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.

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