Crafting the Experience vs. Sidequests

Imagine you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or whatever you’re into. It’s still in the exposition, and the hero’s just received the call for some big epic quest. Oh, woe is us! The dark lord, Slapdick the Tormentor, ruler over these lands for the past 86 years, is now letting loose his last gasps of life on his deathbed! Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but in an effort to make sure nobody in the world outlives him, he’s engaged an ancient global-destruction magic! The mages of old, foreseeing this would come to pass, instilled a holy bloodline with the power to cancel that magic, but only by activating magic stones hidden in the most monster-infested dungeons around the world. Unfortunately, members of that bloodline were universally bad with women, and so you, Hammercles von Chunkmeier, are the only descendant left! You must save us! You’re our only hope!

And so, noble Hammercles sets off on his great and fearsome quest to activate the stones and save the world. Well, almost. First he has to tend his livestock, make sure they’ll be alright while they’re away. Then he has to write a farewell letter to his mother. Then, on his way out of town, the local cleric asks for his help collecting herbs for healing poultices, and what kind of hero would he be if he left his healer poorly stocked? And so on, for hours and hours of screentime or chapters and chapters of pages.

That’d be a pretty miserable story, wouldn’t it? The author would be completely ruining the experience there. It wouldn’t matter how epic the quest was, you’re just sitting through the granular experiences of this guy you’ve yet to find reason to care about. The pacing’s all ruined, the tension so masterfully built up by the intro is all gone, and your time is being wasted. Readers will experience a story as they well, through their own individual lens, but even so, it’s up to the author to craft it, to build things towards the story they’re really trying to tell. What was the author thinking?

I had that experience recently. I was in for an epic story, yet ended up just grinding through a huge amount of mostly-meaningless minutia. Save for one major difference. In that case, it wasn’t the author who had failed in crafting a good experience. It was all on me.

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Dragon Age: Inquisition opens up with some really massive stakes. The sky itself has torn in twain and is pumping demons out into the world. You’re the only survivor of the massive strike that caused it all, and the world can’t decide whether to worship you or blame you for it. What quickly becomes clear, though, is that you’re the only one with the power to close that tear and stop the demons from coming through. A really powerful opening, all in all.

Then, once you’ve gone through the starting mission, it dumps you out into the Hinterlands, a sprawling, expansive area with much to explore and lots to do, with no more direction than “Hey, go talk to this lady, then, you know, whatever.” It essentially leaves you at the mercy of the many, many sidequests in the region. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the developers intended you to just hang out there until you got bored and come back later on for another round of sidequests, what with part of the area being blocked off until later in the game, the few enemies too strong for you in the first round, and the fact that new sidequests keep being added as you progress. Thing is, they don’t really give you much in the way of guidance as to what you should or shouldn’t do. And I’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to always do all the sidequests, for they shall give you POWER. And so, while the world was reeling from the loss of its lady warpope, I was hunting rams to feed some refugees. While the populace lay in fear as to what would come out of the massive rift in the sky next, I was collecting herbs for some medicine. While the harbinger of the end of days moved his pawns around the land, I was racing my new horse. I was really good at it, too. Beat all three courses on my first try.

Anyways, by the time I was done in the Hinterlands, I had done pretty much everything they had to offer there. I was twelve hours in without doing much of substance, way overleveled, and bored with the game. Luckily, it picks up strongly afterwards, but the point remains that staying there for so long was really harmful to my experience.

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It reminds me a lot of Xenoblade Chronicles. That’s an excellent game, one of my favorite of last gen, in fact, providing a really transcendent experience… so long as you ignore sidequests. Each area is filled with stuff to do, packed to the brim with small sidequests, that, if you try and complete it all, will totally choke out all the plot, the new characters, the action, the areas, with just their sheer mass. The sidequests in Xenoblade Chronicles are like an invasive kudzu to a tree, you, the player, have to carefully keep them in check or they’re going to smother everything else. And yet, just like in Dragon Age: Inquisition, that stuff is only there as an option for me. Even though I have the urge to do everything doesn’t mean the game is making me do so.

If I had made a story where the side plots and minutia so completely got in the way of my pacing, flow, and main plot, my readers would have rightfully blamed me for ruining my work. It was my responsibility to craft the experience, after all. But I’m not a game developer. The types of stories we’ve been talking about here are told in partnership between the author and the player. And maybe this time, it’s the player who’s been messing it up.

When playing games, I have a strong impulse to try and finish up any side content I can as soon as it becomes available. It feels shameful to me to move on with something left undone. But that’s not always the right way to experience the game. It’s not wrong of the developer to choose not to carefully craft the experience, instead leaving a great mass of content strewn over a wide area for me to enjoy at my leisure. It’s not even wrong for them to refrain from giving me direction and letting me make my own way through the great fog of content. A lot of great video game experiences have been built that way. For me, there’s a bit of a learning curve in being able to let things go, but in these games, I have the power to craft some of my own experience. As the player, I need to learn to use it.

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New Eden Page 14: Dead Batteries Edition

Just got through crunch time at work, and I’ve been working late all this week.  Still needing some time to recharge before I can get back to writing anything, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll accept this next installment of New Eden.

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LadyHate: Wait…

LadyHate: You are Annie, right?

LadyHate: Please tell me I didn’t just glomp a stranger

Lorelei: Hattie?

LadyHate: NonoNO I HATE THAT NAME!

LadyHate: You can call me Lady Hate or Hate or Exodust or That Chick or Doofus or anything else, but not Hattie! I hate that name so much!

Lorelei: Sorry.

LadyHate: God! What were my parents thinking! Hattie Lim, that’s like the dumbest name ever!

LadyHate: Anyways, Annie! This is like the first time we’ve met in person! Or something close to it, anyway.

Lorelei:Yeah, and it’s weird hearing you talk. I guess I always thought of you speaking with entirely misspelled words.

LadyHate: What?! So mean.

LadyHate: And what about you! You talk weird too!

Lorelei: I do not! I’m just Dutch. My accent’s different from yours.

LadyHate: What do you mean? I don’t have an accent.

Lorelei: Umm… you have an American accent.

LadyHate: Americans don’t have accents.

Lorelei: What?

LadyHate: We just talk flat. Anyways, what are you doing? I thought you and Red weren’t going to be playing.

Lorelei: Yeah, I’m just stopping in before I go to bed.

LadyHate: I didn’t know you even had a set.

Lorelei: AGLA sent them to me. I’m not sure why.

LadyHate: That’s the package you got! Why would AGLA send you something like that? I still think he’s got a crush!
Lorelei: I don’t know. His letter said he had some sort of plan for us and this game.

LadyHate: Hey! Then we can get him to play too! And if you’re playing, Silver will play, and that’ll be enough to convince the rest of the MidKnights! We can go full-force on this, like we do anything else!

Lorelei: Silver’s… it’s complicated. And I’m just on for a bit. I… well…

Lorelei: You said Exodus was in this, right? I was hoping to see him.

LadyHate: Ah! That’s the same thing that got me playing this game! People said Exodus was here!

LadyHate: Red was right though, it’s not really him. He’s like a boss enemy or something.

LadyHate: We can still go see him if you want, though! I can ‘port us there!

Lorelei: Could you? I’d still like to see him.

LadyHate: Ok! Just hold on a sec, and…

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Taking Up the Task in Dark Souls

Last Time in Slooooooooooowly Crossing Dark Souls, we saw a dragon! And it didn’t try to kill us! Oh happy day! We’ve been just messing around for a while now, faffing about with no regard for what The Man wants us to do in this game. I’m afraid that’s going to have to come to an end, though. You can only leave the fate of the world hanging in the balance for so long, you know.

But we don’t have to stop quite yet! I was messing around in Anor Londo for a little while, building up souls and picking up some drops I missed the first time around. I do this, from time to time, having little adventures that don’t make it into a post because I either don’t really find anything new, or if I do, it’s not noteworthy. This time, though, was different! This time, a note left on the ground clued me into a secret passage I had missed before. This time, I found some really remarkable treasure.

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This otherwise seems to be an empty room, with nothing of note but a bunch of furniture to smash. The fireplace has a trick wall, though, fading away with a good smack. Beyond is a dark staircase leading down into a large, empty area. Well, mostly empty.

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There’s one mimic down here and four regular chests. The mimic holds an occult club, a hunk of wood enchanted with the dark, god-slaying energies. The chests? Well, do you remember Havel the Rock? That dude with the dragon-tooth club that completely flattened me in like the second or third post in this series, who we had ourselves a nice and fruitful duel later on? I’ve been wearing his ring ever since I beat him. Well, now I’ve got the rest of his equipment, too. Looks like I’ve stumbled onto his secret lair.

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Look at that. The armor, the shield, every bit of defensive gear on there is carved from a single slab of stone. That club is a petrified dragon’s tooth. It’s all very hard. Very strong. Very heavy. I can only wield the tooth effectively with both hands, and the armor slows me to a crawl. A shame, given that I’ve grown to prefer a speedier setup. Havel must have been an absolute beast. Still, I think I’ll keep all this at hand. I can foresee times where I might be needing the raw power and defense these grant.

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Anyways, we’re not getting around this any longer. The duties of the chosen one are calling, and I can’t get away. Seriously, it’s like they have my cell number or something. I’m going to kill some people and sacrifice their souls, and apparently that makes me the number one good guy in Lordran. So, to start off my wicked holy work, I’m going after the target that’s been confirmed to most deserve it. And wouldn’t you know it, his lair is right next door! I start by taking these stairs near the fire keeper of Anor Londo.

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This leads up to a forested pathway, which quickly yields to this structure. It was closed off before with that golden light, but planting the Lordvessel opened the way.

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The Persona 2: Innocent Sin Retrospective-Part 2, Gameplay

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Part 1-Introduction

Part 3-Setting and Tone

Part 4-Plot

Part 5-Player Characters

Part 6-Other Characters

Gameplay

Persona 2: Innocent Sin’s gameplay is a bit odd. The original PSX edition was a step up from the first Persona, built off of the series’ foundations with the conceptions of 1999’s contemporary JRPGs in mind. Then, in the PSP release, the only release we westerners officially have access to, Atlus made a few small updates to make things a bit more natural to modern gamers. So, in essence, you’ve got a late-90s JRPG with a few modern touches here and there, creating a bit of a weird mix when you’re coming to it fresh. What I found really intriguing is that they actually removed a few of the really unique mechanisms of the game’s engine in the re-release, making something much closer to your standard boilerplate JRPG in the new version. The changes aren’t necessarily bad, there was a lot I recall about the original engine that took a while to get a grasp on, but I do miss the old, more creative way of smacking down foes.

Much like the first Persona, this game has both elements of the classic Shin Megami Tensei formula as well as whole new mechanics giving the experience a flavor all it’s own. In fact, Persona 2 stretches even farther away from the Megaten boilerplate than its predecessor. The game came at a time where Atlus’s developers seemed to be trying out a lot of new things with their side-series, and Persona 2’s a lot more comfortable standing on its own than the original was. It still has a few elements in common with the traditional SMT game, and you can still see the foundation laid from the first Persona, but those are layered underneath some significant changes in mechanics that, especially in the original model, made this a game all its own.

THE ROAMING

As with most turn-based JRPGs, you’re essentially dealing with two separate engines here. You’ve got your big, dynamic, foe-blasting gameplay, and your totally thrilling just kind of walking around gameplay. The latter brings a completely new, absolutely innovative feature that will change the face of the Persona series forever. For the first time, you break free of the constraints of the old game, and you wander around in THE THIRD PERSON!

I’m sorry, was that too much for you to handle? Did your mind just blank that out, in an attempt to spare you from that paradigm shift? Well, too bad, because we’re going Third-Person now, and there’s no going back!

I mean, just check it out!  In the original Persona, we were like:

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But now we’re like:

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Can you feel the freedom?! You can see the character on the screen! I have to tell you, picking this game up after immersing myself in the first Persona for so long, it felt like being a bird whose cage is finally opened. I’m not usually given to emotional displays, but I shed a bit of a tear, the first time I saw that lovely, lovely three-quarters view.

Right, so exaggeration aside, with Persona 2, the sub-series finally sheds its western CRPG inspirations and behaves more like the JRPG it really is. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first Megaten game to take the third person perspective; in fact, I know that Jack Bros and the Last Bible had third person perspectives years before Persona 2 came out. It’s the earliest game in the franchise I’ve played to boast such, however. Honestly, the change is welcome. The third person roaming fits the style of game they’re going for here a lot better than the first person perspective did in the previous game, and it allows them to expand on the dungeon design as well. There’s still some growing pains involved, a few elements that make me wonder if either someone on the dev team wasn’t quite experienced in the third person style, or that the game was originally conceived as a first person game. Either way, the lead to third person is still a really big one for the Persona series, and I honestly believe it does this game well.

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In spite of this being novel, innovative, and a completely different approach for the series, there’s not a whole lot to the mechanics of the general wandering around that you’re not already familiar with if you’ve played any JRPG within the past two decades. Control stick runs, d-pad walks, and you can check interesting things out in greater detail or open the menu to outfit and prepare your party. That’s about it. I do want to note that the running seems a little hard to control, but I think that’s more of a fault of the PSP hardware than anything else. Seriously, how anyone thought that little control nub would be a good tool for twitchy video games is beyond me. You don’t need precision out of it very often, but for those moments where you spot some cleverly hidden trap disguised in the floors texture and need to just barely skirt it to get where you’re going safely, it might be time to switch to the control pad for the safer option.

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