You Best Took it Serious When You Heard the Tone. The Persona 3 Retrospective Part 3: Presentation

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As previously mentioned (several times), the Shin Megami Tensei franchise as a whole saw a big shift that would change the direction it took forevermore with the release of Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne.  Nocturne was really the first of the modern Megaten games, changing nearly every aspect of game design.  That game brought a whole new level of design, tone, creative direction, and immersion to the series that the rest of the games would follow.  So too does Persona 3.  A lot of them are gameplay focused, covered in the previous section.  There’s a couple that impact the way that the game presents itself.

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One of the biggest changes Nocturne made was moving the series away from the old-school CRPG-inspired model into something more akin to the typical turn-based JRPG.  But Persona was always a series that was more JRPG-esque than the typical Megaten.  So what does Nocturne bring there?  Well, it turns the Persona series into a more modern JRPG.  Starting with the POV.  Your Point of View is something you probably don’t think very much of in games, but it can have a big impact on the how feel of the game.  In this case, the POV, lowered a bit closer to your character than past Persona games, serves to put you more into the action.  There’s more of a sense of energy as you’re navigating the dungeon, with the walls zipping by you and the shadows right in your face.  Battle will place you right behind your lead, feeling the enemy’s presence as they tower over your character.  School will… feel… schoolier because of… you there…. okay it’s getting away from me at that point.  Point is, even compared to other games of its genre, Persona 3 will play with your point of view, particularly in the battle section, to make you really feel what’s going on.  The camera’s zipping and zooming and makes sure you’ve got that scale of your guys against the bad guys, and it’s both rather effective and mostly unnoticed, just like you want good camera work to be.

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Art design is another really big update to the game, here.  Nocturne saw art director Kazuma Kaneko make big designs to all the series’ demons, creating a very distinct style and specific appearances that would be used until this very day.  Persona 3, as with nearly everything else, makes use of those same demon designs for your personae.  However, this game saw the rise of Shigenori Soejima into the head art role, as Kaneko was wanting to stretch his protege’s skills.  Soejima was already character designer for Persona 2, and the characters in this game follow along those lines, creating a distinctive slim, lengthened character design for the series that would become rather distinct.  With Soejima charged with designing everything else, it would create something that stands apart from the rest of Shin Megami Tensei.  The shadows take particular note, becoming tarot-inspired bastardizations of rather common real world items and creatures.  Beyond that, though, Tatsumi Port Island, where your characters spend most of their day to day lives, appropriately looks a lot brighter, cleaner, and more active than the typical post apocalyptic Megaten game or even the typical fantasy settings of the time, while the various settings of Tartarus manage to successfully convey the odd otherworldiness of the collective unconscious it resides in.  The dark hour scenes look particularly striking, effectively taking the otherwise normal and pleasant looking places and using largely coloration to instill them with a sense of wrongness.  The art design of the game is really on point, and manages to carry the anime-style off well while introducing enough twists on there to make it unique.

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And that art style is important, because you see a lot of it in the story delivery.  A lot of it is dealt in a somewhat visual novel-esque fashion, lending more to the comparison than just the social linking part of the game.  See, stuff goes deeper than you expected.  Even for the internet.  Even for the Persona-fan part of the internet.  Which is a much angrier place than even normal games internet, for whatever reason.  A lot of the plot things are all text boxes and character portraits, in front of the 3D rendering of whatever’s actually going on.  It’s not a very visually active means of telling a story, to be sure, and it takes some patience to enjoy.  I’m a fan of visual novels, so I had no problem of it, but it’s not for everyone.  It does lead to a bit of an odd dichotomy, where when things are physically happening, it’ll be rendered with your in-game characters and their animations, but then they’ll freeze and you have those 2D drawings and text boxes for all the speaking parts.  Animations in the non-gameplay scenes are understated and kind of stiff, and would be more fitting with PS1 types of 3d animations than they are with the PS2.  The story is really text heavy, though, and the strength of the writing is really what saves it.  The music and the quality of voice acting also go a long way towards injecting a sense of energy into what are otherwise static and still scenes.  You do get the occasional anime cutscene injected in there.  They’re few and far between, as, you know, budgets used to be a thing that games tended to stick to before the HD era, but when they are, they tend to be pretty striking.  The visual animation of those are really on point.  Sound balancing leaves a lot to be desired, but they also tend to portray a lot of the most visually well-designed moment.

This is also where the series established another constant of giving each game a theme color.  In this case, a light blue (unless you’re playing the FemC in the PSP version, in which case you get pink) covers every gameplay element there, from your HUD to your menus to your battle selection, both adding a cool and eerie component to your visuals as well as complementing the melancholy and trauma you’re often facing.  Every bit of the daytime scenes are designed around this, as this blue is almost omnipresent, and your locations and characters are all either designed full of cool colors that complement this, or given the direct contrasts in a poppy red or orange to make them sharply stand out.  This switches in the dark hour, though, in which a sickly green replaces the blue and invades everything, with a muted green filter being placed over the visuals while contrasting dark red bloodstains appears over everything.  It’s stunning how constant this palette is over the 80 hour game without being overwhelming, and I really have to say, Persona 3 uses its coloration better than most any other game or piece of work I’ve seen, giving much more thoughtfullness to it than the “Orange and blue and call it a day” that would pervade the later years.  The idea of having a theme color was so strong that the persona series would retroactively add it to rereleases of the previous games, giving the original Persona a deep steely gray theme and the Persona 2 duology a dark, muted red.

So art style is good.  I’m glad for that.  Because the graphics aren’t going to knock your socks off.  Unless you’re not wearing socks.  They might shift them in your drawer a little bit.  They’re perfectly functional.  They carry the strong art design smoothly, they make the visuals very understandable, and they’re never in the way.  But they don’t go super far, either.  This is not a graphically impressive game.  It’s not bad at graphics.  They’re just there.  They’re OK.

What’s made the Persona series very distinct is that it takes place in modern times, in a familiar Japanese city.  The visuals do carry it over well, here.  The environments in Tatsumi Port Island are very detailed.  Well, the school’s a little bland, which is a shame, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there, but maybe Japanese schools are bland in the first place.  I don’t know.  I’ve never been to one in meatspace.  Out on the town is full of details.  Train stations are busy and packed places, the mall is full of distinct stores, your dorm is very personal, the place looks to be very lived-in.

And, of course, there’s the music to talk about.  So let’s talk about the music.  Music in games can be a weird thing.  It’s not going to make you have a good time if the game is at its core not great.  And a great game with bad music can still be great.  Music isn’t going to make or break your game.  And yet, it can make or break your overall experience.  Music is emotion.  It’s drive.  It’s energy.  One of the big challenges with any artistic medium is making the viewer feel a part of it.  Making them feel what’s going on on screen, or on stage, or whatever.  The right music has the power to connect with that more directly than most anything else.  It will make the emotional roller coaster reach greater highs and lower drops.  It will hit you with the adrenaline of those cool action scenes.  It will help you care about those characters, even if they’re facing things you never have and never will need to deal with in life.  Music will not deliver something that’s not already there, but it will make what is hit you like a brick.

And the music in Persona 3 is top notch.  In yet another series-setting trend, the Persona 3 soundtrack is so decidedly modern, in keeping with its modern setting.  Other RPGs work their orchestral soundtracks, give you beautifully composed multilayered songs, make their string instruments weep for you.  Nah, Persona 3 gives you Lotus Juice rapping his way through half the game.  It’s hip hoppy, it’s modern, and it really adds a lot to the sense and tone of the game.  It’s not all vocal tracks, of course, there’s plenty of the more orchestral stuff in there too, and they are really rather strong.  But it’s the Jpop and hip hop tracks that really seem to add the most atmosphere and distinctness to the game.  The music is fantastic, and I’ve been known to have the soundtrack on repeat as I’m going throughout my day.  Some of the songs are truly touching.  Memories of You still brings me big sexy manly tears whenever I hear it in context, and the fact that later releases insist on remixing and changing it is one of the few things that makes me nerdrage.

That said, there are a few problems with their implementation.  The orchestral songs are mostly solid, but it seems they didn’t have as much experience with handling the vocals.  Some hit really well.  Some are just oddly placed.  Biggest example is the one that’s playing when you’re hanging out in your dorm.  It’s a relaxing place.  You chat with your party, watch some tv, maybe work on some homework, there’s no danger, no rush, no pressure there.  You’d expect a similarly chill and low pressure take.  Instead, you get a song with a driving, sharp beat and harsh deep rapping.  Likewise, there’s Mass Destruction, also known as BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY, the battle theme and therefore the song BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY you’re going to be hearing most often in that game BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY.  And frankly, it can do without the BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY intro.  It’s jarring, and frankly gets annoying with its frequency, given how much it pops up.  With game music, you want something that can stay in the background of your mind, generally, and vocals grab your attention much more than instrumentals do (which is why the game’s vocals are in English, to give the Japanese players this benefit, but that’s not going to help us on this side of the language barrier).  If lead-in to the song had been instrumental, I feel it would have been a smoother transition and jumping into a fight wouldn’t have felt so harsh, but as is, you will get tired of hearing that BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY long before it’s done with you.

But those are really just nitpicks.  Overall, the soundtrack is really fantastic.  It’s well composed, breaks a lot of new grounds, combines orchestral composition with rap with jazz instrumentation, and adds an immeasurable amount to the game’s proceedings.  It hits hard in what’s usually just the right ways.

Dark Souls was the first Let’s Play I finished, but not the first one I started.  No, even that ill-fated Recettear LP was not my first.  My first LP actually went on about five years ago, on the online forum I took part in at the time, covering good old Shin Megami Tensei.

There I was, trying baby’s first screenshot LP on a board that was already full of frankly excellent screenshot LPs by a lot of people far more eloquent, funny, and informed than I was.  That was one of the first online writing things I put so much effort into,, but reading over my stuff didn’t seem as good as what everyone else had, and frankly, I lost my confidence in the quality of my work.  I stopped the LP and quit the forum a few months down the road, which was really in large part because I was going through some big life changes and just didn’t have the time to keep up, but a not insignificant part of it was because I thought my work was poor and I just couldn’t hang.

Well blast from the past, on a lark, I just went back and read it yesterday.  And you know what?  It was great!  Five years gone, I’m divorced enough from the creation of it to actually enjoy it as I would something that anyone else did, and I really enjoyed it.  It’s like somebody who knew exactly what I like in a screenshot LP was putting it together!  Seriously, reading through it now, I am really proud of what I created.  And yet I was feeling nothing but uncertainty while I was creating.

It’s kind of a running joke among authors that everyone hates their own work.  There is no pride in a job well done, there’s no honest ego, there’s only all those flaws the artist can’t get their eyes away from.  There’s truth to that, though.  When you’re in the middle of creating something, you’re already committed to seeing it from a different perspective than the eventual reader will be, and that changes the way you look at it.  Necessitates a critical eye.  There’s still some things you can look for in the quality of your work, but once you’ve moved yourself that close to the source, you lose your perspective.  That’s why you get John Romero saying he’s going to make you his lady for the night when the game he proposed to do that with played like a migraine on wheels, because everyone involved in creating and marketing that game was just too close to the project to get proper perspective.  Although they realized Daikatana was falling down the tank towards the end of development, they still didn’t have the perspective required to take the steps necessary to either fix the game or at the least not make the marketing campaign a horrible embarrassment.

And that happens all the time.  Every creative work you’ve experienced.  Every game, every book, every movie, every work of art.  For someone to have created something worth experiencing, they would have needed to have improve their craft, and improving  requires the critical eye that leads one to doubt their own work.  All but the most arrogant of creators, everyone from my fellow bloggers to the highest paid content producers, go through this every time they make something.  And even the arrogant creators lose perspective on their work.  Hell, even now, calling my first LP something I can be proud of may stem from a complete lack of perspective.

This lack of perspective does go a long way to explain why studios spend so much on making bad things.  That’s why Disney un-cancelled the Lone Ranger film and spent $375 million in production and marketing only for it to fail so, so hardcore.  That’s why Marvel so often announces these big events, their authors putting so much spirit behind their works, only for them to actually come out and be infuriating.  That’s the reason for almost everything Silicon Knights has produced and failed to produce since Nintendo stopped overseeing them.

Creation is hard.  And it gets even harder just by the fact it’s next to impossible to get the consumer’s perspective on your work, after you’ve gotten so involved in building it.  Even the stuff I put up on this blog, although entertaining to me, I have no idea how good it is to anybody else.  But that’s the way it goes.  There are a set of skills you can develop to overcome this, to start getting a sense of what is going to translate well for the reviewers, but oddly enough, overcoming that gap in perception is not always necessary.  Sometimes, the greatest works come out of letting that risk be, out of ignoring the focus testers and going your own route.

That’s just something to keep in mind the next time you play something and start wondering what the developer was thinking.  And hey, the next time I write something that sucks, just keep in mind it’s all because you don’t have my obviously proper perspective.

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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New Eden, Page 11-The Color’s Revenge

It’s a bit of a rough week for me.  Standard Content will come shortly, but in the meantime, we’ve got some more of this content to fill the gap.

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At this point, I’m still working on getting used to using the markers, and I think it shows.  The acquisition of some lining markers helps, as it gives us actual outlines for what we’re doing here.  Still struggling with using the color to illustrate depth, however.

That Princess of Time thing is a bit of a relic that I’d be cutting out were I going back and editing this thing now.  Originally, everyone was supposed to have a class and an element.  The element relates to their powers and a main plot point we’ll be seeing later.  The class didn’t really have much in-story purpose, but on a meta level it was supposed to relate to their character arcs.  Lorelei, here, as the Princess character, was originally going to be struggling with the fact that she was thrust into a leadership role but nobody really expected much leadership out of her due to the strong personalities she was surrounded by, which would lead to her being largely used by other characters, particularly the Prince character, either as a motivator or as a tool towards their own ends until she learned to break out of it and stand on her own.  I’ve since dropped a lot of that arc, as well as the idea of using the classes, as a whole.  I feel that in the kind of story I’m trying to put together here, adding in features that aren’t justified in-story is just going to be causing problems.  Lorelei’s now just the Goddess of Time, rather than Princess of Time.

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Ah, there we go.  Princess of Time?

Panel 2:

Well… won’t argue with that.

Panel 5:
This game!  So empowering!  I may just stick with these newbie mooks all night!

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Never Trust an Author

No Author

Western culture has an odd fascination with liars. So many people, telling lies so blatant that everyone’s learned not to trust them, yet still we place them at the highest echelons of our societies. Politicians, corporate executives, lawyers, and the like, all very well known as fibbers of the highest order. Yet still we raise them up, largely because of their lies, giving them some of the highest salaries and greatest honors our communities have to offer. They’re some of our culture’s most accomplished false witnesses, some of the most public liars, yet they are far from the most blatant. No, the most devious, the boldest, the most blatant liars take up an occupation that generally gives them a lot less income or prestige, but it’s worth it to them because it affords much more opportunity to lie. Most professions at least have to give off the impression that they’re there for legitimate reasons, but this one, we’ll readily pay them to lie to us. In all of human history, has there been a bigger rat liar than the humble storyteller?

Authors, writers, dramatists, playwrights, that whole blasted trade. They will give us the most obvious lies imaginable and expect us to take them with a smile. These are the people who will just make up a tale from whole cloth then devote themselves completely and utterly to making us believe it could be true. They’ll do their best to convince us, through words, details, and any other tool of their trade, that their imaginary words are real, that their characters exist, that their stories are actually happening, even as you read them. They will do anything they can to immerse you in their lies, to make their words leave the page and overtake your own reality, at least for as long as you’re reading them. These are the mendacious folk who will just spawn a character from their own twisted minds, then make them complex and fleshed out enough that we feel for them just as much as we do those in real life. These are the cruel beings who will use their wicked powers over words to make us feel every twist and turn in the plot as if it was actually happening to us. The author is the malicious mage who draw us into their cold, cruel worlds and personally feel every smile and tear their characters go through. It is they who trick us into making the unreal real in our own minds, in tearing and boosting our emotions with nothing more than their tall, tall tales.

And we love them for it.