State of the Quest

We’re going to be posting a bit differently, here at Lost to the Aether, for at least the near future. Your main man was wounded recently, and while it’s not anything you should be worrying about, the effects of this do mean that I’m having a harder time focusing and putting the kind of thought I usually do into these posts. I should be able to make a full recovery with time, but until then, well, the content’s just going to be a little different around here, more in line with my presently diminished capacity. So, you know, fair warning. I hope you’re into it. I hope I’m into it, too.

Today I’m going to go back to an old standby and talk about myself. I’m good at that. Specifically, my little gaming quest. I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, once upon a time, I got the odd idea in my head that I was going to beat all of my games. All of them. I’ve been collecting games since I was a cub, I’ve got a lot of them. I give myself a bit of a break when the game is too glitchy to progress, or in the very, extremely, infinitesimally rare case I’m not skilled enough to beat a game, but overall, if I own it, I will beat it. I’m going through my entire collection, with games grouped by the console generation they released in, and by hook or by crook beating every single game I own.

This little quest has been an interesting one. Some games I never would have given the chance I did, some games I found that I enjoyed in a different way, and some games, playing them this way has actually given to my perspective of them. This quest has certainly changed the way I value games and the experiences contained therein.

But have I mentioned that I have a lot of games? Because I have a lot of games. The NES era took me a few weeks to play through. SNES took me several months. The N64/PS generation took me about a year to clean out. The PlayBoxCube era? I have been at this for years. Many years. Too many years. Longer than I’d care to admit. Children have been born into my family since I started, and have now grown old enough that I can have a sensible conversation with them. It’s been a long time. Part of which is that this was the generation I started making an income in, then one that I filled in later when I started picking up the other consoles for cheap, so my collection is perhaps the largest in this area. Part of it is that there are just so many JRPGs on these consoles bloody hell and they all take like 40 hours minimum to beat.

But for all the causes, I’m most of the way through. I estimate that I’ll be through the rest of this console generation and on to the next, hopefully not so long one, in about a year. That might be a bit optimistic of me, but still, pretty close. I’m excited.

I thought I’d take a look at all the rest of the games ahead of me. What do I have coming up, what shall soon be moving through the life of Aether, what more must I conquer before the next milestone. Because sometimes, it’s just fun to get organized.

Currently Playing

Tales of the Abyss

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So of all the games I haven’t beaten yet on this quest, this one is one of my favorites. The Tales series has, overall, been pretty solid ever since Tales of Symphonia, and Tales of the Abyss shows the developers in rare form. The Tales series has spent the past decade and a half really strong in terms of characterization, oddly charming technobabble, and in pointedly subverting common storytelling tropes, and Tales of the Abyss showcases some of the best the series has to offer. Mixing the typical JRPG wayfaring and dungeon diving with a fast-paced Smash Bros-esque combat engine keeps the experience feeling really varied and fresh. They don’t really add much new to the mechanics here over previous installments, and the new features they do add seem largely circumstantial, but the mechanics are very solid. I’m having a good time with it.

Also, I get to play as a left hander in this game. How often do I get to do that?

Summoner: A Goddess Reborn

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The other game I’m currently playing is one of the best games I have left on my list. This one is one of the worst.

Which I suppose if this is the bottom of the barrel, the barrel’s not really that bad. Summoner: A Goddess Reborn is no Fur Fighters, or Turok: Evolution, or Fallout Tactics. It’s not the type of game that actively offends me for its existence. It’s just… kind of bad.

You remember when THQ made RPGs? Yeah, those were always kind of quirky titles, none of them actually very good. This is along those lines. I’m actually really interested in the lore and the world. It’s obvious the developers put a lot of time and thought into those. I just wish they put as much into their engine and presentation. Gameplay is as slow and clunky as my uncle’s pinto. When it goes bad, it gets about as explosively horrible, too. Graphics and sound are poor, and the art design is all over the place. It’s world is interesting, but it’d take a better game to keep me around if I wasn’t forcing myself to.

I’m a little worried that I may not actually be capable of taking this game the whole way through. Most of the time, strategy or skill makes at least a bit of a difference to how well combat goes, but when the game hits its bad points, that goes out the window and there’s not a whole lot to do except button-mash and hope it works out for you. I haven’t been completely stopped yet, but I’m worried that I’ll run into one of those bottle-necks where skill or preparation doesn’t matter and the odds are too stacked against me to make any headway, and that’ll be a really unsatisfying end to this run.

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Fallout: Homecoming

Last time on our adventures in Fallout, Athena was a marriage counselor, a career counselor, and a health inspector. She’s a multi-talented one, that Athena. Where will she be using those talents next? Let’s find out.

So Athena has been out in the wastes for a couple of weeks now. All her best friends are already dead. Maybe she’s feeling a little homesick. Wants to go back, chat with everyone, remind herself why she’s doing this. I mean, it’s one thing to know she’s going to save the 2000 people she’s known for as long as she’s been alive. But it’s another thing entirely to see their smiling faces. So what if she hasn’t actually saved them, yet? Athena needs her good juju!

So we head back home. Back to Vault 13. The journey takes us several days in completely the opposite direction from where we’re likely to find the water chip our vault desperately needs, but… I’m sure it’s for the best. It’s not like it’ll doom everybody. Right?

So we take Tycho and Dogmeat back to the mountain Vault 13 is built into. If Ian were still alive, he’d have some stuff to say about this place, but he’s not. Dogmeat’s not doing a great job of keeping the conversation going in his stead.

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At the entrance of the vault, we remember to loot Ed’s body this time, although everything he has is plenty outdated by now. Athena punches her code into the keypad, and the door actually works this time! Vault dwellers! For the first time, your hero has returned! Give her your adulation!

The vault is largely unimpressed. Athena responds by looting a bunch of flares from an emergency locker near the entrance of the vault. Then she talks to the doctor, who says she’s doing just fine and tries to shoo her on her way. Nobody else cares.

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In fact, everyone just complains about how late it is, and refuse to talk to her.

Woman is out there, risking her life so that they can all enjoy a crisp, cool glass of water, and they don’t have the basic decency to absolutely adore her. Maybe these jerks don’t get their water chip.

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Lagging Behind on the Leading Ladies: Part 1, Why I’m here.

Hold onto your seats, boys and girls. We’re going to talk about women in video games. Specifically, women as protagonists. You may have heard, likely from someone typing with way too many caps and exclaimation points, that the industry has a bit of a problem with its leading ladies. Which is not to say they aren’t out there. There are a huge number of strong female characters in video games. Given the size of the industry, in sheer numbers, there’s even a lot of protagonists with double X chromosomes. I could make you a list of playable female characters a mile long. The problem comes in when you’re looking at proportions, in which the formerly fairer sex is completely crowded out by a wave of digital masculinity. I’d like to see women getting a bit more market share. The thing is, gender representation in games is a hugely complicated issue, far more than your random agenda-pundit on Twitter is ever going to give it credit for. If all it took for creators to work some more women into their leads was to click on the right check box, it’d already be happening. Video games are a business, this overwhelming preference for male leads wouldn’t be happening in a vacuum. There are a lot of business, creative, and social factors that may be complicating the situation, and in this series of posts, we’re going to take a look at just what may be making varied gender representation in games such a hard thing to implement.

Before we get int that, though, I wanted to get into why I care. Wait, let’s put that another way. I want to talk about why I, as manly a dude as God has ever invented who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about this stupid culture war the Internet’s been waging in which it seems a participant’s intelligence is inversely proportional to the number of words they put together talking about it still wants to see more women helming his video games.

It’s not about trying to score points for any given side or to try to pick up women by white knighting for them, because when you look as good as I do, it’s no problem getting myself an in. Nor am I just looking for some new eye candy for my screen, although I wouldn’t begrudge it when used appropriately. To some extent, I do have the social concern. Studies have shown that just hearing stories about someone of their particular demographics finding success can lead to a statistically significant improvement on skills and education tests, and people shouldn’t have to work hard to find that in their chosen medium, though.  On the flip side, unless there’s a mirror in the room I do typically enjoy looking at women more than I do at men, and having more women leads would facilitate that. But to be honest, when I’m home, trying to get my leisure on, those are both small concern to me.  Really, what it all comes down to for me is a very selfish thing. I just want to play better games with better stories, and part of that is having more interesting leads.

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Just a refresher for those of you that need it, women are those people that wouldn’t go to prom with you in high school because they were too busy thinking about me. Anecdotally, more of my personal friends who play have been women than men, although I know that’s not representative. Women make up more than half of the human population, and a significant portion of the video games market. Although their proportions in a given industry, women are involved in all occupations, including military, law enforcement, crime, and video game development. Yet for all of their involvement in real life they don’t make up a very large proportion of video game leads.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that video game protagonists are more diverse than protags in most other creative industries, in the sense of actual experiential variation if not filling the EEO checkmarks. The most recognizable video game hero is both fat and rather ethnic. Due to the strong Japanese influence and historic market share, Asian and mixed-race characters abound. I could bring you examples of characters of all economic backgrounds. And I’d guess that you still see a lot more women taken seriously in action roles than in most other media. So while video games may seem to get more heat on the internet around its representation, I would posit that there’s a lot less inequality here than in most. Inequality is inequality, and that it’s there, even if it’s better than you might find otherwhere, is a sign that we’ve still got work to do, but recognition of that fact is handy for discussion.

The problem, from my big selfish perspective, comes when certain models of characters become overwhelmingly widespread. Now, this isn’t the first time games have run things into the ground. Back in the NES/SNES era, we needed characters that could be easily represented at minimal size and pixel use, so the mascot character ran rampant. As 3d games started getting their hold, and it became easier for the technology to represent someone recognizably human, the anime pretty boy started popping up all over the place. Then, when graphics started getting realistic, well, realism is apparently white brown-haired thirty something whatever.

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Any individual character is just fine. You can’t really pull out any individual mascot or spiky-hair or generic dude and honestly say they embody the worst of their era. It’s like steak. You can make a great meal out of it, you can prepare it so many different ways, there’s a lot of variation to it, but if you eat it every day, it’s going to start tasting bitter. Such it is with characters. Variety is key to keeping things fresh and interesting. When it’s something you’ve seen a thousand times, now matter how solid it is, it’s just harder to get into it. So when everything’s built off of the same general design document, the world just starts to look bland.

Breaking away from the XY chromosome isn’t the only way to add sufficient visual interest to a character. There are other ways to add in some fun variations. After all, Heihachi is made more interesting by virtue of being old. Link is made more interesting by being left handed. Dunban is made more interesting by being absolutely gorgeous and looking remarkably like your favorite video games blogger.

Nor is strapping a pair of tits on a character enough to automatically create that visual interest. No matter how white boy he might be, Geralt is still way more obviously interesting than Left 4 Dead’s Rochelle, just from a basic design standpoint. So yeah. Characters don’t have to be women to be interesting. And while the visuals, including their demographic, are the foundations from which a character springs, But women leads are a really obvious way to both create more interest through variety in their protagonists and get the story told through a somewhat different lens that we’re just not seeing that much of. Supplanting male characters is a common idea that just strikes me as a completely blind approach to the issues, but getting some lady leads, that carve out their own identity, much as Lara Croft, Faith, and Aloy have? That’s some low-hanging fruit that remains largely unplucked.

But there’s barriers to getting there. It’s not a simple decision for most of these businesses on any level.  You know what, let’s do some science here.

No, wait.  Let’s do some SCIENCE!

We’re going to do a big scientific study, right here, right now.  You would think, if it was easy to have women as lead characters in our games, if it were a simple matter, if the only thing holding it back was a bunch of old business dudes and their outdated assumptions, the indie creators would be making more woman-led games then the establishment.  Their creators are given more free reign, the companies thrive on individuality, and the smaller a company is the more flexible and the more in touch with their market they should be able to be.  So if there weren’t any of these business, creative, or social concerns in place, I would think that they’d be more reactive to the vocal demands for more women representation and the larger place women have been taking in our culture.

That’s what’s called a hypothesis in the biz.  We’re going to run a quick survey, sample size of my Steam library, on how many games have male protagonists, female protagonists, and indeterminate gendered/choice of gender or main characters/no protagonist.  First up come the major company releases.

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Really.  Out of almost 100 games, only six female protagonists?  Not very diverse, game industry.  Fine, let’s look at the Indies next.

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See!  There we go!  Numbers are still relatively low, but that’s 12% female protagonists in the indie sphere against just over 6% in the mainstream releases!  Twice as much!  Eat that, producers!

But wait.  There was one sphere that might be skewing those results.  Let’s take a look at those numbers again, but let’s take out the Visual Novels and Environmental Narratives that have very limited amounts of player involvement from those.  Not because they don’t count as games, we’re not getting into that argument here.  But because I think it does give a more accurate picture when we’re looking at the games where the player is expected to act through their character in a meaningful way.  So here’s the numbers when we isolate those games in which the player is an active participant.

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Indies have more mixed options, but as far as stories told with a strictly female protagonist?  The proportion is basically the same as the mainstream releases. 6% vs. 6.5%.

That’s because it’s harder to work in a female protagonist than most might assume, and those difficulties are largely the same whether you’re a company outfit or an indie studio.  If we are going to ask for more gender variation in our protagonists, I feel it’s important to understand where those barriers are, because creators aren’t going to break through them until their audience is there on the other side.

And that’s what we’re going to be taking a look at in this series. I hope you’ll join me for it.

Throwdown in Junktown. Fallout Chapter 7!

Last time on Fallout, y’all decided to side with the good, handsome lawman that asked kindly for our help over the evil fat jerk that threatened us. I know it was a hard choice for you all. But one that I’m happy to see through.

So, we head on over to Killian, and let him know the good news. We got Gizmo’s confession, courtesy of the recorder we were wearing when he hired us to kill the mayor/shopkeeper. For that, Killian offers us our choice from a number of different rewards. Not quite the ‘anything in the store’ he promised. In fact, outside of the stimpaks, everything he offers is something that we already have and couldn’t get any more use out of. So yeah, for finally breaking the stalemate that has locked Junktown down for who knows how long, he gives us like five of the most basic healing item in the game. Woo.

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He follows by asking us if we’d like a piece of the action in taking down Gizmo, to which we respond that we’d love the chance to see the fat guy try to walk. With that, we head out.

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Unfortunately, we never get the chance to see that through. Killian gathers the guard, storms into Gizmo’s office, and announces that Gizmo is going for a long trip downtown. Gizmo decides that he’d rather not, so he pulls out a gun and fires a shot into Killian. All from behind his desk. The guy in fact never leaves that desk at all, so no walking for him.

In any case, Killian and his guards return fire on Gizmo. Athena takes aim at Gizmo’s bodyguard, Izo, and nails him in the head. Izo is a pretty simple combatant, no weapons, no items, nothing special, just pure physicality to him. He might be dangerous, if we didn’t find metal armor long before we’d be able to get it if we hadn’t taken on the raiders. As is, he strikes at us twice in his turn, neither of which break past our armor class.

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The guards and Killian continue the firefight with Gizmo while Dogmeat and Athena take on Izo. Athena knocks him down with a critical hit, and Dogmeat closes in and finishes Izo off herself. Next turn, a shotgun blast blows Gizmo’s chest out of him, and the crime lord is down.

This gains us the good well of most of the justice-styled folks in the town, as well as enough experience points for another level. We’ll be waiting until it’s night to level up, for the extra skill points that come as Athena’s intelligence rises. We’ve got some business in town before then, however.

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So hey, you remember Tycho, the desert ranger at the bar who taught us some stuff about survival? We check in with him, and tell him that Killian has asked us to clean up the town, and he’s all to happy to join up. He suggests we start by taking down Gizmo. Yeah… I guess we could have picked him up after turning in Gizmo’s recording, but I’ve always remembered his recruiting criteria as being after we take down the plus-sized crimelord.

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From the Outside Looking In

A good critic is not a good creator. We saw this well with Roger Ebert, who became one of the most important voices in the film industry for his critiques and reviews, but the actual movies he was behind saw a troubled reception at best. Critiquing something takes a totally different skillset than creating something, which itself takes a totally different skillset than getting someone interested in something. Talking about what did or would make something good in retrospect is a completely different picture that building something good from the ground up. And frankly, creators have the harder job.

I used to follow Shamus Young’s blog pretty consistently. Dude’s pretty prolific with it, so I’ve read a lot of his words. His former LP series was the first Let’s Plays I got into, so… yeah. He’s put a lot of thoughts on video games out into the world, and I’d absorbed a lot of his ideas over the years I spent with him.

About the time I moved on from his content, he was working on building a game of his own. I ended up being surprised that it actually existed when I caught it by chance on a Steam sale last year, so I picked it up, toyed around with it a few times, and finally gave it a good, earnest playthrough relatively recently.

There’s something very surprising about Good Robot. Namely, after all his commentary on games that I’ve consumed, this would be the last game in the world I would have expected him to make.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t end up being the only person making the game. He took it to a point, but got another team involved once it turned out he couldn’t get it to where he wanted himself. But still. There’s a lot in that game that runs completely along the same lines as things he’s been completely dour for before.

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Let’s give you a picture of what we’re looking at first. Good Robot. It’s a twin-stick shooter roguelike. And… that’s about it, actually. The real notable things about it are the interesting things it does with vision, and the fact that the levels are truly procedurally generated rather than being a collection of pre-built rooms in random formation. Aside from that… meh. The engine seems pretty solid, and it feels good to move and shoot, which is what you do most of the game, but it’s aggressively simple and feels like it’s just wasting a lot of potential. Also has some pretty major, avoidable flaws that just make the game less fun.

And it’s those flaws that are really interesting to me, because I’ve seen Shamus identify them in other works before.

Let’s talk about the most apparent one to me, and probably the biggest one with the game. Good Robot is a rogue-like. Meaning that death is a complete restart of the game. But it’s a slow, long rogue-like. The game encourages hesitant and defensive play by virtue of having the permadeath in the first place, and the levels are just so loooooong. I beat the game. It took about two hours, start to finish. If I had made a stupid mistake (which I never do, but hypothetically) at any point during the latter part of that run, that’d be a solid two hours of my life cut down by a video game punishing me for essentially pressing buttons wrong.

That’s a problem on its own. But then that comes from a guy who once termed the “Dark Souls problem” wherein failure makes you repeat something you’ve already done in order to get to any new content. This comes from a guy who stated that rogue-likes don’t have to do this, followed by examples of some who have circumvented the problem by implementing a level select. This comes from a guy who complains about a game’s difficulty coming from punishment rather than challenge, yet built what’s potentially the most punishment-heavy game I’ve played in a long while.

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There’s plenty of examples like that, but I don’t want this post to be turning too negative on an innocent blogger I haven’t followed in a while. Rather, the big thing I want to focus on is why that happened. And why you’ll see that happen in most critics-turned-creators. It all comes down to what I mentioned, that there’s completely different skillsets involved.

What I would consider to be good critiquing largely comes down to being able to analyze oneself, particularly one’s own thoughts, and being able to communicate them well. Sure, being able to analyze the work itself, break it down into its component parts and talk about how that works, because that gets people to understand how what relates to you would relate to them, but overall, critiquing is really a selfish process. It’s all about your own opinion, how you’ve arrived at it, and what reactions you have to what’s going on with whatever you’re looking at. I’d like to say that good critics are able to analyze themselves the whole way through and track their emotional development throughout, but particularly in video games it seems that the most popular critics never leave their first impressions, just making things work because they’re good at communicating those first impressions. In any case, though, critiquing is very self-focused, very reactionary, and has a strong basis in communication.

Creating has a strong basis in communication as well, but aside from that, it’s where the similarities with critiquing end. It’s not about communicating a reaction, it’s about communicating a vision. Which of course, requires being able to build an interesting and full vision in the first place, having the technical chops and the resources required to achieve that vision, and a whole bunch of other skills I probably can’t speak to very well because I’m not a professional creator. Creating is forward-looking whereas critiquing is reactionary, building the material to deliver that reaction from whole cloth.

Which is not to say that being good at one can’t help you with the other. But there’s a lot of primary skills in both that don’t cross over. There’s a lot of stuff we can bemoan about a bad game, and armchair game design is a lot of fun, but we probably wouldn’t be able to build anything better without a lot of skill-building to overcome some of the realities of game creation. I can rail against the rogue-like nature of a game that seems poorly suited for it here, but perhaps without that the game had some even greater flaw.

It’s easy to be a critic. I’ve done it. So have plenty of other random internet weirdos with some free time and a checklist of slightly edgy jokes. And critics are very valuable. I’d say they’ve become even more valuable as it’s become easier to be a critic. And it is still important to call out bad games for what they are. But I have found Good Robot to be an excellent reminder that just being a good critic doesn’t mean anyone would be a good creator. Bad games are bad usually because game creation is hard and complex way more than anyone not involved in the process can understand, and that can sometimes be hard to see from the outside looking in.

Who run Junktown? Fallout Chapter 6

Last time around, we watched as Athena tried to be the big hero, succeeded in saving two people, but lost her best ever friend in the process. Funny how that keeps happening to her. And me. Best friends dying all over the place, reminds me of the Dark Souls run we did. Maybe she can make a new best friend though! Is it possible? Is Athena as shallow as Exodus was, to be making best friends at the drop of a hat? Find out today!

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So, we’re done with Shady Sands. Done. Never going back. Until Fallout 2, at the very least, but that’s not for what, 90 more years? Never. Going. Back. We’re no closer to getting a water chip than we were when we left the vault, so it’s time to go onward for more information. Our next target is one of the places Ian, rest his poor soul, clued us into, Junktown. It takes us a good couple days walking to reach.

We get there, and first thing is the guard complaining about the gun we’re carrying around. Athena’s pretty nice, so she puts it in her pocket and chats with the guard. Local law is that you don’t draw a weapon except in self defense, in which case, it’s frontier justice. Seems fair to me. After we appease the guard as such, we start to walk in through the town gate made of wrecked cars. It’s a pretty cool gate, really.

The guard stops us. Again. Apparently, they don’t let people in at night, for no real reason. There’s no curfew or anything, they’re totally fine with you walking around at night, they just don’t want you walking around town. Luckily, Athena, the woman who approached them with a high caliber gun in hand wearing bloodstained spiky metal armor and who just recently lost the only friend she made on the wastes and might be a little unhinged due to that manages to convince the guard that she’s totally harmless, so he lets her in.

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This would be really cool if there were anything at all to do in Junktown at night. But there isn’t so we just wander around.

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Doing Retro Right

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

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

They Built on Top of the Originals

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

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

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

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

They Subvert Established Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Make the Originals Bigger

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

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

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

They Stand on their Own

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