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.

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