Tag: Escapist (page 2 of 4)

Concerning Dr. Freeman

Courtesy Valve

March Mayhem over at the Escapist is in its final round. For most of the competition I’ve been rooting for BioWare. However, last round Valve was up against Zynga, and after a tense period of back and forth, Valve emerged the victor. Now, it’s up against BioWare. It’s a very close competition, and since I’ve talked at length about BioWare in the past, let’s discuss the guy in the other corner.

Courtesy Valve

Back in the late ’90s, Half-Life showed us that the protagonist of a first-person shooter didn’t have to be a hyper-masculine roided-out Space Marine. Instead, Valve slipped players into the hazardous environment suit of Dr. Gordon Freeman, theoretical physicist. The hero of this story is pretty much a bookworm, and only becomes legendary due to circumstance and the fact that his HEV suit can absorb bullets just as well as it does radiation. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Gordon, though, is that he’s a mute protagonist through and through, and Valve doesn’t do any pre-rendered cut scene cinematics. Everything happens within the game engine and, for the most part, we are in control of Gordon the entire time things are happening. This allows the player to experience the action, terror and humor of Half-Life and its sequels without any sort of forced dialog or moral choices.

Just as notable, however, is the way Valve provides for the modding community. Both the engine of the original Half-Life and the Source engine used in its sequels are geared in such a way that anybody with the time, passion and knack for coding or rendering to approach a game based in them can bring their dreams to life. For example, there was a mod for Quake called Team Fortress that some enthusiasts ported over into Half-Life‘s engine, a project that became known as Team Fortress Classic. Emphasizing specialists working together instead of one lone gun-toting badass rushing in to claim all the glory, Team Fortress was one of the most played mods of the original Half-Life. So, when Half-Life 2 was re-released in a bundle called The Orange Box, fans were delighted to see the bundle included Team Fortress 2.

Courtesy Valve

I could talk about the balanced gameplay, the fun aesthetic touches or the fact that the visual style reminds me a great deal of The Incredibles, but the important thing about TF2 is that there’s something for everybody. Still looking to be the rocket-shooting glory-hog? Play a Soldier. Interested in playing a healing class? Look no further than the Medic. Love setting things on fire? The Pyro’s for you. While the similar mechanics of all nine classes mean that anybody with even periphery knowledge of how to play an FPS can pick them up, truly mastering the nuances of a class can really enhance the experience for both the player and their team.

And then there’s Portal.


If Half-Life broke the mold when it came to first-person shooters, Portal pretty much disintegrated it when it comes to first-person gameplay, period. With a series of testing chambers and the omnipresent passive-aggressive presence of GLaDOS, Valve demonstrated that it wasn’t just violence that drives their games. Even more so than the physics or jumping puzzles in either Half-Life game, Portal is driven more by cleverness and outside-the-box thinking than straightforward shoot-em-up gameplay.

I’m not going to go into the politics or long delays or differences between console & PC versions at the moment, but rather I want to stay focused on Valve as game developers. They’ve really changed things over the years, and I look forward to what’s coming next.

Thank you for your attention, cake will be served immediately.

Survival’s Requiem

This week’s Escapist, “Bump In The Night,” is all about survival horror. Here is the article I pitched them for the issue, all about one of the best games of the genre I never played until I got married.

I think there are certain elements of true horror in games that, like in the film industry, have been left aside for torture porn and jump-out scares. Few games that carry the horror moniker truly get inside the head of the player and compel them to struggle to survive, let alone prevail, and instead toss handfuls of gore and jarring images at the screen. A game that understood the meaning of horror and holds up despite the passing of one console generation to another is a humble title for the GameCube – Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.

Courtesy Silicon Knights

Instead of cribbing notes from more modern sources of horror such as Eli Roth or James Wan, Eternal Darkness reaches back to some of the more foundational writings of the genre, particularly H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. The game, in fact, quotes Poe in the beginning, as we are introduced to Alexandra Roivas, a young woman whose grandfather Edward was murdered in his Rhode Island home. As the investigators have few answers, Alex begins looking around the mansion herself, and stumbles across a secret room containing, among other things, the “Tome of Eternal Darkness.” Upon opening this ghastly book, Alex is transported into the life of centurion Pious Augustus, who in 26 B.C. discovers one of three artifacts representing the essence of a powerful and old god-like being called an Ancient. As the player, you choose which Ancient corrupts Pious, setting up a conflict between the creature using the now-undying centurion as a proxy, and several characters throughout time including Alex who must stop the Ancient from ushering in a terrible age of eternal darkness.

Courtesy Silicon Knights
Several generations of the Roivas family

Eternal Darkness has a minimal UI, keeping the screen from being too cluttered as you explore the game’s four locations at various points throughout history. Your life, “magick” and sanity meters only appeared when they were being affected. The player quickly begins to associate the different colors of the meters – red, blue and green, respectively – with the three Ancients and their minions, and must quickly learn how each affects the other. Ulyaoth, whose purview is over the soul, powers his minions through magick but is vulnerable to physical confrontation. Chattur’gha rules the body, making his pawns potent in a direct scrape but susceptible to mental assault. Xel’lotath reigns supreme in the realm of the mind and pushes the boundaries of one’s perceptions of reality through her servants, but must succumb to magickal assaults. Each has a color, a distinct personality and a unique appearance, but all three of them hate the neutral yet powerful fourth Ancient, Mantorok, whom the player’s characters come to represent whether they want to or not.

The spell-casting system of “magick” is one of the unique features of the game. Instead of giving the players direct instructions on how to use the runes discovered in various places and times, the player must experiment with the runes in what amounts to sentence construction. Basic spells involve three runes: the name of an Ancient which sets the spell’s “alignment”, a “verb” that describes what the player wants to do – summon, absorb, etc – and a “noun” that instructs the spell as to its target. Enhancement or “power” runes can expand a spell to five or seven runes, but the important part of the spell is its alignment. Trying to attack a minion of Xel’lotath with a physical spell isn’t going to work as well as the opposite. However, a spell aligned with Ulyaoth will do the trick nicely. Remembering this sort of thing on the fly as undead minions lumber towards you can make for a harrowing experience in and of itself. There’s also an option to discover the right rune to represent Mantorok.

Courtesy Silicon Knights

On a story level, the common threads woven between the disparate lives of the dozen or so characters in Eternal Darkness drew them and the player into the dire and seemingly hopeless web of machinations of the Ancients. Well-written stories for each character coupled with excellent voice acting showed us mortal beings who found themselves struggling to maintain their sanity in the face of horrors from beyond the stars. And the insanity was not limited to the game’s side of the screen, because every so often, the game would quite directly remind the player that they are not entirely in control of what is happening to them with the use of the game’s infamous Insanity Effects. This innovation was so singular that Nintendo patented it.

Gamers often maintain a distance between themselves and the content of the game with the knowledge that they, ultimately, are in control of the events unfolding on the screen. Eternal Darkness broke through that barrier directly into the fear center of players’ brains. In addition to horrifying visions the characters see, witnessing a character’s head explode upon attempting to cast a healing spell or finding them walking across the ceiling when previously they were on the floor, the game occasionally poked holes through the fourth wall, by turning down the volume complete with a generic TV volume meter (a move guaranteed to blast out your eardrums if you were unprepared and tried turning up your TV in response), turning off the screen entirely or giving a false GameCube error screen. It’s not entirely uncommon for the player to echo the character’s panicked cry of “THIS ISN’T HAPPENING!”

Courtesy Silicon Knights
Ellia, one of the game’s dozen characters.

Since Eternal Darkness, there have been few games that really got into the head of a player. Silent Hill 2 is often touted for the same sort of atmosphere and storytelling as Eternal Darkness, but when it comes to this sort of immersive survival horror gameplay, the list is pretty short. Survival is, after all, more than just fighting off wave after wave of zombies. Who are we when we emerge on the other side of such an experience? How do those events change us? Good survival horror should address those questions as well as “how many zombies can you kill in three minutes?” or “how many different ways can you kill zombies?” Killing zombies will always be fun in games, but few games balance that fun with sheer terror, let alone madness.

Horror is about more than just gore. Games, as a storytelling medium, should ideally be about more than complicated physics engines and shameless sex appeal. Horror games, then, should aspire to rise above the slavering hordes of the undead chasing down a trashy blonde with big tits. Alex Roivas may be an attractive blonde, but she’s also smart, not a marathon runner, and pretty reasonable and stable, at least when she first arrives at Edward’s mansion. Like James Sunderland of Silent Hill 2, she is pretty much alone in a haunted place slowly losing her grip on her sanity as she delves deeper and deeper into the mad secrets of the Tome of Eternal Darkness. We’re taken right along with her on this downward spiral, rather than observing from a distance. We want to maintain her stability because it’s the stability of our experience as well, and we want her to survive because we want to see how it ends. If that isn’t immersive storytelling, I don’t know what is.

Eternal Darkness doesn’t just set us up against slavering hordes of the undead with a selection of blunt, sharp and loud objects to fend them off. It sets up a situation that pulls is in, drives us forward and leaves us wondering how we made it through to the other side. The game becomes more than a mere simulation and serves as a medium for the invocation of primal fear. So few games since have tapped into that sort of emotional and psychological response because marketing trends seem to indicate that this sort of experience, singular and powerful as it may be, isn’t what the majority of gamers are looking for. The wide-spread critical acclaim of Eternal Darkness and its die-hard fans can’t compare to the masses clamoring for the next Halo game, at least in terms of spending power. Shooting or bludgeoning zombies over and over in various arenas is simpler than setting up a situation where facing a single creature can be a pants-wetting experience, and while it might be unfair to call the fans of the former sort of game “simple”, the evidence seems to speak for itself. As much as I will admit to enjoying blasting legions of shambling corpses, there are times when my brain cries out for something more, some immersive storytelling, an experience that means something. Eternal Darkness fits that bill perfectly, and when my brain starts making those noises I’m likely to play it again. The uninitiated player would hopefully find it to be a unique and unforgettable experience … if they survive.

Failure Fantasy, Part 2

Behold, Failure Fantasy Part 2! Also, cruise over to Epixaricacy for more details on one of the games I’m about to discuss.

So I’ve taken some time to talk about bad protagonists in Final Fantasy games. What, you might ask, are examples of good ones?

I’m glad you asked me that, conjectural reader.

Zidane Tribal (Final Fantasy IX)

Courtesy Squenix

With the exception of Amarant, that random amalgamation of muscles and hair on the left of the pictured box art, most of the characters in Final Fantasy IX have depth, emotion and plausible relationships with the people around them. Garnet, the female lead, isn’t an insufferable whiner or completely vain. Vivi is perhaps the most adorable destroyer of worlds in any of these games (unless you count Lulu’s collection of plushies from the following game) and Steiner shows us just how badass a normal guy can be when tossed into these sort of situations. As much as I could talk about them, though, and the plethora of good things I have to say about Freya Crescent, this is about the main protagonists, and in this case, it’s cat/monkey boy Zidane.

He’s not the best main character in the history of gaming, but he’s very nearly a messiah in relation to his two predecessors. From the start, Zidane’s charismatic and fun, from his lecherous gazes at passing women to his interest in both theater and music. Even when the plot begins to twist and turn back upon it self, Zidane never really loses sight of who he is and what he wants to be. In fact, it’s one of his greatest strengths – no matter what someone tells him about ‘fate’ or ‘destiny,’ he is determined to be his own person. Instead of relying on his friends to get him through his most trying time, he actually attempts to forge ahead on his own, rather than endanger them. He shows more consistency and dimension than his previous counterparts, which to me puts him head, shoulders and tail above them.

Terra Branford (Final Fantasy VI)

Courtesy Squenix

Zidane reminds me a bit of Locke from this game. In fact, I could discuss any of the characters from Final Fantasy VI at length, because the roster of characters from the game each have unique traits, importance to the plot and dimensions that make the more people than pixels. However, again, I must remain focused on the main hero of the game, or heroine in this case. Terra was the first female protagonist to come to a Final Fantasy game, and to this day, she remains my favorite.

While the game starts her as both an amnesiac and under the control of the game’s villainous omnicidal clown, Terra is quickly revealed to be a compassionate, sensitive and intelligent young woman. Unlike some of the other protagonists I’ve mentioned in other games, as soon as the veil of enemy control is lifted from her, she becomes introspective and self-aware, growing as a character and becoming more comfortable and confident in both herself and her friends. Her arc is well-plotted and executed without major fault, and this consistent and realistic growth adds to her appeal as a cypher for the actions and attitudes of the player.

This player, at least. Most of the opinions I’ve ventured here are purely subjective. Feel free to discuss them at your leisure and fling poo at my cage. However, when compared one against the other in terms of character growth, motivations and appeal, I hope you can see why some of these protagonists succeed while others are complete and total failures.

Failure Fantasy, Part 1

Issue 239 of the Escapist is now available, entitled “Anti/Hero.” Below is the article I pitched for the issue.

NOTE: Due to circumstances mostly beyond my control, this article has been divided into two parts. Below is part the first.

Final Fantasy is arguably the most popular series of role-playing games from Square/Enix, and one of the selling points of a role-playing game is who drives the epic story forward. In some cases, this means the player fills in the blanks left open by the designers (i.e. Commander Sheperd in Mass Effect), while in others the player takes control of the lead character in a party. Given that developers want people to play their games, why do the protagonists of so many Final Fantasy games seem completely unlikeable?

A good protagonist is the cornerstone of a successful story. Take a look at Luke Skywalker, John McClain, Marty McFly or Frodo Baggins. Heck, even Kevin ‘Neo’ Anderson isn’t a bad protagonist in the first Matrix film. He’s as confused, shocked and awestruck as we are during the course of the story, before he and everyone else in the franchise gets railroaded into even murkier and more confusing references to the murky and confusing philosophy of Baudrillard. But in all of the above cases, you have someone who’s a bit of an everyman, someone with whom the audience can relate right away, who goes through trials and tribulations in a somewhat realistic and endearing way. In Star Wars, where it’d be all too easy for the special effects to take center stage as they did in more recent films (which I’ll touch on more later), Luke Skywalker is the beating heart of the narrative. Frodo Baggins, a short and reluctant individual, deals with his challenges the way most of us probably would. John McClain, a hard-nosed beat-walkin’ cop, shows us that one can be heroic while still being very human.

Bad protagonists, on the other hand, go so far as to unintentionally verge into anti-hero territory. Not because they break the law in the name of justice, but because they exemplify the antithesis of heroism. It’s a matter of degrees when it comes to Final Fantasy, so let’s take a look at the three biggest offenders, and see just how heroic these “heroes” really are.

Cloud Strife (Final Fantasy VII)

Courtesy Squenix

Cloud isn’t necessarily a bad guy. A product of the evil ShinRa Corporation’s SOLDIER program, Cloud’s past is something of a mystery even to himself. Still, he acts confident to the point of arrogance in his abilities up until the point of his nervous breakdown. He assumed control of the mercenary group ‘for the right price’ and after his breakdown is more concerned about protecting the planet by atoning for his sins. In both instances, his motivations are more selfish than selfless. He is at least loyal to his friends, especially towards the end, but the fact of the matter is he got off to a very rocky start.

I’m not entirely sure why people chose to follow him. Sure, his abilities were inspiring, and Tifa’s a childhood friend who never forgot the promise he made to protect her, but when we first meet him and see how he deals with the people around, he acts like a bit of a dick. Advent Children and other works have tried to make Cloud into something of an emo crybaby, but he doesn’t blame other people for his shortcomings over the course of the game. He just pretends he doesn’t have any at first. It’s only after personal tragedy that Cloud becomes more introverted and self-aware, but by that point the damage is done. He’s not the worst protagonist in Final Fantasy’s history, but he’s far from the best. At least he has something resembling character growth.

Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII)

Courtesy Squenix

Again, the word “emo” gets lobbed at Squall quite a bit. But despite his haircut, leather jacket and disposition, I wouldn’t go so far as to calling him that. He really isn’t an emo character. The problem is he isn’t much of a character at all. He’s an orphan dedicated to proving himself in the paramilitary academy called Balamb Garden, taking it upon himself to master the tricky and dangerous gunblade. Like Cloud, he’s self-confident in his abilities but there the similarities end.

His cold aloofness towards people around him is probably his most prominent character trait. While it’s understandable in relation to his would-be love interest, the whiny and insufferable Rinoa, upbeat Zell and gentle, intelligent Quistis aren’t able to get around his psychological armor. And don’t get me started on the whole issue of him pursuing Rinoa over Quistus. That’s even more outrageous to me than Cloud pursuing Aerith over Tifa.

It takes quite a while for Squall to finally warm up to just about anybody, including and especially his supposed love interest. He’s a bit more consistent in his growth than Cloud, but this growth is so minuscule and comes so late in the game that it might as well have been skipped altogether. With all the interesting things going on, from possession to dream states to travel into space and through time, you’d think Squall would act more as a cypher for the player and less as a completely blank and lifeless character in and of himself. Instead of allowing the player to impose choices and personality upon their representative in the game world, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, Squall is just sort of there. You can’t influence who he is and how he acts, and while this would be fine if he had a personality for us to learn about, for most of the game, he has about as much personality as a block of concrete.

Tidus (Final Fantasy X)

Courtesy Squenix

Tidus has personality. It’s too bad that he’s such an asshole.

Tidus is a blitzball player drawn into the plight of the world called Spira by a malevolent force dubbed ‘Sin’. Gibberish aside, what Final Fantasy X brings us is a story of a young man, barely more than a child, transplanted from the world he’s known all his life into another place to which he has a mysterious connection. It’s full of foreign people speaking in strange tongues, but hey, at least they have blitzball.

Words used to describe Tidus include ‘cheerful’ and ‘sensitive’. I mostly saw him as whiny, narcissistic, dense and self-congratulatory. When the game begins, he isn’t very nice, he treats people around him badly and he’s worried primarily about himself. He’s also put into a situation with a female character, Yuna, and they just happen to fall in love because the script requires this game to be a sweeping romance I guess.

Tidus, in retrospect and given the wording I’ve paraphrased heavily from Confused Matthew, reminds me of someone.

Courtesy Confused Matthew

But at least Tidus didn’t commit mass murder.

To be continued…

Roads Ahead

Good Luck!

Whoo, boy. Trying to sort out exactly where I am at the moment and what’s coming next is proving to be difficult. The dayjob is ramping up along with everything else so time during the day to get a plan of action together is difficult to come by, since I have settled on a long-term writing project that should be occupying most of my free writing time. I do have a couple other incidental side projects, and I don’t want all of it to get derailed by my interest in Star Trek Online.

Now, the game has been previewed in several places, and the open beta critiqued in a couple others, but I have yet to pass my final judgement upon it. I actually want to put together more than just some text and pics about it, however, which leads me to the big obstacle that I’ve run into today.

You see, YouTube and Google like each other a lot. They encourage you to link your YouTube account to your Google account, which I did. However, I picked up the YouTube account ‘jeloomis’ before I really got into the whole Blue Ink Alchemy branding thing. In addition to having a video supplement to my beta impressions, which will be more like a narrated slideshow than an actual video because of my desire to preserve processor power and a complete lack of knowledge in FRAPS use, I was thinking of reworking the ‘Powerless’ idea to something less artsy and more casual. In order to make sure people associate these things with this space and my other work, I wanted to change my YouTube account name. You can’t do that without deleting the old account, which I did, but in the course of doing so I neglected to unassociate that account with Google. So, when I went to create the YouTube account with my shiny username, guess what happened?

“That account is associate with jeloomis.”

So… it’s associated with an account that no longer exists. And there’s no way to unassociate it outside of that account.

Courtesy Black Eagle Ops/Classholes Anonymous

I contacted YouTube to reactive the old ‘jeloomis’ account so I can yank it away from Google and get this thing set up properly. We’ll see how timely their customer service department is. EDIT: Apparently very, but that doesn’t mean they’re helpful in getting the association severed. My vexation is COLOSSAL.

Meantime, here’s a to-do list for that project I’ve chosen thanks to the Magical Talking Beardman.

  • Get plot points vetted.
  • Generate dramatis personae document.
  • Work out rules of languages & magic.
  • Write the damn thing (target word count:125k)
  • Find an agent.

The first hurdle is, to me, a crucial one. I’ve laid out the plot of the novel in a document and shown it to a couple minds I really respect. My wife has given me some good feedback on it and I’ve tweaked the document accordingly. I’m waiting for a few more opinions before I proceed with the next step. Having a plan like this should keep me from procrastinating too much. I hope.

No word back yet from Polymancer, although there is another assignment I’ve been contacted about. More on that after I fit it into my schedule somewhere. And what’s this? A new Escapist editorial schedule calender? Hot diggity dog, it’s time to flood Jordan’s inbox with more pitches.

I really have no excuse for sitting around bored any time soon. Unless I’m in STO going from one system to the next and waiting for an instance to load. But more on that later.

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