Archive | September 2012

Rockstar’s Bully and the Brilliance of Casual NPC Interactions

Bully is a game that is remembered mostly for the controversy it generated before its release. From initial hysterics claiming that Rockstar was developing a “Columbine simulator” to cries that the game was promoting bullying behaviors (it wasn’t) or trivializing them (which was maybe a more legitimate criticism), Bully may have received more attention in the media before its release than after, when people had a chance to experience the game and evaluate it for what it was: a competent translation of the Grand Theft Auto formula into a different aesthetic that was maybe a little rough around the edges. In truth, there wasn’t a whole lot about the game that was controversial once people had a chance to play it.

Well, except that you could kiss boys. Some people didn’t like that bit.

The fact that so much hot air was expended on the “controversial” aspects of Bully means that not much attention was paid to some of the game’s subtler touches. Like anything Rockstar puts out, the game is as deep as it is broad, and there are a lot of little gems in the design that are worth taking the magnifying glass to. In particular, Rockstar included a number of systems designed to make the world of the game compelling, immersive, and real, some of which I’ve not seen included in other games–which is a real shame.

The fact that the town of Bullworth goes through each of the four seasons gives an air of authenticity to the school-year-length story. The fact that each student at Bullworth Academy has their own name and identity makes each person you pass on campus seem real. But the system that really sold me, the one that made me fall in love with the world of Bully and become really invested in each and every person that inhabited it, was a touch so simple and brilliant that I’m aghast that it hasn’t been mimicked elsewhere. The simple touch is this:

You can say “hi” to everyone.

Bully isn’t unique in letting you converse with people you meet in the street. Nintendo Power has been admonishing us to “talk to everyone” since the days of the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. In fact, a good majority of narrative-focused games will let you interact with non-player characters. The way in which Bully handles its social interactions, however, is so pitch-perfect that I never cease to be pleased by it.

The way that social interactions work in Bully is pretty basic: As soon as you target a character, you’ve got the option to give them a positive or negative greeting. Positive interactions are simple phrases like “You cool?”, “How’s it goin’?”, or “Anything going on?” If you happen to be targeting a pretty girl (or boy) who might be willing to spend a little quality time with Jimmy, you get phrases like “I really like spending time with you” or the somewhat bolder “If I were you, I’d make out with me.”

The negative interactions are similarly basic. Jimmy tosses out adolescent insults like “You suck big time,” “Dumbass,” and the somewhat inexplicable “Yo mama!”

The beauty of these interactions is their simplicity: The positive phrases are all legitimate greetings that you might offer to friends you pass as you walk across the campus of your school. The students’ responses are in the same tone: “Whattaya say, friend?” “What’s your deal?” or even–in a lot of cases–just a simple “Hi!” or “Hello!” On the other hand, if you insult a jock, they might try and beat the snot out of you. Call a little kid a dumbass, and they might cower, whimpering “I don’t understand! I never did anything to you!”

These social interactions don’t serve a lot of purpose in terms of the mechanics of the game–flirt with the right girl (or boy, again) enough, and they’ll make out with you, giving you a health boost. Occasionally you can “hire” associates from friendly cliques to come help you fight your battles. The mechanic of speaking with NPCs is the way that you can talk your way out of trouble with the prefects or calm someone you’ve accidentally insulted or injured.

Mostly, however, these interactions serve to establish Jimmy Hopkins as a character, and the fact that you have a choice in how he deals with his peers allows you to feel as though Jimmy is more directly representative of you within the game’s world. You’re more invested in Jimmy because his relationships with the other students of Bullworth are, in a sense, your relationships, simple though they might be.

The fact that you can target other characters while on the move means you can call out passing greetings to friends as you make your way to class, without having to interrupt the flow of gameplay. If you catch a bully roughing up a little kid, you can threaten them into submission. In fact, the end of the game’s first chapter sort of establishes Jimmy’s status within the school as a defender of the oppressed, a role which is reinforced by your ability to “check in” with the younger students, constantly asking them if they’re all right and how things are going.

You can greet–or insult–the adults, as well. Mouth off too much to one of the locals, and they might call down the fuzz to haul your sorry butt back to the dorms. The police are less likely to let you talk your way out of trouble than the prefects are, but it’s worth a try.

I can’t think of another game that lets you interact with NPCs in a way that is so quick, easy, and authentic. In a Final Fantasy, talking to the citizens of a town doesn’t really feel like interacting with actual people–it feels like activating information dispensers, mannequins eager to inform you of the nearby, monster-filled cave or the Secret Back Entrance to the Bad Guy’s Lair.

Western RPGs, like Fallout or Mass Effect, like to give you more conversational options with their NPCs, or simply have them mutter things when you’re in their vicinity. These have the potential to create real, authentic characters  (remember that teenager waiting for her parents in the Citadel cargo area in ME3? Heartbreaking!), but they also require you to devote the time to process them and would break the flow of an action/exploration-centric game like Bully.

The Fable games allow you to build individual relationships with townsfolk, and the tracking mechanism for managing these relationships is much more robust than what Rockstar has on offer in Bully. The means of interaction, however, is all pantomime–flexing your character’s muscles, for example, or doing a happy jig. None of it has dialogue, and all of it is exaggerated to the point where the narrative veneer is entirely stripped away from the interactions and the mechanics are laid bare–almost entirely the opposite scenario than that of Bully.

I want to see more games offer mechanics by which your protagonist can express themselves in ways that resonate, that are authentic, that feel natural. In writing, they say that dialogue is action, and action is how characters are defined. In offering simple ways for players to have their character interact with every citizen of the game’s world, developers can give players a greater measure of control over how their character is represented, and players will feel more connected with their character and the world as a result.

At the end of Bully, the epilogue is called “Endless Summer.” You have the opportunity to hang out at Bullworth Academy and wrap up all the side missions you may have missed. When I played the game, I was particularly fastidious, and I’d completed most everything before I took on the final mission. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to linger a while and ride my bike around town, even if there was nothing to do.

You know. Just so I could say “hi” to everyone.

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Terranigma — Opening Theme

Terranigma is a game that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise, but what promise–and what an opening. That SNES faux-orchestral swell just about knocks me over every time I start up the game.

Though it plays like a lonelier, more meditative Secret of Mana, Terranigma has a premise that’s far more ambitious than its more polished contemporary. It shares DNA with Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia, and all three games in the series have themes of reincarnation and rebuilding and exploring a broken world, but Terranigma takes these themes to places much darker and larger in scope than almost anything else in the 16-bit era, going toe-to-toe in the “epic melodrama” department with even juggernauts like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger.

Unfortunately, Terranigma’s story isn’t told nearly as well as most of Squaresoft’s catalog (and even after its acquisition by Square, Enix’s stories continued to have better premises than they delivered on– see Star Ocean: Til the End of Time), and a lot of the potential drama is lost in a ho-hum translation and inexpressive characters. Nevertheless, the story–about a boy who leaves home to singlehandedly restore all life on Earth and all human civilization, ends up having several effective twists.

Terranigma exists at that curious nexus where half the story is told, and not told very well, but the spaces in between, if filled in by a player with a flair for the dramatic and a willingness to invest, could well be one of the most compelling narratives in gaming. It’s certainly difficult to think of another game that matches it in scope.

Castlevania: Bloodlines — The Sinking Old Sanctuary

I have had this song stuck in my head all day.

Bloodlines has some of the best tunes in the Castlevania series, and in this gamer’s humble opinion, considerably outclasses its contemporary Super Castlevania IV despite the obvious superiority of the SNES’s sound chip when compared with that of the Genesis. (Of course, my affection for the Genesis’s unique sound is a matter of public record.)

Michiru Yamane, who would later go on to do the score for Symphony of the Night and at least four other entries to the series on several different systems, cranks out some really rocking tracks for this Genesis/Mega Drive outing. I’m a particular fan of the track “Calling from Heaven,” as I’ve mentioned before. “The Sinking Old Sanctuary,” however, from the game’s second stage, is a much more ponderous and mellow piece of music, one that tends to lodge itself in my head and play on loop for several hours before I’m finally able to replace it with something else.

An interesting note: Despite being a Genesis owner, I didn’t actually play Bloodlines until many years after its release. I first fell in love with this track when Castlevania: Circle of the Moon used it, in the time-honored tradition of Castlevania composers borrowing standout tracks from previous games. That version is accessible here–in some ways the GBA’s sound chip is just as limited as that of the Genesis, and the track has less punch than the original version, but it still has that inescapable melody that can take control of my brain for hours at a time.

Vagrant Story — Ifrit

Vagrant Story is one of the best and most polished games that Square Enix ever published, but whether because of its dark and brooding aesthetics or because of its punishing difficulty curve, it didn’t get as much exposure as its more recognizable cousins. The game has become something of a cult classic, however, a status that it rightly deserves.

The game’s soundtrack, by Hitoshi Sakimoto, is as somber and brooding as the game’s visuals, with only occasional moments of levity and brightness. This track, “Ifrit,” one of the game’s many boss themes, is a notable exception–uptempo and fast-paced, this piece fits in with the best of Uematsu’s Final Fantasy boss themes and is a nice preview of what Sakimoto would offer several years later in his score to FFXII.

In fact, just listening to this has me hankering to go back and replay Vagrant Story, or perhaps even repurchase it as a PSOne Classic and tote it about with me on the PSP. I’m not sure a dungeon-crawler of its depth exists natively on a handheld system. If you are at all interested in RPGs, or even simply mature video game stories told quite well, you ought to seek out Vagrant Story and make a run at it. Just don’t be surprised when it knocks you flat on your ass.

Yoshi Touch and Go — Main Title Theme

Okay, so Yoshi Touch and Go is not a great game. Released in the very early months of the DS’s availability on the market, it is the kind of game that we would expect to pay $0.99 for on our iPhones today, and we would be justified in our expectation. It was very much a blatant attempt by Nintendo to advertise the touch-screen capability of the DS. “Look!” Nintendo seemed to say. “It has ‘touch’ right in the title!” This was about the time that their advertising campaigns included the slightly-more-ribald-than-Nintendo’s-usual slogan “Touching is Good.” Ha ha! Oh, Nintendo. You were right. Touching is good.

Pretty much the only lasting effect Yoshi Touch and Go had on my experience as a gamer was the sour feeling that I’d wasted all or part of $30 and an inability to use the phrase “touch and go” in everyday conversation for fear that one of my friends would append: “…Yoshi touch and go,” signifying that I had inadvertently stepped on one of our many mutually-agreed-upon conversational landmines.

Except.

Except this music, the title screen theme, an arrangement of the music box theme from Yoshi’s Island (a game which deserves to be remembered fondly), a piece of music that has essentially been stuck in my head for seven years.

I can’t quite explain it. Is it the faux-guitar? The ponderous, almost wistful whistled melody? What is it about this theme that has stuck with me for years, despite the fact that I owned the game for maybe a month? I never fell in love with the music box theme until I heard this arrangement of it.

This is a piece of music that makes me wonder– how many bad games are filled with great tunes? How much have I missed? I can only listen to Yoshi Touch and Go and contemplate.

5 Great JRPG Battle Themes You Probably Haven’t Heard Yet

The JRPG battle theme is its own genre of music. Even under the wide, inclusive umbrella of “game music” as a whole, there’s nothing that has quite the same flavor as the tracks that start playing when you crash into a monster and you’re taken to the battle screen.

You could argue that battle themes take their cues from a wide variety of genres: some are rousing, orchestral pieces, many have elements of electronic prog-rock, and still others borrow styles from unlikely sources (funky saxophones? Smooth jazz?). Nevertheless, no matter what their influences, there’s something about a battle theme that makes it instantly recognizable as such.

At this point, if you’re a fan of game music at all, you’re probably familiar with the classics of JRPG battle themes. Final Fantasy VII’s “Fight On,” Chrono Trigger’s battle theme, perhaps even Super Mario RPG’s “Fight Against an Armed Boss.” But there’s an awful lot of superb battle music out there, and I’ve got a few gems to lay at your feet which you may not have heard before.

If you enjoy a good battle theme like I do, I encourage you to give these a listen. You may be surprised.

1. Golden Sun, “Normal Battle”

I’ll admit that Golden Sun couldn’t keep my interest through to its conclusion. I think I completed about 60% of it before I got distracted by something with a little more meat on its bones, gameplay-wise. That doesn’t change the fact that, at the time of its release, it was by far the prettiest battle system I’d ever seen on a handheld. It also had a really, really engaging standard battle theme, which made grinding through its various dungeons much more enjoyable. Both visually and aurally, battles were really a treat. I don’t know if I would suggest taking the time to pick the game up at this point, but give this track a listen, at least. Rockin’!

2. SaGa Frontier, “Battle 5”

I’ll be straight up with you: SaGa Frontier is a mess. All of the weird, nifty systems that the SaGa games try to implement were on full display here, but the game was visually cluttered and very difficult to follow. You often had no idea where you were supposed to be going or what you were supposed to be doing, and it was difficult to figure out what was happening in each character’s story. I started the game as a couple different characters, but I couldn’t get more than a couple hours in each time before I threw up my hands in dismay.

But the music! The battle themes were absolutely amazing, and there were like fourteen of them, at least if you counted the unique final boss music for each of the seven different playable characters! Just like Golden Sun, I don’t think this is a game that I’d recommend you try out, but you should definitely sample some of the battle tunes. This soundtrack is a forgotten treasure of the 32-bit era.

3. Eternal Sonata, “Leap the Precipice”

Eternal Sonata is a game that appeals to a very niche audience, but what it does, it does very well. It’s got an engaging, action-oriented battle system (sort of like if everybody politely took turns in a Star Ocean game), lovable characters, and beautiful, beautiful graphics and art direction. I’m not sure I can think of another JRPG this visually lush, save maybe Chrono Cross. Unfortunately, the game suffers from some of the weaknesses of classic JRPGs (what’s your tolerance for somber, pseudo-philosophical pontification?), but there’s an awful lot here on offer for fans of the genre.

The music, by genre veteran Motoi Sakuraba, is appropriately orchestral and epic–it is a game about Chopin, after all, as ludicrous as that sounds–and the battle themes are no exception. “Leap the Precipice” is probably the best of the lot, which is good, as it’s the one you’ll hear in 95% of the battles. Okay by me!

4. Radiata Stories, “Struggle III”

Radiata Stories is a weird game. It has an interesting, wagon-wheel shaped world, some Suikoden-like elements in terms of character recruitment, and a quirky battle system that’s partly founded on a mechanic that involves tying your characters together in a formation and ramming them around the battlefield at anything you can hit.

I love this piece of music. I think that the sax fits the bizarre tone of the game perfectly, and it’s at once immediately identifiable as battle music and yet… very unorthodox.

5. Lufia II, “Boss Battle”

I’ve never played Lufia II. Statistically speaking, you probably haven’t either. That leading horn melody, however, gets me every single time. If my life were a JRPG, I would want to fight bosses to this music. I think that would be pretty good. There’s something uplifting and energizing about this track, and it manages to convey the high-stakes tension of a boss battle while at the same time give you the feeling that you and your companions really are heroes–and that means that you’re going to come out on top in the end.

So there you have it– five superb battle themes from games that are somewhat off the beaten path, even for fans of the genre. I hope that you found something you liked!