Visual Novel Theatre- Analog: A Hate Story

Ok, here’s the deal.  Working from home has led to me playing a lot more visual novels.  Taking my lunches in my War Room makes that a bit more convenient.  So we may be seeing some more of these posts in the future.  Recently, I played/read through Analog: A Hate Story by Christine Love, and wanted to give myself a blast from the past, given that two of her earlier works were two of my first posts in this blog that has a hell of a lot of tenure in the old blogosphere.  But, time’s at a premium.  So I’m going to challenge myself here.  Set myself a time limit.  Write this, quick and dirty, in the time I have available before my next engagement. So, this is going to be rough.  No editing.  Little polish.  Minimal talking about how sexy I am.  Which is very.  Just so you know.


I’m getting sidetracked.

Analog: A Hate Story is, as the name implies, a successor to Christine Love’s first work, Digital: A Love Story, and you could maybe call a sequel because for all I know they take place in the same continuities.  You’re some sort of future space scavenger.  Which basically just means that you go into space and hack dead people’s email accounts.  Somebody hires you to go do that to the Mugunghwa, an old Korean space ship that’s just shown up on the parts of space that people bother looking at again after like a thousand years.   So you go there and start up the ship and it turns out you’re the first person to do anything with the ship in like 600 years, and everyone’s dead, and even before everyone died things went to hell.  So you talk to the AI and snoop through people’s e-mails, which are strangely full of logs that are actually useful and descriptive and more like diary entries and there’s not a penis enlargement spam thing to be seen.  I don’t know why they keep sending those to me.  My penis is glorious enough already.

I’m getting sidetracked.

Gameplay-wise, the ship itself, you control through a text parser.  When you activate the AI, you’ll get a more flexible interface to be reading all the stuff.  The AIs are very advanced, incredibly human-like, and have their own motivations, actions, and what not.  Unless you know the right codes, you can only see whatever e-mails the AI are willing to show you.  The AI’s ability to directly accept speech has been broken, so your interactions with them are limited to answering binary questions they present to you and showing them whatever emails/log entries you want them to comment on.  And, that’s how you progress through it.  Read the stuff, slowly piece the story together, try and get enough of a dialogue going with the AIs to get to the real good plot-twisty material.  

The plot itself largely centers around sexism.  And before we get the idiots from both sides that seem to make up the loudest voices whenever sexism comes up in games, this is a specific type of sexism, that doesn’t really apply to modern day life.  No matter how much said idiots talking about the game online seem to try to make it do so.  In the ship, it looks like most everyone all died at one specific year.  300 years or so before that, something happened to the ship that set their culture, collective knowledge, and overall intelligences back to a Joseon-era Korea style community.  So this is about sexism in Joseon-era Korea.  With artificial intelligence.  And e-mail.  And spaceships.  It’s a weird sort of anachronism that honestly seems a little forced, although the VN doesn’t say why they got culture-shocked back to the bad times so maybe it makes more sense once the sequel picks it up.  In any case, when that happened, AI memory got wiped and reprogrammed, everyone turned into idiots, and things got bad.  Like, we see it from the women’s point of view most often, and they definitely got the short end of the stick, but backwards societies are no good for anybody, and, realistically, nobody’s really living up to their potential there.  Birthrates have been falling to an incredible degree, men and women’s roles are sharply divided and both are recognized solely for their political positioning rather than their merit, few know how to actually work the technology they depend on to survive and they have even less knowledge of medicine, old age sets in when people are in their 20s to 30s, etc.

C’mon Aether, gotta pick up the pace here.

Snap Judgements: A Random-Ass PC Game Party

If you game on the PC, it’s not hard to get a massive collection built up for very little money if you’re not particular about what makes it in there.  Steam sales will aggressively discount games.  Humble Bundle can get you a curated collection for very cheap, and if you get their Choice option they will shove 60-some DRM free games right in your face.  If you’re on Amazon Prime, they will give you 5 games a month through Twitch.  The Epic Games Store drops at least 2 free games on you a week.  So yeah, my PC backlog has become unmanageable, really.  Hell, this month’s Humble Choice has two games I’ve specifically had my eye on for a long while, and I can get those and 8 others for well less than the MSRP for each, and I’ve been refraining because I don’t want my Steam list to grow anymore until I’ve actually played a bunch more of the games on it.  When I was a cub owning a game was a big deal.  You thoroughly explored that game, you came to know it better than your own reflection, you mastered it as much as a gawky little kid that sucks at everything can master anything.  Nowadays, at least as far as the PC goes, it seems the various game makers and distributors want you to have a library rather than having explored every little thing; I don’t think many expect you to actually play all the games they’re throwing at you.

But that’s not how I roll.  I like to play all my stuff.  And lately, I’ve been motivated to do so.  I’m still keeping up with that focused run-through of playing all my games that I’ve done all my years, although yeah, I’m needing to adjust my expectations to deal with all these random-butt games that I’ve built up over recent years on my PC library.  And apparently, how I deal with that is I just change the rules so that I’m not expecting myself to give a full playthrough to any game I didn’t directly play through and we go from there.

So, in any case, lately, in addition to the games I’d normally be playing, I’ve also been trying out many of the random games I’ve been picking up through other means.  So here’s some quick judgements on some of the games I’ve been playing lately that I don’t think I’m going to end up doing a full post about.  Some of these I’ve given a full playthrough, some have just been a quick try, but either way, I’ve got words to put on them, so here you are.  I’ve been starting at the top of my various collections, so if you’re wondering why so many of them have titles that would pop up near the top alphabetically, well, there you go.

A Normal Lost Phone

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This is a quick little experience, kind of has an interesting idea.  Essentially, you find someone’s unlocked phone, and rather than turning it into anyone, you start snooping to try and figure out whose it is.  Turns out, judging from recent messages on there, the guy unexpectedly disappeared.  So you have to read his texts and emails and break into his apps and dating profiles and other stuff to try and figure out what’s going on.  I like its approach to puzzles, they hit the right spot to me where I was never stuck and constantly able to figure the challenges pretty quickly, but they still took enough mental work that I felt rather accomplished in doing so.  I ended up rather hating the game, though, because it’s rather preachy.  Yes, being trans is a difficult thing fraught with a great deal of challenges and bigotry that I’m sure I do not understand because my knowing personal exposure to trans people has been rather limited, but an unnuanced black and white strawman-filled take on the subject that wants to hammer you on the head with the “feel the plight of trans people” hammer over and over is going to irritate me to no end even as I agree with the central thing it’s trying to push.  And it’s preachy in a way that’s just going to galvanize the base, make the people that already agree with it feel better for agreeing with it, without actually adding more to the subject matter or approach anyone on the fringe.  There were a couple of times I missed out on puzzle clues because I got tired of wading through walls of text on how horrible the strawmen were that I just stopped looking at the things that point in a direction.  Also, I take issue with the ending, the same way I did with Gone Home’s.  Spoiler: dude just ghosted his family because they’re homophobic.  At least he’s got more reason that Gone Home’s couple, but either way, ghosting your family for anything but avoiding actual danger is a sick, horrible thing to do to them.  Yes, I would say that’s worse than the homophobia.  Treating it like a romanticised ideal bothers me a lot.

Abzu

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I’ve heard this described as underwater Journey.  I haven’t played Journey, so I can’t really speak to that, but if you have, hey, maybe that means something to you.

So, you may call this a walking simulator, except there’s very little walking in it.  Usually you’re swimming.  You’re a diver exploring the underwater wildlife of an area, and sometimes exhibiting the strange power to create sea life where once it was missing.  You explore underwater ruins, solve a few ‘find the switch/drone/item’ puzzles to open doors, and go through a bit of a minimalist story that’s surprisingly well-presented for having no dialogue and only one real character.  Overall, it’s really just a relaxing, chill experience, one that does bring you some tension but otherwise has a rather meditative quality to it.

60 Parsecs

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Yeah, it comes first alphabetically, but I don’t have much to say about it and I didn’t want to lead with this so it goes down here.  You manage a small team of space station wreck survivors as they head into an escape pod, trying to keep them alive and have them find or develop new items to increase their odds of survival until sheer random chance inevitably kills everybody and then you wonder what the hell that was all about and uninstall the game.  Not recommended.

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In Review of the Playstation VR… as a Treatment Method

 

ps-vr-zvr2-model-product-shots-screen-01-ps4-eu-17nov17.jpgVirtual reality.  The next frontier.  If you’ve ever been a child, you have desired it.  Virtual Reality was the future.  And now it’s come.  Didn’t exactly take the world by storm, but it has come.  And as with most new technology, time has made it more affordable and accessible.  The tech has its problems and flaws, as everything does, but it’s working, and it’s here.  And recently one of the pieces of VR with the highest user base, the Playstation VR, has entered my home.  So we’re going to take a look at it today.  A review.  But not in terms of gaming.  Lost to the Aether has its place in the interbutts, and that place is not giving you the same sort of content you’d find everywhere else.  Instead, we’re going to be looking at a more unique application of VR.  So here’s a review of the Playstation VR… as an optikinetic treatment method.

Video games for your health is apparently a thing.  We brushed on it a couple months back when we covered Duet, at a point where I had been prescribed video games as treatment.  Some time back, the gods grew jealous of my majestic achievements and physical perfection and afflicted me with an inner ear condition that causes another inner ear condition that in turn messes up with a whole bunch of other things.  Let me drop some science on you for a bit, here.  Your brain gets its sense of balance and positioning from three areas; your inner ear, your vision, and muscles, particularly those in your neck and spine.  When your inner ear stops working so well, your body compensates by over-emphasizing the other two.  Which sounds resilient, but it’s problematic.  It gets really weird when looking down as you’re descending stairs makes you feel like you’re Spider-manning up a wall, or walking through a crowd makes you feel like you’re spinning.

One of the ways of treating that visual motion hypersensitivity is to essentially overstimulate the part where the brain thinks you’re moving because of what it’s seeing, while you’re not in fact moving.  Kind of force the body to recalibrate its overreliance on visual info to determine balance and sense of motion.  The traditional at home exercises for that are to watch videos like this, which, if you clicked that link, you might notice is boring as hell.  Hence why I’d been prescribed video games.  Going through the likes of Fotonica, Duet, and Super Hexagon, both has enough visual activity to trigger that sense of movement, while also not feeling like you’re just sitting there wasting time.  But what if you could take that to the next dimension.  My physical therapist has been trying and failing to get a VR headset and proper apps for quite some time to help treat this.  The problem with doing those videos or games on a screen is that only part of your vision will be moving like that, so your brain has plenty of the wrong anchor points to go “hey, this isn’t really moving”.  I mean, that’s what you want your brain to say, but you want your brain to say that because it can tell you’re not actually moving, not because you can see a wall.  VR, though, that’s all encompassing.  So you can have everything in your vision tell you that you’re moving while you’re actually not.  Get you that optikinetics on steroids.  And, thanks to a friend for whom I’m not sure I’ve done enough to deserve this kindness, I’ve got a Playstation VR to be working through this with.

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I have to say, I’m not super experienced in VR overall, so I’m not the most educated as far as how the Playstation VR compares with other headsets.  Hardware-wise, being based on the Playstation 4, rather than the PC and coming it at a lower price point makes it significantly more accessible to me, personally, than other sets.  That should be the most important consideration for any producer, really, “how likely is Aether to get this in his sexy hands?”  It does seem to be missing a few features that come standard with other sets, as well, including a few odd omissions.  It doesn’t really have an automatic feature to measure your eye position in relation to each other, and its automatic ‘take-a-picture-of-your-face’ get’s the measurements between your eyes way wrong.  The picture was noticeably clearer once I figured out how to adjust that manually, which is really non-intuitive and required a user-made guide to get through.  The Playstation VR will play VR videos through Youtube easily enough, once you have the app, but if you’re trying to get VR videos through any other source, it takes a lot of jumping through hoops to get it working, and it won’t reach up to 1080p, so the resolution is lacking.  A lot of the videos I was trying to get working on it required me to extensively re-process them to get the right formats, codecs, and limited resolutions going.  So as far as the traditional VR videos of bike riding that are usually recommended to help with this condition, it was either go to Youtube or spend an inordinate amount of time getting other sources working, which was a little problematic for those times when I was feeling picky.

But the Playstation is a gaming machine, so how about the games that help with this?  Yeah, as you can probably imagine, that’s where I’ve been spending most of my time.  What’s useful about the Playstation VR, at least, is that it’s been easy to find a lot of discussion about the difficulty of various games and apps, so I can be informed as I’m planning out what I want to play to deal with this condition.  At least one list of game recommendations I’ve come across was helpful enough to have them organized into beginner, intermediate, and advanced VR levels, based on how physically difficult it is to get adjusted to the motion in those games.  Glad to know they’re difficult for people with perfectly functioning inner ears as well.

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As I’ve been exploring the system for the past couple of weeks, there seems to be a bit of a spectrum as far as the impact games will have on me goes, that doesn’t completely match up with the rankings most people seem to give them.  At the gentlest end are games where they move you by fading in and out your view, rather than simulating walking, only move your POV when you move your head or otherwise under you control, and that you don’t need a lot of rapid head movement.  Final Fantasy XV: Monsters of the Deep and Moss are pretty solid examples there.  They’ve been useful for when I’m already stirred up by the time I’ve set aside to do my exercises, or otherwise want something light to get myself adjusted.  There’s a bit of disorientation with these games, but otherwise they don’t really hit me hard.  Up a level from there are games where they intermittently have some sort of movement of your viewpoint, but otherwise have long periods where its relatively stationary.  Astro Bot Rescue mission and the Into the Deep experience in Playstation VR Worlds come to mind here, where you’ll be moved as you progress through it, and there’s a lot that moves within your view, but you do spend a significant amount of time with your viewpoint simply being stationary.  This would be where I’d recommend spending the majority of your time first starting out, if there happens to be anyone else out there using VR as a treatment method for visual motion hypersensitivity or, as I’ve heard similar principles apply, concussions.

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A step up from there would be the games with more constant movement, a lot of visual things going on, but you’re in a vehicle or otherwise separated from your playable character, such as in Battlezone or Rez Infinite.  For whatever reason, the visual motion has more of an impact when you’re in a first person perspective walking than when you’re driving.  So logically, the most advanced games would be the ones where you’re walking in a first person perspective.  Skyrim’s where I’ve been spending most of my time at this level.  Playing through an epic length game at the 20 minutes per day I’ve been able to bear it.  This is also where the goal of treatment is to be able to handle, as this will be more where it’s having an effect.  I wasn’t able to dive right into Skyrim, however, had to move myself up through the earlier levels in sequence.

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Special mention goes to Scavenger’s Odyssey of Playstation VR Worlds, as well, which will absolutely kill me by rotating the view over and over again over the course of the game.  So, rotation is killer.  That might be a level above Skyrim I haven’t reached yet.  So to may be Resident Evil VII, which came in the pack my friend got me but I just haven’t been brave enough to get into yet.  Even people with functioning inner ears claim this game is guaranteed nausea for them.  I would guess it’s missing a lot of the VR friendly features Skyrim has, such as dimming the periphereal vision when you’re moving quickly and snapping your turn rather than a smooth motion when you use the controller to turn.  So there’s still more to explore if I find Skyrim ever starts to get too easy for me.

On the plus side, games like Rez, Skyrim, and Battlezone have you aiming with precision by moving your head.  Which exercises the fine motor control of your neck.  Which helps with the muscular issues your body can develop as a typical reaction to this condition.  So it’s not just the motion VR can help with.

Of course, even at the advanced level, there’s things you can do to make it easier on yourself.  Strafing is misery.  Moving faster is harder than moving slower.  Limit the amount of stairs you walk on.  Things like that.  This isn’t like working out, where you can push yourself to your limits and end up better off for it.  Here, if you go too hard, you’re actually undoing progress, getting your systems maladjusted to the visual information.  So it’s important to know your limits, and know either when you need to switch to a less aggressive movement or stop or take a break entirely.

As for how effective it is, that’s going to matter most in the long term, and time will tell for that.  In the short term, though, I have noticed my symptoms impacting me less since I started using the Playstation VR for my at home treatment exercises.  It’s not a complete cure, or anywhere close to it, and this is a condition that has a lot of ups and downs, so it could easily be just coincidentally corresponding with an up time, but I have to say, I’ve seen results from it so far.  And that makes me happy.

Even if I can’t play as much Skyrim as I want.

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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BABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABYBABY! The Persona 3 Retrospective! Part 1: Introduction

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Presentation

Part 4-Setting

Persona Retrospective Introduction

(Revelations:) Persona

Persona 2:Innocent Sin

Hell yeah!  We’re back with this!  It’s been, what, four years since we did the last entry in our much vaunted Persona Retrospective?  You thought I gave up on it, didn’t you?  And look at how much a fool you are now!  No, you gave up on me!  You think four years matters to one such as I?  I never forgot.  And I never quit.

Well, maybe I did.  Sort of.  You may notice that rather than finally doing the second half of Persona 2, I’m coming right in your face with Persona 3.  That’s true.  And I’m sorry.  I’ve actually tried a couple of times to get the next step in this retrospective going with good old Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, and I just can’t.  I was halfway through the game when I made a big cross-state move and life transition, and couldn’t keep up with my usual playtime in the aftermath.  Then, sometime later, I picked up Persona 2: Innocent Sin again with the intention of getting background on that for the eventual Eternal Punishment analysis, but frankly, although the Persona 2 duology does a lot of really unique things and is a very interesting game in all, its design has aged a bit.  Not as poorly as many other games, but I found, with a lot of things I was going through then and continue to go through now, I just didn’t have the patience for it.

So we’ll skip it and come back to it later.  For now, it’s Persona 3 right up in your grill, suckers!

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Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh Aether, you sexy hunk of pure genius, isn’t your time already very full?  And didn’t you just start another project where you’re going to be reviewing all the Godzilla movies?  Are you really going to be able to keep up with another commitment?”  And sure.  That would be what sensible people would think.  But I’m to busy being awesome to be sensible.  I’m not one to let fear of failure or fear of commitment stop me.  I’m going to bite off more than I can chew.  And then I’m going to chew it.

In case you haven’t noticed, I like talking about the thing that I’m going to be talking about for a good while before I really get into talking about them.  But let’s get into that now.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3

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Okay, up until this point in the subseries, Persona games have been all about taking the ethos of the greater Shin Megami Tensei series and making it more familiar, more accessible, and more character-driven, while also experimenting the hell out of it.  Shin Megami Tensei has been very WRPG-influenced, and the Persona subseries takes that and fits it into a JRPG shell, creates room for a hell of a lot of character exploration, then adds a whole lot of new, wild, and largely unpolished features onto it.  Persona 3 follows on in that progression.

But it’s also the turning point in it.  See, Persona 4 and 5 don’t carry the same wild experimentation the earlier games did.  Instead, they take the model that Persona 3 built, and polish it further, and further.  And they make beauty out of it.  Persona 3 is a fantastic game.  But it’s like a raw gem.  It’s valuable.  It’s beautiful.  But it needs some rough edges pared off and a lot of polish to really shine.  Persona 3 is a turning point in the Persona subseries.  This is where, I would say, it really hit true greatness for the first time.  And the developers recognized it, and went in the same direction for future entries.

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To really get into Persona 3 and what makes it what it is, we have to talk about another game.  Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.  The first SMT game of the PS2’s era.  And it would represent as much of a shift for the SMT franchise as a whole as Persona 3 is for that SMT subseries.  Shin Megami Tensei games had largely stuck to its classic WRPG influences all through the SNES and PS1 entries, but by the time the 6th console generation had rolled around, frankly, technology had far outpaced that mode.  Even WRPGs themselves were drastically different from the Ultima/Wizardry days.  The technology was capable of so much more than the pure first person grid-based dungeon crawler with minimal world interaction was providing, and the largely 2d and simple visuals those games utilized were growing outright bland in that new world.  So Nocturne brought the series roaring into the new era.  Fully 3d environments, visuals that more accurately represented the urban apocalypse the series brought through, more involved visual storytelling, and a completely redesigned crew of monsters that would be distinctive of the series for years to come, it’s presentation has made SMT what it is every since.  The gameplay updates were no slouch either.  Battles were no longer matters of numbers against numbers, but made much more strategic with the press turn system in which the amount of turns you have were tied to your manipulation of elemental strengths and weaknesses.  Enemy encounters designed so that even basic random battles would test you, requiring so much more than just mashing attack as was standard for most RPGs.  Dungeons built so that the important thing in success is your long-term resource management across hordes of challenges as much as your ability to overcome individual battles.  It created design elements that had ramifications across the entire series.

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And all of that carried through to Persona 3, in some form.  Previously, the SMT series had a more eclectic and varying mix of demons and what roles they held.  Nocturne really codified and brought consistency to the mythological set of demons the series held, and Persona 3 slotted them firmly into the role of your personas.  Your enemies and adversaries were made completely different in both tone and origin, marking the first time the series had such a significant demarcation between persona and enemy.  They use the same visuals for the beasties, too, as do all 3d SMT games from that point further, building and taking advantage from the Shin Megami Tensei trademark design.  The press turn system was imported in a more limited form, with both you and your enemies being able to gain a single extra move for targeting your opponent’s weakness, or lose one if your own are hit.  Tonally, well, SMT has always been about destruction and apocalypse, but Nocturne brought new impact to that in the 3d era, and Persona 3 took that and run with it.  Although it’s not as dire as Nocturne was, it’s still rather oppressive, and it takes that to a more personal level.

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Persona 3 is generally considered the first of the modern Personas, and to many people, apparently Atlus included, the subseries starts here as far as they’re concerned.  This is the first game that has the social link system, where a lot of emphasis is on getting to know and helping NPCs through a sort of visual novel/dating simulator-esque interface, that has become such a series trademark and one of the biggest draws of Persona games.  Although 4 and 5 would make minor updates to it, this is also where they established the game model largely used in everything following.  Whereas previously, every character could use multiple personas, but had some limits on them, and a lot of their capabilities were based on their stats, starting with Persona 3, only your main character could use multiple personas but they had no limits on them and their stats were determine by said persona, making your main character effectively over a hundred characters you could choose from.  These is where you get Lotus Juice and the Jpop soundtrack setting the mood, driving home just how modern this series is in comparison to others of its genre.  The Persona series had been pretty heavy with its theming and storytelling in the Persona 2 duology, but this is the first time the series with so deep in its plot and multi-layered in its themes.  Everything where you have a certain amount of days to do everything you need to do while the plot and conflict progresses on a fixed calendar, where managing your available time as a resource is essential, where basically everything in the combat engine comes from, it all comes from here.  Persona 3 represents not just a paradigm shift in the Persona series itself, it was so utterly different from every other JRPG out there, and yet, for all its experimentation, it still came together in a fantastic form.  Honestly, it’s no wonder this is the model all the rest of the games took after.

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Eyes on Neon Drive

There’s something to be said for those games that will take a simple concept, distill it down to its purest essence, and then build something beautiful out of it.  Something that’s so simple to talk about, yet so complex in its execution.  You get that in your Tetrises, in your Pac-men, and now, in your Neon Drives.

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We’re going to call Neon Drive, made by the how-the-heck-do-you-pronounce-that developer Fraoula, a ‘Rhythm Driver’ here.  Yeah, we’re breaking the boundaries of genres even as we recreate them.  Ok, not really, because Neon Drive is really just a rhythm game at its core, but it takes place in a car, on a street, you know, driving.  So like I said above, really simple in concept.  At its base level, there four lanes you can move between.  Your car automatically moves forwards, and obstacles come along the path forcing you to switch between lanes in time with the music to avoid them.

And that’s that.  Well, mostly.  Again, really simple in concept.  And yet they make it work.  It’s not an epic experience or anything, but I had a good time with it when I first came across the game a few years ago, and I had a good time with it again when I picked it up just recently.

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The music and aesthetics are a big part of it.  Most of what I know about the 80s, I know from games and movies trying to be deliberately retro, so I’m pretty sure the era was all about neon and sci-fi and synth-heavy soundtracks and that weird segmented sun and really, really bad hair and clothing.  Except for the last bit of it, this game seems to pull it all off well.  Especially the music, that really stands out.  I do have to commend this soundtrack, it’s pumping and driving and manages to not get old even as you listen to the same segments over and over again because this game is really hard.  And it sounds so appropriately 80s, and is tailored really well to the challenges you’re facing in the game.  The music and your movements mesh together so naturally, sometimes it feels like you could get through the obstacles with your eyes closed if you just followed along with the music.

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And then you crash and burn because even with all that, the game is hard.  It’s very heavily skill-based.  It requires reflexes, planning, and absolute precision, and it will make you replay the same sections over and over and over again until you get it right.  It’s interesting how it builds those skills up in you, however.  It can take you a long while to get there, but once you get to the point where you can beat a level, you’ll be able to do it again and again like nothing.  I remember, it took me about two hours to beat all seven levels when I first played the game a few years ago, a feat the developers have stated makes me certifiably superhuman.  I hadn’t touched the game at all in the interim, but picking it up again here, I was able to move through that same set of levels with very little trouble.

Then I got to the new 8th level.  That one is absolutely brutal.  I hate that this game keeps track of how many times you’ve tried but failed, because I truly embarassed myself on the last one.  If you can beat that one, you’re a better Neon Driver than I.

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It is pretty short.  There’s only 8 levels, and if you can get through them in a single go, each level only takes you about two minutes.  I feel like it makes full use out of being compact, though.  Each level switches up the gameplay somehow halfway through, whether by switching perspectives, turning the obstacles into oncoming traffic, transforming your vehicle entirely, etc., and each one does it in a different way.  Again, I finished it my first go around in about two hours.  The 8th level can extend that some, if you’re going to put in the time to get through it.

And, you know what?  That’s all I’ve got to say about that.  It probably comes across a lot better in action than it does in spoken word, so check this out to see a bit of what I’ve been going through.  

On Perceptions and Oblivion

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I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a more ambitious early-generation title than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  By that time, especially following up on the critical and commercial hit Morrowind, the whole Elder Scrolls series was known for two thing; giant, expansive open worlds absolutely full of stuff to do, and not actually having any elder scrolls in the game.  Oblivion carried out all expectations of the former with aplomb, but shockingly, broke drastically with series tradition on the latter.  The gall of these folks.  But, when you’re leading a new generation, sometimes you have to move past your limits.

Perhaps as a result of being perhaps the most ambitious early-generation title in history, I don’t know of a game that’s aged so drastically and instantly as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Although a multi-console release, it was developed around the Xbox 360 architecture from it’s nascent days, releasing a mere four months after the system did.  It’s scenery looked lovely, but its characters, looked……..

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Yeah.  Visually, even the best parts of it, most of the launch titles available at the time well outpaced it.  They were new at incorporating voice acting into a game this size, which led to a lot of awkwardness both as it meant the characters had a lot less to say than they used to, and oddly, everyone sounded so much the same as all characters of the same race and gender were played by the same actor.  DLC was a new thing, and this game was obviously experimenting with the market for that, mixing both the instant-joke expensive but useless horse armor with the could-absolutely-be-it’s-own-game bargain Shivering Isles expansion.  And they had tried to correct some problems of the old games that didn’t really need to be corrected, leading to a lot of clumsily-implemented features, such as the counter-intuitive leveling system that quickly became infamous.

Thing is, the presentation may not be much, but the foundation of the game is very solid.  The Elder Scrolls have always been at their best making you buy into the world, at feeling like it was a living, breathing thing that you were truly a part of.  At its best, the Elder Scrolls would make you forget about this dumb meaty world where all your problems are and get you believing in this place where adventuring rules the day and people will regularly hire warriors to collect the laundry they lost at the end of a monster infested cave.  It really excelled at that.  The engine may have been hopelessly glitchy and the quest streams may be endless, yet they did serve the immersive experience this game really drove.

What’s really strange to me, though, is just how much my perceptions of this game have been driving by the video games environment I played it during.  Usually I’m well able to isolate things, and just enjoy them on their own merit, but not so much this game.  I remember playing it shortly after Morrowind.  Back then, I experienced the game as a definite step forward in terms of engine, a game that was more directly interactive and less reliant on behind-the-scenes dice rolls and bore a lot more quality of life features that really enhanced the experience, even as it did simplify a significant amount of the gameplay.  It was lacking character compared to its predecessor, having followed up a very alien realm by turning what was supposed to be a very Roman-inspired jungle nation into the standard fantasy thing you’ve seen over and over again, and the advent of voice acting significantly cut down on what people had to say, but it was still a really full and solid experience.  Coming back to it after Skyrim, I found the game somewhat obtuse, somewhat inelegant, and again lacking in character and depth of world in comparison, and clearly outshone in different ways by both games on either side of it, but still a very solid experience.

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And now?  Well, I enjoyed it enough to give 70 hours of my life to it, but even so, once again, I’m getting a very different perspective on it.  It’s builds its worth on the whole open world thing, of making you feel a part of this whole experience beyond just your screen, and it has a giant world of its own, so it definitely should be able to stand on its own, but I still find myself constantly and incessantly comparing it to other games.  The Elder Scrolls has become the standard in open-world design, and open world has become so in vogue right now.  Zelda does open world.  Mario does open world.  Monster Hunter does open world.  From the 2D Platformer to the 3D Platformer to the 3rd Person Shooter to the Open World game, that now seems the default for basically everything released.  And so many other games have taken and absorbed everything that once made Oblivion unique, to the point that I now have the same experience I do with so many other historically important games, the developmental milestones in the form that were once unique to this game but have proven so influential that all the ground they broke has been paved into a superhighway.  It’s interesting to see where it comes from, things have gone far beyond it now.

I think every time I’ve played this game, I’ve had a different take on it.  And when I come back some years down the road, when, at the rate things are going, everything is a Battle Royale game, I wonder if I’ll have a different take on the game then.

Analyzing Games the Aether Way

If you’ve read some of my older posts, you probably know that I just love to put too much thought to many of the games I play.  Explore the themes.  Read into the little features.  Even when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  Especially when the developers didn’t intend that to be there.  You probably also know that I am an amazing human being, and every living human either desires me or desires to be me.  You wouldn’t think that would be related to my tendencies for over-analysis, but to be honest, I don’t know how I make my magic work, so it very well could be.

Maybe you want to be amazing just like me.  You shouldn’t.  You should want to be amazing in your own way.  But if that way involves analyzing video games and other creative works, maybe I can help you with that.  Let’s take a case study, and go over the sort of unconscious method I use to dig into the plots, the settings, the themes, the meanings, the hidden little features of things in a way that makes experiencing them so much more meaningful to me.

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To play along, I ask that you give Loved by Alex Ocias a go.  It’s a quick little platformer, minimalistic, not really heavy on the mind, but it has a lot of features that we’ll be able to apply the following lessons to.  So please, if you have 10 minutes to spare, give that a quick playthrough before continuing on with the rest of this post.

Anyways, let’s get going.  You want to analyze a game?  Here’s how I do it.

1: Understand Your Filters

We’re all on our own lives here.  Every single one of us has our own backgrounds, morals, beliefs, values, set of experiences, and whatnot.  Your family, your friends, your work, all of them will have their own, different cultures.  Every one of us has our own path through life, and have absorbed so many little unique bits into ourselves that make up a huge chunk of who we are today.  And that impacts the way we view our media.

Assuming most of us here are human adults, our brains don’t experience most things in a vacuum.  Rather, our brains will process stimulus by comparing it to what we’ve experienced in the past and basing it on that.  Our past experience color and change the way we have our current experiences.  We have lens.  Biases.  Filters.

Usually, this is not a bad thing.  These lens can become overpowering, to the point where you’re primed to see something based on almost no indication and you ignore the contrary and deeper points and you end up having big, dumb, easily refuted rants about the deeply offensive targeted political statements of Princess Tutu or something, but most of the time, they’re just a thing to be aware of.  They can be helpful to you, in fact, giving you an interesting and unique way of looking at the media you’re going through.  And these change with time as well, as we all go through life.  Our understanding of the world evolves, and with it, the way we enjoy our fiction.  To make the most use of them, however, you need to know what they are and where they’re coming from.  Knowing what you connect with and why, what’s going to make the most impact on you and how it gets there, is really the prime step in going for a deeper understanding.

So, in the case of Loved, it starts of strong with just its title.  For those of you who aren’t playing along, a) c’mon, seriously? and b) Loved is a simple platformer where the narrator is continuously putting you down and ordering you to do things which are commonly not in your best interest.  Obeying the narrator adds more details to the environment and gives the interactable objects distinct shapes, but leaves the world black and white.  Disobeying adds color to the world, but leaves things as indistinct squares.  There’s only two characters in the game, you and that narrator, and you’re given very little details on either.  Because of the title, you know it involves love of some sort, and it’s clearly an unbalanced sort of love, with the way the narrator treats you, but other than that, the specific impression of the relationship between the two, that all comes from you.  So who were they?  A romantic couple?  Parent and child?  Owner and pet?  The game gives little indication.  Your sense of their relationship is going to come from your filters.

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Reaching Out on Mobile Games

I’ve invested into my gaming computer, and although I’ll never be an overclocker, I still have a pretty good rig.  With the exclusion of the Virtual Boy, I’ve owned every one of Nintendo’s consoles and handhelds.  I have the machinery to play any Playstation game I want.  The lower section of my TV stand is an absolute mass of gaming equipment, with a web of power cables that put most spiders to shame.  And yet I’ve never owned a phone that I could play any significant games on.

It just never really mattered to me.  I use my cell phone to call, text, take pictures, and idly surf the internet.  If I’m going to get games, I’d rather use a console.  It’s been rare that I’ve felt the need to even download an app, outside of the ones that are tied to my job somehow, but I’ve got my second cell phone provided by my job to handle that and make my pockets less comfortable.

I’ve had this $20 phone I got years ago, and have been really happy with it.  My service provider, however, has not.  They’ve wanted me to upgrade.  I’ve held up, until lately when they’ve announced my old, reliable phone wouldn’t work on their new network, and offered a lot of credit towards an upgrade.

So now I have a nice phone.  That can run pretty much anything.  That I never really wanted, but ok.  Now, players have denounced mobile gaming as being a haven for ‘filthy casuals’, but they denounced the Wii for the same thing, and you know, I have tons of phenomenal games for the console.  So I’m figuring there’s some real gems in cell phone gaming as well.  But I’ve been completely blind to that sphere of the craft.  So I’m reaching out to you all.  Those of you who’ve been riding the cell phone curve farther ahead of me, what games have  you enjoyed on your phone?

Eyes on The Witcher

The Witcher’s become kind of a big name in games.  One of the prime examples when you think of Western RPGs.  It’s a little weird, looking at the first game in the series, and realizing nobody expected that game to be successful.

It makes sense.  A game by a developer that had never done a project from the ground up before that goes deep into the lore of the obscure Polish novel series it’s based on that has never had any presence in the greater market?  Yeah.  That’s not going far.

Except it did!  The first Witcher game is a lot of fun!  And more than that, you can tell it’s made with a lot of love.  A lot of love by people who don’t know perfectly what they’re doing, sure, but that care for the material just oozes out.  The creators are obviously big Witcher nerds.  And more than anything else, they wanted to deliver the feeling of being the Witcher in the Witcher’s world to you.  And it makes for a good time doing so.

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So, to get this going, in this game, you are Geralt, the titular Witcher.  The game takes place shortly after the final novel in the series, in which Geralt, total badass that he is, got killed like a chump by some random farmer with a pitchfork.  Makes things a little awkward that he’s up and walking around here.  It’s awkward for the people in-universe too.  Geralt did, explicitly die there.  Then he came back to life, sans his memory.  This is a plot point.

And there, you come in.  Yeah, typical “amnesiac hero so we have an excuse to explain all the stuff to the newbies” thing, but it feels more natural here than it does in a lot of other properties.  I think the amnesia was better implemented throughout.  You are Geralt.  As a Witcher, your job is to find monsters and witch them.  Usually, there’s people who will pay you to witch specific monsters.  Sometimes, you have to witch people too, in pursuit of your goals, but never for pay.  Also, you get to carry three swords.  At the same time!

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The game’s definitely a lot more plot- and setting- based than it is combat based.  Not that there’s not plenty of combat, it’s just not where the focus is.  It wants you to feel the world of the Witcher.  Which isn’t a happy place to be.  I don’t think it goes full out dark fantasy, but man-eating monsters are a very common occurrence there, people are horrible to each other, and everyone’s survived several different wars in their lifetimes just to get to this point.  The most common enemies you face are either creatures that feed on the dead or are the risen dead themselves.  You spend more time in the grungy underbelly of the host city than any place nice, and even the nice places aren’t that great.   It’s largely typical medieval fantasy, but it’s really interesting to see it from a different perspective, filled to the brim with classic Polish folklore and beasties.  The novels originally were pretty significant for taking the classic fairy tales and giving them dark twists.  They’ve moved well beyond that, and you don’t see those elements directly in this game, but that’ll give you an idea of the level this is on.  I feel like the big strengths of the Witcher’s setting as a whole lie in its subtleties.  It’s not a big super-unique fantasy setting, but it does have some twists on it that show how much thought went into these things.  And it’s kind of neat how much of that world building got carted into this game without being super explicit about it.  I played this game before I ever read any of the books, and it never felt like I was missing out, but now that I’ve read a couple, it interesting to see the little bits they imported without ever bringing real attention to it.  Like, in the novels, the only women that ever wear their hair down are royalty, prostitutes, or sorceresses, all women who are in control of their own occupations and lives.  The game never calls direct attention to it, but they still bring that feature right over.

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The plot is… it’s interesting.  It has some depth to it, although it can be rather simple in points, but it does go in some interesting directions.  It only carries over a handful of characters and one major faction from the novels, but the style of tale it tells fits in with the original stories fairly well.  It is a bit stop and start, though.  Part of that is natural, coming from trying to carry an involved plotline in a somewhat sandbox world, while the rest is just from the plot and game structure not quite matching up.  The Act structure often brings things to a rather abrupt stop and shift, often when the transition is unexpected.  I lost out on both the best weapons in the game because the Act I was in ended without warning before I had all the sidequests I wanted to do done.  In any case, you’ll have long moments of moving slowly, before everything gets moving at a good clip once again.  I won’t call it persistent pacing problems, because it’s always at the player’s control, but you may not always elect to move through the lines as fast as you’d otherwise like.  In any case, it’s a decently ambitious plot, but the Witcher was obviously designed with gameplay progression in mind first, and story delivery second.  Still, it is multi-faceted enough to hold your interest when the plot does arise.  It plays really nicely with Geralt’s amnesia, in a way a lot of games ignore.  By that to mean, it actually addresses it more than twice.  Geralt has explicitly lost things in losing his memory, both becoming more gullible as he doesn’t have his experiences to draw back on, as well as losing track of who he is and his place in the world.  He has multiple conversations with old friends trying to figure out the role of witchers in this world that might be moving past them, and there’s some times where he has to recreate his personality and choose who he wants to be going forward.

Outside of wandering around and talking your way through situations, most of the gameplay comes through combat.  The combat engine here is really interesting to me.  It’s similar to the Dragon Age games, where all the action you’re seeing on screen are really just visual representations of a bunch of dice rolls going on behind the scenes, and a visual representation that doesn’t always match what’s actually going on.  You’ll see Geralt making some total acrobatic moves on his enemies, completely stun-locking them so they can’t even move, and his HP will still be chipping down bit by bit.

So yeah, the combat engine is interesting, here.  There’s not a lot of performance-based stuff you can do.  Essentially, once you’re in combat, there’s not a lot of choices you can make, and your skills won’t make much of a difference.  You get up to a five-hit combo with proper timing, but the timing is very easy to pull off, to the point that when you’re far enough into the game that enemies start presenting a challenge, you can get the full combo almost by rote.  You can switch styles at a whim, but in almost every situation, there’s a clear ‘best’ style to use, so you don’t get much utility out of that.  You do have some status-inducing bombs you can use to really change the tide of battle and a few spells you can mix up in combat, but other than that and your choices of target prioritization, all the other things you ‘could’ do to affect the outcome of battle take too long to have a meaningful effect. The core of the combat gameplay is going to play out as it plays out once you start the fight, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

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That’s because the big meat of the combat engine is in preparation.  You may not be able to do much to change the result of a combat encounter after you start the fight, but you’ve got a huge amount of things you can do before it.  From the start, you carry at least two swords, one steel for humans and one silver for monsters (both are for monsters), each of which can be forged and reforged with a variety of buffs and effects.  Each of those swords has three styles, one for heavily armored enemies, one for evasive enemies, and one for groups, that get different moves and effects depending on the choices you make as you level up.  And then you get a huge array of potions and blade oils to add additional temporary effects to you and your weapons.  You can’t just take an unlimited amount of potions, those things are somewhat toxic, and as you take more than a handful Geralt starts feeling the sting from them, so figuring out the most effective combination of the limited amount of potions you can take is vital for success.  The game is really big on having you do the in-universe research on the monsters and situations you’ll encounter and figuring out what you’ll need to counter them.  You have to find books.  Knowing about the monsters clues you into what they’re weak to, what swords and styles are best for them, and gives you extra ingredients for making your concoctions.  Books also contain the recipes for your potions, blade oils, and bombs which prove so vital, and enable you to gather alchemical ingredients in the wild.  The in-combat gameplay is very simple, but the mental work before it is anything but, which lends to a really interesting take on the typical RPG sword and claw business.

I guess I should also talk about one of the more famous/infamous parts of this game.  So, there’s porn in it.  Not like, hardcore porn or anything, but, well, Geralt has a lot of sex.  It’s pretty integral to the lore, a chaste Geralt would be like a virgin James Bond.  In this game, when you have sex with someone, you’re treated to a really tame kissy kissy fade out like you’d see most every other time something like this pops up.  And then you get a beautifully hand-drawn picture popping up that shows you what the character looks like naked.  It’s not an omnipresent thing or anything, and, with a few notable exceptions, you can ignore the sex scenes without missing out on plot or in-game rewards, but this is before the age of bathtub Geralt, so the sexual appeal is pretty one sided.  I’m a pretty sexually open person, so getting to know what a bunch of fictional people’s breasts look like doesn’t bother me at all, but if it’s not to your taste, I can’t fault you at all for not wanting it in your video games.

Overall, the Witcher does show a lot of signs of being a freshman game.  Designed pursuing the ideal over execution, the untempered ambition of the piece, and a fair bit of jankiness that experience probably ironed out of the later ones.  For all it’s flaws, it’s a really good game.  It delivers a unique experience, and it’s totally accessible yet becomes even deeper on repeat playthroughs and after having read the books.  It’s grown a little dated, but the game was solid enough to launch a very well regarded franchise and position its company well enough to put together the closest thing Steam has to a competitor.  I enjoyed my time with it, and I look forward to jumping into future games in the series.