.

By December, Almost two years since I started the whole Piracy thing, I ended up just using the GC to play original games and nothing else because nothing else would read. So, since I did good enough in school I was given the choice of a christmas present, because I was so in dire need of better grades they would promise everything. So I asked for a PS3 on christmas. And I did get it, but I’ll get to that later.

Before that, near the 23rd, the deal we’ve made was for me to get rid of the almost non-functional GC, and I could do whatever I wanted with the money. Also, after getting my PS3, I couldn’t use my SNES anymore. Family reasons, It’s not relevant.

So, I printed a bunch of ads using a pirated Photoshop CS4 On another ciber-café (again, without coffee) next door, and tried to sell the console to no avail. Luckily, the store I trade in games was feeling generous, since they were offering me [$40 USD] for the console and the games, controllers and memory card. It may seem like a really dumb move, but then again, no one wanted to buy the damn thing, and after christmas it would be completely impossible to sell it anywhere at all. So, I got the money and eventually just used it to buy two PS3 games, Fallout 3 and Dragon Age. I spent the last two days before christmas just playing Super Mario World. Also, the store wouldn’t take either Madden or Tiger Woods PGA 05, so, to this day, I’m still stuck with those like a bad habit.
Which is where I learned my last, most important conclusion of all.

Lesson Zero: It just ain’t worth it.

I call it Lesson Zero for two reasons: Firstly, to make an obvious My Little Pony refference, and secondly to emphasize that it was something so basic, I should’ve known beforehand.
After all the time and money I spent on trying to cheat the system and get some free or otherwise cheaper games, I ended up throwing away so much money that would’ve gone to better use if I had just bought original software. I would’ve saved so much money If I had just forgotten about the false promise of cheaper software, cheaper games, ceaper movies, music, etcetera. And even my schoolmates, people who wholeheartedly believe there’s absolutely nothing wrong with stealing videogames, music, and all that, have come to agree with me on the reasons for me not to jailbreak my PS3, I’m still better off paying more for a better service than just scraping by for free.

It took me two years to learn this. I will admit, My boyfriend, Jesse, did play a large role in this, partly because I didn’t want him to think poorly of me because of using pirated software, but in the end, the desition to not use pirated software was something I learned by pure trial and error. I tried, I erred, I learned.

This also made me take upon digital distribution methods like Steam or the PSN Store to get my games. Surprisingly, I’ve payed a fraction of what I used to, and I’ve got almost triple the games I had when I pirated my console, and all of them are perfectly working, in all of their faculties. As for movies, I’ve got Netflix now, which is limited, but has most of what I want, when I want. I’ll admit, most of the games I own on steam were gifts (of which I’ve been quite ungrateful for, sadly), but all of the games I buy in it are one hundred percent worth the money, even just for the pleasure of hacing them work properly. After struggling with things not working so much, you learn to appretiate that.

Probably, If I were to do the same now, that I know all this, I wouldn’t have so much trouble since I already know how to work things. And if you know more about this sort of thing then probably you’ll have a better ride along with all of this. But in the end, my position on this argument stands still. You shouldn’t try to cheat a system that isn’t working against you. And to all of those who are right now enjoying the benefits of Piracy that I couldn’t enjoy myself, think about this: So long as you do your pirating, companies and law enforcers will try and eventually will get you. And when that happens, you won’t be able to jailbreak your way out of trouble.

In an epilogue of sorts, I want to add what happened when I got my PS3.
While my grandmother was buying it (quite efficiently, I must admit, she got me the version with the PS Move for real low cheap), every major retailer kept pushing Softmods and Modchips for her to buy with the console. When I was asked if I wanted to have any of these, My answer was swift, short and to the point.
 

“Tell them I said ‘No’”

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