Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ai the Kawaii but not the Origamaii

"Old world underground, I never knew you
But I've seen your face everywhere"
Metric - IOU

The delineation between RPGs and Adventure games, aside from a shallow expectation of isometric third-person view or retro-style 2D images, centers on choice. Adventure games are linear and do not offer the player a choice of identity, and are thus much more focused on interactive storytelling than actual game-playing. On some level you can play D&D-based cRPGs as a number-crunching exercise, min-maxing and exploiting to your heart's content, and still walk away having gotten something for your money. The less choice offered, the larger a work-load the game's plot must carry, and getting the player emotionally involved and immersed in that plot is crucial.

Making things personal is... tricky. You have to know your audience. You have to choose an audience. Universality is bland. Back on New Year's day, I wrote a post I somewhat regret now, deeply critical of the ending to an amazing game. Yet this strong reaction on my part implied great praise of The Cat Lady: it hit me. It was the first game to have truly hit me emotionally in years, and did so by playing on its chronically depressed target audience's precepts of hope and hopelessness. Hit 'em where it hurts, by all means. This is emotional Art with a capital "ah" and must be addressed in games alongside the more cerebral gamesmanship of combat mechanics.

So I've been spending quite a bit of time in The Secret World recently, getting my character caught up, pedaling that insipid gear-farming treadmill while at the same time savoring and being disgusted by the game's first major expansion, the Tokyo zone. Too much of it is recycled or perfunctory, from the copy-pasted, crudely re-skinned jet-black versions of mobs from previous zones to their all too uniform distribution and predictable respawn patterns, to the "farm 150 monsters" daily mission, etc. As an RPG, TSW still barely qualifies and boils down to the same level-based grind as every other so-called MMO.

TSW at its core is, however, an adventure game: puzzle-solving, pixel-hunting, linear, cinematic interactive fiction. Though grossly, criminally overpriced as such, some of that price-gouging does seem to get derailed from its straightforward route toward Funcom's executives' pockets into some higher production values than we normally expect from adventure games. TSW has well-rehearsed, professional voice acting and character models which allow for some detailed, if not very varied cinematics. Unfortunately, the game's creative side seems to get very little support from its technical side. New missions which would warrant new mechanics are instead forced into old molds.

When I first accepted the "Love and Origami" mission for instance, I was downright... jazzed. Being asked to piece together tokens of unrequited love, to fold loneliness into itself, now that sounded like some damn fine storytelling. I logged out without beginning it because I wanted to come at it with a fresh rested mind in the morning. Sadly, when I tried folding that imaginary piece of paper in-game, I found there was no way to do so through the interface. A player cheerfully informed me that I had to print the image and fold it in real life.
I cheated my way through the mission by looking up the answers and have no intention of ever re-visiting it. This oxymoronic "alternate reality" crap is one of the most detrimental fads TSW has picked up. Games must be self-contained. Everything must be handled by the game interface, and if it's not, if you can't get your corporate overlords to allocate the funds for a programmer to give you the new interface elements to handle that, then you know what, fuck it. Forget your admittedly novel idea for now, leave it shelved alongside the rotting concept of a persistent-world MMO and don't make customers pay for content you have no intention of delivering.

Yet in contrast to that idiocy, Funcom's writing team continues to populate its "secret" world with delightfully touching characters, from a rockabilly worshipping the holy trinity of Gaia, Amaterasu and Elvis to a lascivious toad to children who fear nothing. Given their audience of online gamer nerds, however, the most promising Tokyo character so far has been Harumi the l33t haxz0r.

You do not wanna frag with her!
Harumi is every psychotically upbeat junior-high girl deluding herself into high social standing via booking faces and feeding twits. By extension she's every gamer nerd sitting in a college dorm room bragging about his K/D ratio and how he hacked into his roommate's computer and every thirty-year-old loner blogging commentary nobody will ever read. Harumi's diamonologue was so deliciously over the top that it hurts to listen to. I wanted to smack the little snot, and myself by implicit association... and damn that feels good.

More. Give me more of that self-punishment, more poignancy and iconoclasm. Work with what you have, keep everything in-game, stop breaking immersion by asking me to minimize my game client, and you can do great work with TSW. Just remember the game has to be an activity in itself, independent of the shithole lives we're trying to forget by logging in. I'm paying you for escapism, not to be kicked out of that escapism.

You're trying to bill yourselves as creative, as the undercurrent of artsiness in a conformist medium. Fine, wonderful. But your output has to actually work within its context.

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