Gamerly Musings

Where failed pitches go to shine.

Month: March, 2013

A quick word on thematic consistency (more of it, please)

This will just be a short post, but I wanted to say a word or few about my one of my favorite topics: thematic consistency in games.

Since it’s a term I like to throw around a lot, I figure I should probably hash out what I mean when I say it. To me, thematic consistency is when all elements of a game are in agreement. So the gameplay, game structure, story, visuals, sound, UI, you name it, it’s all operating on the same theme or themes. Or at least several of those systems are theme-ing together and there isn’t another element that conflicts with it.

Yes, theme is a verb there. Roll with it.

When I think of thematic consistency, Bastion is the first game to come to mind. There’s just such a strong theme of regret, and almost nostalgia, running through that game. It’s all about trying to go back in time to stop “the calamity” from wrecking the world. What really hit me was when I noticed you couldn’t go back to levels you’ve already completed. That’s such a small thing, and from a pure gameplay perspective it’s not a very good idea. There are weapons you get very late in the game, and only have 1 or 2 levels to try them instead of being able to go back and replay older levels with new abilities. But that one seemingly counter-intuitive design decision speaks volumes to the game’s ultimate conclusion: you can’t go back. Well, you can, that’s one of the endings, but it just leads to the same results. The only way forward is to keep on pushing forward, remembering the past but not getting bogged down by it. At least, that’s how I interpreted Bastion’s second ending, and it fits rather well as a theme running through many of Bastion’s systems.

Another example comes from The Unfinished Swan, which tells a literal story about a a king who keeps creating things then losing interest and moving on to the next creation before finishing. On a slightly less literal level, I took it that the king was Monroe’s father who, in the fashion of the king story, left Monroe and his mother before he was fully grown, or “finished.” It’s right in the title, but leaving things unfinished is a central theme. Likewise, the game throws several new gameplay styles at you, first with using paint to see, then with growing vines, then manipulating light, and finally creating boxes. Each element is introduced rather abruptly, and it feels like there are still puzzle possibilities left unexplored in each one before the game moves on. The prototype game, which can be unlocked by finding all of the balloons, already shows more possibilities for the paint than the final game, with uncovering text on walls and switching from black paint on a white background to white paint on black. I can see an entire game growing through just the paint mechanic, as with the others throughout The Unfinished Swan, but instead we are given snapshots of them, all crammed into the same game about a father who walks out on responsibilities before he’s done.

These are the sorts of things I love to see in games, but it happens so rarely. Perhaps a part of that has to do with the violence issue, where the primary interaction in most games is killing. It’s hard to create a cohesive theme that can accomodate shooting or stabbing hundreds of people. Bastion’s theme of regret and longing for the past is an example that can work with all of the combat, but it is the exception rather than the rule.

This isn’t to say “stop making games about violence” or anything like that, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I’d love to see that violence worked into a cohesive theme more often. And if a developer can’t make violence work with their theme, then perhaps a careful look at which they are more keen to pursue is in order, and adjusting one to better fit the other.

Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t Shining Force 2, and that’s ok

It’s strange that in all of these years I haven’t actually written about my favorite game. That one game that will always be my favorite, and quite literally changed my life after playing it. That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s true. I do not believe I would have gotten quite so interested in games, nor would I be writing about them today, if not for Shining Force 2.

Perhaps it was because Shining Force 2 was my first RPG of any kind, that it made such an impact on me. In retrospect I can think of dozens of reasons why I love Shining Force 2, but when I first played it I didn’t have that experience or base of knowledge with which to compare it. I didn’t even know what an RPG was, much less that there were different types.

Actually, I suppose it was that lack of knowledge that is the real reason I latched onto Shining Force 2 so fiercely. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was good, and I wanted more of it. I began seeking out and reading any videogame magazine I could find, in hopes of a hint of something like Shining Force 2. When talking about it I described it as “a game with lots of characters and they gain experience and level up and get promoted and they move around and talk to people in towns and fight with big close-up battles.” (Or at least, in my head that is how I remember 8-year-old me describing it).

Through talking with friends on the playground and clerks at Toys R Us and Funcoland, I discovered that this type of game was called an RPG. So I set out to find other RPGs. My quest for something like Shining Force 2 was stunted by my selection of systems (Genesis, Game Boy, N64, then Dreamcast) but still led me through Revelations: The Demon Slayer, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Harvest Moon 64, Beyond Oasis, Shining in the Darkness, Quest 64, Ogre Battle 64, Pokemon, Ocarina of Time, Diablo 2, Heroes of Might and Magic 3, Silver, Grandia 2, Skies of Arcadia, and many others based on reading magazines and recommendations.

And something strange happened, I began to like these other games. No, they were not like Shining Force 2, but they clearly weren’t trying to be. They were all their own type of RPG (well, arguable about Zelda and Harvest Moon), and I began to appreciate them for their own charms. It was that realization that got me interested in studying game design, and eventually to write about it professionally. Without that urge to find something, anything like Shining Force 2, I don’t know that I would have experimented with so many different types of games and gotten as interested in their design as I am today. So yes, Shining Force 2 literally changed my life.

Now, this entire time I also saw Final Fantasy Tactics taunting me on video store rental shelves. It looked different, with its isometric view and cube-covered landscapes, but I could tell from the back of the game case that it was the Shining Force 2-type of game I had been looking for.

I didn’t own a PlayStation, so it was always just out of reach. But in high school I began working at the local GameStop. Suddenly, I had a source of income, and an employee discount to boot. A PSOne with Final Fantasy Tactics (also FF7 and FF9) was one of my first purchases once I could afford it, and I eagerly set it up and turned on the system.

And I hated it. Yes, I really didn’t like Final Fantasy Tactics when I first played it. The class system was too diverse, so that no character had a clear role. And most of the characters, while they had names, had no real value to the story. I had been able to accept other RPGs because they clearly weren’t trying to be like Shining Force 2, but here I was confronted by a strikingly similar game…and it just didn’t grab me.

Tactics Ogre: Knights of Lodis on Game Boy Advance fared a little better, but ultimately I grew tired of it for the same reasons as Final Fantasy Tactics. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance made matters worse by structuring around missions, and Disgaea’s insistence on recruiting highly-customizable but worthless to the story minions ruined that game as well.

I even tried Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, but the map system between battles just felt too disconnected compared to Shining Force 2’s more traditional JRPG traversal, and eventually I gave up on those too.

If you asked me, I would probably say that tactical RPGs are my favorite genre because of Shining Force 2, but the truth is that I haven’t enjoyed very many of them since that game.

Fire Emblem: Awakening may be the game to change that. I love Fire Emblem: Awakening, I even gave it 5/5 stars in my review, making it the third game I’ve given a “perfect” score in my career. It hits the right balance of having characters with distinct roles in battle, every character fitting into the plot, and strategic battles with a brilliant pairing system. Yes, I still hate the node-based map, and that was a huge hurdle to overcome for me, but the rest of the game was so strong that I hate it slightly less now by association. The character classes are also more flexible than I normally prefer, but I’ve even been able to get used to that and have flipped some character roles around using second seals.

For what may be the first time, I am able to appreciate a tactical RPG for what it actually is instead of being frustrated with what it does differently from my favorite game. Maybe it’s just my tastes changing/maturing over time, and I’m excited to now go back and see if I can get more out of Final Fantasy Tactics and some others. But whatever the reason, I can finally accept that Fire Emblem: Awakening is not Shining Force 2, and that’s perfectly fine.