Characters are the currency of storytelling. An interesting story requires interesting characters, and to the same extent, interesting characters all but guarantee an interesting story. It’s why games are absolutely capable of telling a good story, despite arguments to the contrary. It also explains why Chrono Trigger still holds up as one of the more gripping RPGs ever made.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of The Walking Dead comic book series was that its post-apocalyptic zombie setting was more of the backdrop to human drama than the driving force behind it. Of course, the drama was the natural fallout of the apocalypse, but the apocalypse was not what the plot was always about. Consider Dawn of the Dead as a counter-example, where the story is about zombies attempting to kill survivors and the survivors’ attempt to escape their situation. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, though it occasionally touched on such situations, was moreso about survivors attempting to get along with each other – or not – and how their relationships handled – or didn’t – their new world. Robert Kirkman, author of the series, noted in the opening of the first omnibus that he wanted The Walking Dead to be about what happened to the survivors after they escape the initial zombie attack, after the typical zombie story ended. What does a post-apocalyptic zombie world look like, in the long term?
The result of Kirkman’s goal has been a blistering, harrowing, and frequently downright shocking series of books that absolutely rank in the “Comic Books to Read Before You Die” list. And the first seven episodes, directed by Frank Darabont, of AMC’s television adaption, though a little less biting for practical casting reasons, has upheld that standard and has been one 0f the few shows on television right now that I could have recommended without reservation. But from the eighth (non-Darabont) episode on, the show has been hitting a brick wall. Criticized for its slowness, its defense may be that the audience wants zombie action when the show (like the book) is ready to just deliver character drama. But the real problem, as it turns out, isn’t that it’s a show about people (plus zombies), it’s that it’s become a show about zombies (plus people) that is unable to sustain interest when not being directly about zombies.
The following was originally written on 9 June, 2009.
The problem with comparing sequels to their classic predecessors, some argue, is that there is no accounting for that initial sense of wonderment. Sequels can never match up to their classics because you can never recreate that sense of new-ness and awe you felt when you first played the original. Comparing New Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Bros. 3 is thus rather unfair. Even the best level design cannot mimic the joy of first finding the Tanooki suit in the ice world.
Metroid: Zero Mission, a 32-bit remake of the original Metroid, does not defy these expectations. And if the only thing that made Super Metroid so amazing was its undiscovered country, then we would have to admit that putting the remake in this classic study series is a bit mean-spirited and crotchety. There are differences between the games, however, that do not involve the ephemeral sixth sense of “the first time” at all, for what Zero Mission lacks is not a sense of freshness, but heart.
So while I’m thinking about writing stuff about games again, I’ve been going through my old stuff and reminding myself why I used to write. I’m actually proud of a lot of what I’ve done on this blog, which is surprising. What was more surprising was being unable to find articles I knew I had written. I distinctly remember writing the below bit about Bioshock, for example, but I cannot for the life of me remember where on the Internet it’s got to. Luckily, I kept soft copies on the hard drive, so I’m now able to post it for your reading pleasure, along with a few other finished pieces I’ve found.
The following was originally written 2 May, 2009.
A stream of water breaks over an outspread palm of leaves, trickles like glass down a metal bulkhead overgrown with ivy, and pools at your feet. The pool swells. It creeps over the floor then down a small flight of stairs and there makes another pool. Here the water stops to accumulate.
If it hasn’t occurred to you before stepping into Arcadia, it certainly does here: Rapture is beautiful. And despite the melodramatic narrative of Andrew Ryan, Atlas, and Jack that takes place within, it must also occur to you at some point that the main character in Bioshock is not the player character or even Andrew Ryan but Rapture itself.
I ran across something interesting while browsing the official Torchlight forums the other day. I had been looking for a way to respec my character (which you can, by the way, with this mod) and instead found a topic called “OVERWRITING SAVES! HERE’S HOW TO AVOID UNTIL NEXT PATCH!” For obvious reasons, I opened the topic and gave it a read.
It turned out to be a post from one of the game’s developers, Travis Baldree, explaining that he had finally discovered why some player’s save files were being overwritten. He explained the problem, detailed a solution, and ended the post with, “Really sorry about this folks, but man, am I glad I found it!” And a smiley face.
The even stranger part? The responses to Travis’ confession were nothing but thanks and compliments to Travis for finding the bug.
“Am I dreaming?” I wondered. “I must have typed a wrong address or clicked a wrong link somewhere. This couldn’t possibly be a video game message board.”
I’m playing on Very Hard mode, and I’m only level 18. Twitter buzz told me the game was too easy on Normal, and many players advocated Hard mode for an actual challenge. But I chose Very Hard. And I just died for the hundredth time. What was I thinking?
Hard mode is different for me to begin with. Ever since I decided I wanted to play through my games, I’ve always chosen normal or easy modes. Most times, the experience and story hook me enough that a challenge isn’t what I’m after. Games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic come to mind. I was so enthralled by the characters in that game that I left the combat on easy so I didn’t have to think about my battles. Pulling off strategic victories in a D&D style fight was simply not where that game shined for me.
Torchlight is different. The secret sauce to diablolikes (which is what we might as well call them) is twofold. First, there is the loot. Second, there is the sublime slaughter your loot summons. Hundreds of games feature character progression and loot. What makes the formula so addictive in the good diablolikes (Diablo II, Titan Quest, Torchlight) is how that character progression is linked with power.
Here’s an example.
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If you want to make a good game, here is the first step: know the game you are trying to be, and don’t let anything get in the way of that game. As an example of how important this is, let’s take a look at a few recent hits.
Mirror’s Edge was an amazing parkour game crippled by combat. Resident Evil 5 was a co-op masterpiece hampered by baffling controls and idiotic boss fights. The Chronicles of Riddick was a moody stealth game beset by brain-dead run-and-gun sequences. This is not to mention nearly every first person shooter game that insists having on-rail sequences, or nearly every action game that throws in rounds of Simon Says in the middle of cut-scenes. Whatever these games do well, they will be forever crippled by the baffling need of developers to throw in shit that doesn’t belong.
I’m sick of it. I’m beginning to feel like a broken record, and I feel like I’ve been reading the same story for years. How many times are game critics going to have to write, “This is a great [insert genre] game, except for those [disparate genre] parts”? How hard is it to make a platformer that is just about platforming? Developers continue to believe that their core game concept isn’t strong enough to stand on its own, and that players need “variety” in their gameplay. Listen, the only players who need variety are reviewer interns forced to complete 12-hour games in a single day. The rest of us are happy to get our on-rails shooting in House of the Dead: Overkill and our zombie-killing in Left 4 Dead, and if we want to mix the two, we only need a hyperactive attention span, not wasted development time.
So you can imagine my relief at discovering that Velvet Assassin does not meddle with its stealth action gameplay.
This is the first of a three-part editorial that tasks itself with taking an in-depth look at a classic from the 16-bit era, Super Metroid. Everyone knows the science fiction masterpiece was great in 1994, but is it great now? This will be a three-act discussion. First, we will begin with its roots, the 1986 NES classic, Metroid. Then we will look at Super Metroid itself. Finally, we will step into the 21st century with Metroid: Zero Mission to see where its legacy has gone and how that legacy can inform us about what makes a great game so great, or not.
I experienced Metroid for the first time this past February on the good old Virtual Console. Actually, the first time I experienced Metroid was at an old family friend’s house when I was eight years old. It was an illuminating day. While there, I tackled classics like Excitebike, Dr. Mario, Castlevania, and Metroid. The friend’s daughter even helped me finally solve that damn key room puzzle in the swamp grotto dungeon in Link’s Awakening. Unfortunately, this was to be the last time for over a decade that I encountered any of the above games. And Metroid simply went right over my head. I remember controlling some weird robot (whom I was assured was actually a girl – yeah right!) through a blue maze filled with strange, flying creatures, but little else. I don’t even think I found the missiles. Maze games confounded me considerably at that age.
A word of advice to Starbreeze Studios for your next Riddick game: go ahead, set it out of doors. Yes, I know it seems like a science fiction game should be set in a metallic spaceship or a metallic fortress (indistinguishable from a spaceship). But your work on Aguerra is breathtaking. Scenes like that simply beg to be experienced for more than 10 minutes. And it is altogether a shame that Assault on Dark Athena takes place in so many architecturally unsound, metallic buildings. Then again, maybe that’s unavoidable, since your protagonist speaks about “the darkness” as if it were his firstborn son.