The Battlegrounds Right Here: Persona 3 Retrospective, Part 4-Setting

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 3-Presentation

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

Nailing down the setting of Persona 3 can be a little difficult.  There’s a bit going on here.

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As is traditional for an SMT game, Persona 3 takes place over a much smaller geographic area than most other rpgs, in this case limiting itself to a single city, Iwatodai.  Iwatodai is a large coastal that is a major area of operations, although not the headquarters, for a major business megacorp, the Kirijo Group.  Much of the city’s landmass is made up of an artificial island, Tatsumi Port Island, that I would guess the Kirijo Group played a major hand in constructing.  It comes complete with all the major amenities you’d expect a large city to have; schools, shopping centers, train stations, residences, etc.

The Kirijo Group seems to have their hands in half of everything that goes on in Iwatodai.  They own the school, your dorm, the shopping mall, tons of businesses, probably your dog, some of the residents might be their slaves in disguise, it’s hard to draw the line there.  And we’re going to get into spoiler territory from this point forward, so watch that.  The Kirijo Group used to be a part of the Nanjou Corporation, of which one of your characters from Persona 1 and 2 was part of.  They went independent some time ago, but still maintain a pretty close partnership there.  Perhaps because of this connection, they became aware of the supernatural, particularly the persona that your crew use and the shadows that are newly introduced this game, and were experimenting on them, their owner eventually seeking to use their powers to create a ‘time manipulation device’.  Not a time machine.  A ‘time manipulation device’.

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Of course, as with every experiment ever conducted, this went wrong and almost destroyed the world.  Well, in this case, it ended up creating the whole dark hour deal that we mentioned earlier.  Whatever time manipulation magic they had going on there ended up inserting an extra hour into the day between midnight and midnight o’ one.  The experiment was conducted in what would become Gekkoukan High School, so, as that’s the epicenter of the event, it faces the most drastic transformation, becoming the dungeon tower Tartarus during the dark hour.  Everywhere else gets bathed in a sickening light, gets inundated with bloodstains, and sees monstrous shadows prowling all over the place.  So yeah, dark hour, not exactly pleasant times.  Although, you know, you can just stay in your dorm and get an extra hour of sleep.  So, on the bad side, people are either dying or having their desires consumed and becoming one of the Lost.  But on the good side, you get to be better rested.  So I’d say it’s really a wash.

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Lets talk about the Shadows a bit.  Persona 2 introduced Shadows already, although these are quite a bit different.  Like the Shadows from Persona 2, these Shadows were created by the collective unconscious, but that’s where the similarities end.  The Shadows fit a lot more fully into the Jungian Psychology mold the game series has been using, being manifestations of the parts of the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that people don’t want to acknowledge.  In Persona 3, they gather in the collective unconsciousness, clumping together until they take some monstrous physical form.  Which is then vulnerable to pummeling.  Most people will transmogrify into a coffin during the dark hour, which is apparently a defensive instinct, them playing dead so the Shadows will ignore them.  Not everyone does, though.  Some keep their form, and serve as prey for the monsters, their minds being eaten and forced into Apathy Syndrome until our heroes beat the big shadow boss at the next full moon, and temporarily drive the shadows back.  Some will endure the dark hour until they get taken over by their own Shadows, their physical form dissolving and being replaced by a Shadow themselves.  And some just do fine, there.

There’s not a whole lot in the game to dictate why people enter into the Dark Hour without transmogrifying.  I can make some conjecture, though.  Survival instincts can be simplified into being one of fight, flight , or freeze.  Transmogrifying into a coffin would be a pretty freezy habit.  It could be as simple as those who don’t transmogrify simply have another instinct take its place.  As Persona 3’s expansion, The Answer, and Persona 4 indicate, a Persona is a Shadow that’s been mastered and is able to fight against them.  So the Persona-users who don’t transmogrify would do so simply because they have the ability and the will to fight the Shadows.  Their survival instinct falls into the ‘fight’ category, so they don’t ‘freeze’ into coffins.  Those poor souls without that power who end up falling victim and becoming the Lost could well be those who are more given to flee than to freeze, whose instincts tell them to get out of dodge rather than hide or wait for them to go away.  Since running away hasn’t proven to be very effective against the shadows, it doesn’t typically end up well for them, as far as we can see.  Some people are able to calmly enter into the Dark Hour once they’re aware of its existence, and for those, I’d assume it’s because they don’t feel the need to trigger any of their survival instincts at all.  For that matter, we do see at least once that persona-users are able to get people out of their coffins and into dark hour awareness, although we’re not given much in the way of an idea as how they can do that.  I could theorize within the framework I’ve already established, but I’ve probably conjectured away from the base enough.

Persona 3 is strangely sparse on details of the Dark Hour.  Which is a little strange, given the series.  Personas 1, 4, and 5 were very clear on where their alternate world comes from, and 2 had everything taking place in its own world, and so didn’t need to bother with it.  3’s just not explicit.  Although the series has gone to the ‘collective unconsciousness as a physical location’ well before, and will do so again, that’s not the case here.  The Dark Hour is explicitly related to the existence of shadows in some way, and specifically related to Nyx, the shadow embodying humanity’s desire for death.  Perhaps it’s for that reason the death and blood imagery is all over the place during the dark hour, and that the dark hour is so draining to everyone within it.  After all, the depression and anguish that would be embodied in the dark hour would be rather draining.  It’s not explored whether the dark hour is a local phenomenon, or something that happens world-wide.

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Like much else, Tartarus, the massive tower that your school turns into during the Dark Hour, is super symbolic and representative of the game’s themes.  In this case, it’s representative of the theme of the developers desire to have a place for you to grind.  And that’s about it.  Really, as much as I will go out of my way to connect poorly arranged pieces of a puzzle in a story, I can’t find a fit for this one.  Tartarus is barely connected to the plot, doesn’t really seem to have a thematic fit outside of its reaching for the moon, and doesn’t really seem to deliver anything narratively.  It’s where you go to fight shadows when you don’t have a plot-related mission or anything to do.  Akihiko considers it a training ground, and we could say, given that it’s growing out of the spot where shadows were unleashed into the world, it’s a hive or nest for shadows.  Mayhaps this is where the new ones emerge into the rest of the world from.  It’s established that time flows differently there, as Fuuka was trapped in Tartarus for days, yet felt only a few hours passed.  It’s also the spot where Nyx is destined to make her descent.  Otherwise, it’s mostly a Macguffin.  It’s something the story tells you is important, but doesn’t really do all that much to establish it.  It does serve, however, as a massive call back to Persona 1’s Snow Queen quest, being a big tower made out of a school named Tartarus that has Nyx at the end of it.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Iwatodai, outside of all the supernatural stuff and hidden magic conflicts and stuff going on there, is the people in there.  Overall, it’s a pretty dour, selfish group.  And that comes through a lot.  This is a community that largely just leaves the Lost, people who have overall lost any ability to take care of themselves or do anything, completely alone, as long as they’re out of the way.  We don’t see them do much to help out the invalids right in front of them.  Moreover, this is also the same community that readily organizes into doomsday cults given little provocation and actively takes part in murder requests once the rumor gets out that they work.  Missing students get ignored.  The fact that the hospital can hold people against their will on behalf of the Kirijo Group is forgotten.  Students will whine about going to classmates funerals.  Scam artists can proliferate there with little reprisal.  The horrible things the town and the people therein are going through end up treated as little more than gossip to most.  Even in your social links, oftentimes you’re running across people completely self-centered, thinking only of their own path through life and not how they pave over others.

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And yet, even then, there’s glimpses of good in people.  Starting with your crew, who through all the traumas they’re going through, still keep their eyes on the common good and willingly sacrifice themselves for others, up to and including their very lives.  Many of your social links will see people come to a realization of just how self-centered they’re being, and turn around to make amends and improve other’s lives.  And, in the end, all your friends do come around for you, too.  It’s small, in the wake of the self-centered juggernaut that is the town as a whole, but you can find lots of people with real gems inside of them, you just need to brush off the dirt to get there with many of them.

Visual Novel Theatre: Ame no Marginal – Rain Marginal

Yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve done one of these.  Let’s change that!

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Ame no Marginal, or Rain Marginal depending on how much of a Japanophile you want to be, is a visual novel by Tomo Kataoka, a VN author who got really famous for his work on Narcissu, which we have covered here before, some years ago.  Those of you who’ve checked that out will find a lot familiar here.  It’s made in the same engine, the storytelling style is much the same, and it’s still a big exercise in minimalist storytelling.  However, Rain Marginal, although marketed pretty heavily on that Narcissu collection and even containing a bonus chapter for Narcissu after you finish the story here, really stands on its own.  Its got its own concept, its own characters, and brings to bear a rather distinct set of themes from all the rest.

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The crux of Ame no Marginal deals with a separate, almost entirely featureless world where it’s always raining and time seems to stand still.  People within that world don’t age, heal injuries almost immediately, and never get hungry or thirsty.  Sounds cool, but as I said, almost entirely featureless.  There’s only one place in the world where you can get some covering from the rain, there’s a river that sometimes brings in the random broken down object, and there’s a place where you can get glimpses into the real world if you’re willing to walk a century or so to get there.  Aside from that, it’s all just flat stone.  And worst of all, most of the time, for years and years on end, there’s only one person inside of it.  Very occasionally, someone else will wander in, but the world will only allow there to be two people within it for up to three days at a time.

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The story itself has two plotlines going through it.  The first follows the typical featureless Japanese male visual novel protagonist, whose name is probably Jenner Rick or something like that.  Rick lives a pretty typical salaryman life, and he finds it utterly banal.  This brings him to depression, and we see some suicidal ideation coming from him on a regular basis.  One day, as he’s heading to his office, the elevator that normally takes him there has an extra button, another floor above the top.  He presses it, and finds himself in this rainy world, where he meets Rin, a bubbly and optimistic child who seems to have been living there for quite some time.  This line will follow along with him over the three days that he has there.

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The second line tells the story of Rin herself, some hundreds of years before she meets Rick.  And she didn’t live a happy life.  Brought up in feudal Japan as a slave to some religious institution that forces extreme restrictions on its girls as part of some measure of contrition to their god, she watches her sister, who always happily took part in this faith, get killed by these restrictions, and has them forced on her in her sister’s place.  Then bandits attack her shrine, she is set adrift, and she finds herself ending up in this rainy world, together with a seemingly carefree woman who exhibits strange powers.  Rin’s story kind of follows the same path as Rick’s at first, going largely over the interactions between the two characters there and Rin’s adjustment to the rain world, before it starts to take a different direction entirely.

One thing that I find really interesting about the two, two-and-a-half, however many perspectives you want to call it on this world is that they look at it in very different ways.  Rick actually seems to find a lot of comfort there.  He doesn’t say it outright, he acknowledges that this world would suck to be stuck in, but he does seem to find the whole experience very reflective.  With him, it appears that the world on the outside that he finds himself in shows him what the world he’s feeling on the inside is like.  Rin, on the other hand, seems to find the world to be an embodiment of her sin, although she doesn’t really understand that sin in the first place.  Her upbringing, trapped in that abusive religious institution and the horrors she saw there, left her with a very distinct mental structure for how things work, yet she doesn’t really understand any of the parts of it.  And she’s also there for a long, long time, which shows us quite a bit of how sort of thinking can progress.

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The story gets a lot of mileage out of those two perspectives as well, sometimes in some really thoughtful ways.  For example, in Rick’s chapters, we see two different versions of Rin, the bubbly, optimistic one we see in the daytime, and the fatalistic, rude one at night.  When we get behind’s Rin’s head, we find that neither of them really accurately depict Rin’s actual personality.  The daytime one seems to be a persona she puts on with the rare opportunity to spend time with someone else, and she might not even be aware the nighttime Rin is coming out of her.  And that’s just the lead to this.  Rain Marginal has some spots of really surprising depth, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more out of the story thinking about it afterwards than I did when I was actually in the midst of playing it.

It takes a certain type of patience to enjoy Ame no Marginal, however.  Even for being as short as it is, around two hours without the Narcissu bonus chapter, it’s a really slow moving story.  Which I suppose is par for the course here.  We’re talking about a work of fiction with only three characters of which only two can interact at a time in a world where the whole point is that there’s nothing going on and almost nothing ever changes.  There’s not a whole lot happening, and there’s a whole lot of introspection.  If you’re into thoughtful works, where you really have to slow down and focus on the little things, this could be your bag, but if not, I don’t see you getting much out of it.

And unfortunately, while it does have a lot of thoughtful moments, I think this visual novel’s biggest failing is that those moments don’t really come together into a cohesive whole.  Tomo Kataoka has been a big proponent of the theory that it’s really up to you to determine what you get out of a work, what it means, what the themes are, what it has to teach you, all that jazz.  And it worked really well with Narcissu.  Here, though, it just doesn’t feel like there’s all that much substance.  There’s a lot of flashes of good work in there, but overall, it feels like a lot of not really connected ideas were just thrown together and called a day.  I’ve seen some posts out there trying to hash out what Ame no Marginal means to no real effect, but rather than because it’s just really subject to interpretation, I think it’s because there’s just no real intention behind the stuff here.  We see a few things as to what the world might represent, but beyond that anything else really means anything.  The story leaves a lot of questions with absolutely no hints of any answers whatsoever.  Why Rin has those two personalities, what the river is and why it seems to have portals to or from the real world at either end, the woman with mysterious powers that Rin encounters and why her experiences in the world are so very different from hers, so much and more gets absolutely no exploration and no sense there’s any greater thought behind it.  And it doesn’t help that the finale just drops happy endings on everybody out of nowhere with no sense of actually resolving anything.  I’m willing to give a lot of things the benefit of the doubt, but here, well, if the job of an author is to turn an answer into a question, this work seems like a lot of its questions never had answers in the first place.

And in a nutshell, that’s Ame no Marginal.  It’s quick, and if you’re in the right frame of mind, it can be enjoyable and make you think.  It doesn’t really stand up to deep scrutiny, however, and given the potential of the author and his way of writing, that’s a real shame.

Eyes on Binary Domain

So the Yakuza guys made a cyberpunk game, huh?

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Which immediately strikes me as kind of an unfair statement to lead in with.  Yes, this is made by the Ryu ga Gotoku team, the group behind one of my favorite video game series, Yakuza.  Yes, that fact is what made me pay attention to the game in the first place, and it one of the features that most makes it stand out in a market, but honestly, that doesn’t have a whole lot of bearing on the end product.  Some teams, studios, designers, etc stick to a really distinctive design.  Hideo Kojima makes a game, you know it’s going to be full of giant cinematic cutscenes, swap between the bizarre and the realistic freely, and you will be lectured on Kojima’s moral stands through the characters.  If Bioware makes a game (well, pre-MMO Bioware, who knows where their design sense is now) it’s going to have expansive dialogue choices and convoluted plots.  Platinum Studios makes a game, its action will be extreme and fast and tense, and its plot and visual design will be waaaaaay over the top.  You know these things.

Some developers and studios, however, don’t stick to just one thing.  They’ve got some variety to them.  You wouldn’t think Ryu ga Gotoku studios would, given that they have one franchise that they keep churning out on a regular basis, but as Binary Domain shows, they really do.  This game has very little in common with the Yakuza series that the studio is based around.  It’s a completely different genre.  It’s distinctly made for an international audience whereas Yakuza is extremely Japanese.  It’s in an entirely different setting, requiring a very different visual design, and is structured completely differently.  Its takes a completely different path of play.  It does carry through the overall ethos of character design, with people that include just the right amount of visual flaws to look super realistic, and the very appropriately placed product placement, but that’s really all I can pick up on that’s carried over from the Yakuza series.

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Good Sexy, Bad Sexy

Come to think of it, this post is going to cover the same ground as something I did years ago, when I was just a little baby blogger.  Just, saying it now in a different way.  So consider this the HD Remix of one of my most popular for probably the wrong reasons seminal posts of why and in what situations sexiness can be good.

Sexuality is awesome, isn’t it?  It grabs people at a very instinctual, emotional level, it brings people together, and makes us feel whole.  It makes us healthier physically and mentally, it gives us drive and energy, and it feels so innate to us that most consider it a significant part of our identity and our society has adopted a rather complex set of cultural practices surrounding sexuality.  It likely comes as no surprise, coming from the world’s sexiest man as determined by a survey of myself and my mirror, but to me, sexuality is a marvelous thing to be celebrating.

Media producers often work sexuality or titillation into the works they’re producing.  This is not a new phenomenon, it’s been going on for hundreds of years.  Just think back to all those classical paintings you spent way too long staring at back in middle school.  And it’s no wonder why.  We’ve got an instinctual draw for it, and it’ll capture or attention in a way that little else will.  And it works on an instinctual level, just like we react to the simulated intensity of danger or the fear of horror, so too do we get a thrill from sexiness when it’s coming through our screens, canvas, or pages.  And in contrast to what many may say, I’d posit that that’s a good thing that we can get that hook in us when we wish.

Which makes me wonder why so many creators get it so wrong.

Recently I was playing Oneechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers, which is part of a strange and eclectic collection I call “Games I own because of the women I’ve dated”.  Which also includes the first three games of the Hitman series, Onimusha, Final Fantasy VII Dirge of Cerberus, Dynasty Warriors III, the entire Fable series, Syberia II, the Wii version of Oregon Trail, and the absolute bane of my existence, Fur Fighters.  I’m coming to realize that my ladyfriends have some really mixed tastes.  Not sure what that says about me.  Anyways, in this case, as you can probably tell by the title, this is a total fanservice game.  It exists to put scantily clad women in front of you.  And yet I found the sexuality there really wasn’t working for me.  It’s kind of a middling game without it, yet the sexiness, I found, actually dragged the experience down.  I was wondering about that.  I’ve played a lot of other games where I enjoyed the sexuality there or felt it actually uplifted the experience.  And it got me thinking back to what made the difference there.

And that got me thinking back to that post I mentioned above.  And, you know, almost six years later, I still stand by that post.  I occasionally look back over my old writings and find something I may not agree perfectly with now, but that one, that still holds up completely.  But the thought still remains in my mind, of the differences between the works that do their sexuality right and those that don’t.  And I’d like to explore that here, today.  I’m not going to walk in my own footprints and re-make those same statements I did years ago, so check that post if you’d like some background on this whole deal.  But I would like to delve into that concept again.  This time, let’s take a look at how it works specifically, comparing and contrasting a few examples.

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

Part 1-Intro

Part 2-Gameplay

Part 4-Setting

Persona 1 Retrospective

Persona 2 IS Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Amazon Preorder Problem

Fair warning, this post isn’t going to be like most of my other posts.  Most of them have something constructive to offer.  Or, at least, intended to be constructive.  Like, you’re supposed to be amused or inspired or enlightened or struck by how cool and sexy that Aether guy is or something like that.  This post is just me mildly ranting about something that’s largely inconsequential, with maybe a hint of consumer notice.  One might wonder why I’m even spending the time here on it.

Because I feel like it, that’s why.

Businesses like pre-orders.  It’s good for them.  For producers and retailers, it gives advance economic information on what the likely market for this product is going to be, gets a committed buyer in you, and gets people purchasing items for the intended price, before market forces have the chance to adjust it.  For consumers, the advantage is really only if they expect there to be an insufficient supply of the item, which for games has been fading in the world of cheaply produced storage media and digital distribution.  So game publishers will sometimes add incentives for it.  Preorder bonuses, what not.  Because they want you to get preorders, because it’s good for them.  Sometimes you just preorder because you know you’ll want the game at launch either way.

But however you do preorders, a central conceit of them is that once the item is out, they’ll actually send you the thing.  Apparently, Amazon is trying a maverick new business practice where instead when the item you ordered is released, they just don’t do anything.  That’s right, this is a marvelous new feature where you can take all the time you were going to spend on that item you were hotly anticipating and spend it bonding with your friends and family, going out and volunteering, and overall making your life better instead of enjoying time with your new item.

So… yeah.  I kind of like buying games to commemorate things, when the opportunity presents itself. One of the very very few odd things about me, I guess.  Souvenirs and other simple visuals I’ll inevitably end up sticking somewhere and largely forgetting about them, clothes and useful things will get worn out and destroyed eventually, but games will come back in memory and in turn remind me of the events and people around them.  Every time I think back to Final Fantasy Adventure, I remember the childhood road trip with my Grandpa in which he got me the game.  Metroid Prime 3 reminds me of one of my old, departed, college professors, as I bought it with money I earned helping him put his property in order in the last months of his life.  And early last year, I put a couple of month’s work into a competition, ended up winning a chunk of money in it, and thought I’d get myself the physical release of Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove to create some memory callbacks to the experience later.

So I preordered it.

On Amazon.

That was a mistake.

The early parts of it weren’t their fault.  When I originally preordered it, it was coming out in May of last year, but then the developers delayed it indefinitely  Eventually they announced a release of December 10th.  So… there’s like a six month delay between when I expected I’d get it and when I actually should have gotten it that has nothing to do with Amazon.  I use my family’s account, so that holiday season, I couldn’t check in on it for fear of getting Christmas spoilers.  But December 10th came and went with no Shovel Knight.  Well, sometimes things get delayed, and the holiday season’s a busy one for both Amazon and the postal service.  Maybe it’s just running late.  But then a week passed with no Shovel Knight.  Then two.  Then Christmas.  Still no Shovel Knight.  Check the order now, and it’s saying it’ll be there by January 4th.  Never actually was shipped.  I call up Amazon Customer Service, trying to figure out, hey, what the heck, is this actually going to come for real?  I was told it will definitely be shipped out, and would be there January 4th.  It wasn’t.  Call Amazon Customer Service, it’ll definitely be there January 27th.  Check Amazon later, it’s saying January 29th.  For a game that had been out almost a month, and I had preordered almost a year ago.

So I cancel that, order the exact same game through Amazon (Prime shipping is addictive) and the game is in my sexy hands two days later.  Leading me to wonder what the point of preordering in the first place was.  It literally got to me faster and more reliably ordering after release than it did through preorder.

I’ve heard Amazon can be a little hit and miss with preorders.  I rarely preorder games, but have done so before through Amazon without issue.  And I get that Amazon is an organization moving a lot of product, and quantity leads to mistakes, and they’re high pressure as well, which also leads to mistakes.  Things can happen.  But what galls me here is that Amazon had multiple opportunities to detect and correct the problem, at least the times I brought it to their attention, and it didn’t happen.  No problem here, move along sir.  No idea how representative this is of typical preorder on Amazon, or if this might possibly be a nefarious plot by one of my many enemies, but, beware, I guess.  Could happen to you.

Maybe.

But hopefully not.

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.