Monday, 25 May 2009

The Persona Diaries - Part three > Social links and combat walls

You know what I said last week about grinding? Yeah it never happened. Not because I found that it wasn’t needed - later on I found that it most certainly was - but because the game suddenly threw some unexpected depth at me.

What I thought last week about the characters was barely touching the surface. After another four hours of just playing normal school life I’ve become so involved with my social links that I could happily forgo the combat side completely. It demonstrates the power of these beautifully crafted characters that I genuinely enjoy spending game time with them.

Not long after rescuing Yukiko I had the choice of socialising with Chie and leaving Nanako, my little cousin at home, or I could take her with us. Usually little girls in JRPG’s are schooled to be as irritating and obnoxious as possible. But Nanako is perhaps the most giving of all the characters in Persona 4 so far, being the cleaner and cook for her (and my) household. It’s not the biggest choice I’ll face in the game or the hardest, so taking her with me was immediately what I did.

But just this simple act and the positive effect it can have on her is incredibly rewarding. It deepened the social link between us, which has a practical use when creating persona’s, but it also provoked sympathy for her. Breathing a bit of life into a lonely characters world is always rewarding and being referred to big Bro thereafter always gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

The associations with the Tarot are also starting to get a bit clearer as well. Each new social link has its own specific Major Arcana card and there are a few similarities between their meaning and the person or group involved. It won’t be clear (at least not to me) until most of the links are formed but its proving a fascinating development. I’m not sure how commonplace Tarot cards are in Japanese culture but I hope the developers really did their homework with this and make it uniquely relevant.

But I couldn’t play social games forever and the next victim was soon whisked away into the TV world. At this point I realised that I probably should’ve been grinding, earning money for new equipment and levelling up. I dove straight into the rescue mission and was promptly spanked by the lowest enemies. So badly spanked that I went back to the first dungeon to remember how to win a battle.

This is the first part of Persona 4 that stopped me dead. I really hate it when overpowered enemies (or my underpowered party) get in the way of the story - it’s a testament to Persona’s over arching story that I’d forgotten about the combat. It’s a poor reminder to me that I’m really bad at levelling up in RPG’s.

Hitting my first wall in a game after nine hours is pretty good going though. With Persona’s friendly dungeon crawling mechanics I know I’ll get there eventually. Given my love of the Persona mechanic I imagine I’ll spend the next four hours creating and merging persona’s until the PS2 explodes.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The soul of Halo's universe

What is it about the Halo franchise that gives it such universal appeal? Aside from the accessible nature of the games and their satisfying gameplay, is there a greater force at work that captures the imagination of all who play it?

Halo certainly defined the console shooter with its easy to grasp controls and competitive multiplayer integration. It wrenched the FPS crown from the PC and showed everyone that games requiring accuracy and hair-trigger reactions could be played in the living room. Taking an experience like that into a social space is what really struck a universal chord and broadened the game's appeal into a new demographic.

Thanks to this gaming no longer belonged exclusively to us unwashed nerds and geeks. Halo brought it into the realm of the casual guy who previously didn’t care about games.

But popularity alone hasn’t given Halo that magical essence I believe it has. Although the space opera storyline that the first game introduced isn’t particular unique, it had a hidden depth that’s been slowly mined since its creation.

This depth is partly due to the clever use of backstory throughout the games and novels. The original Halo gave very little away as it plunged the player into the action. Putting story behind content in this fashion, much like Half-Life 2, can create an enticing universe that captures the mind and fires the imagination.

All this was achieved without being particularly original or revolutionary. Drawing on so many different sources can lead to the end product having no soul at all – a zombified mash of different influences and inspirations.

Yet Halo pieced together its lore with care and precision - drawing on ancient mythology and history for the SPARTAN programme and the over-arching storyline giving it a certain authenticity. There are also obvious analogies with the parasitic and viral creatures The Flood, working the same effect as the cataclysmic flood of the Bible.

Religion is also heavily referenced, with the Covenant’s fanatic devotion to the Prophets being the source of their hatred for humanity. Interestingly the human side of the conflict never shows any religious leanings. Perhaps because the Covenant’s spiritual structure could be seen as an analogy for radical Islamic beliefs, despite their obvious alien nature.

Larry Niven's RingworldThere are also a host of modern references that load the games and backstory with more texture. Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’, Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ and Iain M Banks ‘The Culture’ stand out the most. Nothing has been wholesale ripped from any of these sources - even the Ringworld series of books were not the first to describe a world on a circular ring.

It is these influences and the way they are used that make the Halo franchise such a strong and irresistible entity. Playing the games or reading the novels not only gave a great gaming experience but it also uncovers more of the entire Halo universe as well – if you look for it.

Of course, hitting the player with strong obvious characters helps to draw in devotees too. Although Master Chief is far too one-dimensional for my tastes, his cardboard personality allows players to inhabit his space and become him easily. In the books and especially the prequel –The Fall of Reach by Eric Nyland – the character of John is far more interesting and complex. But the decision to neuter his personality is completely understandable.

Along with the Master Chief, no franchise would be complete without a strong female character. Instead of a real love interest that so many stories compulsively put in, Halo made an artificial intelligence hologram the focus of pre & post-pubescent fantasy. Cortana was the sassy girl-next-door partner that we assumed would never age or die, betray the main character or even fall in love. Assumptions that the game successfully turned on its head and played around with in Halo’s 2 & 3.

These characters, along with the themes of duty and sacrifice, give Halo its core essence that stretches beyond the FPS trilogy. The far reaching consequence of this means the series can continue on even without its main character.

This has been demonstrated by the recent Halo Wars - showing that a successful Halo game could be made without the Master Chief and his familiar cohorts. Although it was a dramatic step away from the first-person shooter into the RTS-lite genre, it still drew on the same lore and backstory giving it that special Halo magic.

The next iteration will be Halo: ODST - a game that completely eschews the SPARTAN association for a less superhuman focus. Beyond that the novels will continue and the story will evolve and be made richer. When the Master Chief returns (launching Microsoft’s new console I would imagine) he’ll step back into a universe brimming with its own stories and experiences.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Halo is the Star Wars of the videogame generation. It will have its detractors and it will constantly be individually bettered by other media, but its collective meaning gives it a lasting legacy that ensures its continuation for many years.


Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Persona Diaries - Part two > Rescuing Yukiko

After the slow burn of last week’s introduction to Persona I felt like I was ready for some serious dungeon crawling. Thanks to Yukiko being thrown into the TV world the ominous Yukiko Castle beckoned for me.

For some silly reason I thought this first real excursion into battle would be a gentle and forgiving experience. Like I said, silly. It turned out that I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. My armour and weapons were still the original equipment and a brutal first few levels of the castle sent me running back to town. After upgrading and feeling thoroughly ashamed that I’d forgotten that this was an RPG, the real battle commenced and the quest to rescue Yukiko was back on.

I was surprised to see quite a lot of variety in the monsters. Some looking very bizarre and reminiscent of a Rolling Stones album cover. Others were more typical of JRPG monsters although the aggressive babies were a disturbing enemy I wasn’t expecting to deal with.

If I’m honest I thought this opening dungeon was pretty generic and dull. I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular but the environment was a little too plain compared to what I thought might be inside Yukiko’s mind. But once I encountered her shadow side none of that mattered. The fantastoic way the shadow side of each of the companions is shown was something I really enjoyed. It’s probably a lot to do with my own shamanic interests, but the process of facing the darker side of one’s nature and being at peace with it really showed the mature side of this game to me.

After rescuing her the next few days I spent interacting with my friends and joining the school clubs. Although the combat side of Persona is pure JRPG fodder, I still can’t get over how different this game is to anything I’ve played before. Putting such an emphasis on Social interactions in any other game would seem like a franchise suicide act. But here it’s an integral part of the whole experience and so far I haven’t been bored in the slightest.

Having friends in GTA 4 became a millstone round the game’s neck. There was something detached about those characters and they became completely uninteresting almost from the start. But in Persona 4 all the people I come across to build social links with seem far more real. From the mousey music student to the arrogant basketball jock; their lives and stories are what make the non-combat part of Persona so fascinating to me.

But before I get too involved with playing social games I better start the grind train. Even though it excels at characterisation, Persona 4 is still a JRPG. And JRPG means grinding.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Why do I play games?

Back in the days of yore when I played on the Commodore 64 it was always about fun. The escapism to other, badly-pixelated otherworlds was just the sort of food my imagination craved.

It wasn’t long though until I wanted more from these experiences. The ever-evolving Elite - reborn as Frontier - was the perfect canvas for my mind to draw on. This was the game that blended a fantastic space sim with the room to create your own stories. And I did. Every school day became a storytelling session about what my friends and I had done the previous night. Most of it made up and fabricated for dramatic effect! But that was the point – the game positively encouraged that kind of creativity and was all the richer for it.

I don’t have that amount of time to spend on a game anymore, but my desire to have an involving and creative experience hasn’t dampened at all. What’s changed is how much I want the game to tell me a story rather than my imagination.

But just like films I don’t want the same pulp recycled again and again. I want games to challenge me with their story and characters. I want them to make me feel emotions I’m not expecting to when I turn on my console or PC, whether that’s anger, fear or sadness.

This might sound as far away from fun as possible. And that’s perhaps because it is. I still enjoy blasting a few hours away with a mindless shooter but to me that’s the starter to my gaming night. Tackling something that elicits a multitude of reactions is what I really want from a game.

The complex social network and fantastical world of Persona is one game that’s kept me enthralled night after night. Its subtle and realistic characters bring that game to life more so than any big-budget release. The high emotion of Lost Odyssey or the contradictory nature of GTA 4’s Niko Bellic are both games that have flaws, but they have moments of real impact as well.

Sometimes those experiences can be awful – with hammy dialogue and awkward storytelling. Other times it can be life-changing and full of memorable moments that stay with me just as great films or books do. So why do I play games? To use the clichéd phrases when writing about videogames... I play them for compelling story and gripping narrative. The tight controls and solid gameplay I'm willing to trade.

But yes, on occasions, I play them for fun too.

Today I Die

I must confess that I usually think of Flash-based games as little better than those annoying "feed the monkey a banana" type games. Thanks to my near-obsessive checking of Kotaku I ran across this little gem that's made me realise that Flash games are far more interesting than I initially thought.

Today I Die is a superb game from Daniel Benmergui that manages to tell a story in a creative and fresh way. By manipulating a few words in the on-screen Poem the game goes through a variety of stages that veer from the melancholy to elation. It sounds pretentious but as the experience is so short it's hard not feel moved by the journey you take.

The retro visuals are an interesting choice as well. Having that mix of 8-bit graphics and a deep poetic theme stops the game from descending into over-saturated artiness.

This surprisingly in-depth experience was something I didn't expect to find in a Flash game. Looking at Benmurgui's other work its clear that these games have a depth and creativity I really didn't realise until today.

It's a medium that I'm definitely going to investigate further and as all of Benmurgui's games are available for free - I highly recommend checking them out.



Monday, 11 May 2009

The Persona Diaries - Part one >The first week

It’s only dawned on me over the past few months at how fascinated I am with Japanese culture. This is hardly a revelation for someone who loves videogames, but it never seemed quite so obvious to me until I started Persona 4. That’s not to say it offers an authentic Japanese cultural experience – because it certainly doesn’t. But it offers a glimpse into that other world, one rich in honorific’s and tradition that is immediately intriguing.

So this is my first, and at the moment, only criticism with the game and is probably borne out of ignorance for the series. But I really wish the game had been totally Japanese rather than being a curious blend of Western characters and Eastern settings. If it had been set in Middle America then it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have noticed any difference. This is something I noticed the Yakuza series didn’t fall into. Everything about those games is unquestionably Japanese and the move to simply provide subtitles for a Western release is something I much prefer seeing, rather than a full English voice track.

Despite this I’m totally hooked by the game. Its accessible nature really surprised me and the first three hours were a thrilling and intimate introduction to the story. I say thrilling because every time something spooky happened I got a cold, chilling feeling going up my back. Not because my office is draughty (although it is) but the world of Inaba feels very real at the moment. Doing the mundane school-things gives it a real grounding in reality. So when the fog lifts and the murders start to happen it has an effect.

What I found more unsettling was the first journey into the TV world. After watching the midnight channel a couple of times (I’ve always found TV’s eerie things at the dead of night – turned off of course), entering this Otherworld was pretty spooky. Finding rooms covered in pictures with the faces cut out is reminiscent, to me, of far more deliberate survival-horror games. Only Persona achieves in making me feel far more unsettled by this.

Part of this is how connected I already feel to the other characters. Having such an emphasis on relationships strengthens the impact of what happens. Although the gruesomely toothy teacher (his name escapes me) is quite correct in accusing me of being a flirt, having the bonds of friendship actually mean something and strengthen my attributes is a great way to care about the characters. I’ve already grown attached to Chie and Yosuke. Having a guy who had the same bladder problems as me at school makes me immediately sympathetic. Although I would of gone through with urinating in the TV world no matter what!

At the moment the game has just opened up and I’m free to join clubs, wander around town and try to build my relationships further. Although it was nearly two hours before any combat happened, I was surprised how happy I was in just following the story as a silent protagonist. But when we got down to fighting the overblown nature of the Persona’s was a wonderful contrast to the ordinary grist of the real world. If I fall into a mysterious otherworld then I’d certainly want it as mad as possible.

The first time Izanagi throws up the Fool card and my Persona goes into battle was immense. I actually mistook the huge blade being wielded as a guitar and for a brief moment assumed that the Persona was in fact, a Rock God. After realising it wasn’t going to be a progressive rock, battle of the bands combat system, I was still happy with the turn-based nature of the encounters. I know many people feel that system should be left behind in favour for real-time and fully integrated combat, but I can’t help but love it. The way I can methodically plan attacks or switch Personas when needed would be a chaotic nightmare any other way.

To finish off this first entry in the diary I have to comment on the use of the Tarot. There have been a few instances of Tarot cards being used in videogames without any regard for their actual meaning. So to see their relevant use in various parts of the game was refreshing and intriguing. The few cards drawn out so far – The Fool & The Chariot suggest the game might well be following the path of the Major Arcana to its end. I’ve no idea if it will but it was another part of this game that has seduced me further.

Apologies for such a long post. I hope to be a bit more concise with future entries but sometimes, when you have such a good experience as this, you can't help but splurge the words out!


Friday, 8 May 2009

The Persona Diaries - Part 0

Thanks to being a snobby PC gamer for many years I never got round to experiencing many of the deep and interesting games on the consoles. One such series is Persona and I recently bought an old PS2 off eBay to restore some legitimacy to my gaming history and experience this critically acclaimed game.

But for some reason I’d always held that series in a mystical, hardcore regard that put me off until recently. I always thought it would be an impenetrable and baffling complex JRPG that I’d find impossible to get into. Thanks to some Twitter evangelising by Paul Rooney I finally caved in and booted the game up.

After only a few minutes all my fears about Persona were shown to be the foolish assumptions they really were. But rather than give a boring summation/review after I’d played the game I thought it would be far more interesting to keep a regular post going about my experiences.

Though I love my JRPG’s I’ve never played a game in this series before. So expect me to witter on about the most obvious features like it’s a revolution in design and get inappropriately excited about battle systems like a great big newbie.

I can’t promise this will be a cast-iron regular feature but I intend to keep updates going for as long as I keep playing. I hope to post once a week or at least several times a month depending on Real Life™ getting in the way, with the first entry coming over the weekend.