Saturday, September 28, 2013

Icewind Dale 2's Superiority to Icewind Dale 1

Well, I've had the new color and placement theme for this blog up for 10 days now, and no complaints so far, so I'm gonna assume that it's good to stay.

I know it was a big hit with PC RPG gamers back in the day...but in all honesty, I didn’t really think much of Icewind Dale 1. In fact...well...I think it was actually kind of a bad RPG. Not very bad, but a little bad.

ID1 has a cookie-cutter western fantasy plot, the villains are undeveloped and uninteresting, and since the entire main cast are silent protagonists with no distinguishing traits whatever, there is seriously just nothing whatsoever in the game to catch and hold your interest besides exceptionally generic tabletop-to-video-game RPG gameplay, some kind of nice backgrounds, and a couple of nice background tunes.

If I had to take a guess as to how this came to pass, it’d be that the game’s developers were trying to bring the Dungeons and Dragons experience from your basement or the back room of the local comics shop as faithfully as possible. And in a sense, they succeeded.* With ID1, you’ve got the basics of a long-term campaign plot in a classic Dungeons and Dragons land, starring an adventuring group who kinda just rolled into town out of nowhere. They're a group of characters whose every trait is determined by the player at the character’s creation, and who are given no personality whatsoever by the game itself so as to have no impediment to the player’s ability to imagine the characters however the player wishes. That’s a pretty basic start to a D + D campaign, right there.

The problem is that there are certain elements of a tabletop game that you can’t imitate in a game like Icewind Dale 1--those featuring human interaction. The reason that a basic and unimaginative plot maintains one’s interest over a lengthy set of D + D sessions, the reason that empty characters who have no personality thrust upon them by the story’s narrative don’t get boring, is that D + D has human interaction helping it along. It’s the social aspect that gives the game most of the fun, ultimately. The way you and your friends work together to solve the conflicts thrown at you by the Dungeon Master makes those conflicts more interesting, the way that every step of your journey is narrated by your DM and your group forces you to employ your imagination to see it all (and it’s hard to be bored by one’s own imagination; your mind instinctively tries to interest itself, provided it’s given some leeway to do so), the way your characters are given personal shape both by their players and by their companions’ players’ all adds up to a good time, if you’ve got fun, imaginative people to play with.

But you see, that’s it right there--empty characters and basic plots work for a tabletop game because the social and imagination factors enhance them, fill them in (in fact, it wouldn’t work with more concrete plots and characters), but when you take those same factors and transfer them into a video game RPG, a more or less solo activity where the world and story are concretely displayed and told, and imagination’s ability to make positive adjustments is very limited, all you have is a bland game with empty characters. To make a Dungeons and Dragons video game right, one must go further, take steps in the storytelling process that wouldn’t normally be necessary. That’s why RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 are good--they take the normal D + D foundations, and build off of them with well-defined (and well-written) support characters, and a more detailed plot. Icewind Dale 1 does not.

Now, Icewind Dale 2 is interesting, because even though ID1 was, so far as I’m aware, a commercial success and lauded by many players, ID2’s writers seem to have gone out of their way to try to improve several of the shortcomings of the first game.

For starters, there’s the plot. Now, I wouldn’t call Icewind Dale 2’s plot amazing or anything, but there’s definitely a stronger effort to have the plot maintain its hold over all the game’s events than there was in ID1. The events the lead into one another seem more clearly defined, and the reasons and goals of each step of the campaign feel more present--there’s considerably fewer times in ID2 where it feels like you’re kind of just vaguely wandering around, hoping to stumble over the next part of the story by accident. The plot is also better in general--it has better twists, exploration, and narration, and there’s some human depth to it this time around, aspects of it that warrant appreciation and even consideration. At its heart is the question of the treatment of half breeds in the Dungeons and Dragons setting, and even if it doesn’t exactly explore that question in depth, it at least gives us a glimpse at this deeper cause. And in doing so, we get a game that more solidly ties itself to the D + D lore and culture than ID1 did. ID1 basically was just its own bare-bones story taking place in a Dungeons and Dragons setting; ID2 takes the interesting issue of prejudice against half breeds, which is, from what little I’ve seen of the Dungeons and Dragons lore, an intrinsic element of the D + D universe. ID2 even references one of the most major overlying plot points of the setting through this theme, the Blood War. So ID2 not only has a better, fuller plot, but it endeavors to tie that plot more significantly to the series in which it takes place, and doing so makes this game all the better, makes it seem a relevant, important piece of the overall D + D picture.

The cast of ID2 is also much improved. Granted, the major flaw of the first Icewind Dale cast has not been improved upon--we’re still being saddled with not 1, but a full party of 6 voiceless, personality-less characters. Sigh. As I said earlier, I understand the reasoning behind it, but I still think that reasoning just makes for a less interesting game. Even your standard Silent Protagonist in a JRPG gives more color to his game than all 6 of these “characters” do.

Still, the rest of the casting in ID2 is very much better than its predecessor. The game’s plot-important NPCs have more personality, and actually seem to have some decent relevance to the game’s events. This time around, the narrator seems like someone actually telling a story, not just blandly reporting facts as seemed the case with ID1’s narrator, and she and her uncle are fun and engaging characters in their own right. And best of all, Icewind Dale 2 actually has a couple of decent villains. While I think that Isair and Madae had much more potential as villains than the game tried to realize, they nonetheless have some depth and background to them, with understandable motivations and emotions, and goals whose motives were good. In fact, if their actions had only been a bit less extreme, I’d actually say their villainy was justified. As with any good villain, having Isair and Madae as the game’s antagonists elevates ID2’s quality as an RPG quite a bit.

In the end, Icewind Dale 2 still isn’t much more than just an okay RPG. Its plot is fine, but not amazing, its cast is decent where it can be, but severely lacking in its most important aspects (the actual party members), and the theme of half-breed prejudice is interesting and worth exploration, but isn’t actually delved into all that much after all is said and done. Still, ID2’s a huge leap forward from the bland time-waster that was Icewind Dale 1, even though ID1’s sales meant that it really didn’t have to be, and I credit it for that.

* I only ever played a couple of sessions of Dungeons and Dragons in my youth, so I do have to admit that my familiarity with and perceptions of its universe and the general playing of the game are not too experienced. So just bear that in mind if I go in the wrong direction here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

General RPGs' AMVs 10

I finally got around to making a personalized scheme for this blog, instead of just using the default template and colors (which WAS nicely functional, I must say). What do you guys think? I know it's not exactly a work of art, but I'm hoping it's reasonably pleasant to read on? Anyway, on with the rant.

Wow, 10 of these rants. That’s some kind of milestone, right? I guess? Well, whether it is or not, I’m sure as hell not gonna do anything special anyway. Business as usual, people, either ignore this and wait for the next, more interesting rant (as I suspect most of what few readers I have do each time I make one of these), or watch these videos and give them a Like and a Comment if they please you.


Final Fantasy 8: Full Moon, by Elessar1985:
The music used is FullMoon, by Sonata Arctica. While there are parts where this AMV kinda drags itself along (it’s a fairly long song), overall this is a pretty textbook case of a good AMV. The scenes match well to the lyrics, the song’s tone, or both, they’re cut together to follow the song’s direction smoothly, overall everything comes together in one neat, enjoyable package.

Final Fantasy 10: Yuna, by Zaon08:
The music used is Primavera, by Ludovico Einaudi. Simple, quiet, deep, and lovely, this AMV does a very nice job of giving the viewer a short but poignant summary of Yuna’s journey that fits the tune well.


Kingdom Hearts 1 and Chain of Memories: Stars, by InvertedJabberwocky:
The music used is Stars, from Les Miserables (the musical, not the sub-par movie). Not much to say about this, it’s just a decent AMV. The music’s doing the lion’s share of work in this one, with the KH visuals just sort of keeping up with it and working with its lyrics, but it does so adequately, and makes for a decent watch.

Kingdom Hearts Series: I’m Home, by FoolishNoob1337:
The music used is Alex on the Spot, from Madagascar 2. This song’s strange mix of upbeat pop with a kind of beautiful desperation works really well with Kingdom Hearts’s visuals, and the visual edition and scene selection is just effortlessly streamlined and perfect. This is a great Kingdom Hearts AMV and really effectively conveys Sora’s desire to be able to return home to Destiny Islands with the people he loves. This is a damn fine AMV, and from now on I’m going to associate this song far more strongly with Kingdom Hearts than with Madascar 2.


Mass Effect 3: Into the Nothing, by Taylor Smith:
The music used is Into the Nothing, by Breaking Benjamin. This is a great AMV, with great scene-to-music coordination that not only matches the song’s lyrics and tune nigh perfectly, but also all comes together to use the song as a description and tribute of the game. The one criticism I have (besides Taylor’s atrocious taste in love interests for Shepard, that is) is that there’s just too many scene changes too often, although I have to admit that they’re done very well all the same. Still, great AMV here, no question of it.

Mass Effect 3: My Way, by Garaman257:
The music used is My Way, by Frank Sinatra. You know, with all the hundreds of AMVs out there that just use the same songs by Evanescence, Linkin Park, 30 Seconds to Mars, and so on over and over again, it’s refreshing to see someone effectively use something a little more unconventional. Putting Shepard’s journey and finale to Sinatra’s proud song of recollection works damn well, and makes for an AMV both fun and satisfying.

Mass Effect Series: Breathe Me, by Xeriana11:
The music used is Breathe Me, by Sia. Xeriana11’s the one who made that awesome Mass Effect AMV about the Illusive Man which I did a special rant for a little while back, and she’s back with another solid offering this time. The music’s used effectively and meshes well with the visuals to set the mood and tell the story, if I’m interpreting it right, of a female Shepard who’s contemplating the things she’s done, showing us both the regrets she harbors and the love she has for her friends, the ones who she’s sacrificing herself for. A well made and emotional AMV, to be sure.


Tales of the Abyss: Dist the Rose Spins Around, by 2ndIgnition:
The music used is You Spin Me Round, by Dead or Alive. Okay, maybe this one is only an AMV in the very strictest, most technical sense, but come on, cut me some slack--this is awesome.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3's AI-Controlled Party Members

So far my Shin Megami Tensei rants of 2013 have been pretty positive and meaningful, and I’ve tried to present some food for thought that emphasizes good aspects of the SMT games. But who wants to read all that crap? It’s much more fun to complain about stuff! Which brings me to today’s rant subject: the semi-infamous Party Member AI of SMT Persona 3.

It’s like this: In SMTP3, during battles, you, the player, control the protagonist Minato’s actions. But that’s all. The other 3 members of the party act according to the game’s whims, not your own. It’s not entirely outside of your control, as you can assign each party member a certain basic style of action to follow during the battle (for example, you could put someone on Healer mode, and as a result their actions will be primarily concerned with healing the party’s wounds before taking offensive actions), but that gentle prod in a certain direction is all the control you’re allowed--the specific actions from one turn to the next are outside of your control.

This is a problem.

Now, SMTP3 wasn’t the first RPG to employ AI in party members, nor has it been the last. Quite a few have had it in one way or another. Allies in Shining Force EXA are computer-controlled, for example, with the player only getting to determine their behavior patterns, rather than the whole behavior, as with Persona 3. In Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, and The Secret of Evermore, you can control all party members’ actions when you wish, but without your direct action, the party members not being moved around by you specifically will engage in combat with the AI controlling them. Much the same with Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2--you can give party members specific orders and set them to act according to certain AI patterns, but they’re generally controlled by the game itself as you go along. And it’s basically the same with Dragon Age 1 and 2, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, the Mass Effect series, the Star Ocean series, and so many others. On occasion you even get a party member who can’t be controlled in any way, such as with Bow-wow in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, or the troopers in The Magic of Scheherazade. That complete lack of control is also often the case of very temporary guest party members, too, like the ones you occasionally have in Final Fantasy Tactics. Persona 3 is not the only game with AI in charge of party members, not by a long shot. It’s not even the only game in its own series with AI-controlled party members; both SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha titles have Raidou’s demons on semi-autopilot.

Its AI is also not even all that bad, really. I wouldn’t say that Persona 3’s ally AI is perfect, or even particularly great, but it’s certainly functional, and although you do have to compensate for it some of the time, it could be far worse. Hell, a lot of the examples I listed above have AI that makes for far less useful allies than that of SMTP3. Without direct and constant supervision, Mass Effect allies don’t tend to be much more than decoys, for example. Your allies in SMTP3 actually do seem like they’re trying to cover your back, even if they’re not always doing it well. The allies of Secret of Mana, by contrast, just seem to be going it solo, with no interest one way or another in a team effort. Allies in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates are even worse, just standing around and only sporadically attacking enemies. So it’s not like Persona 3’s AI is even all that bad.

So what’s the problem, then, with Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3’s AI? Why so much irritation focused upon it by myself and others, and not on the AI of other games?

The problem is that it’s in a game where it has absolutely no place, no practical application whatsoever. Look at most of the games I mentioned above that also have party members controlled largely or entirely by AI. You know what a LOT of them have in common? They’re games with battle systems in which fights take place in at least partial real time. Enemies move and act freely in Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, and so do you. Everyone isn’t just standing around waiting for each turn to begin and end in The Legend of Zelda, Star Ocean, and Baldur’s Gate games, and as a result, the action is fast-paced enough that the player can realistically only dependably control one single character. Sometimes you have the time and wherewithal to direct your allies’ actions in Mass Effect, but ME has pacing which necessitates you concerning yourself with your protagonist’s actions first and foremost. Some games are so fast-paced that just controlling one party member taxes you to your limit, and you NEED a game’s AI to keep the rest of the party going.

SMTP3, however, runs on a very traditional turn-based system. In true turn-based combat such as this, enemies and allies do not move until you’ve finished assigning your party’s actions for the next turn, and once everyone’s acted in that turn, they all stop and wait for you again. With a fast-paced, action RPG like Shining Force EXA, there is a REASON to have your party members directed by AI--you’re too busy controlling the protagonist to keep up with everyone else. But when the whole battle system waits on you, that reason for AI controlled teammates is gone.

Not every game I mentioned as having AI party members is an action RPG, though. The Magic of Scheherazade’s troopers are only present during the turn-based battles that occur between scenes, for example. But you know, the troopers are just nameless mercenary grunts whose services you’ve purchased, and are totally optional. The actual, real party members of TMoS are fully controllable during the turn-based battles. The troopers are just some bonus damage-dealers, not a real part of the party. You don’t have any particular reason to expect full control of them. And RPGs where an AI controlled guest is helping you in battles? Well, there it makes a certain amount of sense that you don’t have control of them. They’re not meant to be your long term comrades, they’re just helping you as an outside party. A temporary guest party member doesn’t give you the same feeling of someone you should be in control of as an actual, major member of the fighting team.

So there’s no reason, gameplay-wise, for your Persona 3 party members to be AI-controlled, nor does it seem particularly logical. And here’s the problem: that gives it no excuse for its detrimental effect on the gameplay. See, turn-based gameplay is one of the most boring kinds of gameplay imaginable, essentially reducing the actual gaming part of your game to a mundane mental process that is identical to the one for navigating windows and folders on your computer, or ordering lunch from a menu. There is really only one tiny, totally inadequate nugget of gameplay enjoyment created by vacuuming the rest of the fun out of a game to make it turn-based, and that is the strategy aspect. Planning out what to do each turn to damage your enemies and keep your party members alive, while taking into account the countless variables of stats, hit points, magic endurance restraints, elemental strengths and weaknesses, status ailments and benefits, and so on, it all takes a fair amount of strategic planning to do it successfully. Your reward for putting up with the boredom of turn-based combat is knowing that your strategies are sound and that you’ve used your resources effectively.

So what would be a really, really stupid idea when you’re making a turn-based game? Taking 75% of all precise strategic control out of the player’s hands! You can only vaguely plan out the behavior of 3/4ths of your party in this game, and that is detrimental to the ability of the player to play with precise strategy--and thus is detrimental to the main point of turn-based combat. It’s especially bad when one considers that this is a Shin Megami Tensei game, part of a series where strategic gameplay is especially important. It just makes no sense.

Atlus luckily seemed to recognize their error, and the SMTP3 remake on the Playstation Portable allowed for full control of the party. Still, it’s hard to believe that they actually thought this was a good idea. What the hell were they thinking? They couldn’t possibly have thought that needlessly taking the majority of control away from the player would increase the fun. Was it supposed to be story-related, somehow? that most of the time, you can’t control other people, that you can only really control yourself and hope others follow your guidance? Because that would kinda work with the Social Links thing kinda well, and you could say that being unable to control the party members is kinda like how you can’t control the way the Tarot Cards of your destiny fall, but being able to control the protagonist in the party signifies the part our free will plays in our lives, only a third as much as uncontrollable destiny, but if your will and wisdom are great enough, that small part can be enough to tip the scales in your favor so you can make your own destiny nonetheless...By God, could it be that Atlus was using the AI-controlled party members to make the gameplay itself a symbol of the messages of fate and one great individual’s free will, creating a whole new level of beautiful meaning by layering their ideal and theme into the very process of their game art? Are they even more brilliant than I had thought?

...No, I’m pretty sure this time I really am reading way too much into this. AI party members in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 was a stupid idea, Atlus screwed up, The End.