I can’t finish Strange Journey

29 Aug

Do you feel, when you are at the end stage of an RPG, like the designers are purposefully making you hate the game, so you won’t miss it when you’re done?  I’m trying to beat Strange Journey, and I feel like I’m a dog in some disney movie, getting rocks thrown at it by the owner who used to love me but  is now telling me to “git! just git already! leave!” and then i have to slump away.

Right now, in Strange Journey, the dungeon is pitch black, and a complete maze with lots of doors.  So the top screen is just haziness and I am watching a tiny arrow in my bottom screen that every now and then hits a wall or a door, and behind the door is more blackness for more miles.  And when I get past that i get to enter a teleportation maze that, if i don’t walk in the right area in the right phase of the moon, i’ll be sent back to the beginning of the maze.  And the enemies are still ridiculously hard.  What was so exciting in the middle of the game, thinking one day i’d be strong enough to beat these bastards, has just become depressing as I am still not strong enough to feel truly heroic.

I can’t finish very many RPGs for this reason.  It’s either that last level grind, where you’re expected to hit metal slimes in a forest for 6 hours to get strong enough to fight the end guy, or the end guy has 10 stages of life that will last three hours and you have limited potions and no save points during the fight.  Is there a worry that if they didn’t make the games this hard at the end we’d potentially play forever?  Is Strange Journey trying to keep me healthy by making the game so unpleasant at the end that i put it down and go outside?

Well I won’t be fooled!  I’m going to go back to my DS and push the up arrow for another hour and a half, watching my tiny icon not move across a blank screen.  And I’m going to like it, because I need to finish this fucking game.

Viva Pinata

4 Aug

Via purenintendo.com

I’m worried about kids these days.  And not just because of the shit they leave on my lawn and their skateboarding tricks.  I’m worried that we’re creating a nation of brooders, that this upcoming generation will hit adulthood together and become unbelievably depressed, and the entire country will be 20-25 year olds laying on their couches beneath afghans, wanting to switch their youtubeTV(it’s the future)from the loop of a cereal box on fire they’d been watching since last night, but are unable to reach the remote and erupt into their third crying jag of the day.

It’s because of the shit they’re watching, and reading, and playing.  The other day a dad came into the barbershop with his kid, and the kid was excited because they just got a new Moomin book.

I think Moomin is a beautiful comic, but it is so depressing and melancholy.  It’s a wonderful piece of art, but seems unhealthy to a child.  A kid will pick up a moomin comic and start to read.  Halfway through her shoulders will start to sag, but she’s enjoying it and will keep reading.  Her hands will grow heavy and she’ll finish it and say, as a compliment to the book: “I do now believe Autumn is my favorite season.”   Even the drawings of the Moomins have a sadness to the line, so that if the child is not of reading age and can’t understand the story of a cancelled dinner party or overbearing relatives that abuse and ignore moomintroll, he can at least look at the pictures and feel an unsettling emptiness.

The pixar films are the same way.  Again, they are beautiful works, but possess such a long lasting sadness.  Something happened when it was decided all children’s movies had to be fun for kids AND for adults.   And when a Led Zeppelin or Little Feat reference hidden in Shrek dialogue wasn’t enough anymore for the parents, they decided kids movies should deal with all the crushing issues of inadequacy, mortality, fleeting love, and existential betrayal the adults faced everyday.

So now we have the autumnal hymn of loss that is UP and the terrifying visions of WALL-E.  and the Movie reviews that state, “Despicable Me was good, but it didn’t make me WEEP IN MY SEAT  like Toy Story 3.”

When was uncontrollable weeping decided as a sign of a good kid’s film?  Imagine if it was some other overwhelming, unhinged emotion:  “Cats vs. Dogs was alright, but Toy story 3 made me punch the seat in front of me, then yell at my child in the parking lot.”

You can say that kids aren’t noticing the melancholy in these films. For example, in Up, most kids ar just watching the antics of Dug.  But Dug’s antics teach the kids that your friends will make fun of and then abandon you, and you’re master(or parent) will betray you and then try to murder  you and your only possible hope is to leave your home, your friends, and your family to live in a city with a new community of strangers whose main positive trait is that they’re not actively trying to kill you.

This rant is coming from me playing a lot of Viva Pinata(DS) this week.

via vivapinata.com

Viva Pinata is a kid’s game based on a kid’s show.  It’s a lot of fun.  In the game you’re given a small plot of land and you try to attract pinatas to live in your field.  Pinatas “dance” and make new pinatas and you have a small little biodome in your DS.

I want to state first off that Viva Pinata is an incredibly made game.  You were right in stating Viva(for the 360) as one of the better games in Rare’s recent history.  The controls for the DS are intuitive and tight, the graphics are amazing.  The mechanics of the garden growing are sophisticated and interesting while feeling very accessible(since it was made for children).  But the game has a darkness that is hard to shake.

I start the game with a couple of worms in my garden. Franklin, the tutorial bear lets me know how to control them, and wake them up with a poke of my shovel.  Then he lets me know that if they eat the right candy they’re “ready for romance” and they dance together to make a kid.  but they dance in their house, for some privacy.  All this is fine.  I name my worms Twonky and Trundle, and they have a child I name Theodore.  A couple more animals arrive and some don’t like each other.  Franklin lets me know that sometimes pinatas fight, and when one pinata wins, the other one bursts into candy.  and then, Franklin says, “We eat the candy!”  This comment could be passed off as innocent until Franklin looks at you through the screen and says, “You may think this is weird, but it’s just how we live and what we do!” completely calling to attention the harsh, cannibal nature of the pinata world.

In my own garden I’m living high with some worms and tiny squirrels and such.  Then, a gray snake appears and eats one of my worms.  This is depressing, and Trundle is gone.  I try to tame the snake, but he only eats more of my pinatas.  I realize that this snake is through and through mean, and the only way for me to save my garden is to bash the snake to death with my shovel.  So now whenever gray snakes appear i switch to the shovel icon and go to town.  and then my guys eat its candy.

As my worms get eaten by more newly arriving pinatas, I start to understand that there is no way for all to be living harmoniously.  There’s a definite food chain in pinata that you have to utilize to level up.  So not only am I okay with animals eating my worms and small critters, I encourage it by making the worms mate just to provide food.

Lindsey started to play after me, and I had to warn her to not name her pinatas, because she didn’t want to be attached.  and to get ready to brain some animals.

Via ds.ign.com

Now the game is beautiful.  I love how the little guys crawl around in my touch screen.  I got a special joy by leaving the game on, then walking by and seeing the movement and the bustle happening on the touchscreen like it was a digital ant farm.  Then, about 5 hours in, I got this incredible, all consuming sadness.  I realized that nothing would change the higher I got up.  The thrill I received from a new, bigger arrival would be shortlived as that pinata became food for something larger.  Or if not bait, I would let them starve because there’s no room for weaker animals and I wanted to use their space for something else.  And this cycle was endless. I should’ve stayed with worms and been happy.  I wouldn’t win the game, but also wouldn’t have to face the endless, cold heartbreak the rest of Viva Pinata provided.

So I put the game down and haven’t had any urge to play it since.

I know the cycle of life is natural, and the food chain and animal brainings and cold justice of a farmyard is all accurate and interesting.  But what joy is a child getting from it?  Why does a child need to know how to make unemotional decisions about which animal to keep and which to kill for food, and  how to reframe this decision as a game?

And the kids are digging viva pinata, and Pixar, and Moomin.  Which is great, because it means they have exquisite taste, but also that I don’t want to hang out with my nephew and niece because they’re probably going to be huge downers.  I’ll ask them to go outside and play tetherball, and they’ll respond, “I could use a sliver of a good moment.  Everything, including me and that tetherball, will be ash some day.  I might as well enjoy still being solid.”

The other day I was watching Ellen at the shop and she had on a kid who played a Lady Gaga cover for a talent show.  Ellen had him on a few weeks earlier, after the clip of the talent show went viral and he went a little famous.  Now, for this episode of Ellen, he was letting a camera crew follow him around school.  At one point, a classmate asks for his autograph, and he grabs her notepad and signs it and she starts shaking and sobbing.  Two weeks ago he was any other classmate, but with a gift for piano.  Now, because  he was on TV for a clip of the talent show she herself was at, this classmate is an idol worthy of shaking and sobbing over, like he’s Justin Bieber.

(Side note:  I have no clue who Justin Bieber is!  What is this Bieber fever?  A friend mentioned Bieber and i said, “who is that?  Is he an astronaut?”  Then i was at the mall and his face was on all these t-shirts and i yelled, “why are there so many t-shirts about astronauts?”  Then someone explained that he was some type of teen idol, and i explained that I didn’t know this because I don’t watch TV.)

So i was watching Ellen, with this shaking, crying girl and I realized that this girl wasn’t crying because of hormones or misguided heroworship.  she was crying because she knew this boy is not an idol, but a shadow of an idol.  And all idols are, if not false, ephemeral.    So this child, who is attractrive for his youth and upsweeping energy, will die, and his touch, which she feels so strongly now as he hands back her pad and brushes her arm, will become a shadow of a memory she can barely recall.  She’s crying because, knowing all this, she chooses to love anyway, chooses to be swept away by this moment, because it is beautiful and foolish, like placing an empty frame in front of a sunset.  She’s crying out of joy for her own wild foolishness..

she’s shaking, probably, because of a steep comedown from a Ritalin high.

Fucking kids!

Dragon Quest: Rocket Slime

15 May

A couple years back, I got mad obsessed with Dark Cloud 2.  There is something endlessly addictive about that game, and we were living a simple enough life that my main goal for the day was some useless DC2 objective, like going through a dungeon with no heal potions and using a broken umbrella as my only weapon.

What killed the game for me was Monica’s monster morphing skill.  The girl character in the game could turn into a monster she had fed then absorbed.  And because this was a level 5 game, every monster she turned into could be levelled up and become stronger versions of that species.  I could morph into a sewer rat, but wanted to become a beach rat.  A beach rat had a floppy hat and stronger stats.  I became obsessed with this.  I dreamed about that rat with the same intensity sad polio stricken kids in old movies dream about seeing the ocean.

The problem is that, as a sewer rat, you could talk to the other monsters-the ones you were supposed to kill and absorb the life beads that spewed out of them with their last gasp.  And all these monster wanted to talk about was food and the weekend and their families.  Once you know that a war frog loves cheese and crackers, you cannot kill him.  Even if he has poison spit, the fact that he has likes and dislikes means he is a person and deserves life.  When another sewer rat told me he wanted to get home soon because his feet were sore, I knew I couldn’t play this game anymore.  Even if this meant not saving the kingdom from darkness, not fulfilling my twin destinies that cross timespans, I could not kill a sewer rat with bad feet and a family waiting for him.

I’m having a similar problem now with Dragon Quest: Rocket Slime.  I’ve pummeled through countless slimes in Dragon Quest VIII.  They’re my favorite enemy to kill because they call their friends and I can kill them too.  I seek out the metallic slimes, travel endlessly through the fake oceans to find a mythical island filled with nothing but metallic slimes so I can kill them and take their essence all day.

Now I find out slimes have kingdoms, and technology, and surfing games.  They have families.  They pray to the same trident God, sing the same saving hymn.  It puts a bad taste in my mouth.

It’s easy to say, “Zach, these games are not real.  The slimes in one game are not the slime in the other.  they are just codes.”  But I don’t believe that.  I can’t believe that.  I have a condition.

About the game: It’s great.  But you knew that already, you recommended the game to me.  but yeah, I’m really loving it so far.  It keeps surprising me with the tightness of the design.  The first couple levels are boring:  collect the item, solve the simplistic puzzles, rocket really hard into treasure boxes.  The loot collecting was empty to me.  Then the first ship battle comes and everything I’ve collected can be used as ammo, and it lends a weight to all the useless beginning levels and I feel like I’m playing a wonderful rpg.  The battles are such a delight, it makes all the levels in between kind of boring and expectant.  The customization for your crew is great.  I like having a team of saboteurs tear the enemy ship apart as I lob dumbbells at them.  It’s a slow, insidious process that feels satisfyingly long term.  We are psychologically destroying the platypuss, destroying their insides and outsides at the same time, so they’ll never come to Slimenia again.

Every time I think I’m tired with picking up monsters and throwing them on trains, the game pulls out some new reward that makes this mindless task worth it.  The museum that gives you a statue for enough monsters collected is great.  and realizing that those statues mean that type of monster will fight for you, added to the rpg customizing and loot grabbing that makes my every nerd hair stand on end.

(side note: In my mind, I picture nerd hair as the thinnest mustache on the palest lip.)

I’m playing the game in spurts, usually when waiting for laundry to get done or riding the bus to work.  The story is tiny, I’m not getting swept away by anything in that respect.  The gameplay is repetitive and can be done in small chunks, with just enough strategy and building that it makes collecting madcats during a  ten minute bus ride feel like a worthy job done.

This, to me, is an example of an ideal design.  there are no superfluous parts.  Every section of the game feeds into the later sections, is relevant and equally important as every other section..  It’s like a well made watch, or a well-reasoned argument.  And you win battles by exploding the enemies heart.  Which I enjoy.

And I feel no guilt now, playing this game.  because, I’ve realized, the slimes are fucked up people.  Their civilization is built around a cult of death.  The same thing that makes the game great, makes the people vile.  The main character, this child slime, has more peoples’ blood on his hands than he has years of life.   Everything in his world he sees as an enemy or ammo-sometimes both.  Holy water becomes a bomb.  Bob-ombs, with their peaceful sleeping faces, become bombs.  Chests, pillars, orichalcum ore-all have no use except to be thrown at something.  The kingdom of slimenia is laying in ruin still, even though i’ve saved most of the slimes.  They don’t want universities, they don’t want gardens.  All the saved slime wants to do is work in the weapons hangar, or on my battleship.  the only school is a ninja school.  The monsters I collect(I collect! my slime sounds like a serial killer) can either join my team and fight, or conveniently disappear.  I mean, seriously, I’ve saved hundreds of monsters at this point and there’s nowhere near that many in town.  where do they go?  I think they’re killed and then their bones are ground to make the statues.  So that their one point of culture, this art museum, is really a festival of horror.

I’m okay now killing the slimes in Dragon Quest.  This how they must want to go, in battle.  Getting stabbed by a warrior, especially one chosen by destiny!, must be like high school graduation to them.  I just saved my little sister in the game.  She’s bouncing around in the house, talking excitedly about the battles I won and how she wants to be like me.  I can smell the battlelust on her.  She reeks of blood.  It’s disgusting.

Strange Journey

7 May
image from d/lable wallpaper on atlus.com

A man, a suit, a black void: Strange Journey

Persona 4 was an amazing game.  So good that I have to diligently keep myself from writing fanfiction for it, or creating music videos of the love I see between MC and Chie set to a Leona Lewis song.  That game made me nerdibly obsessed in a way I hadn’t felt since I was seven and discovered ant colonies.

Persona 4’s main effect on me is that any game bearing the Shin Megami Tensei title I assume to be amazing and eagerly pick up.  I was greatly disappointed by Devil Summoner–seeing Tam Lin as a demon again and inheriting familiar skills through fusion wasn’t enough to actually make the game fun.  I worry that p4 was the anomaly of that group, like a spectacular single on a suckass album.

This is a long introed way of telling you I picked up SMT: Strange Journey, and that’s what I’m playing this week.  And so far, it’s pretty fantastic.  Nothing like P4 at all, except for familiar demons and a fusion system, but it has a charm that’s hard to define but makes it wonderful to play

Strange Journey has a soft sci fi story about a void appearing in Antarctica and threatening to take over the world in inky dead blackness.  You are part of a science team sent to investigate.  The void is the entrance to the demon world, where you can either fight the demons or recruit them and so on. The sci-fi element is over-excited pastiche, like kids pretending their barbecue is a spaceship dashboard, moving things around and yelling, “transfer data! Transfer data! The event horizon is closing!” without knowing what any of it means.  I find this thematic element really appealing though.  Having a ship with a sickbay and laboratory, and traveling to the different dungeons through quantum tunnels and all the mission objectives being sent to your suit interface electronically make it unique enough and visually compelling.  This science stuff mixed with the game being a straight 3D dungeon crawler makes the game feel lost and old.

More specifically:  My dad had a friend from college who as an adult got really into computers and computer games.  He was quiet, skinny, and bearded and probably had a primitive network set up in his house so he could make his three computers talk to each other.  He’d send us games for our Apple IIe, like Fat City or a text adventure Spiderman, that he had coded so it had his “crystal dreams” logo on each title screen. I have one isolated memory of his house: dirty shag carpets, beige computers with green and black screens,  banners on the wall made by printing long, pixelated art onto one continuous ream of dotmatrix paper.  Strange Journey brings up the memory of his house every time I play.  It’s my SMT: Madeleine

The main story isn’t too dramatic and often repetitive—a new dungeon opens up, there’s an evil demon running the place, the dungeon represents some sin of humanity and has a special ore that will help us get to the next dungeon, but the ore is inside the evil demon boss so we have to fight him to get it.  What I’m really digging about Strange Journey is all the incidental dialogue and side stories.  Talking to crewmen, the npc villagers of the game, is actually fun and builds up the texture of the world.  The game is thematically a colonist and natives, strange new world game.  The other crewmen are fighting demons as well, but they seem mostly fascinated with the place and will tell you all the strange things they’ve seen like they’re pilgrims talking about buffalo or WWII marines in the Phillipines trying sushi for the first time.  One of the side missions I’m currently playing is about a fellow crewman falling in love with demons he meets, so I have to talk to Leannan Sidhe and see if she remembers him.  Because she is a demon, she does not(demons are SLUTS).  The demons are equally fascinated by me, and so all the negotiation to get them to join my party are conversations about Earth and how humans and demons are different.  The conversations are consistent with the demons, so that if pixie shows up I know I just need to flirt hard with her and she’ll like me.  In demon summoner I would literally have conversations that went like this:

Demon: This makes me hungry.  Green cargo pants.  Are you staring?

Me: A: yes.

B: I’m thinking of my father.

C: stare silently

And every answer would result in the demon surprise attacking.  In Strange Journey they’ve built the story into these small interactions, so it doesn’t feel like useless rpg grinding.

The battling is straight ahead SMT turned based battles with elemental weaknesses.  In this version, exploiting the demon’s weakness makes all demons in your party that share your alignment gang up for a group attack.  This encourages you to fill your party with demons of equal alignment, which adds a nice strategy to fusing and negotiating with demons.

The alignment is a cool bit of the game.  Based on conversations you have throughout the game your alignment changes between lawful, neutral, and chaotic.  My only complaint with this is I wish they used different words.  These descriptions sound so generic and dumb.  Mass Effect had Paragon and Renegade.  Both have that middle hard G that makes saying the word feel cool.  I don’t want to be lawful or chaotic, because I’m not playing 1st edition DandD.  I want to be either paladin or libertine, or something else cool sounding.

The alignments seem to switch quickly, but you don’t get much opportunity to have conversations to switch them.  Maybe it’s built subtly throughout and I haven’t realized, but I was neutral though most of the game and then a demon said humans polluted a lot and made a mess of the earth, and I said, “you are right.” And now I’m chaos and can’t find a way to switch back.  This would be fine, except all the chaos demons really suck, but I fill my party with them because it makes me stronger in battles .  They all are weak to everything it sems and have, like, poison as their main power.  One of my guys is an imp with a gun that when he shoots has the possibility of causing fear, but he misses every fucking time.  So he’s a cowardly mugger basically, and I’m the leader of a pathetic streetgang of bullies and toads.  And I keep running into Lawful demons with names like PRINCIPALITY or DIVINE POWER and they’re all giant angels with humongous swords, but none will give m the time of day  because my partner is shouting demonic racial slurs at them and pretending the gun is his penis.  I don’t know when I’ll get a story chance to change my alignment, but I will most definitely say I hate jaywalkers, love god, and believe in cops—whatever it takes to distance myself from these chaos losers.

I’m about halfway through the game now, I think, and really digging it.  I’ll tell you more when I’ve finished.