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Category Archives: X-COM

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.


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.