Longtime readers of my various blogs (from Bound by Gravity, to Of Teeth and Claws, to this current venture) are probably used to me dropping off the face of the Internet for months at a time, often with no warning – however I still wanted to poke my head in to let you know that I’m still here, although silent for the time being.

This current blogging drought was brought on by a busy period at work:  these past two months have been the culmination of two years of work, and just last week we finally shipped the product that I have been working on since it’s inception to our first customer.  In the final few months before this go live date I have been working – voluntarily – through my lunches in order to spend more time perfecting the final product.  Since lunch time is when I have traditionally taken a break to blog, something had to give, and my sense of professional pride demanded that work come first in this instance.

When I resume regular blogging is anyone’s guess – I don’t even know myself.  It could be tomorrow, next month, next year, or even never.  Through the magic of RSS I hope that you’ll stay subscribed to my little corner of the Internet – I’m still gaming, reading about politics and science, and thinking about all sorts of interesting things that I won’t be able to keep to myself forever.  If you’ve stuck with me this long – thanks – I appreciate that you’re still here.

There are great games, and then there are games that are great despite actually being rather poor in the “game” department.  For some reason flawed gems like Nier (Mass Effect is another) end up becoming some of my favorites because they managed to overcome their shoddy implementation to tell a phenomenal story, and thus leave a lasting mark on my gamer soul.  I played through Nier twice in order to see the (first) alternate ending, and I almost never play a game more than a single time.  It was just that gripping.

Nier puts you in the shoes of a father trying to cure his daughter of a fatal disease known as the Black Scrawl, and then later rescue her when a being known only as “the Shadowlord” kidnaps her from the lazy country town that they live in.  Along the way, you meet up with a cast of quirky characters: a talking book (Grimoire Weiss), a magical child (Emil), and a foul-mouthed lingerie-clad woman (Kainé).  All have major problems, but as a team they meld together wonderfully and play off of each other in a manner similar to Dragon Age‘s varied personalities.

Before I gush over the game any further, it would be remiss of me not to discuss Nier’s many flaws.  Taken simply as a video game in the mechanical sense, Nier is at best an average action RPG hack and slash adventure.

Combat is relatively basic:  you can choose to equip one of three different weapon types, a light sword, a heavy sword, or a spear, and then chain attacks together by mashing a single button.  Each weapon also has a secondary attack assigned to a different button, however these attacks break the normal flow of combat, and subsequently get used sparingly.  In addition to physical attacks, your character acquires magical abilities as the game progresses, but only two can be equipped at once and really only a handful are useful on a regular basis.  Magic is much more powerful than slashing with a weapon, however it consumes (auto-recharging) mana.  There is not a wide variety of enemies to kill, and most can be dispatched using one of two methods:  get close and hack until you break their guard, or stand extremely far away and fling dark lance magic at them.

The next big flaw is that Nier lacks many unique environments.  The first half of the game opens up five towns and three dungeons connected to your characters’ village, and then the remainder of the game requires you to constantly revisit those locations over and over again as the plot progresses.  Two of the dungeons are used at least four of five times each, with very little change to their layout or encounters each time.  The game world is far too small for the 25 hour plot.

The final major design mishap in the game is the structure of the optional side quests.  Simply put, quests in Nier are uninspiring MMO-style drivel.  The side quests consist primarily of fetch quests, kill quests, and random drop quests with very few unique tasks to spice things up and keep the game interesting.  After grinding out a few of the early quests, I began only completing quests that I fulfilled the requirements for in the natural course of playing through the plot.  If I were a completionist I would have hated every minute of Nier’s quest system.  Thankfully, neither side quests nor grinding kills are required to level up enough to finish the game.

So with all of these seemingly huge flaws, what made Nier such a compelling game that I played it through not just once, but twice?  Simple:  the world, the characters, and the story are utterly enthralling.

Nier starts out in the near future, with your character struggling to keep his daughter Yonah safe in a world that is obviously crumbling around him.  It is the dead of winter, there is little food, and faceless enemies are attacking.  After a huge battle the timeline fast forwards 1,312 years and you find yourself in a fantasy setting controlling a very similar-looking character and looking for a cure for your daughter, again named Yonah.  As you start to explore the world you find hints of the long-forgotten technological society that you left behind – derelict buildings, shattered bridges, and long-forgotten factories – and encounter puzzling enemies, the shades, that resemble bipedal digitized packets of data.  What caused humanity to regress to medieval conditions? What is the Black Scrawl that is infecting Yonah?  What are the shades?  All of these questions are intriguing and not standard video game fare.

Where Nier really shines is the plot, which tackles mature themes head on:  responsibility, sacrifice, parenthood, and empathy to name a few.  Told through a mixture of text dialog, voice acted dialog, and cut scenes, the writing is multifaceted in a way that few games can manage.  The main arc of the plot is dark and brooding, however humor is laced through the character’s back-and-forth conversations as you’re exploring the environment to lighten the mood.  It is not an exaggeration to say that on multiple occasions I was moved nearly to tears by some of the tragic situations that the characters found themselves in; Nier is rarely a happy game, which makes the moments of pure joy all the better when they do occur.  When I finished the game, especially the second time, all I could do was sit back, mouth agape, and contemplate how everything turned out.

And if you play Nier, you really do need to play it twice.  After beating the original twenty-five hour campaign you can start again from the midpoint of the story retaining all of your levels, weapons, and items.  During your second playthrough, which only takes another five or six hours, not only are you exquisitely aware of the answer to all of the big questions that the game presents, but you (the player, not your character) are also able to understand what the shades are saying.  Extra cut scenes are added to give context to some of the game’s main events, and this new angle changes everything and pulls at the heartstrings in entirely different ways.  It is a genius bit of storytelling.

 

The final triumph for Nier is the gorgeous soundtrack, composed by Keiichi Okabe.  Every track – from those that play while you are exploring the world, to the battle tunes, to the cut scene pieces – fits perfectly in the context that it is used, and heightens the emotional impact of the game.  It is no accident either, the music was developed independently of the game, and when the time came to merge the two, if a change needed to be made the game was modified to fit the music, not the other way around.  The vocals – used heavily – are stunning; Emi Evans was given the leeway to create a unique languages for her singing, which were modeled on many different modern dialects.  During the days between playing the game I often found the songs and their nonsense words rolling through my skull, a true testament to the power the music had over me. Upon completing the game I purchased the soundtrack so that I didn’t need to lose those beautiful pieces.

As much as Nier is a broken video game, it is also a work of art; a brilliant novel, a soulful album, and a tragic screen play all wrapped up in an interactive bundle.  Many players will not be able to get past the games many mechanical flaws, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys a good story more than anything then Nier will be a deeply rewarding and enriching experience.  Few games have moved me as deeply as this one did, and it is not without sadness that I removed the disc from my console and placed it back on my shelf.  From the time that it sucked me in at the very beginning, I didn’t want Nier to end, and what better statement of a game’s worth is there than that?

In his latest Common Sense episode, Dan Carlin spent some time discussing a New York Times article that linked together many of the protests and unrest that are currently infecting nations around the world.  A couple of passages in the article stood out as particularly interesting to me, especially since I spoiled my ballot in the last Canadian federal election out of disgust with the main stream parties and the system in general.

Speaking about the global protests, the Times writes:

[F]rom South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

Voting is worthless. I have certainly felt that way for a couple of years. It seems that no matter who we elect to government, and no matter what level of government, the politicians seems more concerned about catering to corporations and special interest groups, building their own power networks, and finding a way to screw the other guy than actually responding to the needs and desires of the citizens who elected them in the first place.  Citizens, if they are thought of at all, are merely means to an end and pesky ones at that.

The Times continues:

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

How novel is that? As Dan Carlin discusses in his show, could it be that we’re rapidly approaching a point where the concept of a representative democracy is too archaic for society, and some form of radical upheaval is required to refresh and renew countries and to once again empower citizens?

It is certainly a possibility, and as more and more protests seem to break out around the developed world, it will be interesting to watch how the political landscape reacts.

It has been nearly twenty-five years since I played my first JRPG, Final Fantasy, and as time has gone by I’ve played fewer games from the genre every year.  Although I like the formula that these role playing games bring to the table, there is no denying that innovation within the genre is all but dead.  I probably would have given Radiant Historia a pass if not for Jeremy Parish‘s enthusiastic review on the now defunct Active Time Babble podcast.  I’m glad that I picked up a copy – this is a Nintendo DS game that JRPG fans cannot allow themselves to miss.

Radiant Historia is a fantasy-based time travel RPG that harkens back to Chrono Trigger but is so much better than the old classic. In the game’s opening minutes the main character receives a magic book, the White Chronicle, that allows him to travel forwards and backwards through two divergent time streams and tasks him with a quest to stop the creeping desertification that is slowly leeching life from the world.

In a refreshing break from the typical JRPG story tropes, the characters are nearly all mature adults and thus the teenage angst that infects many titles in the genre is all but eliminated.  In fact, Radiant Historia tells a mature and deep tale of political intrigue, treachery, and teamwork that appealed far more than most game plots.

Graphically the game looks fine, and the music is top notch.  I usually play handheld games with the sound completely off, but I found myself compelled to keep the volume cranked while spending time with this one.  To be honest, I wouldn’t have ever noticed the soundtrack if not for the music CD that comes bundled with the game; it certainly piqued my interest.

 

The crown jewel of Radiant Historia is the battle system.  As you wander around the game environments you will come across enemies that will try to bump into you to initiate a battle.  You can choose to engage them, avoid them entirely, or else swing your sword to stun them.  Stunning an enemy allows your party extra attacks when the fight breaks out, however if the enemy catches you while you are in the process of trying to stun it then the enemy group will begin the battle with bonus attacks.  It’s a risk/reward gamble with your reflexes.

Once a battle begins your party of three adventurers lines up on one side of the screen, and the enemy party deploys on a three-by-three grid across the field.  Enemies can occupy between one and nine tiles, although a typical random monster will not exceed two tiles in size.  The size and position of the enemy party is of crucial importance to how the battle will play out.

When it is one of your characters’ turns to attack you can choose one of the following options: a normal attack, a damaging special attack, a special attack that moves an enemy around on the grid, an item use, or swapping turns with another friend or foe.  If you have multiple characters ready to act in a row, then all of their actions are queued up and executed at once.

Intelligently using all of these abilities is key; Radiant Historia is not a JRPG that allows you to mash the “attack” button and cruise through battles.  The two main techniques that are important are stacking enemies and creating large combos.

Enemies can be stacked up by utilizing special attacks that move them around the battlefield – they can be pushed back, pulled up, shifted left or right, or thrown into the air.  Moving an enemy onto another enemy allows subsequent attacks on either of the targets to damage both.  The catch is that enemies do not remain stacked once all friendly characters have acted and it is their turn to move, so building a long combo becomes important to dealing with large groups.

Since your characters act with roughly the same frequency as your enemies, combos must be constructed by swapping around the turn order.  If you want more attacks in a row then it is necessary to swap turns with the enemies, allowing them to have a chance to deal damage first.  The catch is that a character who has swapped turns with another has its defense lowered until it takes its next action, so there is some risk involved.

Swapping turn order is not only beneficial for moving groups of enemies around, it allows you to build up combo points, which act as a damage multiplier.  As your characters repeatedly attack the same foe, combo points are accrued.  One combo point is awarded for each attack after the first, and an additional combo point is rewarded if the attack differs in nature (magic versus physical) from the attack before it.  Furthermore, some skills deal low damage, but hit many times and increase the combo meter by one per hit.  Thus, it is advantageous to arrange your attacks in a manner that combo points are maximized through diverse skill use, which allows your damage output to skyrocket.

 

Radiant Historia sucked me in with an engaging premise, and then hooked me with a unique and deep battle system.  This is a game that isn’t afraid to take chances and make the player think, and it never got old at any point in the 40+ hour story.  Definitely check it out if you have a soft spot for JRPGs.

The human mind is a strange and wonderful thing.  Not only can we learn to consciously perform complex tasks, but we can teach ourselves to perform seemingly impossible tasks without ever knowing the steps to do so.  Take the example of chicken sexers, as examined in the September 2011 edition of Discover Magazine:

When chicken hatchlings are born, large commercial hatcheries usually set about dividing them into males and females, and the practice of distinguishing gender is known as chick sexing. Sexing is necessary because the two genders receive different feeding programs: one for the females, which will eventually produce eggs, and another for the males, which are typically destined to be disposed of because of their uselessness in the commerce of producing eggs; only a few males are kept and fattened for meat. So the job of the chick sexer is to pick up each hatchling and quickly determine its sex in order to choose the correct bin to put it in. The problem is that the task is famously difficult: male and female chicks look exactly alike.

Well, almost exactly. The Japanese invented a method of sexing chicks known as vent sexing, by which experts could rapidly ascertain the sex of one-day-old hatchlings. Beginning in the 1930s, poultry breeders from around the world traveled to the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School in Japan to learn the technique.

The mystery was that no one could explain exactly how it was done. It was somehow based on very subtle visual cues, but the professional sexers could not say what those cues were. They would look at the chick’s rear (where the vent is) and simply seem to know the correct bin to throw it in.

And this is how the professionals taught the student sexers. The master would stand over the apprentice and watch. The student would pick up a chick, examine its rear, and toss it into one bin or the other. The master would give feedback: yes or no. After weeks on end of this activity, the student’s brain was trained to a masterful—albeit unconscious—level.

 

This seems very much akin to athletes being able to instinctively execute split second plays without completely understanding the mechanics of what they are accomplishing, only slightly more voodoo.  A similar technique was used during World War 2 by British plane spotters:

During World War II, under constant threat of bombings, the British had a great need to distinguish incoming aircraft quickly and accurately. Which aircraft were British planes coming home and which were German planes coming to bomb? Several airplane enthusiasts had proved to be excellent “spotters,” so the military eagerly employed their services. These spotters were so valuable that the government quickly tried to enlist more spotters—but they turned out to be rare and difficult to find. The government therefore tasked the spotters with training others.

It was a grim attempt. The spotters tried to explain their strategies but failed. No one got it, not even the spotters themselves. Like the chicken sexers, the spotters had little idea how they did what they did—they simply saw the right answer.

With a little ingenuity, the British finally figured out how to successfully train new spotters: by trial-and-error feedback. A novice would hazard a guess and an expert would say yes or no. Eventually the novices became, like their mentors, vessels of the mysterious, ineffable expertise.

The fact that our unconscious minds can learn how to perform tasks that our conscious minds have no ability to grasp is equal parts fascinating and creepy.

I am a long time Nintendo handheld gamer, but were it not for a family tragedy when I was young I might never have picked up a portable system.  My brother, suffering from the leukemia (ALL) that would eventually kill him, was given a Game Boy and four games – shown below – by the local branch of the Lions Club.  I don’t know the reasons behind the generous donation, but it was a toy that was shared by the whole family and gave us some good times in the midst of pain.

 

Although we couldn’t afford any games aside from Super Mario Land, Baseball, Tetris, and Motorcross Maniacs, it was still a lot of fun and a much different experience than sitting in front of the C64 or NES to play games.  Many an hour was wasted swapping the Game Boy around to top each others’ Tetris score on the couch, and even my mother – who does not game – got in on the action.  She was wickedly good at Tetris too.

Super Mario Land was (and is) a great little platformer and as much as I thought I was skilled for beating it, I was in awe when my youngest brother- only three years old at the time – managed to work his way through the game entirely unassisted.  Neither Motorcross Maniacs or BAseball hold up particularly well, but for the first generation of portable consoles they were more than enough.

The Game Boy still works to this day… though blowing the cartridge slot out periodically is the key to a smooth experience.

Self piracy

Video Games Comments Off
Sep 162011

Why allow others to pirate your game, when you can pirate it yourself and pick up sales in the process?

tinyBuild Games has found success in uploading its new game, No Time To Explain, to the Pirate’s Bay. [...] The game has a unique feature that the full-fledged normal version does not: all of its characters wear pirate hats in-game, along with an ever-present pirate theme.

[...]

“You can’t really stop piracy, all you can do is make it work for you and/or provide something that people actually want to pay for. For us this is humor, we like making people laugh,” Alex added.

The PR stunt also helped with sales:

“We saw very positive WTF REALLY feedback from users, and saw reactions that people bought it simply because they liked the joke. So we don’t see it hurting sales in any way,” [company co-founder Alex Nichiporchik] said.

Good for tinyBuild Games – realistic-minded, humorous, and inventive all at once.

Over this past long weekend my wife and I went camping at Algonquin Park, our favorite natural getaway.  On the Saturday we packed a lunch, lots of water, and trail snacks and headed to Centennial Ridges Trail, which was one of the only hikes at the park that we had yet to try.  The trail is a 10.6km loop, with a recommended minimum time of six hours.  Along the way you climb up to the top of five different ridges and visit five distinct lakes.

Right from the start, Centennial Ridges lets you know that it means business; the path is laced with rocks and tree roots, is uneven much of the time, and is full of steep climbs up and down.  This is not a nature walk for the uninitiated and you have to be in decent shape to tackle it.  The first weekend of September was an ideal time to take the hike since the weather was relatively cool and overcast and the bugs were mostly absent.

Below are some pictures from our walk.  Click any of them to see a hi res version.

A splash of red in the midst of green

Wong Tse and I admiring the view

A hilltop lake

Lake beneath a ridge

Beaver lodge

A pine tree barely tops this ridge

A couple of years ago I tried the demo for Machinarium and was not impressed.  After playing the three demo levels I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, and never even considered spending money on the game.  It turns out I didn’t have to – after gifting Lost Horizon to one of the hosts of the GameBurst podcast for a job well done, I was repaid with a generous gift of the Humble Indie Bundle #2 and #3, and specifically Machinarium.  Not wanting to be a prude, I fired up the quirky little puzzler and played it to completion over the course of a week.

Let me start by saying that all of my prior criticisms of the game are still completely valid:  puzzles are obtuse, the user interface design is outdated, the tip system is horrendous, and puzzle solutions often feel far too based on random chance than actual logic.  Machinarium is a game that doesn’t even bother heeding the lessons of the ancient Monkey Island games – it just blunders ahead with its too-tricky puzzles and refuses to give players any information to work with unless they ask for a hint, at which point the entire solution is vomited onto the screen.

The thing is, once you get past the first three puzzles – those included in the demo for the game – these shortcomings fade into the background as the whimsical cartoon world opens up and takes hold.  The demo includes the very worst of the levels that Machinarium has to offer – once you’re clear of that segment, the levels become far larger, more full of character, and utterly charming.  The strange little robot that you control manages to be so emotive that you actually feel for the little guy, and want him to reach the end of his quest.  The characters he meets and the conversations that he has – all told using line-drawn animations in cartoon-style word bubbles – are charming in a way that is tough to frame with words; they just work brilliantly.

 

As the environments get bigger the puzzles get harder; the finale spans something like fifteen screens and requires multiple hours to solve, even with occasional use of the hint feature to get unstuck.  A nice addition to the pixel-hunting and random item combining that the demo highlighted are the logic puzzles that would not be out of place in a Professor Layton game.  For the first time in a long time I was forced to make notes as I played (shown above) to try to solve the different challenges that the game through at me. How often do you have to really think when playing a video game?

As much as I despise the archaic and confusing aspects of Machinarium, I am glad that I was given a chance to play it to completion.  The world and characters made the game enjoyable, even during its most frustrating moments.  I’d love to see Amanita Design take another stab at the point and click adventure genre, but perhaps adopt some of the more modern mechanics that have been developed.

It’s way too early to declare that AAA gaming is dead or even dying, but as Bill Harris points out, there’s an unappealing aroma emanating from that corner of the market:

Would I rather buy one $59 game or 20 mobile games? With almost no exceptions, I’d rather have a mobile games. They fit into my 10-minute lifestyle really well, and I can start them up in 5 seconds.

I was slow to jump on this train, but Chris Kohler was right: this is absolutely the elephant in the room for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft. Sorry, the market just isn’t going to support $60 games anymore. Well, that’s not quite true–there are a handful the market will support, but it’s only a handful, and it’s not enough for these companies to preserve the price structure.

My tolerance for the cost of games has long been lower than the $60 average price tag that a big budget title carries, but with the advent of cheap indie games on digital distribution platforms like Steam and smartphone marketplaces, many more gamers are joining this camp.  Why pay $60 for a game that offers 10 hours of enjoyment when you can pay $1 for a game that supplies double that, with the only tradeoff being a loss of production value?  It is getting to be a hard sell for the big publishers, and they are clearly struggling to adapt.

Further complicating the situation is that the average age of a gamer has crept up to ~36 – way higher than it used to be.  The market is not teeming with kids loaded with disposable income and infinite time any more – bite-sized experiences are far easier for a gamer on the go to pick up and play than anything that an AAA title can offer.  Most of the time I don’t have an hour or two to sit down and fire up a game – my typical play session tends to be thirty minutes or less in duration.

Frankly I’m okay with all of these changes in the industry.  Some of my favorite games this year have been bite-sized indie gems that I picked up for five dollars or less, and this has led to me playing more games over all, not less.  The AAA titles that I do purchase are generally a couple years old and highly discounted – it’s tough to justify sixty dollars for a game these days.

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