Doing Retro Right

You may be surprised to hear this, but I’ve been playing some games lately. I know, I know, I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself. Specifically, I’ve been playing entries in long running series that strongly call back to earlier, well-regarded games in the series. Suikoden V, which is absolutely steeped in Suikoden 2, and Yakuza 0, which is completely built on top Yakuza 1. In atmosphere, world, and design, both of those games call back on earlier territory. They’re also both very good! In building themselves off of series favorites, they’ve managed to make something exceptional themselves.

So many games try to mimic other games to ill effect. It’s depressingly common for a series to get stuck after an excellent entry as it always tries to recapture what made that game great without ever quite surpassing it. It’s also common for a game to try and ape the features of a successful game from other creators, without understanding what made it great. So why is it that these two games, which are so focused on building off of earlier games, managed to make things work while others in similar situations do not? I’m thinking that they have a lot of features in common. Now, there are other games that take to their big retro focus really well, without necessarily doing any of those things here, so this isn’t an exhaustive list of what makes fandom callback games good, but I think it is a nice highlight of what worked in at least these scenarios

They Built on Top of the Originals

A common problem with games that try too hard to mimic a former entry is that they either settle for being a copy, or if they do expand on the original, they do so in an unsteady manner. New features either don’t mesh with the original model, or they’re implemented in such a way that shows a developers lack of confidence in going beyond the formula.

154589-Suikoden_V_(Europe)_(En,Fr,De,Es,It)-1461791001.png

Both these games successfully navigate all these problems, by confidently, and successfully, building on top of the established the formula. Suikoden V is perhaps the better example of this. The previous two games in the series had taken some ill-received liberties with the central mechanics of the Suikoden series, and Suikoden 5 proved to be a return to form for the franchise. Yet even as they dropped the familiar mechanics back in there, they still put plenty of new features onto them, changing the way the system worked. The traditional six person setup had formations added to it, adding a bit of new tactics. There were new options for acquiring and utilizing runes, changing up how that traditional rune hunting worked. Navigating the world map took on a whole separate realm of pathfinding as well, as the new system of rivers both broke up the landscape and provided additional routes through it. Suikoden V was a return to form, yes, but even if you just went straight from Suikodens II to V, they built enough on there to change the way the formula works. It’s new and fresh again.

Yakuza 0 operates similarly. The series has been using the same combat formula for however many games now. It’s a solid one. And they’ve already added a new character here, so there’s already new movesets built into it. They could have left it there. But rather, they took the risk on building a whole-new style-switching system into the new engine. The new combat system keeps the mechanics and the spirit of the old-style Yakuza combat but it twists it into something that feels brand new.

In so doing, they escape making an experience that’s inevitably worse than the original by trying to copy it exactly, while also delivering an experience that’s quality by developing the new features both smartly and in line with what made the classics great.

They Subvert Established Expectations

Part of the reason series sell so well is that we know what to expect. An IP builds up trust in the design philosophy, the mechanics, the storytelling, the team behind it. After we have a good experience with one entry in a series, we expect the next to carry through not just a similar level of quality, but in a similar style. That’s why we keep anticipating the next entry, that’s why we keep going back to a series we love. And especially in series that have such a consistent formula as Suikoden and Yakuza, we know what to expect out of it way more than usual, down to the details.

And the two games that spawned this post are well aware of that. And they use that. They don’t need to do the groundwork in establishing your expectations before they start subverting them, they just play off of what the earlier games set.

Yakuza 0 has the most prime example. Majima Goro has appeared every other game in the series, always showing up as the mad dog, blood knight, fighting rules everything type. He may be on your side at times, but you still need to beat your ideals into him in order to earn his help. He is always a wild man, living for his own cause and amusement.

yakuza-0-screen-04-ps4-us-26sep16.jpg

So when he’s introduced in his first canon playable appearance, and he is demure, prim, and above-all non-violent, it is positively jarring. An explanation is forthcoming, but even after that he’s not yet the powerful figure he is later on in the timeline, and he allows others to hold his leash. This dissonance with the Majima we know adds a lot of depth to the character, one that’s carried through for as long as I’ve been playing thus far.

Suikoden V plays with a common story element that’s been showing up through the series. Every game in the Suikoden series has a big plot twist on betrayal. You’ll have a character who’s been working closely with you thus completely screw your plans by selling you out to the enemy, usually relatively early on. Suikoden V has a betrayal occur early on, but it doesn’t quite fit the element here, so it’s not a satisfactory call back. Then it gives you a character who fits everything to set that up, being both very close to you and having a background that could easily lead to that betrayal. She never does. Then a reliable character claims that another close character had been in the process of betraying you all along. Turns out that was a misunderstanding. The betrayal does come, but way later than usual, to the point that all these subversions had me thinking the game wasn’t actually going to do it, and as a result, hit way harder than I expected.

Honestly, this is probably my favorite element here, that these game use what came before to twist things into something unexpected. Led to some of the most powerful individual moments in those games.

They Make the Originals Bigger

It’s not easy to retroactively add to a story. It’s easy to retroactively make it worse, by spoiling conclusions or adding plot holes, but retroactively leading to a better understanding takes some conscious doing.

SuikodenVgroup.png

Suikoden V had an easy time of it, as the whole of the Suikoden series is written as if it’s a small part of a greater narrative none of us are privileged to be in on. So this isn’t unique to Suikoden V, the rest of the series after the first does this too, but V was the best at it. Nearly every returning element from another game had their story added to. The best example is Georg Prime, who was just a random mysterious badass with a questionable background in Suikoden II, but becomes one of the leading characters in Suikoden V and you get to see just what the circumstances were that led him there. It also takes the time to explain just what was up between those relic hunters, which was almost completely unexplained in Suikoden II. It goes beyond that, too, showing what happened with your homelands in Suikoden IV hundreds of years after the end of your journey. Playing this game actually rounds out those characters and setting retroactively, so you’ve got more of an understanding when you’re coming back to the originals.

Yakuza-0-yakuza-zero-2015-01-16.jpg

The original Yakuza always suffered from the fact that its leading villain, Nishikiyama, was a little underdeveloped. He was supposedly a childhood friend of your leading character, to the point that the protagonist is willing to through his life away for him in the beginning of the story, but you never got a chance to really connect with him. The few times you see Nishikiyama before his start of darkness he’s too mired in his depression and his own business to really demonstrate much of the connection he supposedly has with your protagonist. Then, after the time skip, when it turns out that everything you’ve done for him has left him rotten, it doesn’t have that big ring of betrayal that it should, because his original relationship was never established. Yakuza 0 corrects that, starting before everything went down, and showing him as your most reliable ally through everything you go through, and showing the relationship as it should have been shown in Yakuza 0. Haven’t played through the original Yakuza since I started 0, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have a whole different view of events next time through.

They Stand on their Own

yakuza1.jpg

And, you know, this is a pretty big one. Yes, both these games call back to others pretty heavily. Yes, you’re going to have a different experience with these coming in new than if your an experienced player. But they still stand on their own. They’re good experiences either way. The mechanics are sound, the stories fall into a self-contained arc that doesn’t rely on another game for setup or completion, and anyone could pick it up and get a whole, complete, quality game. The retro features are just icing on the cake, and that makes the cake as a whole all the more worth it.

Advertisements

The Survival Horror Balancing Act

Ever since survival horror became a thing, video games and horror have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate.  Like cheese and wine.  Like me and everyone else’s girlfriends.  The inherent nature of video games lends a lot of tools that really compliment the necessary design for good horror.  The immersion.  The unpredictability.  The lack of story compression.  It’s ironic that a genre once defined by its mimicry of film elements has so quickly developed into something all its own.

slus-21244-game-ss-3

I played Fatal Frame 3 recently.  It scared me.  Well, until the last few chapters at least.  And in a totally manly way, that reflects no weakness on my part, of course.  It also made me wonder at how long it’s been since I’ve actually felt that kind of tension from a game.  Most of the big publishers have been going for more of an action horror ever since RE4 rocked the world, with even Shinji Mikami’s efforts to bring survival horror back to its base in Evil Within seeming to hew too close to the action side.  The action horror just doesn’t bring the same level of stress so necessary to horror.  The indies have been filling the gaps, but personally, I don’t think I’ve come across an indie game that quite gets the survival horror mix right.

Horror is not an easy thing to deliver.  I’ve tried.  That work will never see the light of day.  And horror in video game form requires a very specific mix of elements that seems to be increasingly difficult to get right as the medium goes on.

RE-002_bmp_jpgcopy.0.jpg

The big thing at the center of video game horror is stress.  Which is kind of counter intuitive with most games, as stressing out the player is a sign you’re doing something wrong.  In survival horror, though, that’s central to the experience.  A lot of it should come from having some sort of empathy with your central character who’s in this situation so above them, hence why your character’s are always pretty weak and generic rather than being a true doom murderhead like me, but what’s unique about video games is that a lot of this stress gets imposed directly onto the player as well.  Necessary resources are always scarce, controls are deliberately clumsy, and viewpoints are pretty limited.  You end up having the player fight with the mechanics as much as the character fights with the terrors facing them.  Having your character comparatively weak to the enemies they’re facing is a big one, but you, the player, are weakened as well.  Taken outside its context, this would make for an absolutely horrible time, but because the goal of these games are not to be fun, but to fill your pants with dread, they get to use that as part of the experience they’re building.

The stress has to be very carefully managed, however.  That’s part of why the good survival horror games are so slow, and work entirely at the player’s pace, because it’s easier to manage the necessary stress that way.  You want a slow buildup there.  Time to realize that the next room may have a whole bunch of enemies and you’re down to your last healing energy drink.  You need to be able to suffer from the poor controls and camera angles without being overwhelmed.  You need to be pressed to the limit, ever fearing that last nudge that will push you over, but then taken back some so that being at the edge doesn’t grow stale.  And you need to be very, very careful not to push the stress too far.  It is so easy for that level of stress to rise from the tension necessary in good horror to frustration, killing the mood of the game.  A death is a pretty common trigger for that, not only breaking the immersion but providing a relief to the pending fear in the form of anger as the player now has to deal with the punishment that comes with the failure state.  Survival horror has a very thin line that it has to walk in order to be effective, and good designers both guide and push the player along it, keeping them at just the level of stress necessary.

Jamesvspatient

Most of the modern games I’ve played seem to have lost that balance entirely.  Usually it’s on the side of not building enough tension in the first place.  Now that the genre’s making way for action horror, most of the stress built is instantly relieved just by blasting away at your foe.  The big problem is not just that you can kill your enemies, but you can kill them comfortably.  Fighting them doesn’t have as much pressure when you’re carrying an arsenal and every fight is not this whole new struggle.  And not only does the pressure not get built up in the first place, you get immediate relief by overcoming it, so things don’t get built from conflict to conflict.  Also, it’s a little hard to be scared on behalf of your character when your character is such a badass.

So far, a lot of the indies I’ve played seem to take it too far in the opposite direction, going for an even longer game than standard survival horror, and not building enough tension up in the first place.  I know I’m going to have to hand in my keys to the internet for saying so, but this was my big problem with Amnesia.  You play that game for so much time without much happening, that any sort of threat the intro and mystery builds up just fades with time.  A lot of indie horrors focus on the more puzzle/adventure aspect that comes in with the genre, and you do want to give them that, as well as give them time to absorb the story and get the suspense built up.  But suspense and fear come from two different sources of tension, and any attempts to induce one will fall flat if efforts up to now were largely towards building up the other.

I’m sure there are still some good examples of classic, solid, fearful survival horror out there.  I just personally haven’t played any that have come out since the PS2 era.  And there’s a reason for that.  It’s just so hard to get the balance for horror quite right.  It takes a lot of personality put into the game, a lot of preparation for the player’s actions, and a lot of manipulation of the player without letting them onto it.  It seems to become a much rarer form that those who do undertake this endeavor do so well.