Saturday, May 2, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Seven: Will, April 10

Note for readers: As of this entry, Michael and I will be digging into the game proper, and we'll be discussing plot points as they come. If you're terrified of spoilers, be cautious.


It's April 10th; I picked up my copy of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D earlier today. So far, I've played roughly 4.5 hours, making my way through what feels like an extended prologue, right up to the point where plucky heroine Fiora gets stuffed into a big, tank-sized fridge. It seemed like a good place to stop for a bit and get some initial thoughts on paper.

So, the good news is: I really like this game! I imagine you're almost as relieved to read that as I am to write it; what a drag it would be to devote all this time and energy to a sub-par game. But so far, I find Xenoblade Chronicles to be well-written, interestingly designed, and possessed of a combat system I feel excited to sink my teeth into. It's not all perfect, but I'm happy to say that I'm anxious right now to get this letter done so I can get back to playing.

Buff me baby, one more time

So, about those imperfections: Good lord, Michael, but there's some ugly art in this game. I'm not "a graphics guy," but some of these textures are just UNFORTUNATE. (It's hard not to compare the game with Majora's Mask 3D, a remake of a game ten years older than the original Xenoblade that looks several times crisper than what I'm playing now.) While I find myself delighted by how damn BIG the areas in question are (Colony 9 is staggeringly huge, it took me a long time to come to terms with how much damn space I was being offered to explore), it's hard not to look at Shulk or Fiora's face and think someone has remade Vagrant Story with characters based on a dewey-eyed Britney Spears. My friend Gary has remarked before that cel-shading is like bomb-proofing for 3D graphics - it turns things wonderfully evergreen. I find myself really wishing Xenoblade's designers had taken that tack.

That space daunted me at first, too; Shulk and company felt far too slow to explore such a massive environment. Eventually I stumbled onto the fast travel options, which eliminated my concerns, but there were some moments when I could feel the bile rising in my throat as I slowly plodded around the map. 

My only other quibble at this point is that the giant enemy names tend to obscure the actual fighting when I'm going up against multiple opponents, especially small ones. I really wish there was a way to shrink them or turn them off.

This is maybe half the explorable area of Colony 9

And that's it. That's all my gripes so far. It's not a very long list.

Rather than detail everything I like so far, I think I'd rather devote the rest of my space to talking about the moment I alluded to at the top, and why it (despite my snarky description) felt pleasantly shocking: Fiora's death.

Now, RPGs have been killing off initial party members for years; Biggs and Wedge get X-Zoned, Private Jenkins takes a laser blast to the face, poor old Daveth chokes to death on monster blood. (Bioware really, really likes this trope.) It's a way to raise the stakes, while giving players a chance to mess around with character classes and builds they otherwise might not be seeing for a few more hours. Most of those deaths happen much more rapidly than Fiora's, though, with fewer resources spent on the "guest star" character. Fiora feels fully fleshed out - my version of her was level 13 when she met her final fate, equipped in a custom set of gear and well on her way to developing a unique set of Arts and Skills. All that's to say, I had started to invest in Fiora, and it makes her death carry more meaning than it otherwise would. (I was honestly expecting Dunbar, with his non-available skill tree, mentor-trappings, and a sword I knew would end up in Shulk's hands, to be the sacrificial lion - and I'm pretty sure that was intentional.) All that brings me to a few thoughts on the grand dame of dead RPG party members: Good old Aeris. (Or Aerith, depending on where you fall on the great dogma wars of 1997.)

Looking back, it's kind of staggering how ballsy a move Square made when it killed Aeris off half-way through Final Fantasy VII. Not because of the plot impact; there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to killing off pretty love interests to drive heroes forward in their quest for revenge. But wiping out a party member, one who the player was fully invested in at that point, that's a hell of a thing. (Everything related to Aeris' final Limit Break, which you're only ever going to see if you specifically go looking for it, speaks to how the game hides her upcoming loss - you're not allowed to prepare for it, and her development arc isn't rushed to completion - it just ends, abruptly. The only thing Square could have done to drive the idea home even further would be to continue to provide equipment for her through the end of the game, although that probably would have had the conspiracy theorists literally frothing at the mouth). 

Fiora doesn't go to quite that extreme. But nothing about her design suggested to me that she was merely temporary, and it means I'll be a little more nervous the next time one of those metal-faced Mechon bastards rears its head. (Even if, realistically, this feels like a trick the game can only get away with pulling once.) Well-played, Xenoblade. You made me feelings with my feelers, and that's half the battle when it comes to getting me to care.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Six: Will, April 9


I'm writing this on 4-9-15, the night before Xenoblade comes out. I'm excited to play, although I'm also working to make sure advance expectations don't torpedo my gameplay experience. 

Everything you said about difficulty sounds borderline ideal; I've always been good about adapting myself to whatever structure a game wants to impose on me, and it's rare for me to leave content on the table unless I feel actively antagonized by the design. (Side note: I know you didn't love The World Ends With You, and I don't think I've ever heard you talk about the Kingdom Hearts games, but I've always found their approaches to difficulty very rewarding; the ability to tune your game to precisely your preferred level of challenge, with extra benefits for pushing yourself to harder extremes, is very satisfying to me. There's a whole other conversation about how Square has used the games between KH 2 and the upcoming (presumably) 3 as laboratories for weird advancements in character development systems.)

Not pictured: Bring Da Funk, Bring Da Noise

The act structure certainly makes sense to me, to the extent that any traditional narrative structure can work when mapped to 60-hour continuous narratives. (I've never really thought about that before, but there really isn't a direct parallel for that kind of extended storytelling, outside maybe a longer novel, in the Western artistic tradition. Nothing else is that long, without built-in episodic divisions.) Certainly, the rise of Telltale's episodic model (and before that, games like Alan Wake, that intentionally mimic the beats of TV shows, down to having "episode recaps" between gameplay portions) have codified that act structure. But they're not hard to see in older games; Chrono Trigger is broken into discrete chapters, while Final Fantasy VI slaps the player in the face with its split into two parts. Even games that aren't that overt can be broken down into changes in the party's objectives, and the overall tone. (Final Fantasy VII would be something like Act One: Midgar, Act Two: The Pursuit Of Sephiroth, etc.) I'll keep an eye out for them in Xenoblade when I start to play.

I look forward to seeing synthesis at work in Xenoblade; there's something very satisfying about feeling story and mechanics work hand-in-hand. (I wrote about how Bravely Default craps the bed in its last half when it abandons that synergy in one of the guestblogs I wrote for you, and there's an essay buriedsomewhere in my blog about the satisfaction I feel when Achievement systems act in harmony with gameplay and story.)

The Walking Dead

To answer your specific questions:

1) Comedy in games is such a hideous, weird beast. There are very few games that manage it, and even fewer that can do it through gameplay, not through simply aping the comedic beats of movies or TV. (Super Meat Boy is a game with funny gameplay, for instance, as is Dark Souls (drink!), games where the levels and traps themselves act as jokes.)  On the other hand, games like Super Time Force Ultra have legitimately funny dialogue, but it only rarely impacts the gameplay. (If I'm using your model correctly, that would be juxtaposition, right?) As for comedic mascots being funny.... I'm going to say never? I have vague positive feelings toward goofy little Chu-Chu in Xenogears, but that's about it. I can find the character charming (although that's rarely the case), but in general I don't think the majority of RPG designers and writers understand humor. 

Good RPG comedy sidekick

Oh, wait, does Morte from Planescape: Torment, count? I think he'd qualify, but that just underscores some issues with the difficulty of translating comedy from one culture to another, I think.

2) I don't have a problem with games using references as shorthand, as long as it doesn't lead to laziness. On the other hand, I'm not especially well-versed in Japanese culture (for instance, gasp, shock, fainting spell, I've never watched Evangelion and know it only through reputation/TV Tropes), so a lot of those references aren't going to land for me. In a way, that's nice, because it allows me to find originality in places it wasn't necessarily present, but it also means that shorthand won't work for me in a lot of Eastern RPGs. The Grand Theft Auto games, on the other hand, use it quite well (up to a point). As power fantasies, the game almost explicitly telling me, "Oh, we're doing Scarface, now," feels great. The Saints Row games take that even further, using musical cues and even references to the plots/styles of other games to communicate what the player's going to do next. They also don't fall into the trap of GTA IV, where Rockstar got high on its own supply, so to speak, and decided that they could tell a heartfelt tale of violence and redemption entirely through cues taken from other works. (It turns out that they really, really couldn't.)

Less so.

Skipping over 3) because, shock, faint, someone get the smelling salts, I don't respond terribly strongly to Miyazaki and thus don't feel qualified to talk about his influence,

4) This one comes down entirely to the amount of player choice I'm given. There's something deeply unsatisfying about being locked into the role of a villain, forced to make the world darker and grimmer with every step, with no chance of redemption. (I turned Far Cry 3 off early on, both for unrelated reasons, and because I could see the outline of the story and wanted no part in it.) But give me a choice in how it plays out? Give me the option to be a knight or a knave? Well, a lot of times I'll still choose knight. But when I do decide to go for the Dark Side points, it feels like a narrative of my own design, and thus relieves me of the feeling of being trapped. Because Xenoblade is a JRPG, I'm guessing that won't be the case; true narrative choice is scant on the ground in games of its ilk. But I can remain hopeful! Of course, it seems just as likely that my characters will think they're doing something good, only to find out they've manipulated into evil, because that's how 99% of JRPG plots go. We'll see.

Signing off with excitement,

P.S.: I'm sorry I was mean about the Chicken Man. Sir Chicken Man? Sir Thou. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Five: Michael, April 6


It's 4-6-15 as I type this letter out and anticipation is running high (amongst people who already cared about this game). I did a warm-up run, playing the Wii version for a bit with a classic controller so I could get used to a more traditional button scheme for the game. I played Xenoblade the first two times with remote and nunchuck, which was a very relaxing stance in my opinion, and while the control system with a traditional controller is perfectly fine and not especially unusual, simple muscle memory made it a bit of a learning experience for me - kept hitting the wrong menu button, basically, which is my fault and not the game's.

As I mentioned briefly in a Google chat, that "Before I Play" site is practically spoiler content, judged solely in terms of your previously not knowing anything about the gameplay (and also, I guess, by mentioning the name of a party member that you don't pick up for many hours - don't worry, frantic Xenoblade fan readers, it doesn't spoil "Seven"). What's more, a few pieces of advice (such as suggesting save-scumming, a policy that I personally hate) feel blatantly incorrect. Even very rare drops in this game, which can be quite frustrating, aren't in my opinion any faster to pick up using that method.

That said, I guess I don't have to warn you about "timed quests," now, even if this made it a bit more dramatic than I would have.

Anyway, the reason I asked you those questions in the previous letter is specifically because the game is literally only as challenging as you make it. This is a thing that I generally enjoy about Xenoblade Chronicles, with a few hiccups. Any run of Xenoblade that leans in towards completionism is very easy until the endgame, and even then the challenge is largely fair except for (arguably) a very small handful of super monsters. It's very easy to make the game challenging - skipping lots of content as "optional" or leaving most of it for the end of the game (aside from things like the aforementioned "timed quests") will leave your level, your equipment, and even in some cases your ability load-out in a diminished state that will leave plenty of challenges throughout.

In my opinion this is a real bummer way to play this game. I have a lot of opinions about the quest structure of Xenoblade, and why it's the core gameplay mechanic to pay attention to, but there's only so much I want to say before the game arrives, as I don't want to leave you with too many preconceptions. Let me say this, though, in the interest of fairness: Most of the really fun, exciting, interesting, touching, or funny quests will not open unless you do at least some of the "boring" quests. What's more, the game makes every conceivable effort to streamline the "boring" stuff to keep it fun.

More to the point, though, even if you're going for a "challenging run" of this game, you shouldn't ever, ever have to grind. At all. The sole exception may be if you're going for full completion, you may want a few extra levels at the very end of the game. But the thing is, the game is designed so that you don't have to grind at all. Fulfilling quests replaces that entirely, and even if you don't do many of them, the natural progression through the story will throw enough enemies in your way that progression will happen one way or another. If you're grinding for any reason other than finding the combat enjoyable (which, to be fair, is a valid reason), you're probably having trouble with the game on a more fundamental level - not making use of some mechanic or another. Which is okay! But not a reason to grind for any reason other than if you find that sort of thing relaxing, which I sometimes do in an Eastern RPG.

That said, when you first turn on the game, it's worth killing some extra enemies in the first hour just you can get a handle on combat and how the battle system and the various character upgrade systems work. Just don't feel like you have to hit any kind of milestone.

This game has its fair share of cutscenes, and when they do occur they're no overly short; the thing about the game design is that you're meant to spend a lot of time between them. In contrast to the execrable Xenosaga, which was a linear narrative without enough gameplay to sustain it - and Takahashi's recent Iwata Asks interview was quite interesting on that front, talking about Xenosaga's failure, he noted that his very small and untested team basically overloaded on the "epic" movies because they couldn't get enough of the gameplay together so that there would be rewarding content of some type, which is an interesting way to look at that whole mess - Xenoblade, by contrast, expects you to partake of the gameplay enough, up to and including quests, that there are long breaks between cutscenes. And to be fair, when they are protracted, it's usually in specific moments. I'd say the balance is generally fair, as they rarely occur in place of gameplay. Probably half of them concern what non-player characters are up to while you're busy.

This brings up something I wanted to mention at a later point, but I think I can get away with it now: do you ever think of long game stories in terms of traditional narrative acts with act breaks? I know that in earlier eras Square attempted to get us to view their games that way in relation to when you'd switch discs, but those moments only rarely corresponded with natural break points in the story. Do you think game stories of that length can have traditional story structures that work? Here's why I ask: I was thinking about Xenoblade's story structure recently - as I've said, I have questions about how it was paced in the long run, questions it's impossible to address here for obvious reasons, and I think I've figured out where the "act breaks" would be, but they sort of raise further questions about these issues I have. And this is directly relevant to the conversation we're having, because your feeling about the story pacing, about how much of the world you understand and care about, and a variety of other structural concerns will be affected by things like how much time you take out of your day to devote to side material, versus the forward narrative.

Let me pose this now, before you start playing, attempting to spoil as little as humanly possible: I believe that the end of act one is when six party members travel through a thing and arrive at a large body of water. It does not necessarily follow a climactic moment, but the tone of the game changes after that moment in interesting ways. Some people might argue otherwise, and I can definitely see why, and I think that's an interesting conversation. So keep an eye out for story structure stuff as you play - and I'll be interested to see how your opinion is influenced by things like quests and side trips.

As you know, Will, I've long argued that storytelling in video games is the product of two distinct techniques, juxtaposition and sythesis, and that while some games are able to do what they need to do using only one technique, most games have a mixture of the two, and the balance between them is usually the issue, rather than specifically using one technique or the other at all. People like to hate on Kojima for the amount of juxtaposition he uses and celebrate his few more obvious examples of synthesis, for instance; Synthesis is incredibly important and under-utilized, to be sure, but putting another tool back in the box entirely is just handicapping storytellers. Xenosaga was all juxtaposition, and it was an incredibly passive experience in a way that was not rewarding. I've argued that a title like Persona 3 has a lot more synthesis than it's been given credit for in the past. But even an earlier game in the genre like Final Fantasy IV found ways to use both in the same parts - the Mysidia sequence where Cecil becomes a paladin features an unusual amount of storytelling-through-gameplay for a game of that type in that era, but there are still "cutscenes" where control is given up for dialogue.

Xenoblade is fairly traditional in its juxtaposition use - and despite some well-delivered bits and some fine character work, etc, it's not shockingly unique - but in its use of synthesis is where I found things that were special. We'll hopefully be seeing some of that shortly.

Thanks for answering my FFXII question; I'll try to get back to that later. I have a few more questions, though, less related to gameplay:

1) Which video games have had comedy relief mascot characters that you actually enjoyed?
2) As a longtime fan of Xenogears especially, how do you feel about games that use pop culture narrative touchpoints as a shorthand? Is there a difference between the "Soylent System" (and about 10,000 other references) and Final Fantasy VII's self-conscious references to Akira? How about Persona 3 drawing deliberate parallels to Evangelion? What about what a game like Red Dead Redemption that drew so heavily on classic western films to basically make its story out of them? Is that different to what Rockstar also did with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City did with films like Scarface, Goodfellas, and Carlito's Way?
3) Are all eastern RPGs trapped in a thematic ouroborous with Miyazaki's work?
4) Finally, do you feel like you need to be the hero in games of this type? Is there inherent value to the western role-playing games which serve as a darkness-laden antihero contrast?


P.S. I refuse to reply to your postscript.

Friday, April 17, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Four: Will, April 5


Because your questions made me a little nervous about the difficulty curve going in, I popped over to and read through Xenoblade's entry. For the most part, I want to go in to any game ignorant of the mechanics and the best strategy, because the joy of games for me is the joy of discovery (more on that later). My only caveats to that are games where the design is in some way clearly broken or obscured, where normal gameplay and experimentation won't reveal workable strategies. (I just finished playing Dark Souls, so I'll take a page from that game as an example: Leveling up equipment in Souls is far more important and cost-effective than bumping up stats, a fact which isn't readily apparent early on, and lead to a lot of frustration for my first playthrough.) I've found Before I Play to be a good resource for overcoming those humps and hiccups without entirely dictating my playstyle, and the notes I read there seemed like a good guideline to follow.

As for things like pacing and challenge, I'll take them as they come. If the game falters in its balance of story and gameplay, it falters, and I want that to be part of my experience. As to completion, I won't deny that I enjoy the dopamine fix from "completing" a game, but I also don't want to be a slave to itemized lists of menial tasks. (My friend Gary Butterfield refers to Ubisoft's recent game designs as "open-world checklists.") Xenoblade is apparently buried in sidequests; I imagine I'll go after the ones that feel meaningful or interesting and leave the rest along the roadside. 

I thought Final Fantasy XII was a fine game, but its endgame content never grabbed me. I've never been an MMO player, and the stress of battling the same monster for half an hour, while possibly exhilarating, sounds far closer to work than I want my leisure activities to be. I enjoyed XII's open-world design and AI-assisted combat, but I don't need to spend 45 minutes whittling down a health bar longer than my arm.

"Quickening" here is presumably meant ironically.

I think, like a lot of gamers who survived the Playstation 2 era, I've developed a wicked allergic reaction to cutscenes more than a minute in length. (Although Kojima gets a pass, just because.) At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I've shouted "Show, don't tell!" out loud so many times at games that relegate all of their interesting moments to cinematics. Exposition is even worse; my hands start to itch when the interactive elements of my interactive entertainment are turned off so I can watch some talking heads emote. (I'm always amused when games like Chrono Cross include replay items that let you skip or speed-up things like this, as though even the designers knew they were boring their players to tears.)

So the idea that Xenoblade rejects that setup sounds incredibly refreshing. Your mention of it being "a game where exploring the world was the experience" resonates super strongly to me at the moment, because From Software uses a very similar philosophy in Dark Souls (Drink!). That game uses cutscenes exceedingly sparingly--they serve as area transitions and boss introductions pretty much exclusively--and it goes out of its way to hide exposition in item descriptions and vague allusions. Instead, the history of Lordran is laid out by the player's journey, from the slums of the Undead Burg to the shining, glorious Anor Londo, home of the gods. The player learns about Hidetaka Miyazaki's world by moving through it, seeing its corruption and decay and the hints of better days. It's a beautiful way to design a game, and it invests the player in the world far more strongly than a long text crawl or overwrought monologue ever could.

Speaking of narrative puzzles, I appreciate your respect for my spoiler-averse nature. As we talked about on Twitter, I'm largely indifferent to the "shock" value of plot twists; a story stands as a story, whether I'm shocked by it or not. But I do get a great deal of my gaming joy from discovery, from the process of taking clues, building them into suppositions, and then reforming them as new information comes in. (It's not for nothing that I've referred to myself in the past as a "narrative detective.") Some of my favorite gaming experiences of late have been mysteries of this ilk; the sheer pleasure of working out Sissel's true identity in Ghost Trick stands out as a highlight (even if it took the game spelling it out for me to realize Ray's true motivations). For the same reason, Kotaro Uchikoshi has become one of my favorite designers, with 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and its sequel Virtue's Last Reward both employing elaborate mystery plots that kept my curiosity and imagination burning for days.

This is a tangent, but I've always wished there was a way to turn this unofficial game into a real one; a mystery story where deducing the truth of a plot is not only the goal, but a goal that can be failed. That distinction is key - the Zero Escape games are great, but the challenges come entirely from solving the in-room puzzles, not from working out the plot (even more so in the second game, which lays out all the branching plots and decision points for the player to see). Persona 4 feints at it with the need to name the mysterious killer, but it's a one-time thing. Adventure games like Phoenix Wright, do, too, but they're so heavily scripted that working something out beforehand can actually screw you over, because you'll try to finger the real culprit too soon and fail. Sierra and Infocom both played around with the idea back in their heydays; the Laura Bow games are mysteries, with the second forcing you to not only name the killer but present evidence as to their guilt, but they're also hamstrung by the worst excesses of that company's more wrong-headed design philosophies. Really, you have to go all the way back to Infocom's Deadline for the kind of game I crave, and there's probably something damning about the fact that this kind of game hasn't been attempted in more than 30 years.

You forgot to look both ways before crossing the street, so now you're dead!

Not that I'm expecting Xenoblade to do all this; but I do want the pleasure of trying to see things coming for myself. I'm very excited for five more days to pass, when I get to start trying.

Yours in time,

PS: Oh man, is the chicken man like Locke? Will he get angry when I call him a thief, and insist he's a treasure hunting chicken man? Very excited now.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Three: Michael, March 23


Beginning with the end: a little surprised that the not-his-catchphrase didn't register, as it became something of a runaway train in "internet memes that instantly get old" terms, in reference to Shulk saying one of his many battle phrases in the Smash Bros trailer - which, as many of them were, was full of in-jokes and references for the fans (I wonder a bit, offhand, if Shulk's voice actor Adam Howden had any say in what he spoke, because his lines are not the same as the lines used in the Japanese Smash Bros, as I've heard (and this may be apocryphal) their original Xenoblade had slightly blander dialogue. Though, doubtless we'll get back to that later, as we're playing the game. It's fascinating to me, though, how crossover properties like Smash Bros can be the primary source for a wider audience in character interpretation. For many, Shulk's existence, rightly or wrongly, is defined by a spare few catchphrases, like a doll with a pull-string. 

I appreciate, truly, your faith in my opinions of this game. I hope that this faith proves well-placed, but a series of letters like this can be equally rewarding if you find my interest misplaced. As I've been quick to state, I have a number of issues with this game, but most of those issues are difficult to discuss without revealing more about the story than I'd be comfortable with prior to your turning the game on. Which brings me quickly to the topic of spoilers. 

As prior readers of my own site are well-familiar, but your own readers will not be, I'm not much for spoiler warnings in critical discussion. I'm perfectly happy not revealing all the plot twists to you in advance - that's a common courtesy - but for the purposes of critical analysis, rather than cursory review, twists and endings must be discussed in the same breath as beginnings and outlines. To do less is a disservice to this work. That said, Xenoblade is fairly notable in how its fan community is often very, very adamant at twists not being revealed - up to and including twists that occur very, very early in the story. I think, genuinely, that this is to some degree misguided. Endings are one thing, but a game this obscure requires a degree of forthrightness, in that if you don't tell someone what a story is about, they may not necessarily find a reason to be interested. Many of the 3DS edition commercials have been quick to give away things up to the game's... I want to say halfway point? And Nintendo's perspective on this issue has made some people angry. There are trophies in Smash Bros that some people (not me personally) find downright story-ruining. What's funny about that is that there are many beats in the story that I don't think are all that unpredictable. Some well-delivered, some maybe less so, depending, but a twist for a character and a twist for a reader/watcher/player are two different animals, if you follow me. 

But as you don't appear to know much of anything about the game, I plan on respecting that and letting you take the lead in discussing parts of the story as they come up. There's plenty more to the game besides the direct narrative beats, so I won't be lacking in discussion topics. 

I came late to Xenoblade myself, for much the same reason as you: Xenosaga, in my mind, essentially killed the respect that the American general gaming audience had for Eastern-developed RPGs all but singlehandedly. Obviously, the true and complete story of that time is far more complicated and nuanced, but I feel like that trilogy was in retrospect a sort of defining moment for the genre. Final Fantasy X was less unpopular when it first came out than it was a bit later, but Eastern-made games of that era continued to go in its direction (consider the response as well to Metal Gear Solid 2, for instance - another game where reaction was complicated by a lot of factors) until with Xenosaga it hit a sort of critical mass. It's ironic, in its way, because Persona 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne were coming out in that same relative era and are two of the greatest games of the genre, in my own opinion - even after everything that's been done to milk those franchises absolutely dry (Boy did I give up on Persona Q early with no regrets).

Tetsuya Takahashi's games are most notable for always having ambition that far, far outstrips the capabilities of what he's actually producing. The differences lie in where exactly the fractures appear and what the exact failures are. I love Xenogears unreservedly; it's a game that means a great deal to me, but it's an 80-hour slow-motion car wreck, and the crash starts happening long, long before people think it does. I want to talk more about this game as these letters go on - I don't want to overload this introduction - but these are things it's worth stating before we begin the closest thus far he's gotten to "doing it right this time" (and Xenoblade Chronicles X has the potential to get even closer, at early glances, but we'll absolutely see when the time comes). 

In the case of Xenosaga, however, he had many of the same problems as Xenogears in that staff left, budgets dropped, etc. but while in Xenogears still has the shape of a game that could have been something special before Final Fantasy VIII and Chrono Cross cannibalized it (and you can see beats of it in those games, like taking staff wasn't enough, they needed to begin feasting on the ideas as well), Xenosaga seems predicated on bad ideas even before the problems set in. RPG developers had a hard time adjusting to the "3D" era of the Playstation 2 - earlier generations, where dialogue was read, were able to (for instance) get away with long monologues during dramatic sequences, but when voiced that pacing just does not work. Xenosaga is the worst of it, constantly undercutting its own intentions at every turn because people can't stop talking when things are exploding - and we can get into the sorts of things that they monologued about some other time. It's worth mentioning right off the bat that Takahashi made a point of saying during Xenoblade's development that he regretted the previous series' reliance upon endless cutscenes and wanted to make a game that was an antidote to that idea - a game where exploring the world was the experience, and the story was something you played rather than watched. We'll see if he succeeded in that goal. 

Certainly Nintendo of America has spent a lot of time shooting itself in first one foot, than the other, over and over again regarding the home console titles that make it here. I think the last two years have been interesting in that they seem desperate to right the ship, and there's been some real promising movement on that front. But it's true, the DS and its brethren have been the gaming platform of choice, especially for RPG fans. The 3DS maybe a little less so - I enjoyed the upgraded version of the first Devil Survivor, and I think that if you have the mindset for "quirky, overly-Japanese" releases, Denpa Men 3 was a surprisingly solid little time-waster for a downloadable. But Xenoblade - an entire Wii game, and one whose draw was an enormous, expansive world, is a real surprise. 

There are two types of people in this world: people who looked at the facial rendering of the Wii Xenoblade and decided the graphics were subpar, and those who looked at the rest of the game and were amazed at the visuals of the world that had been created. Will these work on a portable system, where everything is shrunk to the size of a credit card? Will it be a downgrade or an improvement? How will the 3D affect this judgement? I'm not someone who values "graphics" heavily when it comes to the criteria for a good game, but this is sort of a unique circumstance, and something I'll be assessing as we play. 

I haven't cracked open the package of my Shulk Amiibo yet, actually; I've built up a Mario one in Smash Bros, but I'm playing that game a bit less at the moment, so I haven't had an urgent need. I plan on taking the little guy out when Xenoblade arrives. As far as whether you need to get one, though, I don't think you need worry unless you do happen to fall in love with this game. Its only purpose here serves in interacting with outside-the-game extras: a music player, a character model viewer, etc. It helps you unlock those features faster, but provides no assistance with the actual gameplay, which is unchanged from the original. I like this game's soundtrack, though, so being able to listen to those songs on the go more quickly (without draining my phone's battery that is, obviously) is reason enough to use the Amiibo I already own. 

When it comes to other prep, though... things to do or not do or think about before you begin... Let me make a remark first. As this will be my third go-round, there's an element of efficiency I'll likely be introducing into my own playstyle that will be in opposition to yours. So as not to spoil, I might use another game as an analogy: If we were both about to play the same Zelda title, I'd be sequence-breaking to maximize hearts and items early and quickly as you're figuring things out, based on prior knowledge, so as to gain a lot of power and advantage quickly so that I can rush on to the "good bits" and get a bit ahead of you in the same amount of time. I fumbled through my first time, the same as you will, but this is only natural. I would not give you these kinds of hints and ideas, because I want you with your new eyes to explore the world you're given naturally and give me honest reactions. But there's certainly tips I can give both now and along the way. 

To that end, I'll ask you a few questions. 

1) Is challenge more important than flow? 
2) Are world and story more important than pacing? 
3) Would you rather be the best and most powerful, or would you rather have a dramatic struggle? 
4) If you're enjoying a game, how much does completion matter to you? 
5) And, hey, what did you think of Final Fantasy XII

In anticipation, 

 P.S. "Chicken man?" How dare you!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Two: Will, March 22


First, thanks so much for doing this with me. As I sit here writing on the 22nd of March, I'm excited to have a project, and especially one where I get to talk about games with you. Let's dive in!

So, as a long-time fan of Eastern RPGs, why didn't I play Xenoblade Chronicles when it first came out? To answer, you have to trace my history with Tetsuya Takahashi and the Xeno series, all the way back to 1998's Xenogears, which I played as a 14-year-old Square fanboy willing to call a 60-hour chair-sitting-simulator a genius masterpiece. But I kid! I love Xenogears.

That being said, the game was a tipping point in a path that Square had started on with the more esoteric elements of Final Fantasy VII, the moment the company got too obsessed with creating "games as art," full of religious symbolism (often cribbed from anime) and plots that were complex for the sake of complexity. (Chrono Cross, which came out the next year, is the ultimate expression of this trend, converting one of the most optimistic games of all time into a quasi-nihilistic expression of human hopelessness. It's probably not a coincidence that Final Fantasy IX, a pretty clear refutation of the trend, came out the next year.) 

But being the vanguard in an arguably bad trend doesn't make Xenogears a bad game. For all its pretension and the swift right turn it takes into what TV Tropes would call (not coincidentally) a Gainax EndingXG has some great plot twists, likable characters, and a really fun battle system. (Plus, the robot Battling fighting game, because if there's one thing late '90s Square was good at it, was designing mini games I would have paid money to get as a standalone game). It's not perfect; besides the notoriously slapdash second disc, the plot has a nasty tendency to ignore most of the game's cast once their individual plot sections are over, usually to the detriment of interesting characters. But it's a game that I have a lot of fond memories of, and if I've never revisited it, it's because I'd like to keep them intact.

Xenosaga was a whole other story, though. A "spiritual sequel," everything about it felt off-brand. I know I shouldn't put much stock in the name Square (or Square-Enix) any more, but the publisher switch threw me a bit, putting me on a weird footing. From there, Xenosaga Episode I seemed to capture everything I didn't like about JRPGs of its era; an overreliance on long cutscenes, a plot that danced around giving the audience information less for artistic purposes and more to obscure how pedestrian everything was, and that same 1999-esque reliance on symbolism and religious allusions at the detriment of storytelling. Even worse, the game had a generally plodding feeling that's my least favorite thing to encounter in an RPG. Out of all the genres, this is the one that I need to be FAST; menus have to be responsive, load times have to be minimal, and rewards need to come quickly. Xenosaga Episode I didn't respect my time, and I ended up discarding it roughly 20 hours in. When the sequels came out, I happily ignored them.

Get a load of THESE jerkbags.

So when Xenoblade Chronicles was released, I'd been primed to ignore anything with the Xeno name. It didn't help that I was completely ignorant of Project Rainfall, although I'm always in favor of weird Japanese games making their way over here (he said, shoving his ROMs of Mother 3 and Retro Game Challenge 2 discreetly out of sight). More than that, by 2010 I'd completely written the Wii off as a gaming platform. Too many years of shovelware had given me a massive blindspot where Nintendo's console was concerned. Instead, my attention was on the DS, which had built up a frankly incredible lineup of titles, including some truly great RPGs, in that same time. So I skipped Xenoblade, and never looked back. Until now.

Why return to Xenoblade Chronicles in 2015? Part of it is your enthusiasm, Michael. I trust your taste in games, so I figured this one deserved its day in court. Beyond that, I'm just in love with the 3DS (especially my beautiful red New 3DS XL), and I'm only mildly ashamed to admit that the game's status as the first New 3DS XL-exclusive has my interest piqued. I've just finished the Majora's Mask remake, and, while Monster Hunter still sometimes pulls at my attention, it's a hard game to marathon. I want something meaty and narrative to sink my teeth into.
Who needs a Porsche?

What do I know about the game? Almost nothing. I don't even know if the combat is real-time or turn-based! If it wasn't included in Smash 3DS (Shulk, something called the Monado, some kind of chicken man), I'm completely ignorant. I don't have an Amiibo (I'm still waiting for proof that the concept is a DS, not a Virtual Boy, Nintendo-idea-wise). As to the length, my social life is of variable activity, as is my work schedule. I tend to binge on games on the weekend, so that'll be when most of my play time is done. As for opening thoughts... I'm excited. The 3DS has been extremely spotty for me in terms of RPGs; the best of the lot is probably Persona Q, and even that's failed to hold my attention. Beyond that, we have titles like Shin Megami Tensei IV and Bravely Default - interesting, ultimately badly flawed games. I need something great to carry around with me; I'm hoping this'll be the game.

In closing, is there anything I need to know before I dive into this game? Any prep work I should be doing, gaming wise, or anything I should avoid so I'm not tainted by similarity? Are my expectations too high? Should I track down one of these damn Amiibos? I eagerly await your response.



PS: I assume that will make sense eventually!

Friday, April 10, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter One: Michael, March 18

Cough cough, pardon our dust, long time since I've updated, etc. Would you rather read about what I've been up to, or some hard-hitting video game criticism? I thought so. Take it away, Michael:


Greetings, folks... this is guestblogger Michael Peterson, formerly of Project: Ballad, using Will's real estate here since I no longer have permanent online residence. Will and I are pleased to present a letter series between he and I over the upcoming days and weeks (and months?) focusing on the newly-released Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, the wider-release offering of the cult Wii title, and maybe on some other things as well. I thank my good friend and comrade in games writing Will for the time spent and the words exchanged. It's a time of great contention for games, but there are few things more joyful than discussing an interesting game with a friend.

Being an Epistolary Tale of Scale, Storytelling, Monadology, and Overcooked Allusions in the Xeno franchise of "J"RPGs, focusing primarily on the Nintendo 3DS release of Xenoblade Chronicles in 2015, and looking forward


Dear Will,

Thanks for clearing some space for me on your desk!

The time of this writing is the third week in March. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D will be arriving in western stores on April 10th. I thought maybe we'd start talking about this game, and the others in its series (be those connections loose or otherwise) before you get started.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is the first game available that is exclusively for use on the Nintendo New 3DS, rather than any 3DS models before it. What color is your 3DS, Will? Mine's Monado Red. Much as in some of the previous video game letter series I hosted, I'm entering as the comparative expert opposite someone new to the game in question, and in this case I'm very much a fan of the title. Though not an unequivocal one, as we'll get to in time. I certainly have my issues with it. But I will do my best to lead you on through the world of Xenoblade in discussion, without spoiling anything you don't already know. Which leads to another question: how much do you know about this game, going in? Is Shulk's Super Smash Bros. appearance and its attendant mis-applied and overused memes the extent of your knowledge?

For the benefit of the folks following along at home, a bit of backstory. Xenoblade (and we'll have to keep the title shortened for our own sanity as discussion carries on) began life as a game that was initially titled Monado: The Beginning of the World. Renamed relatively late in its development, Xenoblade was released for Wii in June 2010 in Japan.

In 2011, word came that the game would be localized in Europe and Australia for release in the summer, but there was no word of a North American release. There are any number of conspiracy theories as to the reason, but if nothing else, somebody assumed that it wouldn't sell here. The original Monado title had a placeholder on Amazon that languished as the European release date approached, and a group of ardent fans began what was titled "Operation Rainfall," an effort to bring Xenoblade, Hironobu Sakaguchi's The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower to the US. Operation Rainfall spread awareness in any number of ways, but (according to Wikipedia) a particularly notable one was that on June 25, 2011, a preorder push for that defunct placeholder became the number one best-selling video game on Amazon for the day.

The game was finally given a North American release date for April 2012... but only as a GameStop exclusive. Because of this, the game instantly became a rare item. Nintendo of America's position was that Operation Rainfall had not influenced the localization decisions, but Nintendo didn't usually offer entire games as retailer exclusives, so... At any rate, the game was exceedingly well-reviewed and attained a cult following, and GameStop subsequently faced some controversy because copies were scarce, but used copies priced exceedingly high were available on its website, leading to a high demand amongst some and a spiteful refusal to look for the game at all from others. As another notable quirk of its release, localization was done through Nintendo of Europe, and thus the voice actors were English actors rather than American ones, even upon arriving on our shores.

I got my own copy from Kevin Czapiewski as a gift as we worked on Project: Ballad.

Fast-forward to August 2014, and Shulk is revealed to be a new fighter in the latest Smash Bros installment, surprising many - though not me, personally. I'd been predicting it (and awaiting it greedily, I must admit) for quite some time, as Nintendo's been pushing the Xenoblade license incredibly hard since releasing the Wii U. Xenoblade Chronicles X, a spiritual sequel, is due later this year, and is the highest-profile "hardcore gamer" (if we can gag that term down for a bit) title that they have slated. The first teaser was one of the earliest Wii U games previewed, and they've got a lot riding on it. Rereleasing this game, and giving it the love that it deserved the first time around, was a marketing decision for its Wii U game as much as anything. And in that sense, it's smart - this is a good game, and by every single indicator thus far, Xenoblade Chronicles X is shaping up to be something very special. It's my most anticipated release in years and even if it disappoints in the ways that Xeno titles always do - and this is something that I think you and I will be talking a lot about as we exchange these letters - even if it does, it's still likely to be one of the most fun and engrossing RPGs since the 16-bit era. As, indeed, Xenoblade was the last go-around.

So! You will be playing this game for the first time, and I will be playing it my third time through. Last time, I played it with my wife, and we essentially 100% cleared the game, so feel free to ask me for any help along the way if you need it - though I'm not certain that you will. There is, however, plenty for us to talk about. Obsession, the storytelling of Xeno games, the state of "J"RPGs in the modern age, the relationship between Eastern- and Western-developed RPGs, how being over- or under-powered affects how we engage with a game, completionism, the tendency of a fan to fill in story blanks and how gaming is so tuned to that instinct, Digital Devil Saga, archetypes, accents, "social links," how Xenosaga is one of the worst video game experiences of all time, cute mascot characters, subplots, female characters, Yoko Shimomura's love affair with the violin, and the tendency in the modern age to reduce a subject to a meme rather than engage with it... and that's what I came up with off the top of my head just now.

What do you know about this game's story and gameplay going in, Will? Why did you pass Xenoblade by when it was first released, and why are you coming to it now with this portable, 3D-enhanced release? Do you have a Shulk Amiibo (I do)? As an adult, how do you devote time to a game of prodigious length like an RPG? And what are your thoughts before we begin this long letter series?



P.S. Ah, Hell, fine, for the sake of our readers, just the once: "I'm really feeling it!"