Sunday, September 20, 2009

Perfection? I'll Take Personality


I would much rather play a flawed game with personality and a sense of who it is, than a perfect execution of a soulless, boilerplate design.

I discussed Little King's Story previously, but I've only fallen more in love with it since. And after over 13 hours of play, that's a whole lot of love. It's by no means a perfect game, but it's a game with heart.

The boss fights are some of the best I've seen in ages. Each boss is a sovereign of a kingdom defined by its vice- too much television, booze, worrying, food, etc. Not only do the bosses have a ton of personality (conveyed in just a few seconds), but the fights themselves are themed wonderfully to the enemy king's vice. The approach through a hedge maze to the king of the Worrywart Kingdom features a series of small paintings describing the worries that plague most of us at different stages of our lives. It's an especially dark and affecting moment in a game that moves frequently from whimsical to somber.

As I said, Little King's Story is not perfect. Its save system is terrible, the difficulty oscillates all over the place, there is some filler content that the game would be better without. Sometimes the screen becomes too full of your citizens and enemies to really see what's going on. Perhaps worst of all, the targeting of your citizens' attacks (vital for the mini-boss and boss fights) is atrocious.

These flaws are relatively easy to ignore though, given how much spirit and charm Little King's Story possesses. The fact that I care about what's over the next horizon means I'm happy to tolerate problems getting there. So many games, even good ones, end up feeling like a slog once their thesis has been revealed. The spirit and personality of Little King's Story carry it further than the technical competency of multi-million sellers. No small feat for a little king.



I've also been playing a lot of Artificial Mind & Movement's Wet recently. It heartily embraces its 70s grindhouse film aesthetic, including film grain, a cinematically timed rockabilly soundtrack (including The Gypsy Pistoleros, Knock Galley West and The Arkhams) and interstitials including a brilliant notification of a $50 reward for information about anyone stealing the drive-in's speakers.

There's an unhealthy obsession with monkeys, evoking similar era films like Any Which Way You Can. Add a few personal nods, like the game's health power up being a bottle of liquor whose label features only "Québec" and four fleur-de-lis, a wink at AM&M's Québécois heritage, and Wet has a flavour entirely its own.

There are sequences in the game ("rage mode") where the game washes out to red, white and black and you're rewarded for dispatching as many opponents in sequence as possible. It ends up feeling like a combination between The Club and Mirror's Edge. It's also wholly cinematic, in a real "similar to cinema" sense, not in a "totally epic cinematic gameplay" way.

As you likely guessed, Wet is not without problems. The gameplay isn't tremendously deep; the combo systems are good, but it rarely reaches beyond the bullet time dynamics of Max Payne (incidentally, both Max Payne games are on sale at D2D for $5, MP1 and MP2). It also features some dodgy voice acting from Eliza Dushku as the protagonist Rubi (and I'm someone who likes Dollhouse and Dushku in general). But none of this seems to matter, as playing Wet is simply joyous. Wet is in love with the films and aesthetic that inspired it, much in the same way House of the Dead Overkill was. That fondness is palpable and infectious.

Given Wet is AM&M's first original IP title, I hope it does them well. Both critics and audiences tend to be more charitable toward flawless executions that tread the same familiar ground, and review scores and sales figures reflect this. It's a shame, because some of the games I've found to be the most interesting are not perfect. I'm happy to cut some slack to a game with personality and substance (which is very much not the same thing as "innovation," but that's another post). I wish more people were, as it might be easier for creators to be more aesthetic without worrying it will come at the cost of some people's jobs. There's nothing wrong with well executed games, and it's certainly a difficult feat to achieve, but it would be great if that wasn't the only thing that mattered when appreciating games.

Are there some other titles you've loved despite their flaws, simply because they were bold and interesting? The more light that's shed on these flawed but brilliant titles, the better.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Eighth Ronin said...

Legend of Mana comes to mind as a deeply flawed title with a tenuous story and impossible to crack crafting system. But I must say I will love that game forever for it's style, items, weird cast, and simply stunning art.

September 20, 2009 at 8:14 PM  
Blogger Duncan said...

I’m glad you like WET. I sort of enjoyed the demo – far more than I expected to, certainly – but was discouraged when everyone else in the world seemed to think it was total garbage. I now look forward to playing the game with a little more confidence.

September 20, 2009 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger Mr Durand Pierre said...

The Metal Gear Solid series certainly comes to mind. I started the series in the middle with 3 and hated it at first. I then played the earlier games which I didn't like as much, but once it was all put into context I started to apreciate it as more than the sum of its parts.

Yes, the cutsenes are too long. Not because there's a sweet spot for cutscenes, but rather because they focus way too much on exposition and are poorly paced. The story is nigh impossible to understand. The characters are generally either one dimensional, or throw in another dimension at the last minute in a pandering, cheesy way. And yet, there is so much brilliance in the series.

The bizarre meta-humor, the wonderfully choreographed cutscenes, the way they switch gears in terms of gameplay and tone every half hour or so to the point where you literally have no idea what to expect next, and there's a unique sense of style and gorgeous images from the series that have really stuck with me (notably the fiery dreamscape encounter with The Sorrow in MGS3 and the ladder ascension against the sunset in MGS2. And of course, the infamous microwave scene in 4).

It's a strange series and about as inaccessible as they come, but there's definitely nothing else out there quite like it. It's not a series that I particularly love, but one I tend to go back to a lot and each time have a new take on it. There are few games I can say that about.

September 20, 2009 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger JPLC said...

I'm going to offer a kind of agreement/counter-point to Durand Pierre. I think the majority of the games in the Metal Gear Solid series strive for perfection rather than personality save for one: Metal Gear Solid 2.

MGS2 is a polarizing game: you either love it, or hate it. I am firmly in the camp that loves it. Yes, it's very imperfect (for example, the voice acting, while brilliant in some scenes, is more than lacking in others, and the plot could have been delivered at a more digestable pace), but it took BIG risks. It forced the player to NOT be Solid Snake, it thoroughly examined the connection between Raiden and the player (to the point that, really, they are the same), and it delivered a story that was not easy to swallow, but very satisfying if you legitimately gave it a chance (deconstructing the very series it is set in, and seriously asking the player to look for the meaning behind things rather than just taking events at face value).

The other games, by comparison, play it very safe. They play it so safe sometimes, in fact, that the newest entry (MGS4) is dedicated almost solely to explaining things, at least moreso than the other entries (and these explanations fly in the face of MGS2's plot, almost as if to cover up their "mistake" amongst those who thought it was too convoluted).

So yes, the entire MGS series does have personality, I'll admit, but in the series itself, the only one really felt like a true labour of love/a true risk (at least to me) was MGS2.

God, that was too long to say. It was bound to happen, though: I love MGS2. I am SO biased. =P

September 20, 2009 at 9:09 PM  
OpenID 6p010536a1eb34970c said...

You remind me of the term "The Killer 7 Argument" where a game, despite all its flaws, should be played for the utter uniqueness of the title. I often find that that uniqueness leads to a very enjoyable expirience.

I enjoyed Medal of Honor: Frontline, but only because it was the only WWII shooter I ever played. I have no doubt that if I played another I'd forget the first.

Games like those you mentioned, Little King's Story and Wet, along with the terms titular game, Killer 7, they stand out more becaue they are different. But we don't hold them up to have that style copied endlessly like others before it, but to show that diversity is a much healthier and enjoyable situation.

The question is, does it come from just one or two element of a game or an overall presentation and experience.

September 20, 2009 at 9:10 PM  
Blogger Mr Durand Pierre said...

@JLPC,

I feel like all the MGS games took some pretty big risks. MGS4 played it perhaps a bit safer with the storyline, but still had lots of crazy Kojimaisms like the fact that the whole second half of the game is basically a minigame collection full of boss fights, on-rails vehicle segments, and different enemy types. The core stealth mechanic pretty much goes out the window, making the second half of the game a very divisive prospect. Kojima also took a big risk by giving MGS4 the longest cutscenes in a series already criticized for its long cutscenes. Surprising, given he scaled them back quite a bit in 3. All those games are nuts as far as I'm concerned.

To make a vague Kojima/Suda comparison, I'd say that Kojima's work sticks with me more because it sticks with what's more familiar, then turns its conventions on its head. For example, MGS3 starts out like a James bond parody, then throws in David Bowie references and a vampire slaying minigame. Or the way MGS4 starts out a tried-and-true stealth game, then really goes off the rails in its second half. There's something very surreal about his games- the way they're familiar to so many other games, but then smack you upside the head in ways you'd least expect.

Suda, by comparison, makes games that are completely alien to us. Their underlying mechanics may be somewhat familiar (K7 is a shooter, NMH a hack-and-slash), but their stories and style are far more abstract.

I like them both, but I tend to think more often about Kojima. Maybe because I feel like I'm at the cusp of grasping what he's trying to convey, whereas I find Suda's style a bit too out-there and impenetrable to ever understand.

Still, I'd play either of their games over something like Shadow Complex which is technically sound, but perhaps one of the most soulless games I've ever played.

September 20, 2009 at 10:12 PM  
Blogger Gravey said...

Persuasive impression of Wet—I've heard a lot of negative write-offs, but after reading what you had to say, I'm interested in checking out the demo. Just thinking about a Quebecois liquor bottle health bar suggests to me that personality can make a game.

For me, bold and interesting despite its flaws is the perfect description of Mirror's Edge. The story was dull, the shooting poor (I hear) and playing without shooting (yay) could be *incredibly* frustrating, and the player was jarred out of the flow more often than I would have liked.

But in those moments when it all came together, and you were racing over the bleached rooftops, running, bounding, sliding, escaping, it was a really exhilarating time unlike anything available in any other game. Heck, playing an appropriately-proportioned woman in sensible clothes was bold and interesting already. Not every moment in ME was fun and rewarding, but DICE did a wonderful thing getting that game out there. I think they really aimed high with it, and while they missed the mark, it wasn't by much.

September 21, 2009 at 1:31 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

About Mirror's Edge, I actually think it's EASIER in most cases when you're not using guns. Maybe some of that is not trying the gun-free thing until my second playthrough, but it was after a long gap such that I felt like I had to relearn the game. Your kicks and punches are surprisingly strong, and the guns surprisingly weak.

Odin Sphere is my pick for fundamentally flawed, but still worthwhile because of personality. The game is simply gorgeous, and the overall structure is unique and interesting. But the actual combat... UGH. Enemies attacks make you flinch left and right, but they are free to cut right through yours. It's framed like an action game, but paced for the grind. And don't even get me started on the rating system that penalizes you for doing poorly is infuriating. But despite essentially hating the bulk of actually playing the game, I still love it. The good news is Muramasa builds on the personality while solving most of my problems with the gameplay. It's nice to see a developer learning from its mistakes while playing to its strengths.

I disagree about Wet, however, at least according to my experiences with the demo (which I couldn't even bring myself to finish). While I appreciated the grindhouse vibe, and all the little touches that really sold it, the gameplay way SO BAD and bland that it ruined the experience for me. Full-minute unskippable cutscenes right after checkpoints. The running and jumping felt clunky, and it liked to drop me out of bullet time just as I finally lined up my shot. It's just rookie mistake after rookie mistake. Yes the sheen has personality (although its a very safe, ripped-off personality at this point), but the gameplay itself lacks it completely and utterly. That's the difference between Wet and games like Killer 7, in my mind. Killer 7 had the surface personality, and it carried over into a very specific unique personality-filled take on the genre.

September 21, 2009 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Scypher said...

Most Sting Entertainment games - particularly Riviera: The Promised Land and Knights in the Nightmare - fall into the category of beautifully stylized, mechanically unique, yet altogether bizarre, entrancing, and highly punishing.

Riviera is a turn-based RPG that is actually more point & click adventure mixed with relationship sim mixed with... something... than it is an RPG. All dungeons are separated into 9 individually designed rooms, and every room is a scripted event that includes dialogue and battles. The party members and dialogue choices in particular are important, as most choices put you in the position of showing favor to one party member over another to such a precise degree that it turns casual conversation into a hardcore, point-based scale to keep track of.

In fact, everything in this game is measured by points and numbers -- you get points based on point & click exploration and item management; points based on not only killing enemies but killing them efficiently and finishing them audaciously; and as I mentioned, points for dialogue too... It's rare to have such a transparent and overly-complicated machine dress itself up in a predominantly artistic package.

Sting games are really both addictive and nightmarish for the nigh-obsessive-compulsive, outgame-the-game players like me. Items, events, characters are often missable through a single run (though the New Game+ option is always welcome) and the mechanics are often so abstract or so complex that I have trouble manipulating them for the perfect or ideal result like I easily can with most games. It's both frustrating and entrancing to play these RPGs that wrestle with the player via the intent of their design. And although I've never finished any of them, they're definitely not backburner games I'll ever "forget" to come back to.

September 21, 2009 at 11:48 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Eighth Ronin I remember watching a friend play Legend of Mana and it did seem very quirky. And I have fond memories of Secret of Mana

@Duncan I should have made the comparison more explicit, but the more I think about it, the more Wet really feels like Max Payne. Obviously there are mechanical similarities. But also, as Remedy tried to make Max Payne the hardboiled-iest detective experience ever, so did AM&M tried to make Wet the grindhouse-iest experience ever.

That turned some people off from Max Payne, but I absolutely loved it. And so too with Wet. I'm also playing it only in 15-30 minute chunks, which I think makes a difference (woo, indulgent self-reference!).

@Mr. Durand Pierre & @JPLC Metal Gear Solid is a bridge too far for me. Try as I might, I haven't been able to enjoy any of those games beyond the first. I definitely understand the appeal it has though and a lot of that has to do with Kojima's indelible personality being infused into the game.

September 22, 2009 at 6:22 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@6p010536a1eb34970c Suda is definitely another creator whose personality shines through in his games. I think, at least when describing the quality I'm trying to identify here, it's something created by the game being holistic. I don't think I could identify just one or two things that makes Wet grindhouse-tastic, it's a bunch of small things that contribute to a whole. Other experiences may be noteworthy because they hit one or two unique things head on, and that's great, but the kind of personality/spirit/whatever here relies a bunch of things working in concert.

@Gravey *Absolutely.* Mirror's Edge is another game, despite flaws, I still really love. Part of it because the actual mechanics are something that just resounds with me. But it's also true that when all the pieces come together, it works so very well. And yeah, playing through without ever shooting anyone with a gun is definitely the way to do.

@Julian Vanillaware (and other Atlus-published games) definitely have this quality as well. Like Little King's Story, I'm sure it helps that the genesis of these games is a wholly different culture. Still, in some domains, Japanese games are even more boilerplate and safe than equivalent North American/European offerings. The spectrum is wide indeed, I guess.

Shame you didn't like Wet, but taste factors into these games, even more so than appreciation of well executed games, where consensus is easier to build. As an aside, I didn't notice the cutscenes being unskippable in the game itself, but they can definitely be paused. I gave a cheer to AM&M when I noticed that.

@Scypher I was only vaguely aware of Knights in the Nightmare and hadn't heard of Sting Entertainment before. While collection-heavy games really aren't my cup of tea, maybe I'll give one of these a look, or at least find some more writing about them. Thanks for the reference.

September 22, 2009 at 6:44 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

The pausable cutscene thing is something I'm noticing more from Japanese devs lately, but it's thankfully spreading quickly. Star Ocean even gave you a summary of the cutscene so that you didn't have to suffer through them to get to the game. They were bad to the point where that game would have been unplayable instead of simply poor without that feature. Which makes me sad.

I'll give the demo a second shot at least, maybe try it on the easiest difficulty. I find that the quirkier the game, the more sensitive my experience with it is to other factors. I got bogged down and almost quit No More Heroes at one point. Took another run at it a week later (and pushed through the part that was annoying me) and loved it again. I need to be in a good mood, and I need to be making very consistent progress. When the mechanics are poor, but the personality strong I guess I kind of want to coast through the game itself so I can absorb the bits that interest me with minimal interference.

I'd recommend the Sting Games, even if you're not that into collecting stuff simply because the mechanics are always so interesting. Riviera is an interesting subversion of all your expectations for an RPG, and it's very fun. The game moves pretty fast for an RPG unless you're going for perfection, and it doesn't rely on that perfectionism to enjoy the game. Does a good job of supporting both playstyles. I'd also recommend Dokapon Kingdom (but only if you have at least one friend who wants to commit to a long-term game with you). Like Mario Party and Final Fantasy had a baby and it just hit its terrible twos.

The thing about Sting's games is that the personality isn't solely in the presentation and narrative. It's baked into the core mechanics and play structure. Riviera isn't particularly interesting because of its setting or plot, it's interesting because it doesn't play like anything else you've ever seen.

September 24, 2009 at 11:03 AM  
Blogger Ava Avane Dawn said...

Pathologic:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathologic

It is very aware of itself and gaming industry which leads to subverions of certainly interesting aspects of space managing, verfremdungseffekt, story conventions, player agency and discovery.

But the fights are tedious and most of the time you're running from one location to the other. If you're not in the mindset for doing this, it can get frustrating.

September 27, 2009 at 6:21 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Ava Avane Dawn A friend actually got me a copy of Pathologic. I started it, but definitely wasn't in the right mindset to get something good from it. As you said, it has to be the right circumstances.

I'm going to go back to it eventually, since I could definitely tell there were interesting things going on.

September 27, 2009 at 4:05 PM  
Blogger deckard47 said...

I know it's cliche (by now) to say this, but Bampire Bloodlines was this kind of game. Horribly executed, but if you gave it time, it really was an interesting, different kind of game.

Oh, and Lost Odyssey. The combat and gameplay were boring, but the miniature stories (and a lot of the main quest) were a step above most RPGs of that sort. Really a time-sink though.

I think that's one thing games like this have in common: you have to work to like them, to lower your guard/standards in some areas enough to see how great they are in other ares.

September 27, 2009 at 7:28 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@deckard47 I was lucky enough to play Vampire: Bloodlines for the first time a few years ago, so I was able to play it fully patched. Yeah, the last 1/4 or so was pretty rushed, but the game itself was absolutely goddam amazing.

Temple of Elemental Evil was a bit weak, but both Vampire and Arcanum were fantastic games. Flawed, but completely worth it.

September 27, 2009 at 9:04 PM  

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