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Posts about the creative processes behind writing, games, etc.

[FFU] Warrior of Light vs Hero of Time: A Case Study

[Author’s Note: Two years ago I meticulously picked apart two of the biggest franchises in the Japanese gaming industry, Final Fantasy and the Legend of Zelda. I made a case study comparison which was kindly published by my good friends at Final Fantasy Union – and now, two years later, a lot of my points have been rendered moot by Final Fantasy XV and Breath of the Wild. C’est le vie! Anyway, I still believe this two-part article to be relevant in many ways, barring the two latest entries in each franchise, and I hope you enjoy my insights.]

final-fantasy-union

Over the last two weeks the excellent people at Final Fantasy Union graciously hosted a two-part case study I wrote, comparing the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises in terms of game design and narrative, dissecting each franchise’s approach to gameplay and story to see what each could learn from the other. If you missed these articles, you can read them here:

Part One

Part Two

(Final Fantasy Union is an excellent source for news on the franchise. In addition to their great monthly podcast and up-to-the-minute coverage, Lauren and Darryl have recently been interviewing the entire English cast of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Check out their site!)


Art by firebird97 on DeviantArt.com
Art by firebird97 on DeviantArt.com

I found this article very interesting to produce, from the original concept back in March to its publication this month. I cut my teeth on both franchises back on the NES; I took more to FF, but spent a lot of time with LOZ and its sequel as well. Since then I’ve devoured the entire main line of FF games and soaked up a lot of the Zelda series (Hyrule Warriors on Wii U has kept me enthralled since its launch, which is the longest I’ve played one game reliably in… ever).

The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by the difference in their approaches. I love the limit-breaking, nihilistic, brooding themes of FF; ambition is one of the series’ strongest traits, but I began to realize it was a downfall as well. Each game gambles, in a way. For example, Cloud’s broken psyche is a hallmark of the most popular game in the series, but the same trait didn’t necessarily score a win for Squall and Lightning to follow. Each game tries a lot of new ideas, which keeps things fresh and innovative, but ultimately each game has more to prove and lose.

I claim in the article that Legend of Zelda can be a little less inventive and more formulaic in some ways; I know this is a very broad stroke and reductionist, but I feel justified in making it. Most of the core games can be boiled down to the same general story arc (excluding black sheep like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask). And yet, despite the slightly predictable trajectory, I feel the series has an impeccable reputation far and above Final Fantasy‘s. Perhaps fans know what to expect (is anyone ever truly surprised when Ganondorf is involved? Excluding Skyward Sword‘s implications, that is), but they eat it up gladly and come back for more.

(Calling the series “more formulaic” tends to sound like a bad thing, but somehow Nintendo has turned this trait into a strength. That the series can be so fresh and enthralling to so many while staying relatively close to its predecessors is truly an impressive feat. So many other franchises attempt to do this and fail horribly in the current market.)

Final Fantasy certainly has more to learn from Zelda than vice versa. Both embrace their legacies, but I feel the former does so predominately in an aesthetic way – throw in some visual callbacks, recycle some weapon names, and call it nostalgia. I want to keep seeing innovation, but in a more familiar way, if that makes sense – License boards and Paradigm Shifts are cool and all, but what was wrong with the Job System approach? Couldn’t Jobs have been used as a coat of paint on top of these new innovations? Look at Final Fantasy X-2: its Dresspheres were just Jobs in a (fairly sexist) disguise. In keeping with the “girl power” theme Square called a spade a club, and perhaps lost a chunk of its audience in the process.

Did they really *need* to be called dresspheres?
Did they really *need* to be called dresspheres?

And think about it: could Square-Enix make a silent protagonist as compelling and charming as Link?


Speaking of “the link” between player and game, Nintendo could learn the most from Square in this regard. Link is supposed to be our avatar in Hyrule, the connection/link between us and the virtual world – and yet we have very little connection to him. He’s a blank, silent state for us to impose our thoughts upon, sure, but this approach worked better in prior technological eras, when we didn’t have sophisticated means of bringing him to life. I don’t mean to suggest we should be able to customize his entire appearance, or that he should be fully voiced, but it would be fantastic if we could influence him a little bit. A system for influencing Link’s emotions and reactions, for instance. As I mention in the case study, he has a terrible fate or tremendous responsibility dropped on his shoulders but he never bats an eye. It’s a part of why I feel the games are formulaic: the wise sage tells Link he’s the Hero, Link (silently) says “k,” and off he goes with little more than the occasional tear.

Fans are clamouring now for a gender reversal – female Link, male Zelda, or some variation thereof. There have been some awesome propositions for how this might work. I want to see Link fail instead. Maybe he fails early on, either losing his life or being captured by Ganondorf/villain-du-jour as a consequence, and it’s up to Zelda to become the Hero. (Maybe her amazing representation in Hyrule Warriors is twisting my arm on this one, but man, would I love to play a proper game in the franchise where she explores Hyrule with rapier, baton, and rod.)

In Hyrule Warriors’ cast of badasses, Zelda stands out as one of the coolest.

Both games do so much right; I really believe their flaws are greatly overshadowed by their strengths. But both franchises are nearly thirty years old, and it seems they need to mind their pasts and futures in good proportion.

[Repost 2015/02] Romancing the Apostate: Love in Western RPGs

[Author’s Note: Dragon Age: Inquisition was one of the finest-written games I’d played in some time. Not since the original game in its series had I felt this connected to game characters. I reflected upon what makes Dragon Age‘s characters – particularly Dorian and Morrigan – so captivating, and how I was inspired for my own writing.]

I was a little tardy to the Dragon Age: Inquisition party last winter; my priorities were elsewhere, and while a couple of my friends were saving Thedas I was Smashing away. When I did finally dive in, I quickly understood why my friends were so insistent that I was missing out. Inquisition is a return to form for the series after the step back that was Dragon Age 2, and it’s great to be playing a true avatar of my choosing again.

My friends – let’s call them Ned and Nyx – are particularly taken with the cast, and one party member in particular, Dorian. The player’s companions are arguably one of the best aspects of the franchise and Inquisition did not disappoint. Nyx was smitten with Dorian from the get-go and lamented that she could not seek a romance with him, living vicariously through Ned when his Inquisitor fell in love with the dashing mage

Dorian is one of the best game characters in recent memory. For one, he bears the honour of being the first truly homosexual male romance option in the series (if not all of gaming), alongside the bawdy Sera for female Inquisitors – to this point, romance options were hetero or vaguely bisexual, and it’s about time the representation was balanced, to see a character truly dealing with his sexuality in the fantasy world. Dorian feels like a very authentic representation. He hails from Tevinter, a place we’ve yet to visit in the franchise, from which most of the villainy in the game originates – so he has particularly useful insight, if you can keep other members of the Inquisition from despising him. Most of all, he’s just well-written; he’s charismatic and funny, and I found myself seeking him out for new conversations every time I returned to my home base after a mission, just as I did with Varric in DA2.

Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies - what's not to love?
Funny, charming, powerful, with insight on your enemies – what’s not to love?

My approach with the first playthrough of games like Dragon Age, generally, is to play close to my own personality, so in terms of romance I was left to choose between Cassandra, the stern Seeker, or Josephine, the Orlesian diplomat. After some flirting with Josephine (and Dorian – the flirting conversational options were just too fun to miss), I set my Inquisitor’s heart on Cassandra, which required some persistence and old-fashioned chivalric romance. Considering her conviction to murder me at the very start of the game and her no-nonsense personality, it was a bit of a challenge to open her heart – but I have experience doing this in the series.

Seeing Ned and Nyx so smitten with Dorian, her despair at complications in her own romance with Blackwall, and my pursuit of Cassandra, I was constantly reminded of Morrigan from Origins – and not just because I was anticipating her eventual arrival in Inquisition‘s story.

Whenever a game allows for love and marriage – games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fable, and so on – I always dedicate a little time to pursue a virtual love interest, partly for the inevitable Trophy for committing and partly for the benefits it might impart. My wife watched me wed and bed a different woman in each city in Fable III, for no other reason than because it was an amusing option that provided me a small boon when I returned to those homes, and rolled her eyes. I took partners in Skyrim mostly for the convenient store options, and the buff from sleeping at home.

Romance isn't fully developed in most games that include it.
Romance isn’t fully developed in most games that include it.

Dragon Age has always been different for me. I’m actually compelled by its characters; I genuinely enjoy the conversations and don’t exhaust the dialogue options just to unlock any possible quests or benefits. I don’t befriend or romance them just for the Trophies (though I still grin triumphantly when I earn them). I wanted to get Cassandra to open up, to put aside her righteous anger and show a little humanity, and the scene where she reveals her taste in literature was a great reward

The characters in Dragon Age are very well developed; you have to earn their trust and friendship, and they won’t put up with your shit if you keep choosing options that they don’t like. They gradually tell you more about themselves, revealing flaws and insecurities and troubled pasts. By successfully navigating conversations and completing the quests they entrust you with, you are rewarded with their true companionship. They’re some of the most well-rounded and realistic video game characters I’ve ever encountered.

This authenticity and depth is part of what drew me to Morrigan in Origins. It’s hard not to be drawn to her when you meet her near the start of the story. I found her conversations enlightening about the game world and my current quests, and entertaining to boot. My Warden saw the human beneath the mystique her mother laid upon her and wanted to help her break free of Flemeth’s yoke, to show her she could love. It took some dedication (and some shiny gifts) but in time Morrigan opened her heart to me, and it seemed a bigger victory than besting the Archdemon in the final battle. The inevitably sad conclusion to the romance in Origins and the Witch Hunt DLC was all the more powerful for my personal involvement – and I was determined to follow her wherever she ran in said epilogue. In the shoes of my Warden, I had a real connection with her.

Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.
Witch Hunt nearly broke my virtual heart again.

Knowing Morrigan was set to return in Inquisition, I was eager to delve into the story after importing my past decisions via Dragon Age Keep – and was rewarded with a happier ending than I expected. I’ve only just encountered her and haven’t yet progressed any farther in the story, but in talking with her in the gardens of Skyhold I learned that the fate of my Warden and his love was not as bleak as Origins had painted it. That I could still be so invested in a character I played six years ago is a testament to the series’ craft and integrity – I’m not one to truly connect with video game characters on a personal level, outside of my literary engagement with the medium.

In hearing Nyx and Ned recount stories of encounters with Blackwall and Dorian, and getting genuinely invested in courting Cassandra, I realized what it is about the Dragon Age games that I love: truly roleplaying. RPGs are my favourite genre, but it’s in Dragon Age that I really put myself in my avatar’s shoes and get drawn into his interactions with the people and world around him. For me, the game is more about the conversations and decisions than the actual battle mechanics (which are good, don’t get me wrong, but if I go a whole session without drawing my weapon I’m not exactly disappointed).  It sets a bar of quality that more games should aspire to meet, that I’d like to meet in my own writing.

[Repost 2015/01] Growing Pains: Pitfalls of Internet Dependence

[Author’s Note: You may remember the attack on Sony’s servers at the end of 2014. Like many new owners of a PlayStation 4 after Christmas and Boxing Day, I found myself limited in my use of my new system and reflected on the growing trend of overemphasizing internet functionality in games. A lot has changed over the last three console generations and internet features like multiplayer are having a big impact on game design. So, while I waited to update my new games and play them to their fullest extent, I jotted down some thoughts.]

After a year of anticipation and saving, I finally obtained a brand new, shiny Playstation 4 this past Boxing Day. I reverently set it up, powered it on, and waited to be blown away… only to be undercut by Sony’s downed servers. Without being able to connect to the PlayStation Network servers, I couldn’t access my profile from PS3, update the games I’d bought, or redeem the voucher for LittleBigPlanet 3 included with my console. Nor could I check out Destiny, or start a worthwhile game of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I couldn’t import my World State from EA’s save date transfer service. The thrill of my new console was quickly quelled when half of its functionality was inaccessible.

It’s not Sony’s fault they were hacked – I won’t touch on the motivations of the attack, but it wasn’t their choice to have their servers down as the biggest annual influx of new console owners arrived. However, the incident did illustrate to me a major problem with today’s gaming industry: internet dependence.

Hard as it may be to process, the internet is still a fairly new aspect of our lives. Fifteen years ago it was a luxury item or curiosity at best; the majority of North American civilization may be dependent upon their smartphones for many major aspects of their daily lives, but those same people were at least born in a day where these wondrous devices were nothing more than science fiction.

And of course, the gaming industry has embraced the technology with open arms, as it should. It’s a natural progression as the medium grows – like the jump from two controllers to four, expanding the number of potential players from four people playing on the same local system to four strangers playing from four remote systems makes sense. These features have enriched and revitalized many franchises, and draw new players.

There are a handful of ways in which online multiplayer is currently bogging down games and, in a way, the industry as a whole.

Problem #1: Shoehorning
Some genres and games stand as online-only – MMORPGs, MOBAs, etc. These games, like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, are designed from square one as online games and arguably wouldn’t thrive if they had offline modes. There’s room in the industry for them.

But not every game needs an online multiplayer mode, let alone a multiplayer mode of any kind. Let’s use Assassin’s Creed as an example. The third entry in the series, Brotherhood, introduced an online multiplayer mode. On paper, it seemed bizarre; the first two games had been excellent single-player endeavours with no obvious room for such an addition. How could you translate Desmond’s experience reliving his ancestor’s accomplishments via the Animus into something 2-16 players could experience simultaneously?

To Ubisoft’s credit, the concept of the online mode was novel, if not ingenious: they put players in the shoes of the villainous Abstergo’s recruits as they used the Animus to become footsoldiers worthy of countering the Assassins. But the gameplay did not hold up as well. It was jittery and nervous, watching every generic character to see if one was behaving like a real person and not an algorithm, trying to find the person you were to kill and avoid the person trying to kill you. It was almost like rock-paper-scissors while suffering a panic attack. After a couple rounds, the concept was spent for most players. The gameplay was shallow, despite the wealth of unlockables and improvements to be earned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players who stuck it out and hit the level cap were just completionists hunting the exclusive Trophies.

In Brotherhood, this was an oddity; in the years that followed, it was a detriment to Revelations and ACIII. ACII and Brotherhood are commonly seen as the high point of the series, while III is widely reviled as a disappointment or outright failure. Had the resources that were put into including multiplayer in those two games been reassigned to improving the core campaign, would these two entires not been the faltering point of the series?

There’s a certain pressure to include online multiplayer in the age of Call of Duty, but outside of the FPS genre, should developers really bow to it? Did the Tomb Raider reboot or Dragon Age: Inquisition really need this addition? They were excellent games in their own right, and the absence of multiplayer would not have condemned them.

Problem #2: Future Functionality
Another angle to consider is how games will hold up over time. The retro gaming niche is stronger than ever these days, as collectors heap piles of games higher and as parents introduce their children to the games they played when they were that age. You can easily find an old functional NES, pop in a Super Mario Bros cartridge, and take a nostalgia trip. (Of course, this is getting a little more complicated as technology advances, but there are still workarounds like the lineup of Retron systems.)

Will this be the case for the past two generations of consoles? Someday a man who was raised on the multiplayer of Modern Warfare on his 360 will dust off his console and try to show his son what he spent so much time playing as a kid – and will he find functional servers to play on? Highly unlikely.

This has already affected things like Nintendo’s servers for the Wii and DS. Last year they were taken offline and suddenly a host of games like Pokemon, Smash Bros Brawl, and Mario Kart lost a chunk of their features. It’s happened with a host of PC games in the past. How big will the outcry be when the 360 and PS3 lose their functionality?

There needs to be something there that can stand when the scaffolding of online features is kicked out from beneath us, something that can survive the test of time. It’s the same reason I can’t fully endorse e-reading – I’ve studied history, I know how important it is to have some kind of archive future generations can access.

Solution: Pass the Gravy?
Game developers should be treating online functionality as gravy – a little added flavour to the meat of the single-player campaign, or in certain dire situations, something to enrich a dry piece of meat and help slide it down your gullet.

I’m going to use Nintendo as an example here. They’ve stumbled to create a cohesive online platform for their systems, which Sony and Microsoft both did so easily at the start of the last generation – they still use an archaic Friend Code system, and there’s still some nuisances with their eShop when you own multiple systems, but they’ve made strides in the last year with the Wii U and Miiverse.

But look at the online features of their first-party games. Super Smash Bros has a robust competitive environment and the functionality is in place for players to compete against random strangers – but it’s just one of a host of options available from the main menu. It’s no different than setting up a battle with CPUs or your buddies on the same couch. It wouldn’t have been a huge demand on the developers’ time; unlike AC:Brotherhood‘s multiplayer, it wasn’t an entirely unique game within their game that required a whole host of its own assets. It’s the kind of mode Sakurai could have added later in development. Online play is the gravy to the main game’s roast beef – there if you want it, but the entree itself is so delicious you may not need it at all.

Mario Kart 8 is a similar situation. Online play is there at the main menu, but there’s no obligation to try it and it didn’t detract from the development of the main game modes. You’ll be able to pop the game into your system twenty years from now and get the full experience.

The Pokemon games on 3DS are a great example of the enrichment online play can bring. There’s a whole menu on the bottom screen for interacting with other players, which can really help you access Pokemon you might not have been able to find otherwise, or at least make accessing multiplayer features so much easier than in previous games – you can do these things at any time outside of battle or conversation instead of detouring to the nearest Pokemon Center. Without features like the Global Trading System or Wonder Trade, you aren’t really missing much, but with them you have one more neat little trick at your disposal.

There seems to be too much emphasis put on online functionality in today’s industry – to continue the metaphor, developers are spending too much time on the gravy, putting too much on the meat of their games. If it needs to be present, it needs to be on the side, there if you desire it but not smothering your meal.