Monday, June 20, 2011

Phantoms of Substance

The other they I picked up a copy of Phantom Brave for the PSP. I owned the original PS2 version (well not the original PS2 version, the English version, but you know what I mean) but I never quite got along to finishing it. Largely because actually focusing on playing though the story mode and not getting sidetracked on making uberweapons which completely break the story mode battles and make them no longer able to pose any kind of threat takes massive focus. But I beat it this time, though shear willpower to get though it, and then played the new alternate story mode, and am now working on the original story mode again, and will probably play the alternate one again too cause I missed some stuff. Why you can't just skip to the part of the story you care about after you beat the game, or have enemies match your level to make story mode not so frightfully dull, I don't know. Nippon Ichi has never been fans of convenience when it comes to replaying stuff. At least you can skip most of the cutscenes.

But I still find myself in the same old trap of doing the same thing over and over for some menial virtual reward I really shouldn't care about. Last time I ranted about a Nippon Ichi game, I touched on some of the problems with them. But really most of the problems are shared by RPGs in general, what with the blatant grinding that makes about 90% of the game filler. I really think that games should be set up so you can basically always find something new without spending time mucking about, but on the other hand I dislike linear games that hold your hand and don't let you loose to really get a feel for things, or have no progression at all. Or maybe that's not really it either.

I suppose what it comes down too is I think a lot of games don't feel like they have any really depth or substance to them. But lately I have been thinking more about what I think "depth" and "substance" really means. I have been watching a minecraft video series by two guys who play together. The series starts off with a simple demonstration of some of the basic minecraft mechanics and survival, but after a while other players start getting involved and end up building a world and a integrate backstory for the two guys to play around with. They also play a lot of "adventure maps" made by people who come up with challenges, rules, and backstorys in a map for players. Not to long ago I was chatting with someone about Tower Defense games and why I didn't like them, even if they had upgrades and stratagy and things. I realized what it basically comes down to, why I find those minecraft videos so fascinating and Tower Defense games so utterly boring, is basically the act of exploration.

Exploration is at the heart of almost every game I like. It's one reason I like roguelikes so much, one reason I think why people swear that Super Metroid is one of the best games ever made, and the reason why, quite frankly, beat-em-ups, shooting games, Tower Defense games, Nippon Ichi games, and other arcade and stratagy games tend to annoy me. And it isn't just about exploring a environment either, it's about exploring gameplay as well (in fact I dare say I enjoy roguelikes like Nethack, and too a lesser extent, RPGs like the SaGa series for more for this reason then exploring the environment).

It works for stories too. I think this is one reason I like things like Homestuck and certain fanfics (which reminds me I was reading a interesting one not to long ago) is the exploring they do of places and ideas. And one reason I hate soup opera-ish crap (which BTW I think Phantom Brave's plot is dangerously close to with the whole "POSSESSED" melodrama thing), because they just give a series of unresolved hooks to draw tension and never really try and deeply explore any sort of underlining meaning or the character's inner selves.

So I guess when I am saying "depth" and "substance" I really mean a sort of exploration of something. It doesn't necessarily have to be something new it just has to be something you can really dig deep into and uncover stuff. It seems a lot of RPGs and other games think of a game's goal as something you work to, spending time and effort to get to the end, or to get some rare thing. I think it should be more something you explore. Not necessarily in terms of a secret that needs to be discovered, but in terms of a thing that is out there and can be transversed. It can be a subtle difference between the two to be honest, but there is a difference. Grinding is not exploring.

A game should not require you, and maybe should not even let you run in place for hours to get ahead. What if enemies didn't respawn for example, or most of your experience was related to progress and conversation not repeatable tasks (Planescape: Torment comes to mind). Suddenly it's a whole new type of thing where you can't stay in one place forever to get ahead. Suddenly both the player and the developer has to think more about what they are doing. And this can be a bad thing too, where you no longer have the option to just grind to get by That One Boss. How about have random drops have a counter so after so many enemies if it doesn't randomly drop, it will raise the chance until eventually it is 100%. That way fighting the monsters won't be a waste and if they don't respawn, or do different places so you can't farm them, then you can keep moving and not have to worry about grinding for them. There are many ways to subtlety change it so grinding isn't a thing anymore, while still rewarding effort.