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.

Movies in my Games? The Power of Video Game Cinematography

I used to hate when people would treat the creation of video games the same way as the creation of movies.  It used to pop up all the time in the schlock gamingsphere, because, well, back when the veil was still first being pulled back, that was all people had to compare it to.  It’s the only other primarily visual-creative industry of similar size and undertaking, games have a lot more similarity to movies than, say, sculpture, early on in the industry it was a lot of ex-film types really driving things, etc.  Still, that just led to a lot of oversimplifications and false equivalences.  So every time someone on the internet was like “hey, could you imagine if movies were like 90% fight scenes the way gaaaaaames are?” I just died a little inside.

Nowadays, I’m starting to wonder if game developers aren’t learning enough from the film industry.

So let’s talk cutscenes.  Some people don’t like ‘em, some people don’t mind them, some people might rightfully claim they’re overused or used poorly, but frankly, they’re just going to be a fact of life as long as games try to have a structured narrative and deliver events outside what’s strictly interactable to the player.  But some games make them suck.  Some games put you through a lot of straight boring cutscenes.  And you know what, it’s probably not the content itself.  I’m starting to think it’s really just the way the scenes are presented.  The cinematography.

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I remember the first time I realized the impact cinematography could have on a game’s cutscenes.  It was Yakuza 2.  That game has a scene about 3/4s of the way through where they draw some of the major players together, sit them down around a table, and they just talk.  For a good 10-15 minutes.  No fighting, no action, not even any real twists or surprises given.  It’s just a bunch of dudes and dudettes making plans.  And it’s not boring.  It should be the most out of place thing in what’s otherwise a sandbox action game, it should be just a big delay in what’s otherwise a high-tension packed plot, but the developers keep it from being boring.

It’s all because of the cinematography.  The people sitting around talking may not be doing any real action, but the scene is still full of activity.  The camera’s always swooping, panning, and scrolling.  The characters fidget, nurse their cigarettes, and physically expressing themselves.  Even if that motion is not really leading anywhere, the scene is absolutely filled with it.  The scene incorporates a lot of elements you’d normally see in film, where the actors deliver a bit of nuance or, at the least, visual interest through simple actions while they talk, and the direction uses camera movements to instill a sense of action and energy where otherwise there is none.

Compare that to something like the Elder Scrolls, where plot developments are largely given to you by means of a single Bethesdaface yakking at you with a single expression on his face, filling your screen.  While you could deliver the same dialogue in exactly the same way, the amount of engagement, what you’d really need, is completely different.  Hell, just compare Metal Gear Solid to itself.  Kojima’s a former film dude, he knows the rules of cinematography, and that really shows in the cutscenes.  But then they decide that’s enough work for them, and go to the codec screens to talk to you about the Lolly who Lays Low, and then you just sit on one hand and down your drink with the other while the game Speak-and-Spells to you.  Not the best way to deliver that espionage action.

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I’ve been playing through Yakuza 5, and it’s clear that whoever handles cinematography for the series has not lost his touch.  Yakuza has a lot of plot just delivered through dialogue, you guys.  Even more so than already texty series like Mass Effect.  And if this game handled dialogue the way Mass Effect does, by just having a few static camera angles read to you, it would be interminable.  Would really drain the impact of the scene, if, when they’re dropping those plotbombs on you, nobody had any real reaction, and the camera wasn’t imparting any real import to them.  But with the cinematography they show, especially in these dialogue-heavy scenes, they’re able to capture your interest and keep your attention going right on the points they want to.  The Yakuza series has some of the best cinematography in gaming, and that is one thing I really wish more games would pick up.  It’s a thing of beauty, and this cinematography lets them pull of the type of stories that would be horribly suited to the medium otherwise.