Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Design Brilliance of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Halloween is approaching.  Everyone is getting out their costumes, setting up the spooky decorations and watching classic horror movies.  It’s also the time some gamers take to play their favorite scary games, as well as October-themed specials going on for games like Killing Floor and Team Fortress 2.

But for a lot of us, the scares are what we’re looking for.  Now’s the time to play the classics like Eternal Darkness, Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2, System Shock 2 or Amnesia.

This year I have a recommendation on another horror game.  I’ve already gone over how ClockTower is the scariest game ever made, and I stand by that statement, but this year I’m taking a moment to appreciate the aspects of a classic horror game that don’t contribute to the horror.

I’ve always held a soft spot for 90s adventure games.  I was quite a fan of King’s Quest 5 back in the day, and even now with all the advancements companies like Telltale Games have made to the genre, I can still play some of the adventure games from the days of lesser graphics and game design.  I still love The Curse of Monkey Island, the Phantasmagoria games, and The Neverhood as much as I ever have.  Sure they had annoying puzzles and huge leaps in logic when it came to progressing through them, but the stories were so well told and presented, I couldn’t help forgiving them.

That’s why when the opportunity came knocking, I bought the PC game adaptation of the short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison.  I had heard about the game being scary, unsettling and overall pretty good, so when it was on sale for Halloween on Steam earlier last year, I gave it a try myself.

Naturally, I enjoyed the traits many of the best 90s adventure games sported: detailed artwork, a good story, and (mostly) good voice acting to boot.  Unlike some of the other 90s adventure games though, I was also impressed with IHNMAIMS’s overall design as a game, because it managed to largely avoid the major pitfalls many other adventure games of its type are infamous for.

As I stated, many adventure games in the 90s had design quirks, for lack of a better term.  Anyone who has played them knows the complaints as well as the jokes made about them: an increasing load of inventory items, illogical solutions with only one way to do them you likely had to find out through guesswork and not to mention some (usually from Sierra) that killed you or rendered the game unwinnable without fair warning.

IHNMAIMS averts the overstocked inventory problem right off the bat through its premise.  The story is about the last 5 humans on earth being tortured by a human-hating godlike supercomputer named AM (Allied Mastercomputer), voiced by Ellison himself.  In the events of the game, AM makes each human play a game of his own making, each one preying on their weaknesses.  That means every character, along with their scenario, has their own inventory and map.

Each scenario’s landscape is relatively small (about half the size of a suburban elementary school), making them easy to navigate and greatly reducing backtracking.  It’s much like Telltale Games’ episodic adventure games released today in how it takes the story one chapter at a time.  Not only does this mean you don’t have to go to hell and back if you forgot something, but because there’s less to cover, should you decide to take the desperate practice of trying to use everything you have on everything else to get something to happen, it’s a lot quicker.

But in my playthrough of the game, that didn’t happen.  With the exception of a few points of guesswork and vagueness, IHNMAIMS is relatively logical in its solutions, and when the rules of logic are bent in AM’s twisted game, clues are given.
Without spoiling the solution, I cite a point in Ellen’s scenario.  In it, she must grab a chalice from a room being guarded by a vicious sphinx that scares her away when she comes in.  However, if the player looks at the room through a security monitor in another room, it doesn’t show the sphinx.  Hmmmmmm…

She doesn't even touch the thing!
That sense of fairness is properly played in the ways you can lose too, as opposed to the aforementioned Sierra games where even somewhat sensible options will have you killed on a whim.  For one thing, dying in IHNMAIMS does not mean the end of the game until the finale.  If one of the characters dies in AM’s game, they’re transported out to start the scenario all over again, with the story justification being that AM wants to torture them as long as possible.  It can be annoying if you don’t save, but it’s better than allowing you to save yourself into an unwinnable scenario by mistake.

That, however, should not happen, and the game won’t kill you for one slip-up.  While it is possible to die, there are very few instances it can happen, giving the game the relaxed play of Monkey Island, but with some of the sense of peril of King’s Quest, where everything is trying to kill you.  In any situation in which you can die, you can see it coming and it’s avoidable.

For example, in Ted’s scenario, he can hear the sounds of wolves getting closer every time he enters the central room of the castle, and the front door is missing a hinge.  It gives you several chances to figure out a way to shut the door, so if they bust in and you die, it’s your own fault.

Other times the game doesn’t need to warn you and has you rely on your common sense.  If you cut the airbags in a blimp in order to lower it to the height it needs to be at, common sense tells you that you shouldn’t cut any more than that, or else…

In the same scenario, the designers anticipated a player’s thought process in a specific way.  Instead of cutting the air bags, you can instead try to shoot a hole in it with what is described as a bulky, single-shot handgun.  However, you’re supposed to realize that the reason it’s bulky and has one shot is because it’s a flare gun.

Fire does not go well with blimps.

Instead of simply giving a generic “I can’t use these two things together” line, the game knows what you were thinking, and you thought wrong.

In one last brilliant design decision, each scenario has multiple endings that give the game flexibility.  These endings are determined by the character’s moral actions through their chapter, long before games like Infamous and Mass Effect implemented their own morality measurements.  For example, having Ted be unfaithful lowers his morality, and having Nimdok use ether to ease the pain of someone suffering raises his.

There are different ways for the successful endings to play out as well; there isn’t only one proper set of solutions.  Although the alternate solutions never diverge far from what you’re supposed to do, they allow for some tangential thinking.

For example, in Ted’s scenario, you’re told that there’s a clue on the servant woman’s tapestry in her room.  There are two ways in: you can either sleep with her (lowering morality) or give the demon you summon that can open locks a bit of energy to have him open the simple lock on her door.  Alternate solutions like that also help give the game some incentive to play through it again.

Unfortunately, much of the good about the game I just went over sort of falls apart at the game’s finale, where the puzzles are abstract, you’ll almost certainly need a guide, and you die permanently, but the 80% of the game getting to that point is still a treat.

Before playing it, I thought I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream was a cult classic because of its well-told story, like most fondly-remembered adventure games, but having played it myself, I see there’s more to it than that.  While it shows its age in some areas, IHNMAIMS holds up pretty well, even by today’s standards.  If you’re looking for a creepy game to play this Halloween, it’s a solid buy.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The 100-Post Milestone

2 years ago I created the Shonen Otaku Corner as a way to share my writing and love of fictional media.  Starting with my very first post ever on the second season of Yu Yu Hakusho I've written many game and anime (mostly game) feature stories that have given me excellent practice, strong examples of my skills and at least some recognition.  With over 50,000 page views and some posts shared on official and fan Facebook pages, I'm modestly proud at how this blog has turned out.

I wasn't sure what I could do for something as special as my 100th post.  Different online personalities have done them in different ways (Linkara's rant on Spider Man: One More Day for his 200th comes to mind).  But my reviews and articles come on a case-by-case basis, and I didn't have anything planned for my 100th post.

So instead of a new review or the second part of the Mortal Kombat post, I thought I'd make this 100th post special by making it about the thoughts and processes that go into my writing instead of the end result.  Specifically, the three big projects you can see in the tabs at the top of the page and how they came into being.

The KOF Retrospective

I wasn't an SNK fan from the series' beginning.  In fact, I've never even seen an arcade cabinet with a KOF or even Fatal Fury game ever before in my life.  I originally got into the series with the Orochi Saga Collection on the Wii, and as you can tell, I got hooked big time (starting with KOF '96).  Not only was the music and art design excellent, but the story was a multi-game shonen epic with well-made characters that made me want to learn the stories of each and every single one while playing with their distinguishing fighting styles.

Since I was so passionate about the franchise, I wanted to make something that could effectively share that and convince more people to play the games for themselves.  As inspiration, I looked at other online personalities that did just that with their own favorite franchises: Spoony's Ultima Retrospective, Linkara's History of the Power Rangers and Welshy's Saw retrospective (which he sadly never finished).  Each of those were entertaining, analytical and informative, exactly how I want my writing to be.  They showed why they loved each series so much, but weren't afraid to mock some of their stupider aspects.  Plus, with KOF telling its story through images with text, I could convey the story effectively without the need of a video.

And thus, I played each game one by one, multiple times, all while writing the details and my thoughts.

The Fighting Game Camps

With my current ongoing series of articles on the many different fighting game franchises in gaming, I more or less asked myself "why stop at KOF?"  There are people just as passionate about their own favorite fighting game franchises, and each one has its own stories to tell.
With my skills honed in KOF my curiosity motivated me to dive deeper into the other franchises to see what kind of stories they told and observe what makes their fans so hardcore.  I obviously couldn't go over each and every game in each franchise like the KOF retrospective unless it would be made over the course of several years, so I instead made it a detailed summation; an introductory piece to each franchise as a whole, if you will.  It's been a very fun and fascinating trip so far.  It kind of feels like traveling to different countries around the world and partaking in their local sport or seeing a play with each one's local folk tales.  You wouldn't think there'd be that kind of variety in a concept as simple as having people fight each other, but like any genre, there is.

As a side note, the second part of the post on Mortal Kombat is being delayed.  Instead I'll be writing a piece on a rather.... Bizarre fighting game.

The Diary of Frank West

As I said, my articles are usually meant to be both informative and entertaining.  Something fun to read, but with the reader getting something out of it.  With the Diary of Frank West, I wanted to make something that was purely entertainment.

I'm a fan of Dead Rising and its sequel Dead Rising 2 (haven't played the third yet).  They're great silly fun with somewhat unique plots, if kind of cheesy at times.  There are many jokes to be made as the ridiculous nature of the improvised weapons, gameplay mechanics inconsistent with reality, and the way the straight-faced story plays itself against the ridiculous nature for a hilarious contrast.  Whether a friend is watching you play Dead Rising in the same room or chatting while playing Dead Rising 2 with you in its co-op multiplayer, there are laughs to be had.

So for the Diary of Frank West, I decided to make my own comedy series blending a number of different styles of entertainment writing: A let's play mixed with the occasional liberties of a fan fiction along with an alternate character interpretation, all using absurdist humor.

The general writing process went like this:
1. Play Dead Rising for a while.
2. Write down bullet points of what happened, including notable silliness, plot points, and thoughts and complaints Frank may be thinking at times.
3. Wait a while, smash your head against a wall for 10 minutes, huff paint and watch online videos that likely make your dumber.

(That was an exaggeration. I do not support the use of illicit drugs or inhaling paint.)
4. Using the bullet points as starting points, write what your damaged mind probably remembers.  In the case of this series, I remembered.... Vietnam spies, an amnesic Ozzy Osbourne, blowing people up with Hokuto Shinken and enchanted healing food.  Whoooooah man.

If I wrote it and said "Oh my god that's the stupidest thing I've ever read," it got kept in.  Before playing the original version of the game I had played through the Wii version literally a dozen times, so I was able to plan a number of jokes regarding the main story ahead of time.

The end result was as insane and crazy as I had wanted it to be, but that may be a double-edged sword. Some people get absurdist humor, but others may read it and believe me, not Frank, to be out of my mind.

I'm a little concerned some people might be offended.  Frank's traits were meant to be stupid and offensive to the point of being a caricature. I was essentially trying to cross the line twice, but at times, like Frank's misogyny and the cultists'... Implications, I feel as though I may have only crossed it once.  I might go back to adjust it sometime.

I'm considering doing a sequel using Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, but I'm not sure there's much of a demand for that because the first one has been kind of hit or miss.  It was fun to write regardless.

As has writing for this blog.  For the handful of readers I get, I can't thank you enough for your support.  You're what keeps me going.  Hopefully with 100 posts to present I can finally get a paid writing job.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Day the Fun Ended: The End of Saturday Morning Broadcasting

It is with an extremely heavy heart that I write this.

At noon today, The Vortexx, the very last Saturday Morning children's broadcasted programming block, will air its very last show ever with Yu-Gi-Oh Zexal, and the very last Saturday morning kid's block will be gone.

Ever since I was a kid up to this day I watched Saturday morning shows religiously.  I've seen every incarnation of the two channels over the years: Kids WB, Fox Kids, the Fox Box, 4KidsTV, the CW4Kids, Toonzai and the Vortexx were all some of the biggest things I looked forward to for the weekend.  I even watched the Vortexx from my apartment complex every morning when I went to college.  Said complex even held an event where everyone got together to eat breakfast and watch the Vortexx.

I probably would never be the shonen otaku I am today without Saturday morning shonen like Yu-Gi-Oh, Shaman King and even One Piece.  Hell, I consider the initial dub of One Piece to be far better than Funimation's, and whether it was on 4Kids TV or Toonami I loved every second of it.

As the block continued through the years it had great anime like Yu-Gi-Oh 5Ds, Dinosaur King and Dragon Ball Z Kai.  Even censored, I loved (and still love) the action, the clever thinking and the hammy voice acting from actors who are some of my favorites to this day (where are you David Brimmer?).

And it wasn't all Japanese anime, even though it was always the highlight.  There were a lot of great shows made in the west that I could never forget: Jackie Chan Adventures was a fun martial-arts packed world-traveling action series, Ozzy and Drix expanded on Osmosis Jones, one of my favorite movies at the time, and Xiaolin Showdown was practically based around battles of wit.  There is so much to gush over even to this day.

And you can't forget Batman Beyond, which is one of the very best things currently on Netflix, and it's amazing today to think that it and Batman: the Animated Series were kids shows.  I guess we were just cooler back then.

That's not even going into Animaniacs, The Batman, The Mummy animated series, Cubix, Sonic X, Spider Riders, Justice League, Mucha Lucha, Static Shock, Goosebumps, X-Men Evolution, and one of the best hero adaptations in recent years: Spectacular Spider Man.

I even remembered all the strange quirks and phases both blocks went through.  I remember when Kids WB aired Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends and teen titans, and I especially remember the great many skits the Kids WB used to do with the characters featured in the shows.  You never see stuff like that anymore.

Most importantly, Kids WB introduced me to the single greatest anime ever made based on the single greatest game ever made: Viewtiful Joe!  I looked forward to Viewtiful Joe more than any other show in my life!  I woke up early to watch it when it came on, sleeping schedule be damned!  I only missed an episode when I was forced to!  At one point I went on a trip as part of an organization, and I needed to watch Viewtiful Joe so much I squeezed next to a friend on a tiny little portable TV screen to watch it!  I even remember the episode: episode 15: To Have and Hold Captive.

Gradually over the span of a few years I bought all 8 DVDs of the first season for myself, saving up $15 for each one.  It was worth every penny.

And that highlights what makes losing the Vortexx such a devastating loss.  There are a great many kids in the U.S. whose families can't afford expensive anime box sets or a subscription to Netflix, let alone cable, and even if they can, most of the best anime isn't suitable for kids.  Not even Toonami is friendly toward the average viewer now that it's only on late at night.  There won't be anything to introduce kids to shonen.  Sure, some of these classics are available online, some legally, some not, but how is any kid supposed to know they exist?  And why watch them on a little computer screen?

This is cruel and unfair.  The last remnant of childhood joy for the less fortunate is being eradicated and is being replaced by inferior live-action garbage beginning next week.  A tradition that has been around for several decades is being thrown away with almost no fanfare.  After the death of Nintendo Wi-Fi and Nintendo Power I feel like large parts of my life are being taken away from me one by one.

And like when Nintendo Wi-Fi left us, I'm spending this morning to watch every single program the Vortexx is airing, even Bolts and Blip, a program I never had any interest in seeing.  But even after today I will always remember how much better the world was with Saturday morning kids blocks.

It will not be a magnificent morning anymore!