Shadows of Mass Destruction. The Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 2-Gameplay

Part 1-Intro

Part 3-Presentation

Part 4-Setting

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

At this point in the Persona series, gameplay has truly become only part of the full experience.  Persona 1 and 2 had plots too, and a lot of characterization, but they were still as much gameplay delivery engines as any other game out there.  Starting in Persona 3, they put a lot more depth and content into their plots and characters, to the point where the gameplay is not the only selling point they have.  And for a lot of people, the gameplay is not even the main reason they get into the game.

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Yet, no matter how good your story, setting, characters, etc. are, if the game side of your, you know, game, isn’t up to snuff, the game as a whole won’t be good.  It’s been tried, and good plot really doesn’t make up for bad gameplay.  So even with the Persona series running head-first into the story-based wall, let’s start by taking a look at where you’re actually going to be spending most of your time when you’re actually playing the game.

By this point, we’ve already had two, but three, but really two, games in the Persona canon.  That’s enough to establish a pattern, right?  Although both of those games are rather distinct from each other, there’s still some common design elements that we can pull out here.

So, what is makes a Persona game, and how do those elements relate to Persona 3?  Well, thus far, to make a Persona, you take the typical for the time Shin Megami Tensei design, strip out a bunch of the more unique to the franchise and complicated features to simplify gameplay a bit and make it more accessible to the typical JRPG fan.  And then you come up with some crazy and experimental features that few if any other games in the genre are doing and make them absolutely central to the whole experience.  And then, of course, there’s the whole plot and themes making heavy use of Jungian Psychology personified, and the main characters with the variable stats and ability loadouts, the butterfly motifs, the vast sum of humanity summoning their own demise, multiple endings but not really, etc. Etc.  There’s lots of stuff in the recipe for a Persona, and it all carries through to this game.

And I suppose this is a good time to mention, for pretty much this entire retrospective, I’m going to be basing it off the FES version of the game.  For those not in the know, there was the original Persona 3, then, less than a year later in the US, Persona 3 FES which was basically Persona 3 with a bunch of DLC before DLC was a thing that you had to pay for, including a separate playable epilogue that we won’t get into here just yet.  Then, years later, there came Persona 3 Portable, which incorporated all the gameplay updates from Persona 4 into Persona 3, gave you a choice in the gender of your protagonist and with that vastly increased the amount of content, at turning a lot of segments from more directly interactive bits into visual novel scenes in order to fit it all on the PSP disc.  There’s a lot of discussion on which is better.  I roll with the FES version because… well, that’s just the one I have.  As much as the games industry obviously hates me for it with the remakes and rereleases and updates and Hyper Fighting Championship Editions Turbos they’re putting out, I make a practice of not buying games that I already own.  So, sorry, P3P fans.  Just going by what I have available to me.

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Sticking the Landing

Red Metal and I have been going round and round these comment sections, complaining about when the plot turns sour at the end of video games for a long, long time.  And with good reason.  Dropping the ball on the plot like that is pretty much like giving the player a nice, delicious dessert, only hiding a big ‘ol rock in the middle of it.  You’re going along, enjoying yourself, and then bam!, all your teeth are shattered and you hate everyone who delivered that to you.

But, you know, plot is not the only way a game can fall apart at the end.  I don’t know if it’s even the most common way a game can fall apart.  Plenty of games fall apart gameplay-wise, as well.  In fact, thinking back, it’s hard to remember the last time I played a game that didn’t somehow just drop in gameplay quality at the end.

Fact of the matter is that most of the people who start your game aren’t going to get to the end.  As it turns out, not everybody can muster up the commitment that I do so magnificently all the time.  So, it makes sense that they’d put most of the quality up front.  That’s where the reviewers are going to focus, that’s where your first impression is developed, and really, that’s where you know most people are going to be playing.  From a pure dollar/value standpoint, of course that’s where you’re going to get the most impact for your operational inputs.

Of course, it may not be a conscious decision to focus on the start to the detriment of the end of the game either.  Oftentimes, if you’re making the end of the game at the end of the development process, you’re just running out.  Running out of funds, running out of energy, running out of creativity, it’s kind of natural you just wouldn’t be able to bring it the same way you were earlier.  Compounding this, one of the ugly truths of the video game industry is that crunch time is a standard practice.  When your game is getting close to being ready, your life will quickly become hell.  And you’re still supposed to squeeze out the magic there.  It just can’t happen.  So if crunch time is overlapping with you capping off the game, of course the quality’s going to suffer.

Just like a plot going down the tubes at the end can derail the whole experience, so to can the drop in gameplay.  I was actually enjoying Fallout 4.  I know not everyone enjoyed Fallout 4, but I did.  Until the end.  Which hit a really weird moment.  That was the point at which the plot was reaching its most tension, with all the factions I had been moving along having their irreconcilable differences finally coming to fruition, and with that pushing things forward, it really should have been at the game’s height.  The gameplay just wasn’t matching it, though.  The game completely ran out of anything new or different to deliver, leaving me fighting the same old goons without anything really special to it, glitches started popping up a lot more, and balance all went out the window.  The quests had the highest amount of emotional release in the game, but aside from the Brotherhood trying to get its troops at me through a toothpaste tube, which was kind of cool, the gameplay was all same old, where it wasn’t lacking.  It kind of made the experience feel a bit hollow.  Part of me was into it, part of me wasn’t, and I ended up suffering through the bad parts and not enjoying the good as much as I would have otherwise.

Don’t have much of a point here, just a bit of a rant.  But, while it’s easy to complain about a bad plot twist spoiling a game for you, and while a disappointing last level may not ruin the experience as much as a failed ending, it really amounts to a bit of lost potential.  I finished Fallout 4, and haven’t cared to go back, but a game that sticks the landing can have me coming back again and again.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Incoming Rant-Fur Fighters: Viggo’s Revenge

I knew it would happen when I started this journey.  I knew, years ago, when I decided to go through and beat all of the games I own, it’d take me to some pretty dark places.  While it’s true that I do have an extremely discerning taste and a big giant sexy brain, neither of those have really stopped me from buying some completely dreck games.  And I’d be forcing myself to play them.  This wouldn’t end up well.

I knew hell awaited me.  I’d staved it off so far.  No matter how poor the game was, I always found something to enjoy.  Doesn’t mean there weren’t some games I played with a scowl plastered on my face, but for the most part, I’ve found some redeeming feature in every game I played.  Yes, even that one.  You know the one.  The one you hate.  To some degree, it’s been quite satisfying, and really justifies why I’m keeping this endeavor up.  At the same time, it was frustrating, because I knew Damocles had left his sword hanging, only to drop at some future date.  Eventually, I was going to run into a game so horrid, so abysmal, that even I couldn’t handle it, and I was still going to force myself through it.

Well, it has finally happened.  I have stared into the abyss, and the abyss stared back.  From the darkest reaches of my soul it drew the antithesis to everything I held dear, my nemesis, the bane of my existence.

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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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Proper Pacing of the Video Game Narrative, Part 1

I played my way through Bioshock Infinite recently, and was struck by a major similarity it had with the original Bioshock. One major common thread that crossed through the entirely different settings, the different narrative styles, the different gameplay engines, that really popped out at me, so much so that every time I looked back on the games, I just couldn’t seem to get my thoughts away from it. No, it’s not the shared themes. No, it’s not the dual magic/guns gameplay. Instead, it’s something much more basic, much more overarching, much more meta.

Namely, Ken Levine et al cannot pace their game’s narratives for beans.

One thing I’ve found when dealing with creating art, though, is that obvious problems in the work are rarely simple as they seem. That glaring problem in a story that seems like it should be so obvious where it comes from and how to fix it? The real issue is likely caused by something seemingly benign several layers down, and the obvious fix would cause several problems in the story to arise on their own. It’d be easy to say that the creative team behind Bioshock and Infinite just have a bad storytelling habit. The truth of the matter is, though, while it’s obvious that Irrational Games really don’t have a grasp on good storyline pacing in videogames, “You’re bad at writing!” is not really much of a diagnosis, and the two games have completely inconsistent and opposing pacing problems, pointing at completely different aspects of the work that got away from them. The first Bioshock had a very simple storyline that was waaaaay stretched out over the course of the game’s runtime, and didn’t seem to care about matching up gameplay climaxes with the emotional and narrative climaxes. Bioshock Infinite had a much more complex story but ended up crowding a lot of events and revelations together, and had several instances where the gameplay actively tore your attention away from the narrative, distracting you with fights while plot was still going on. Between the two games, it’s easy to say Irrational is weak at pacing, but the flaws are too inconsistent to point to any specific quirk, technique, or style that’s causing the weakness.

It’s not entirely surprising, though. After all, video games are an incredibly young medium, and the time they’ve been seriously used for storytelling is even briefer than that. There’s not nearly as much documented studies of video game storytelling as there are for things like movies and literature, little opportunities to become educated on the subject, and few people who have been in the industry long enough to have gotten good at it.

So, I figured, hey, I should take the opportunity to work out how video game pacing might work myself myself. After all, I got A’s in both my game-focused programming classes and in my creative writing classes in high school, so that obviously makes the country’s premier expert on the subject! I have a responsibility to use my big, sexy brain for the betterment of mankind, and what better way to do that by making a few people slightly more enlightened about interactive electronic entertainment? There is no better way, obviously. So here we go: a brief glimpse into the art of narrative pacing in video games.

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