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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

VRP Madness 9.2: That is, 4.1 + 5.1 – A companion to two posts

In his two most recent posts, my brother went over endings of video games, and over what he called the worst games he’s ever played. In my ongoing series of walking-in-my-brother’s-shadow posts, I’m going to be rolling both of these into one entry. There are two reasons for this – first, I’m lazy and a day behind him. Second, the two topics seem closely related, so my laziness is working to my advantage for once. It’s a complete coincidence, but it’s nice when things work out, isn’t it?

My brother, as you no doubt will have read by now, discusses the idea that multiple endings are a good thing. I basically agree, although I do think that there are times when one ending is sufficient. All things being equal, multiple endings give the illusion that the decisions you make on behalf of your character matter, but things aren’t always equal. In the Legend of Zelda series, the plots are so straightforward that they really permit only one ending – either you finish the game and the bad guy doesn’t destroy Hyrule, or you don’t and he does. Non-VRPs frequently need only one ending. For instance, how much sense would multiple endings for Super Mario Brothers make? Even still, most of the time, my brother’s right: multiple endings rock your face off.

This also applies to a closely related genre – the Survival Horror game. Silent Hill is an amazing series, in no small part because you can complete the game, and yet still loose utterly. The idea that you can play the game to its completion and still fail adds to the tension required for basing a game on terror. It isn’t an absolute requirement, of course, but it helps.

The Worst Games

My brother lists several Worst Games, and I agree that the games he lists are, in fact, pretty bad. I mean, they’re all pretty decent games when you’re playing them (except the Lord of the Rings one), but he’s absolutely right that, at some point, they just go completely off the rails. I never even finished Final Fantasy 8, and I’ll be getting to that in a minute.

He leaves out games that he didn’t finish, and I’m not willing to do that. There have been some games where the game itself was just so damn godawful that I couldn’t finish it. So, I thought I’d do my own list, and include some that I just plain couldn’t finish. I’m going to open with one that I share my brother’s opinion on, and see where things take me from there. Just like his list, these are in no particular order.

Final Fantasy 8

Did I Finish It?: No – and I never, ever, ever will.

I hate this game so much that it’s impacted how I feel about VRPs in general. After the brilliance of Final Fantasies 4, 6, and 7, I was primed for something fantastic. What I got instead was the most obnoxious main character I’ve ever encountered, a air-headed bimbo-anti-feminist eff-tard for a love interest, a story that was more padding than actual tale, a collectible card minigame that is more fun than the rest of the game it’s in put together, but is completely ruined halfway through the game,  and a combat system that has the illusion of being awesome for he first few hours of the game, but then descends into utter tedium.

My brother went over the horrible characters, but I just don’t think he went far enough. None of the characters are especially interesting. Two women fall in love with an emotionally dead jackoff – and it’s presented as some kind of fantastic romance. In one scene, Rhinoa is dangling by one hand from a cliff, and although it’s supposed to be a big, tense moment, I took my time on the way to rescue her in the vain hope that she might fall to her death, improving the game significantly in doing so. No such luck. Square could have improved the game if it was just possible for that weak, sappy, wet-noodle stereotype to die. The only thing that would have improved the game more would have been if Squall could have died – preferably horribly – as well.

Final Fantasy 8 was such a horrifying waste of time for me that I can count on one hand the number of Japanese VRPs I’ve finished since. I couldn’t even get through the comparatively better Final Fantasy 10 because I couldn’t stop thinking about the atrocity that was 8.

Beyond the Beyond

Did I Finish It?: Not even close.

It’s been a long time since I played this one, and, frankly, I didn’t get far enough into it to comment on the plot. It was one of the first RPGs available on the Playstation, and since I’m an RPG fan…  I’m sure I remember it being worse than it actually is, but the combat system was mind-blowingly, will-suckingly dull. It also used a combination of polygonal and pixel graphics that hurt my brain at the time. Looking at picture os it still hurts my brain today:

Out of respect for the brain cells of my few readers, however, I'm not posting video. If you feel compelled to seek out the game, I personally think you would be better off hitting yourself in the head with a brick - but that's just my advice.

Oh, and after checking the Wikipedia entry for it, I don’t feel so bad about not being able to remember any of the plot. It’s… pretty generic:

Long ago in the world of Beyond the Beyond, a battle raged between the ‘Beings of Light’ and the ‘Warlocks of the Underworld’. Before the planet was destroyed, the two sides signed a treaty leaving the surface world to the Beings of Light and underground to the Warlocks. After hundreds of years of peace, inexplicable happenings begin to occur. The player must control Finn, a young swordsman, to stop the evil power that has broken the treaty and invaded the surface world. – Via Wikipedia

I mean… wow.

Fable 3

Did I Finish It?: Not yet, but I probably will some day.

This one is kind of an odd duck because it does so very, very many things right. Graphically, it’s impressive, although the character art style isn’t my cup of tea. The play control is outstanding (most of the time), and the magic system is cool. In many ways it’s a distinct improvement over Fable 2. But then…

In order to become “friends” with someone, you have to do them a “favor”, which typically involves running out into the middle of nowhere and digging something up. To then become their “best friend” or “boy/girlfriend” you have to repeat the procedure. Now, I will grant you that being able to get an entire town to fall in love with you by dancing in the middle of the square (a la Fable 2) is unrealistic, this procedure is just plain annoying.

There are no menus. Instead of going to a menu screen to, say, select a different weapon, you push start and are transported to a magical room that you must then navigate by walking around to the different options. Calling this annoying misses the mark by a bit. I can see what they were trying to do – by removing as much of the UI as possible, they were hoping to increase immersion. It failed.

Most irritating, however, is the second “half” of the game. You are forced to make a variety of promises in the first portion of the game (you don’t have a choice, like, at all). This all leads up to taking the throne from your brother, who has been an absolute bastard. He then proceeds to explain to you – and all the people you made promises to – exactly why he was being such a complete bastard: Something That Should Not Be is coming to destroy Albion (the country you’ve just assumed leadership of). The Something That Should Not Be (STSNB) is very Lovecraftian – an ancient and terrible evil that seeks only to bring suffering and slaughter. It’s primary form is a living black tar-like substance, and it’s frankly creepy.

You already know how horrible this stuff is, because one of the allies you made a promise to had her entire region laid waste by it. Moreover, your mentor was briefly possessed by the crud, and was left horribly psychologically scarred by it. The scene in which you first encounter the stuff is memorable in that it feels almost more like a Survival Horror game than a Fantasy RPG. The scenes involving it that you’ve already been through ain’t art, but they get the point across: the STSNB is a Very Bad Thing.

Now, your Brother was being an absolute bastard so that he could amass a treasury that would be able to buy enough mercenaries, siege weapons, and so on to fight off the STSNB. All of the folks you’ve made promises to hear him tell you that it’s coming in a year. You need something like 1 million pieces of gold to have enough to keep the people of Albion safe. In his entire reign of being an evil fucktard, your brother has managed to amass 10,000 or so. It’s up to you now to decide how the Kindgom will be run. Will you keep your promises, or will you continue your brother’s reign of terror?

It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Allow me to heave a heavy sigh.

You are faced, as King/Queen, a series of decisions that all essentially revolve around whether or not you keep your promises. Without fail, the person you made your promise to argues in front of you the need to spend a shit-ton of money right frakkin’ now, or you can go with Stephen Fry arguing that you should continue your brother’s tradition of being an evil jerk. Never mind that literally everyone who is asking you to spend money right frakkin’ now knows that if you don’t save a bunch of money everyone in Albion will die horribly, consumed in terror in less than a year. Never mind that the one who asks you to spend the most money is the one whose land has already been destroyed by the coming terror.

You are only given a choice between “I am an angel, a perfect being, who will be beatific in all things, even though it means all my people will DIE HORRIBLY AND IN TERROR AND PAIN” and “I am the world’s biggest bastard, and I will keep my people as miserable as possible, but they’ll live”. All of the people you made promises to seem to be completely incapable of grasping that, for just one year, they might have to bite a few bullets.

For instance: at one point, you are given two options: end all child labor and provide government schools, or force the kids to work even longer days than they already are. There is no option to, say, abolish child labor, but wait just one frakking year to establish a state-sponsored school system. In another instance, someone calls upon you to keep your promise to re-open a University; you can spend the money to make the University state-sponsored, or you can re-open the university as a for-profit institution where people have to pay tuition. You can’t, I dunno, just wait one fucking year to re-open the University. You can’t, say, make the tuition based on what the University student can afford. You can’t do anything other than re-open the University – and, wait for this one, even though all you promised was to re-open the University, it’s treated as breaking your promise if you ask people to pay for their own education.

Fable 3 wasn’t that great to begin with, to be perfectly honest with you. The preposterous number of fetch quests, the lackluster writing, and the fact that every commoner in the whole of Albion is voiced by one of four voice actors (a male or a female adult voice actor, or a male or female child voice actor – usually appropriate to the character), never mind the fact that your Hero of Legend can’t even jump make it only okay at best. Weird UI choices and a few other things make it a bit more annoying. But the end of the game – oh, man. It’s just so terrible. I’m not far from the end, and I’m ready to spend every penny in may treasury just to let the stupid people die. It’s that bad.

Dragon Age

Dragon Age: Origins

Image via Wikipedia; boredom via Bioware

Did I Finish It?: Are you kidding? I didn’t get past the opening area of the game. After spending five minutes reading the meaningless dialogue of yet another pointless NPC, I was just done.

Here we have a sad case of Bioware trying so very hard to re-create the wonder they had with the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series, and falling short of the mark. The game has its ups and downs, but it unfortunately falls mostly on the down side.

What we have here is a great story buried under mountains of, well, crap. I’m not going to speak to the primary story of the game – as far as I can tell, from everything I’ve seen, it’s about as good as everyone says it is. I, however, will never know, because I can’t get into it.

In the intro section, I was greeted with paragraphs upon paragraphs of text from NPCs who, in the end, had nothing to do with anything. Almost every opening game, tutorial quest involved backtracking and multitudes of frankly useless and unnecessary steps. This isn’t typical modern-game tutorial hand-holding. This is being strapped into a high chair and force-fed strained peas. I realize that the force feeding ends eventually (sorta), but I just couldn’t get past it. It seemed like literally every character needed to tell me their life story, and only at the end did they let me know if there was anything I could do for them – and there frequently wasn’t.

But wait, you say, You constantly talk about how much you love Baldur’s Gate 2 and Final Fantasy 6 – don’t both of those games have lots of dialogue? What about Skyrim? it’s full of dialogue as well! What now, Mr. Hypocrite?. You’re right – I love BG2, and I love Skyrim.  I was also very fond of Morrowind, Fallout 3, and Final Fantasy 7 – all of which are dialogue heavy. There’s no hypocrisy here, though – Those games all dispensed their dialogue in small bursts, and NPCs that really didn;t have much to do with anything also didn’t have much to say.  In Dragon Age (and Mass Effect, for that matter), on the other hand, if you brush up against someone, they feel the need to tell you their life story. Now, I mentioned Mass Effect had this problem too, but it;s not on this list. Why, you ask?

I hated the combat in Dragon Age as well. This one I can’t really talk to much about, except to say that it wasn’t my cuppa. It felt too artificial and board-gamy, which is fine as far as it goes, but it just didn’t gel for me into something fun. The environments were also drab, dull, and repetitive. Finally, it was too… mean. I don’t care about grim in games – I love Silent Hill, after all – but Dragon Age isn’t just grim. It’s mean-spirited.

But Wait! You said you didn’t get very far in it! True enough – but I watched my Fiancee play quite a bit, and my impression did not improve.

And now, the zenith. I know I said these aren’t ranked, but this next one is the worst. For a lot of reasons. I’ve saved it for last because, well, it was critically acclaimed. Game Informer loved it. So did most of the other critics – it got 84 out of 100 on Metacritic, and I hate it so very much. Welcome to:

Final Fantasy 13

Did I Finish It?: No. Neither did my fiancee. She did better than I did though, albeit only out of sheer determination to continue her Final Fantasy Completist Streak.

Rather than final Fantasy, I like to call this game “Walk Down the Hall and Push A”. I imagine for Playstation 3 owners, it’s “Walk Down a Hall and Push X”, but you get the idea. I know I come from a school of VRP players who believe that More Freedom = Good – hence the Terrarria obsession, and the absolute sublime joy I get from Skyrim. That having been said, I still maintain that Lunar: Silver Star Story is one of the greatest RPGs ever made for any system ever, and probably always will be. In Lunar, you have essentially no freedom: you vill follow the story aund you vill like it! And damn straight you will – fantastically crafted with enagaing characters and, despite its absolute linearity, you have plenty of room to explore, and – in the Revised Edition, anyway – extra dungeons that have nothing to do with anything. The combat system is simplistic but workable, and even has basic tactical movement worked in. Lunar is as linear as it gets (or so I thought), and it’s still one of the greatest RPGs ever made – better than Chrono Trigger, and that’s saying a hell of a lot.

The level of freedom you have in Final Fantasy 13 makes Lunar look like Skyrim. Square should be ashamed.

For the first twenty frakking hours of the game, you walk down one completely linear corridor after another, smashing the crap out of the A button to do anything. Interact with the environment? Press A. In a battle? Press A. Trying to skip one of the poorly scripted, poorly acted, nonsensical cutscenes? You can’t – you’re stuck with them, but if you could you would Press A to do it. Basically, walk down the corridor and press A. A lot. Until your thumb is reduced to a bloody stump. Then, continue to press A some more, using some other appendage that you’ve come to hate, as you continue into your fifth hour of play.

Treats to look out for: Endless battles. When those are over, you can… have another! Yay! Also, if you want to have the slightest fucking clue what the hell is going on, you need to read through all of the gameworld encyclopedia stuff that keeps popping up as you get into the game. Within the first five hours, you’ve accumulated approximately the same word count as Stephen Kings’ Under the Dome. In another three hours, you’ll be tying the entire Gunslinger series.

Okay, you know what, Square/Enix? Either write a novel or make a game. There’s a fucking difference, you long-windeded pretentious cockbags! I love to read, and I love to play games, but asking me to read War and Peace in order to have a fucking clue what’s going on in your game is kind of asking a lot.

Also – and I can’t stress this enough – you need more than exactly one interesting character in an RPG. Half Life 2 has a dozen, and it’s a fucking first person shooter – not a genre known for its incredible characterization.

There is a lot of talk about 13’s “innovative” combat system. I will admit that there are a lot of ideas there, but none of them are especially good ideas. There’s this whole “paradigm shift” mechanic wherein you can create pre-programmed AI for two out of three people in your party, while maintaining a small amount of control over your primary character, who is usually either Lightning (the only vaguely interesting character in the game), but may be Offensive Black Stereotype B (Sazh Katsroy, who has a 70s/80s disco era afro with some sort of animal living in it, and who – I wish I was kidding – shucks and jives his way through combat while dual-wielding the only pistols in the game[1]), or Ultra Annoying Girl Stereotype Specifically Designed To Piss Off Feminists (named Vanille), or Emo Kid Who Kind Of Looks Like Justin Bieber (A fellow by the name of Snow). In any case, as far as I can tell, all this paradigm system does is:

  1. Remove most of the control of the characters fro the person playing the game, causing you to press A repreatedly to prompt them to do the only think they can currently do
  2. Cause you to spend at least one or two rounds every combat using tactics that make absolutely no sense under the circumstances
  3. Read an assload more text to figure out how, exactly, the moronic system is supposed to work
  4. Misuse the word “paradigm” horribly
It boggles my mind that many of the positive reviews highlight this inane combat system as one of the greatest parts of the game.

I could go on for hours like this, but you know what? I’m not even going to bother. The only thing the game really has going for it is that it’s pretty as all hell. It reminds me of the most horrible advice I’ve ever heard a mother give a daughter: “It’s better to be pretty than smart”. It was horseshit when the lady said it to her tweenage daughter at Wal-Mart, and it’s horseshit in the context of a video game.

As a side note, I will eventually be posting a Video or something similar from my fiancee on the subject of Dragon Age, Final Fantasy 13, and other games that really, really piss her off. Listening o her rant about games she hates is one of my great joys in life, and I want to share it with the world.

Next time: my favorites. Probably. Unless I decide to talk about D&D Next.

____

[1] – He kind of reminds me of Deon Richmond‘s character Malik in Not Another Teen Movie – except that movie was parody and satire with a healthy dose of irony; the whole idea of Malik was that he was the Token Black Character in a teen coming of age comedy and he knew it. Malik, in other words, spends the whole movie lampshading this trope, and it’s hilarious.

Sahz, on the other hand, is just fucking offensive. I quit the game about an hour after meeting the character because I just couldn’t take it. He’s like something out of a minstrel show.

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4 thoughts on “VRP Madness 9.2: That is, 4.1 + 5.1 – A companion to two posts

  1. Don’t leave me hanging! Do a best of! I’ve been looking forward to it.

    Very interesting list, by-the-by. I expected the Final Fantasy entries and would have been shocked if Beyond the Beyond didn’t get a nod.

    I half expected a Wild Arms outburst, but oh well.

    You’re displeasure at Dragon Age still astounds me, as I enjoyed what I played of the game. Really, really interesting.

    Fable 3 I never played, having never finished Fable 2. But the Fable series has never lived up to its potential as far as I’m concerned.

  2. You have to understand that there are a lot of things about Fable 3 that I really, really like. It was just the whole ruling a nation thing that killed it for me. There’s such abject stupidity and willful ignorance on the part of your petitioners that I kept getting so mad I had to turn off the game. I watched Nicole complete it, and if you don”t have the money in the coffers when the Bad Things shows up, the population of the world really is severely affected (you can keep playing after the end, in part because some of the DLC is set after the end).

    The Fable series itself never lives up to its promises, but the first two games are still pretty good – although I’ve never quite gotten over the complete inability of the hero to, you know, jump.

    I left out Wild Arms because I never played any of the games that allowed you to be literally standing on top of a town and not see it because I never played any of them at all. The first Wild Arms is still a fantastic game that all VRP fans should play, but I refuse to even start up a game when all the characters in it can supposedly use guns, but are so nearsighted they can’t see a city when standing 100 yards away from it. I have always wondered how anyone who was clearly legally blind could be good with a rifle.

    As far as the Best Of goes, I fully intend to do it, but I might post a few comments concerning D&D Next first. The announcement was made a few days ago, and considering the nominal topic of my blog, it seems odd that I haven’t commented yet.

  3. Working on my Best Of post – hopefully it will be up tomorrow. Thought you should know.

    I left other games that have pissed me off off this list because I don’t know how many of them were influenced by my playing of Final Fantasy 8. In fairness, Dragon Age may have suffered that fate, although the fact that almost everyone I met in the game was an insufferable racist bastard probably didn’t help.

    Strangely, it doesn’t bother me when I’m playing Skyrim.

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