Archive | February 2013

Completionism has its limits

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I’ve been spreading my attention far too thin lately among many games, at a time when my day job means my gaming hours pitiably thin. I’ve had to make do with an hour or two of Snake Eater here, a handful of random battles in Final Fantasy V there (though I did manage one of those elusive pleasures–a four-person session of Gears of War 3 with my bros. Scheduling, right?). Rather than buckling down and trying to finish a project, I went ahead and started fooling around with Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (which I highly recommend for anyone who, unlike me, has a couple hours to kill).

There have been one or two games that I’ve put a fair number of hours into this month. Before the deluge of media that is March (Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Game of Thrones–and did I mention I mean to squeeze PAX East in there, too?), I thought I would try and knock out a couple of entries in series I love but hadn’t gotten around to for one reason or another. I plowed through Professor Layton and the Last Specter probably more quickly than is healthy, and I meant to continue my streak by getting through Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, which is eminently more affordable now than it was at release (I got it off Amazon for fifteen bucks!).

Birth By Sleep has a narrative frame that I like a great deal–you get to play through three separate-yet-intertwining stories one at a time, leading up to a conclusion that sees them all brought together in the final climax. It’s something of a rare choice, as far as videogame storytelling goes (though it’s used to excellent effect in Suikoden III, if you’d like another good example).

Only I hit a roadblock. One of the persistent quirks of the Kingdom Hearts series is the ability to unlock secret epilogues–something akin to what’s known in cinema as a “stinger“–by beating the game on harder difficulties or by racking up 100% completion in most aspects of the game on normal difficulty.

So, foolishly avoiding researching the matter before setting out on my quest, I started up the game on normal difficulty as Terra, the brooding anti-hero, and set about enjoying my romp through delightful (yet still weirdly empty) Disney worlds. It wasn’t until my tenth hour of the game, when I was finally ready to clean up the loose ends before moving on to the final encounters, that I realized what a huge number of bullshit, trivial objectives the game expected me to accomplish in order to earn that secret epilogue.

It was a truly monumental amount of bullshit.

Here’s the thing–I love the Kingdom Hearts series. As much as I feel a little weird saying it, I’m very invested in its goofy, tangled, abstract melodrama. The core gameplay of the series, too, has never had any difficulty getting its hooks in me. I love whacking monsters with a sword! Birth By Sleep does some awesome things with that formula, too, with abilities that level up individually and a weird magic-fusing system that Squeenix salvaged from Crisis Core.

The rational thing would be to go ahead and beat the campaign I’ve started, play the other two, and then go ahead and watch the epilogue on YouTube. And I could do that. But deep down inside, I would know I haven’t earned it. How messed up is that? I’ve been so bred by JRPGs throughout my youth that the perception of “narrative as reward for slogging through repetitive gameplay” is THAT ingrained.

Oh well! With my schedule the way it is, my indecision means that Birth By Sleep is most likely going to end up on the shelf until another dry spell hits. I’ll have Lara Croft to pal around with in a week, and when Bioshock Infinite hits, well… I don’t imagine I’ll be emerging from Columbia anytime soon.

Suikoden Syndrome, or how a PSX JRPG changed the way I think about friendship

I have a tendency to try and get people to move to the city in which I live.

It’s not that I don’t respect the busy, rich, satisfying lives they must lead in their current cities–far from it. Many of my friends amaze me with their exploits on a near-daily basis. This desire to convince my friends to move near me isn’t borne entirely of selfishness, either: it’s not simply that I miss my friends but I am too stubborn to move myself. Instead, I blame this tendency to “recruit” my friends to come live with me on Suikoden II.

I first came to Suikoden on a whim: waiting desperately for the release of the next game from Square (a game which, if memory serves, was SaGa Frontier II, which is unique and worthwhile in its own right), I found myself at the mall with some money in my hands outside the door to “Electronics Boutique.” Recalling that my gaming magazine of choice (the long-defunct “Next Generation“) had given the recently-released Suikoden II four out of five stars, I decided to give it a go.

I confess to being a tad disoriented and underwhelmed at first. Flush after the cinematic overstimulation of Final Fantasy VII, adjusting to a game that was entirely two-dimensional, in which you couldn’t move diagonally, was a bit of a challenge. The fast-paced battles and charming characters went a long way to sell me on it, but I think that I probably got less than ten hours in before SaGa Frontier dropped and I got distracted.

It took me about a month or two to get back to it, and to this day I’m not entirely sure what I could have been thinking at the time. To have tasted the succulent fruit of Suikoden II and then walked away from the table? Unconscionable! Suikoden II is easily one of the ten best games I’ve ever played. It’s the strongest entry in a series that’s filled with compelling narratives about war, family, and destiny.

So how did it change how I think about my friendships? Well, that’s a little more complicated. Have you ever heard of Dunbar’s Number? It’s a concept which signifies the number of significant relationships the human brain can maintain and process at any given time. According to the Wikipedia article, it falls somewhere between a hundred and just over two hundred. So: more than just your housemates and your co-workers, but probably shy of the “Friends” tally you’re currently sporting on the ol’ Facebook.

When I first heard of Dunbar’s Number, the concept seemed curiously familiar to me, and it took me a little while to understand why. A hundred important relationships? A hundred people significant to me? Why did that strike a chord?

As with so many things, Suikoden held the answer. The Suikoden series, you see, revolves around a hero and his friends (or sometimes several heroes and their friends) collecting a mythical assembly known as the 108 Stars of Destiny. These Stars are characters who vary greatly in nature and disposition, from exuberant mercenaries to earnest chefs, brooding vampires, and at least one flying squirrel, and they all serve to aid you in your cause to resist the forces of tyranny, violence, and oppression.

And so, when I learned about Dunbar’s Number, something immediately came into focus for me: I was only going to be able to maintain just over a hundred relationships, and I was going to have to value each and every one of them, because these were going to be the hundred and eight people that were going to help me save the world.

Is that a bit of hyperbole? Of course. I didn’t have to like all of my Stars of Destiny (remember the flying squirrel?). But the beautiful, wonderful thing about the Suikoden games–a thing which I desperately wish was so obviously true about real life–is that everyone you recruit, each Star with whom you have a relationship, is there for a reason.

There’s the chef who runs your kitchens. The ferryman who gives you boat rides to neighboring towns. The man who installs your spa. There are countless warriors who join your party willing to risk their lives for your cause (or, if you want, you could take the chef into battle with you. Suikoden doesn’t care.).

For all of the brilliant plot twists and moments of narrative tension in the series, there is perhaps one instance in each Suikoden game that trumps even the most climactic battle: the moment when you are first given your castle. Far from a simple real estate transaction, the moment in which you are given your castle signifies the beginning of an enormous and epic endeavor–the beginning of your quest to seek out and recruit every useful person in the world and get them to move in with you.

Someone’s got to run your library. Someone’s got to upgrade your weapons. Someone’s got to be your cartographer. Seemingly every person you meet has a talent that they’re enthusiastic about contributing to the cause, even if that talent is changing the sound of your menu cursor into a quacking duck.
And I’m not a hundred percent sure when it happened, but this attitude about collecting all of my allies began to bleed into everyday life, and now I catch myself wondering what criteria I need to fulfill before my librarian friend, my blacksmith friend, my musician friend, my flying squirrel friend, will move into my castle so I can chisel their name on the great stone tablet that chronicles my Stars.

Is this selfish thinking? Perhaps a little bit. But there are few sensations in all of gaming that I find so pleasurable as running through a bustling castle town full of cheerful, productive inhabitants, and knowing that I had a hand in bringing them all together.

Brave Fencer Musashi — The Musashi Legend

Anybody remember this game? Just me?

Brave Fencer Musashi was a weird one, the kind of game that probably wouldn’t make it stateside in this day and age. It was a cute (maybe a littleĀ too cute) action RPG that set its aims squarely on Ocarina of Time and didn’t quite hit the mark.

If you can’t beat The Legend of Zelda, that doesn’t exactly mean you’ve failed, and Musashi had a host of interesting ideas that were worth experiencing, including a system by which you could absorb your foes’ abilities and, if I remember correctly, a system wherein your stamina drained slowly throughout the day until you actually had to nap on the battlefield if you didn’t manage your time well. There might also have been a part in the story where you had to fight off werewolves until dawn while you were trapped in a church, but I might have made that part up.

Have a listen! The game had a good soundtrack, but this piece–the main theme–is probably the best. Except for the final dungeon music…? Maybe I’ll look for that one next…