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1  Media / Single-Player RPGs / Re: Best JRPG ever on: March 20, 2010, 12:37:29 AM
Story: Final Fantasy X

Gameplay: Valkyria Chronicles

Best Series: Suikoden

Complete Package: Chrono Cross
2  Media / Single-Player RPGs / Re: Things you've never seen in an RPG but want to. on: March 18, 2010, 04:59:40 PM
If you've read my 'Story Choice' thread in General Discussions, then I want an RPG that has multiple branching storylines. And not just the 'if you pick X route, you get Y character or Z item" kind of storyline. That can also happen, but more than that, I want significant choice that will alter the story itself by my choices. And hopefully all branching paths will be meaningful.

Another thing I want to see in an RPG is an increased sense of scale and dynamism in the set pieces. To give you an idea, take a look at God of War 3 or Uncharted 2, and apply the exploding backgrounds, dynamic settings and so on to RPG battles. This is because turn-based or not, having a static battleground is somewhat mind-numbingly boring. For example, when fighting a boss on top of an airship, changing angles, explosions and gunfire in the background, as well as switching locations every now and then are a start. Remember the Cloud vs. Sephiroth fight at the end of Advent Children, and how awesome it was? Imagine if RPG's, turn-based or otherwise, can offer fights like that.

And it could happen, really. I mean, for the PS3, developers have the Cell processor and 50GB of memory on the BD. Doing stuff like this is possible, and it only requires some creative imagination on the part of the director.
3  Media / General Games / Re: God of war III on: March 17, 2010, 08:31:25 PM
Some thoughts on the game:

- I nominate the Hyperon Grab (L1+O when using Blades) as the BEST COMBAT IMPROVEMENT EVER. Pull yourself out of a mess, pull yourself into a mess, keep Minotaurs and Gorgons on stunlock, completely mess up Harpies, and there's probably gonna be more uses as I've just finished the second boss. May seem cheap at the start, until you find out you're probably gonna be using that move in order to survive the fifty or so opponents that'll mob you.

-  Second best improvement: having an infinite-use projectile attack (Fire Bow/Bow of Apollo). I mean, sure, you still need to recharge between shots, but it allows Kratos to snipe opponents at a distance. It's really handy against the second boss, since he gets into phases where walking up to him and hitting him with the Blades is a little hard a task, plus the rapid fire allows you to squeeze a good amount of damage. 

BEST QTE IMPROVEMENT: putting the input commands on the sides of the screen. Before, you had to be on your toes on which button to press, since the command is a large button in the middle of the screen. Now, you can actually subconsciously condition yourself to press a button depending on the location of the input on the screen (i.e. Square is on the left, circle is on the right). Not only would this mean less failed attempts, but you can actallu watch the carnage on-screen without trying to anticipate a big button on the middle of the screen.

- This is the second game (aside from Uncharted 2) where I found my PS3's fans roar to life as the processors were trying to animate certain game sequences (the match against the Leviathan/Hippocampus, for example). However, compared to UC2, a good amount of GoW3 seems to really give the PS3 a workout in terms of trying to render the action that's going on-screen. And the results are nothing sort of awesome. If we're talking about games based on their HSQ, GoW3 probably has an HSQ of AT LEAST 5.
4  The Rest / General Discussions / Re: 'Story Choice' in Video Games on: March 16, 2010, 07:56:12 PM
Hidoshi, I think that you are missing the point I made. I am talking about nearly all games having a nearly precise and linear plot that alters very little, regardless of what kind of mechanics they are placing within the game. Your main argument has to do with 'gameplay choice', which is allowing the player to do the little town explorations and FedEx fetch quests before progressing with the (still very linear) story. It's a good argument, but this is the 'story choice' thread, not the 'FFXIII didn't have the thing I wanted it to have so it sucks' thread. 

The problem is that the gaming community has confused a linear plot with a pseudo-open world mechanic as some sort of revolutionary concept of non-linearity. I think that it's a step in the right direction, but in the end, Ezio (Assassin's Creed 2) still has to travel to a specific sequence of locales, assassinate the exact people in the exact same order (although in one chapter you can pick which one of the four conspirators you can assassinate first), and progress through the exact same story with no break except maybe the occassional trip to Montergionni (which really does little to alter the story aside from better armor and nicer clothing dye). Indeed, very few games that aren't visual novels do allow you to alter the story in extreme ways without getting a Game Over, or a Nonstandard Game Over Screen. That's why games like Heavy Rain are so interesting; they allow the player to literally write the story, rather than have a story written for them.

If you will present to me a game with 'story choice', then I want something where I can alter a game with such dynamism, with such audacity, that every choice you make will shape the game you are playing radically. For example, MeshGearFox touched upon it when he asked, "What if your class actually alters the story?" And not just the beginning of the story, like in Dragon Age; what if the entire actual experience completely changed with just one choice? That's the interesting concept I'm looking for.

Also, to answer Leyviur's question with how linear games can be better than non-linear games, let's take a look at two of the more recent games on the PS3, God of War 3 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Sure, there are some games with impressive open-world mechanics like Assassin's Creed 2 and Grand Theft Auto 4, and those are enjoyable in their own right. However, what they cannot do that God of War and Uncharted can do is to create impressive and dynamic set pieces for the character to romp on. Open-world games tend to rely on the stability and static nature of their worlds in order to allow for a sort of 'finish all objectives in any way you want' sort of setup (which, in the end, still follows a roughly linear plot). Games with design linearity don't need to adhere to that stable open-world mechanic, and that means they can pretty much tear apart their scenery with the same gusto that they built it up with. Combat atop tumbling giants the size of mountains, a lost citadel that pretty much collapses all around you, and a high-tension fight atop a speeding train cluttered with explosions and gunfire; very few games have taken the dynamics of presentation and gameplay further UC2 and GoW3 during their single-player experiences, yet it's not really an innovation, but a way to immerse the player in the experience. It's not what you NEED to have, but what you do with what you've got that matters. And that, my friend, is how LESS freedom of choice can actually translate to a BETTER gaming experience.

Alisha brought up another point I'd like to bring up: a video game as an adventure book versus a novel. That's pretty much the entire premise of this discussion: it's not about how many quests you can do before progressing a story, or how many bonus timesinks you can throw into a game, but whether a video game can really, substantially emulate a game book in terms of ability to affect the entire game itself. One of my favorite series of Game Books baack when I was a tween was the 'Give Yourself Goosebumps' series. I got addicted to the books because each book just had so many branching paths to follow, and a good host of them had very satisfying conclusions, whether ending in really twisted or good ways. Aside from visual novels, not too many games have really captured this experience, and that what I'd like to see in the future.
5  The Rest / General Discussions / Re: 'Story Choice' in Video Games on: March 16, 2010, 03:43:52 AM
Part 2 of Bonus Round has been uploaded. Link’s in the first post.

Hidoshi makes a good point: if you want a game to have good ‘story choice’, you have to build the game around that mechanic. I’m really interested in playing games that can have a lot of branching storylines, where each decision can lead to a different but meaningful outcome. Well, outside of visuals novels, that is.

And now for something about linearity: dear reviewers, stop mentioning as if linearity is some sort of disease. Much like story choice, open sandbox design requires a game that is built around that mechanic in order to work. For a good number of developers, the choice to make the game linear comes from a design perspective, and the games come out better for it (the Final Fantasy series being the ur-example). Besides, when you REALLY look at the games that try to say they’re not linear, look again: beneath the cloak of open-sandbox worlds and the multitude of FedEx fetch quests, the story is still pretty much on rails. 

Again, the mantra is not “what you need to have, but what you are able to do with what you’ve got”.
6  The Rest / General Discussions / Re: 'Story Choice' in Video Games on: March 14, 2010, 07:27:15 PM
And that's exactly the point I want to make with games that are offering 'story choice'. What visual novels do right is that they literally allow you to play the game as you wish, especially for a 'choose your girlfriend' game. You can literally create the story by your choices, and while the choices have outcomes that differ in payoff, the idea is that making those choices won't hamper gameplay in a way that you'll regret making certain choices. For example, as Dincrest mentions, sometimes even bad endings are desirable for well-written and well-made visual novels.

Also, I wanted to point out Bioware's conceit within the article, and hopefully that the article can point out one thing they can really improve their games (in addition to making their models less rigid and feel more human). Here's a company whose made the idea of 'story choice' a core mechanic of their games, and their games are marketed largely for that mechanic. But their choice mechanics are always made in such a way that, for a good number of the choices, the game will steer you towards the one right answer, whether it's because the rewards are better, or if it will allow you to score a date, or if because you want to get a quest. So even if there's six choices, if you really want to have some progression in the game, you will have to choose that one option, or else suffer the consequences. In the light of what Zeschuk has been promoting (both the JRPG interview, and the Bonus Round video), it seems rather hypocritical of him to rip on something that his own company and games have been doing all along, albeit in the guise of a different cloak.

My point is that, if you're going to give 'story choice' in the game, then at least make it either that:

- each choice will all have profound impacts on the game, but each choice should have at least roughly equal outcomes. Example of which are the visual novels above, but you can actually make a game around this concept. Especially for PS3 games, given the huge amount of storage you can put on a BD, you can literally create completely different adventures with massive branching storylines to create a game that has real, considerable depth and choice.

- the choice, while being cosmetic and will not alter the overarching story, will not punish you for choosing one choice over the other. A Suikoden example, if you may; in Suikoden II, when you retake Greenhill, you can choose between helping General Kiba attack Greenhill, or help Viktor(?) hold off reinforcement from Highland. There's no real difference story-wise, since Greenhill will fall to the Dunan Army either way; however, it allows you to pick between the two fights without thinking which fight yields better in-game items.
7  The Rest / General Discussions / Re: 'Story Choice' in Video Games on: March 12, 2010, 09:11:34 PM
Seems like a good post, probably should be in either "General Discussions" or possibly "Console RPGs". Miscellaneous games tends to be specific to non-RPG related discussion, which this would be perfectly fine under Console RPGs. Just for future reference.

I'm at work, so I don't have time to read the full thing, I'll check back later.

This isn't just for RPG's, but gaming in General. The idea of 'story choice' is prevalent in more than one genre, if what we've seen so far has been any indication. Here are other example of what I think have good 'story choice'

Army of Two: 40th Day: Any and all the choices you make in the storyline will have dual consequences. For example, for your first 'story choice', the contact you need to kill will die regardless of if you spare him or not. The choice there is whether you do it yourself, or you have someone else kill him for you.

Battle Realms: All of Kenji's Journey. The very first choice will determine whether you'll be using the Dragon Clan or the Serpent Clan, both of whom are strong in their own ways. The rest of the adventure is a set of maps where you can choose which battle to partake in (some have harder difficulty, some have different factions).Whichever set of maps you choose, though, you will still progress the same way in terms of units (both Dragon and Serpent), and the only difference are the Zen Masters you will encounter on your journey (of which the player has their own favorite Zen Masters).
8  Media / General Games / Re: God of war III on: March 12, 2010, 05:06:56 PM
It's God of War. Santa Monica didn't change a lot of the formula as they simply improved upon it from inputs from fans and the dev teams of previous installments in the franchise (the Cestus is an expy of the Gauntlet of Zeus from Chains). They also added in greater scale in terms of everything (size of enemies, stages, number of monsters, etc), but underneath all that, it's still God of War's attack-dodge-brutal kill mechanic that it's been using since game one. If you didn't like God of War then, you won't like it now.

I personally know a friend who is more of a DMC/Bayonetta person than a God of War person, and I'm one to consider myself the opposite. THey're both aciton games, but the style's radically different, and there are fans on two ends of the spectrum. Allow me to quote Yahtzee in his Extra Punctuation Article in Dante's Inferno: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/extra-punctuation/7239-Extra-Punctuation-Dantes-Inferno.2

"Besides, despite similarities in the core gameplay, God of War and Devil May Cry aren't cut from the same cloth. It seems more like they're heading vaguely towards the same place from vastly different directions. DMC has more of the Japanese-style hack and slash about it - extremely over-the-top, with more emphasis on combat variety and less on level design, and with end-of-mission scoring screens that give a more arcade-y feel. Whereas God of War's model has greater emphasis on environments and storytelling but with gameplay that's more function-over-style, treating monsters more as obstacles to get past than opportunities to show off your skills."

With that in context, it's perfectly fine to like or hate the God of War style of action games, and I'm looking forward to tearing Greek mythology apart next week.
9  The Rest / General Discussions / 'Story Choice' in Video Games on: March 12, 2010, 04:34:46 PM
As much as possible, I'd like some good dialogue about this topic, since it's something we'll see more in the future.

Warning: Spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk!
A couple of days ago, I and my friend Gene were talking about what components of a game’s story make it a compelling rather than a mediocre one. One of the things we talked about is how ‘immersive’ a story is. Now, ‘immersive’ is a pretty vague concept; what is immersive for one person may be completely opposite for another. Some people like a story for a strong plot, some for the likeable and memorable characters, and some play it for both. Having fairly similar preferences in terms of story, we tried to articulate what exactly it was that we liked about the stories of the games we liked. One of the more prominent topics was the idea of choice and open-world mechanics, and how games do not need to have such things, and can be as linear as a 400-foot flagpole, and still be considered good.

And then the new Bonus Round episode comes out.


The episode deals with the idea of choice in story, and features two brilliant developers with two branching ideas of story: David Jaffe, director of God of War, and Greg Zeschuk, co-founder of Bioware. While the conversation was derailed by some conversation about slapping someone through the Natal, I think that a main point through the entire 13 minutes was how Bioware’s concept of choice in their games made it unique.

This idea of choice has certainly picked up speed over the past few years. Open-world games such as Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto have good gameplay freedom of choice, but the story is still fairly linear. And then we have emerging games such as Heavy Rain, where what happens to the story is whatever the player chooses to happen. And of course, Bioware games have a lot of choice in terms of responses to NPC conversations.

With the emergence of these ‘choose your adventure’ games, the more linear games are more and more openly criticized for their story linearity. Zeschuk, for example, has criticized JRPG’s lack of ‘choice’ and its linearity as the reason for stagnation in an interview. While JRPG’s are criticized because they are in a genre that has evolved over the past few years thanks to some groundbreaking titles from the WRPG side while they have remained formula-stagnant (a claim that's really debatable, though), games such as God of War and Uncharted are also seen in a slightly negative light due to their linearity (both story and gameplay) in the face of open world games such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed. So, the question here is: does the presence of story choice automatically make a game better than a game that doesn’t?

My answer is that “it depends on the execution”.

Let’s take Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins. Bioware’s known for having this concept of ‘free choice’ in story, where each time the player talks to non-player characters, he/she is given at least six choices that range from the ‘nice guy’ answer to the ‘total jerk’ answer. It’s supposed to allow the player avatar to answer in a way that one would answer in real life, and it would make the game more “immersive” because the player ‘feels’ like he/she is the main character of the story.

Well, that’s the idea of ‘free choice’ in concept. In practice, it’s really less desirable. Instead of a ‘choose your own story’ concept, Dragon Age’s response system most of the time will consists of five wrong answers (that range from slightly wrong to completely wrong) and one right answer. For example, early in Lothering, the player CAN ignore the NPC’s that give quests for abilities (poison-making, trap making, etc), but he/she WILL lose out on rewards that they offer when taking up such quests. Not to mention that the player will NEED to recruit someone with that particular skill or roll an avatar with the particular set of attributes for that quest. Also, of the six choices on that NPC, four are basically a block of text boxes, one will give the quest, and the last one is to stop the conversation. This might excite people who love lore in RPG’s (or long gauntlets of text boxes punctuated by the weird disconnect between what the person is saying and what his body is doing), but for the rest of us, the answer is to just get the person who can make traps, get the quest, get rewards, get on with the story.

The ‘one right answer’ choice system reaches its ugliest form in conversations with party members and the approval system. Say, for example, the player wants the male avatar to be all lovey-dovey with the snarky kuudere of a magicial girl Morrigan. However, ‘in-character’ responses do not work, and Morrigan disapproves of the avatar rather than approving. The player restarts, goes to GameFAQS, and looks for the set of correct responses in order to woo Morrigan. All of a sudden, the arrogant and high-headed warrior will have to respond in nice, kind and unbecoming quips in order to woo her. This is really disturbing when one combines all the desirable responses in the game: the player avatar will at times need to be a schizophrenic wreck in order to get the most optimal answers in all situations, in order get both 100% completion and the desired pairing in one playthrough (especially if the player really likes picking the ‘total jerk’ choices). This is really detrimental to a game that has a player avatar for a main character, because nothing really ruins the experience worse than having to answer out of character in order to get +7 approval from Morrigan.

Sure, there are other choices, but they’re not the ‘right choice’. When you take it in that context, it doesn’t really matter if there is two, five, or even twenty answers; there is only one series of correct answers to get to the desired outcome, and the other options if you don't pick that outcome aren't as good or rewarding. Regardless of how the player has responded in other situations, he/she HAS to choose that one correct answer in that particular situation, or be punished to varying effects, leading him/her to re-load and pick the correct answer. And the few times when wrong answers do not affect approval ratings or a reward, the result is pretty much cosmetic than dynamic. This isn’t really freedom, but rather a multiple choice test that masquerades as freedom.

Let’s look at the exact opposite of the ‘choice spectrum’, an example being Final Fantasy X. The game is shamelessly linear; there is hardly any ‘choice’ in what the character says or does (though the Sphere Grid opening up later on means that you can essentially play the game in any way you want), the story is on rails, and any sort of exploration only really starts after the player has finished Zanarkand Ruins and Yunalesca. In fact, the only ‘story choice’ I can think of is who throws the Blitzball during Tidus’ Blitz Ace move (affected by certain responses and actions). And yet, in spite of these shortcomings, I consider FFX’s story to be superior to a lot of other games. And a good part of it is actually because of its lack of choice.

For what FFX lacks in story choices for the main character, it makes up for in characterization and character development. Tidus is not a player avatar, and the story emphasizes this greatly (“This is my story”, Tidus frequently says throughout the game). Over the course of the story, Tidus, as a character, slowly develops from a bratty sports jock into a more mature, well-rounded, and caring sports jock. This character progression, as well as Tidus’ personality, is something that player avatars can rarely exhibit, which makes these avatars static as characters. Tidus isn’t unique, though; there are a lot of well-developed and engaging characters in linear games that aren’t player avatars; Nathan Drake from Uncharted is a current-gen example, and Wander from Shadow of the Colossus is a silent protagonist whose wordless actions speak greater volumes than novels worth of dialogue boxes. It’s not about how linear or how much choice you put into a game; it’s how one executes the linearity or non-linearity that makes or breaks a game.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘story-choice’ concept is a bad thing. The ‘execution’ argument makes the case for properly-done story choice systems. Compare Dragon Age’s ‘choice’ mechanic to Bioshock, a game that I think has a fairly good ‘choice’ system with the Little Sisters. The player can choose to kill or save a Little Sister, but there is no ‘right answer’ between the two choices. Sure, the player can get much more ADAM (currency for upgrading active and passive special abilities) much sooner if he/she kills a Little Sister, but if the player saves enough Little Sisters, then he/she gets a special gift from them that also contains ADAM (though quite less) and some special items (which you can buy/invent). Since the game isn’t highly dependent on either the Plasmids (active special abilities) or the special ammunition, and you can compensate for lost ADAM with extra special ammo and vice versa, the player’s free to approach the game from either side, without suffering much from the choice the player did shun.

What Bioshock shows us is that if a game is to implement a ‘choice’ system for its story, then all choices must have some sort of equally favorable (or unfavorable) outcome. As I’ve said previously in Dragon Age, the reason why its story choice system fails isn’t because it’s there, but because out of the choices per conversation, there the one that gives the reward, and the rest are wrong in varying levels of intensity. If a developer’s going to give some illusion of choice to the player, then at least make the game flexible enough to accommodate such choices, instead of punishing them for the kind of free choice that they’re advocating.

Finally, another interesting game when it comes to story choices is Heavy Rain. It’s not a complete translation of the idea of equally favorable outcomes per choices, but it offers what I believe is a close to ideal ‘free choice’ system. It makes each of the player’s choices be a part of the storyline, and weave it into the narrative. Sure, there is still the ‘right choice’ set of answers where the protagonists get the best ending, but since each choice leads to a robust story route, the player is essentially free to choose how the story plays out, even if it isn’t the ideal ending. It’s more than just a list of quips and choices, but the consequences of each choice that can make or break a choice system. Only when the story choice system does not hamper the game experience can it actually work to compliment the game. This, I believe, is true freedom of story choice.

TL;DR version: Adding 'story choice' to a game isn't just about adding the feature, but it's also about making sure the consequence of the choices do not mean that there will be a 'best choice' that the player will be forced to pick for gameplay reasons.
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