Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A Dry List: Annoying Community, Rayman Origins Demo & Jumping in Action-RPGs And Why We Should Care

I’ve found it hard to sink my teeth into any big games recently (although I maintain an interest in Starcraft 2). This is in the wake of coming to feel a bit disenfranchised with the general mind-set of most gaming communities. I suppose it’s worth noting that this disposition is also present in the community of Starcraft 2, so I’m half-way there already. The toxicity isn’t really explicit unless you’ve taken a prolonged stay in, hm. I guess the online multiplayer of any game.  The ugliest forefronts don’t come to an explicit point often in the professional realms. When they do, it’s condemned by most. This instance with the promotional Street Fighter x Tekken Stream-Show-Thing produced reasonably large shockwaves. But they subsided so quickly: among the broadest channels output was back to the status quo in less than twenty-four hours. I guess there wasn’t any time for the idea of wide-spread misogyny in all major gaming communities. It was more prescient to most that they distance their particular niche from the terrible Fighting-types, and that they do so in the smuggest most self-congratulatory manner they can manage.

Now, I may be a touch cynical, but I would wager that those who are merely concerned about how such an incident reflects on their corner of gaming—whether by blunt comparison or simply as a function of their own distancing gestures—haven’t put too much thought into the subject. Okay, so that’s the mildest way I could put it. Actually it made me wonder if many of these people were consciously horrible, woefully ignorant or just straight-up self-centred. But no matter! This isn’t the kind of thing I’m equipped to deal with so I’ll just... Focus on the good.

Sasha ‘Scarlett’ Hostyn, a transgender woman from Canada, recently made an unprecedented run at a major Starcraft 2 tournament (IPL4). The reason it’s so unfounded is the sheer distance she made through the open bracket. Simply put, she took out high profile players with long records and all the resources they need; the kind of players whose stability as established professional gamers allows them to focus on the one thing that, arguably, matters most to them: their game. On top of smashing a whole bunch of these people that she perhaps wasn’t ‘supposed’ to, she has no sponsorship and no team and was only able to cover travel expenses by winning an online tournament. And the best part (although what I’ve already described pleases me greatly) is that the general community has reacted… well. I can’t really put it any more succinctly than that; the childish stuff was smaller than I expected and the mawkish dismissal was minimal.

So, maybe I can move on and reclaim a little faith from this whole thing. Excellent, I don’t get to say that very often. In fact that may be the first. In any case, I lurched towards my more nostalgia-seeking instincts and grabbed the demo for Rayman Origins.

I don’t know how to feel about what this demo has told me. I’ll start with the music, though: it veers between lovingly cute, appropriately ambient and annoyingly kitschy. I’m really not sure what else can be said; it just isn’t particularly alluring. The gameplay is clearly designed with a co-op slant in mind, but it seems intended to function solidly enough as a single-player experience.  But I don't know to what extent a platformer can reasonably tailor itself around a varying amount of players. I suppose what I’m concerned about is this nagging idea of mitigating the standard stage-to-stage variables; just how tight can it be if it needs to account for the possibility of one-to-four players?  It’s bound to be a loose fit, no matter how finely-spun.

The animation is in the vein of many modern cel-shaded titles. I don’t think it’s worth me describing that it is very pretty. This video gives a worthy impression of the kind of palette (and tone) you can expect. As visually excellent as Origins is, though, I couldn’t help but get the impression of a mechanical system that gives the player a little too much power. Unless the amount of enemies is quadrupled under four-player I just can’t see there being much difficulty, and if there was four times the enemies it would likely turn into something of a visual cluster-fuck.  But it does look very pretty.

I never really took to the idea that seems inherent in so many modern 2D platformers. That is, titles that are distinctly not Rayman Origins. I didn’t like the idea of playing a game that was designed to kill me repeatedly. I enjoyed the original Castlevania, but I feel that its steep difficulty was simply in lieu of things either taken for granted today or entirely thrown out in favour of concision. Like the limitations of cartridge memory, or the implied value of compelling a player to put more time in than might seem reasonable for the volume of content. I guess what I’m getting at is that I appreciated Castlevania for what it achieved with what its developers had. Modern developers don’t even veil their murderous approach. I Want To Be The Guy is a good example: apart from its gratuitous attempts to wrangle me in with its pastiche of familiar music and level design, it clearly wants to kill the player over and over again. Platformers don’t need to do this, but Rayman Origins—whose vague threats of violence against you are adorably cute in comparison, like a malicious kitten—could stand to learn a thing or two from this murderous (but reflective!) new generation.

For one, the imperative to collect arbitrary golden-floaty-things isn’t particularly fun unless they’re made sparse or difficult to get; preferably both. Making them time-consuming to get is not so compelling. Also, if threats to the player are going to be implemented (environment hazards, enemies, spikes, etc.) it’s generally a good idea to not make them so easy to step over that I momentarily wonder if I’ve been tricked into grinding for experience again. I guess I’m caught on the knife-edge of wanting a game to ruthlessly punish me, but to not be so presumptuous about the whole ordeal.

Speaking of which (both grinding and masochistic self-punishment) Phantasy Star Online 2 was announced a little while ago. Judging by the designs they’re going with it seems nostalgia-appeal has not gone out of fashion. I guess I can’t complain when practically every established developer is in on the act. Is it still abusive if everyone does it? No matter. This pretty trailer coincidentally sets itself in the first area of PSO. I guess it only just occurs to me that naming the first major landscape in your fantasy/sci-fi universe simply ‘Forest’ is slightly underwhelming. They’ve had a lot of time to refine the mechanics down, though, so I’m interested. The original PSO managed to make itself compelling with an extremely simple set of commands: it was like Diablo 2 stripped-down and in space with Japanese designs.

I’m not sure where they’re going to take it, but the trailer is pretty explicit about two things: the music and visual styles from the original are something of a priority (it’s nice to have some music that’s half-way original and unique, likewise with stylised designs), and the action elements may have been pushed forwards to a point where you may overcome the ‘numbers game’ mentality. Excellent. Also they’ve added a jump command which, based on the video here, they’re pretty happy about. It's important enough for a massive highlight in the trailer, apparently. That’s worrying if only because it’s precisely the kind of flair that lets me know the video is designed, almost explicitly, for people like me.

The uninformed potential player doesn’t care about the jump command: they see an avatar jumping and instantly put the pieces together, ‘Oh, I can jump in this game.’ They might think that it’s odd to call attention to such a thing unless Sonic Team had developed a somewhat anachronistic fetish for the jump command. But the people who played and enjoyed PSO for an extended period will dwell just a little longer on this point: ‘Ohh, they’re jumping pretty high… That would have been nice twelve years ago. Jump over the little waist-high electric-fence-things.’ I don’t know for certain that this necessitates calling as much attention as they could to the fact that you can jump. If it was my choice I would have to face the fact that it does represent a significant deviation from the original. PSO was pretty much—mechanically, not visually—a 2-dimensional game.  But is ‘jumping’ obscure enough to necessitate a nod as a gameplay feature? Probably not.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I don’t know whether to feel sorry for an obvious mistake that would lead many viewers to think Sonic Team were grasping at straws with their gameplay highlights, or to feel pandered to as one of the few people for whom that flair was specifically designed to be seen by. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure if you went on to play Rayman Origins when it was released, but the later levels in the game are punishingly difficult, almost to an infuriating degree. The demo was good at setting the mood and presenting the gameplay mechanics, but the easiness of it was only indicative of the first few levels in the game. Nice write-up.