Archives for category: Critique

Hi all, there’s not going to be a proper Kana Quest Dev Blog today as upon completion of my funding submission, my computer decided that it was time to call in sick. I’ve backed everything up, so you don’t have to worry about me losing Kana Quest, but it has put me out of commission this week. But thankfully the video game gods were smiling on me this week and gave me something relevant to talk about: Pokémon.

Yes, a new Pokémon game is coming. And as someone who has played every generation since gold/silver, I am very excited. But from the trailer we can see that they are planning on making some pretty big changes to the core formula of the game. And this has gotten me thinking about some of the core aspects of Pokémon. Aspects that people often overlook, but are vitally important. So we are gonna do a deep dive into things that Pokémon has gotten right for so many years, and some of the challenges Game Freak might have with “Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee”.

And we begin with the most iconic part of any Pokémon game, your starter Pokémon. Do you choose, grass, fire or water? This is a really small detail but it’s so important. By limiting your choice to only three types Pokémon avoids overloading the player with too many choices. This also allows Pokémon to introduce the player to the rock papers scissors gameplay that Pokémon types have without any tutorial. If the starting types were Flying > Fighting > Rock, in terms of gameplay they would be near identical. But no one is going to instantly know what beats what having never played before.

Now of course the Let’s Go games will give the player a choice of Eevee (Normal Type) or Pikachu (Electric Type). Having these two as your starter removes that instant tutorial aspect. However at this point in time, not explaining how types work, is not the end of the world. But this does create a challenge for the designers of these games in terms of balance both in early and late game.

See Pokemon’s early game is balanced around the player having one of the three starting types. The moment you can no longer rely on this, early gym challenges and wild Pokemon encounters can become incredibly difficult. Both Eevee and Pikachu have huge type disadvantages against the first gym: Brock a Rock Type user. Now this isn’t as big a deal for Pikachu because the second gym is Misty a Water Type user. But for Eevee, at no point in the game will it have a type advantage.  Regardless, both starters face the problem that new players (And there will be new players because it is being marketed as an introduction to “core” Pokemon games for Pokemon Go fans) will get their starter, head into Brock’s gym, and bash their head against a wall. Not exactly the best introduction.  There are ways Gamefreak could resolve this, they could let both starters learn a low power fighting type move by the time they reach Pewter City. Mach Punch (40 Power, 100 Acc, and Attacks First) would be a good candidate as it’s low power and high utility, and its power falls of towards the mid game.

Once the mid game ends Gamefreak will have to account for the late game. They have stated that the starter Pikachu, or Eevee will be able to evolve. But even if they did, Raichu and most Eeveelutions do not pack the same late game punch as a traditional starter Pokemon. Starter Pokemon are great because they are always just a little bit above the curve in terms of power, and so the correct play is to use them throughout your game. As a result, over the course of the game you form an emotional bond to your starter. Gamefreak has to find a way to make Pikachu and Eevee good in the late game. Failure to do so will make them dead weight, and players will come to resent them. Making new fans hate your two biggest mascots; not the greatest idea. Gamefreak has made efforts to make both better in the late game before. Pikachu’s Light Bulb and Eevee’s Z-Move are examples of this. But both are problematic as they don’t grant that much of a power boost, and they lock the player into only ever using one item on their starter. Eevee’s Z-Move is especially problematic as I doubt they will want to include Z-Moves into an introductory game. One solution I can see working is actually one of the features they have shown off. That’s right, fashion accessories. What if certain costumes granted your starters bonuses. This way you could give players much more options for self expression both visually and mechanically. As someone who spent most of 6th and 7th generation buying ALL THE CLOTHES, being able to do this for my starter as well as my Player Character, is something I am very much looking forward to.

Now I can see one more change that they have made that could cause problems with the difficulty: Wild Pokemon. This could be the biggest mechanical difference between the Let’s Go games and every other Pokemon game. You no longer battle wild Pokemon (only capture them) and you can see the wild Pokemon roaming around. The reason this is so big is that players can now avoid wild Pokemon better than ever before. This is problematic as Pokemon games are balanced so that if you fight every wild Pokemon and every trainer you see on a route, you will usually be properly leveled for the next gym. This change means that Gamefreak will likely have to revamp the amount of experience the player receives from trainers. This is something that I expect them to get right, and we the players wont even notice how much work went into it in the final project. But I guarantee you that it will be multiple designer’s jobs to re-balance the XP distribution throughout the entire game. Naturally this job will be made harder as first gen games were the most grindy. Once again the fact that these are introductory games comes up. A massive grind-fest is not something you want to give to new players.

That’s basically all I really had to say about Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee. I am certain that Gamefreak will find a way to solve these problems, but I just thought it would be interesting to look at the changes they have made and really think about the implications. Because the reality is I love Pokemon, and I love how they consistently make small iterations on these games and how these changes ripple out and effect the rest of the design. Anyway, until next time hope you have a good week, and hopefully my computer will be back and running so we can do Kana Quest content again.

 

 

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Imagine the following conversation. You’re 16, at a gathering with family members you haven’t seen in years and uncomfortable. Inevitably the topic of your interests come up. You gingerly mention that you enjoy to partake in what is colloquially known as “video games”. Your now slightly sloshed uncle proceeds to say one or more of the following lines; “video games are just murder simulators” “video games are incapable of being art” “A video game will never be able to make you CRY“.

To like video games, you have to be insecure about liking video games. Conversations like the one above have made sure of that. And if you weren’t aware, your drunken uncle’s arguments made to belittle became  a “to do list”.

Things to do in order to legitimize games.

  • Make a non violent game
  • Make a game that is #ART
  • Make a game that will people CRY
  • Make the Citizen Kane of games.

Non-violent games have existed for as long as there have been games so *pfff* who actually cares? #ART is subjective, but according to a very ugly toilet in an art gallery: As long as I say my game is #ART it is… Soooo DADAAAAA… *Jazz Hands*. “The Citizen Kane of Games” this is the Holy Grail of this list. But how does one achieve it? It’s such a nebulous concept. If ONLY there was some tangible goalpost one could use to figure out if a game was eligible for the title of “The Citizen Kane of Games”. Oh wait look at the third item. All a game has to do in order to be considered as “The Citizen Kane of Games” is make people cry.

And so to this day Game Developers will subconsciously use this list as their Game Design Documents. There is nothing wrong with artistic, non-violent and tear jerking games. Papers Please, To the Moon, Firewatch fit this mold but are genuine masterpieces. But we need to burn the list. Or at least we need to feed the list to RUMU.

RUMU is the reason this essay exists as these are the RUMUnations that were inspired by playing the game. Its a well made point and click adventure game made in Sydney (#goAussieGameDevs) about a sentient robotic vacuum that can only feel love. RUMU cleans the house for their humans David and Cecily (even though they always seem to be out whenever RUMU is cleaning), but spends most of their time talking to Sabrina the sentient house management AI.

Before the criticism comes, if you are interested in it, go get RUMU and support Indie Devs (Link: http://store.steampowered.com/app/723270/Rumu/ ). And if you care about spoilers, stop reading now.

RUMU is a game that ignored the most interesting aspects of its own premise because it was too busy looking at the damn list. It doesn’t take long for you to know something is up. Sabrina always talks as if she is hiding something e.g. “David and Cecily are… out again today RUMU…”.

And sure enough it turns out David and Cecily are dead. And their death was written to inflict the maximum amount of emotional trauma to Sabrina (and by proxy the player).  David ordered Sabrina not to watch him work in his lab because it made him uncomfortable (and that he was planning on editing her program without Sabrina’s consent) and then accidentally spilled some highly toxic chemicals, forcing the lab into lock down. But Cecily was on the outside of the lab. So she emotionally blackmails Sabrina into letting her into the lab to die with David (“Sabrina if you love me you will let me in” – Cecily). Thus causing Sabrina to deal with PTSD and crippling guilt ALONE for eight years before she chooses to finish construction of RUMU.

The reveal of this moment is teased and built to the entire game. So RUMU does earn the emotional pay off. But at what cost? The core concepts of RUMU are the ethical questions that will arise when we are capable of making sentient AI. What are the ethics of changing/bug-fixing a sentient AI? Is it okay to create an AI simulacrum of people who are no longer in your life? If a sentient AI is suffering do you have a duty of care for them? But the biggest question for me is what do we owe our creations? If we make a sentient being knowing that they will be flawed (and they will suffer for those flaws), is it ethical to make that being to begin with?

Because all the time and energy of game is dedicated to building to that one tear jerk moment at the end, there is little energy left to dig into the rest of the questions that RUMU asks. Because of coarse all #artistic games need to make people cry. This idea prevented RUMU from whole heatedly and confidently tackling the ideas that would have made it something extraordinary and not just good.

And that’s ultimately what this comes down to: moving from insecurity to confidence. The confidence to make games that are earnest, silly, sad, life affirming, funny, horrifying and challenging. And the confidence that items off a check list do not determine the artistic value of our art.

 

I finished playing Pokemon Sun and Moon a while ago. And I enjoyed the game, the new Pokemon are awesome, and Alola is stunning. But I was bugged by a lot of things in the game and I want to write about them. See, Sun and Moon made some horrendous errors in its design. Chief of which is how it handles story. The story is handled so badly I had the following thought: Pokemon should just stay far away from ever trying to do story.

Sun and Moon is the second time Pokemon has had a greater narrative thrust. And just like the last time narrative was a focus (Black and White) the game suffers for it. The moment you add narrative to a game you have a whole new set of things to worry about. What the plot is, how the plot interacts with the game-play, how you will deliver the story, and what message you are telling through your story are a couple of vital things to consider. It is excruciatingly clear that none of these things were considered during the development of Sun and Moon. The plot is the same plot that the series has had since third gen. Which would be fine if the story was handled like in X/Y in that it takes the backseat. But the story actively intrudes on the player’s ability to play the game resulting in an opening that takes forty minutes before the player gets their first Pokemon. The story is delivered via cut scenes that involves the player either reading boring dialogue or watching awkward animations. As for the message the game creates, I hope the message made was by pure incompetence than active choice. If it was active choice, then as a lifelong fan of the Pokemon I might stop playing Pokemon due to how awful that political stance is.

So what is the message that the story conveys? People who are animal rights activists are evil bastards who will take over the world and enslave the very animals they say they will protect. The villains of Sun/Moon are the Aether Foundation which is a group dedicated to the research and preservation of Pokemon. In other words Sun/Moon is mentioning the elephant in the room when it comes to Pokemon. That being that Pokemon are essentially slaves, people catching Pokemon are not that much different from poachers and the entire Pokemon world economy runs off cockfights between Pokemon. We all know these things, I remember noticing this as a kid. But we ignored it because the game said it was all good and didn’t draw attention to it and so we suspended our disbelief. If Gamefreak (Pokemon’s developer) legitimately wanted to tackle these issues they could add mechanics which showed that the player is being an ethical trainer. For example rather than storing Pokemon in the PC they are sent to a sanctuary where they are free to do what they like (Which does actually exist in Sun/Moon as the Poke Pelago). Or if a Pokemon dislikes a player enough then it can run away. And before you say that would suck if a Pokemon you had ran away, just remember as it is, you have to actually try HARD to get a Pokemon to hate you. They could have lots of side missions where the player shuts down Pokemon poaching operations, or liberates them from abusive trainers. You could have endangered Pokemon that you aren’t allowed to catch like regular pokemon, that you can only obtain by doing a small quest to win the trust of these endangered Pokemon or increase the population to a healthy level. What Gamefreak should NOT do is create straw-men of animal rights groups and plonk a big fat evil sticker on their heads like in Black/White and Sun/Moon. Because by doing this Gamefreak is saying that animal rights are not legitimate and that animal conservation is evil. And frankly that’s just straight fucked up, especially when we are experiencing a mass extinction event (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_extinction).

I will also briefly mention that one particular reading of these games are that they are an attack on PETA. For those who don’t know PETA is a real world “animal rights movement”. Which like Team Plasma or the Aether Foundation is evil, but they are evil for different reasons. They basically kill all animals that come into their “care” (over 90%) and even steal people’s pets and then kill said pets. Needless to say PETA is fucked up. But I doubt Sun/Moon is having  a go at PETA. It’s an American charity that does not even operate in Japan. And even if they are, that message will be lost on the primary audience: Japanese kids.

 
So that’s my rant about Pokemon Sun and Moon. There was some really cool stuff in these games but the story was so bad I really wish they hadn’t bothered. It ruins the pacing of the game, it sends an awful message and it actually makes the game worse as a whole. And I really hope Gamefreak just doesn’t bother with the story for future games.