Archive for March, 2008

Number 4 – Hironobu Sakaguchi

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Sakaguchi-san is probably the only J-RPG developer most people know about. This is mainly due to the fact that he is the creator of the Square’s mythic Final Fantasy series. What most people don’t know is that the he only led the development of episodes I till V, with the most popular games from the Square brand, like “Chrono Trigger” or the modern themed “Final Fantasies”, being developed by a different man [we’ll get to him later]. The truth is: Sakaguchi-san’s most important contribution to the genre is the genesis of the Final Fantasy series, and not the popularization of the series outside Japan. From FFVI and beyond, he merely served as an Executive Producer for the franchise, which basically means he was the suit in charge of development control. Though in tradition with Japanese management, the man in that position also serves as a form of spiritual leader and manager, he is not, by any means, the main artist behind the game. His legacy, from episode VI forward, is of a much more abstract and philosophical nature, it’s still rather important, but not as much as most people think. Believe me when I say: FFVII is not this man’s work; it’s got his influences, but it is not his artistic endeavor. This is clearly evidenced by the remarkably different styles FFVI, VII and VIII show when compared to older Final Fantasies (that were directed by him).

Besides being the lead developer in the first FF’s, he also had a major contribution in FFIX, by creating the original concept of the game, which basically tries (and succeeds) in recapturing much of the series’ more classic trademarks. After executive producing FFX-2, he departed Square (for non-spoken reasons) to form Mistwalker, a Microsoft funded developer, from which three RPG’s have surfaced: “Blue Dragon”, “Lost Odyssey” and “Archaic Sealed Heat” (unreleased outside Japan).

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Throughout his long career, he laid down many of the foundations that all J-RPG’s follow. So, if he is one of the “de facto” creators of the genre, it probably seems strange to put him in the bottom tier of this list. This has to do with my personal view of his art, more than with his importance in the means (if this list was about that, he would definitely be on the first or second place). My problem with Sakaguchi’s games is that they usually portray the world with a rather “naife” and optimistic view, which despite being normal in the realm of fantasy-themed universes, is taken to a somewhat exaggerated extreme. “Good vs. Evil” is what his stories are all about; the very good, versus the very evil. This moral extreme tends to infantilize the narrative, by siding “pure” characters against evil doers that want to rule/destroy the world, for basically, no reason at all. Apart from the recent “Lost Odyssey”, that breaks the mold on some levels (emphasize *some*), all of Sakaguchi’s games can be easily fitted in the Monomyth theory perfectly. It’s a very, very traditional way of telling stories. Traditional is, in fact, the best adjective for Sakaguchi’s games. They follow traditional Japanese values; they regard the world in a traditional, classicist, moralistic way; the art therein used (whether its Yoshitaka Amano’s, or some other’s) depicts classic themes, and even the gameplay mechanics are extremely traditional, especially when seen according to today’s standards. He does tend to shake things up little by little, step by step, but he downright avoids abrupt innovation.

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But, if I disliked him so much, why would he make it into this list… for name-sake only? Surely not. First, he is the man who placed story as the main focus of J-RPG’s; for that fact only he must be revered. By doing so, he completely changed the way the genre was explored, giving a much need complexity to the basic “Dragon Quest” themed story: little boy saves princess from evil dragon. Though his stories might seem simple and somewhat dull today, they were progressive and innovative by the time they first appeared, and most of all, they were actual stories that were told by videogames, something unthinkable back in the 80’s.

Sakaguchi saw in games a mean of translating the most basic and powerful human feelings: the bound of friendship and family, the love for one’s nation, its core values, culture and philosophies. These themes are always conveyed in some way in his games, and though in earlier ventures they are treated a bit childishly, they usually have a significant emotional impact on the player. Sakaguchi’s tales of undying friendship and love manage to turn text and pixels into touching characters, stories and worlds, where imagination, fantasy and dreams become reality. It‘s never very deep or complex when compared to a movie or book, but at the time that was already a huge step forward for narrative in videogames.

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Of course, it helped that he had such great artists under his wings, like Nobuo Uematsu or Yoshitaka Amano. It’s also thanks to them that his stories have profound sentimental impact, and stimulate people’s imagination far beyond what crude abstract graphics could accomplish back in the day. Besides telling endearing stories, Sakaguchi also managed to go further in the ways of exploring narrative. Most likely influenced by Anime and Cinema, he became one of the fathers of in-game cutscenes, a concept far from being idealized by the time “Final Fantasy” appeared, let alone implemented in a game. These short story sequences, where characters would play out scenes like in a play, with appropriate music setting the tone, helped the story feel more like a fully fledged dramatic narrative, transmitting emotions and actions far more deep than the ones the player could interact with. Though not very important at the time of the first “Final Fantasies”, this ended up becoming a staple for every J-RPG.

Sakaguchi is as important to J-RPG’s as Tolkien is to fantasy novels; though there had been similar works before (“Dragon Quest”, “Ultima”), it took Sakaguchi to fully develop the potential of the genre. Its motifs, ideas and values are all consequence of this man’s thoughts and concepts. It is because of him that nowadays, nobody thinks of RPG’s as mere dungeon crawlers, but as larger than life fantasy adventures, filled with charming characters, deep plotlines and highly complex magical worlds. If games today can have narrative as its main driving force, then it’s probably because Sakaguchi’s made “Final Fantasy”; that’s his greatest legacy and the reason why he deserves all the praise the gaming world can give him.

Number 5 – Hiroya Hatsushiba

To start the list, an almost unknown developer: Hiroya Hatsushiba; in my opinion, he’s one of the genre’s great promises for the future. He is the director of 3 extremely interesting and, above all, innovative, different and stylish games: “Baten Kaitos”, its sequel, and “Eternal Sonata”. It might seem weird to put in such a small list a designer that has only directed three games, but that just serves the point, he’s that promising.

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Though the “Baten Kaitos” games had a series of shortcomings, like a somewhat clichéd plot, it had this huge amount of style and substance: a quirky card-based combat system, an epic storyline, high artistic and production values that rivaled the “Final Fantasy” series, and some of the craziest level design I’ve seen in a game (there were some crazy levels in that game, believe me). “Baten Kaitos” was a great game, not a masterpiece, but still, much, much better than most of the RPG’s I ever played.

But what really led me to put Hatsushiba on this list is “Eternal Sonata”. Though from a gaming perspective, the game didn’t try anything different, it did so in other areas. Besides the wonderful aesthetic visuals and music, “Eternal Sonata” featured a groundbreaking concept: to delve into the last dream of famous composer Frederick Chopin. Now, for a Japanese developer to create a whole game around an allegory surrounding the death of a famous Austrian composer is, by itself, completely insane. But this guy did it, and he actually made it into a good game! But if that wasn’t a big enough risk, he created a game with a plotline that doesn’t explain itself, that defies the player to interpret, analyze and question the story, its concepts, meanings and philosophical ramblings: for a game to even attempt this is nothing short of visionary. In my opinion, games need developers that try and push the envelope, that try to achieve higher ground on the artistic context, to evolve like other means have done before… developers like Hatsushiba.

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The complex storyline of “Eternal Sonata” is almost as profound as the Animes by Hideaki Anno (“Evangelion”), Masamune Shirow (Ghost in the Shell”) or Satoshi Kon (“Perfect Blue”), which just serves to show the huge amount of ambition of the game. If all RPG’s strived so high, the genre would clearly be much more interesting than it is today. So that’s why Hatsushiba is on this list: his games are different, fresh, ambitious and show a great deal of potential. He hasn’t been able to create his masterpiece yet: “Baten Kaitos” lacked a good plot and “Eternal Sonata” a good gameplay engine; but when he finally ends up fine tuning his skills… what day it’ll be for gaming.

Top 5 Japanese RPG developers

During last week, Gamasutra released their list for the 20 essential Japanese RPG’s and because of that, I decided to do something similar. But, keeping with the alternative tone of this blog, I thought it would be more interesting to analyze and commend the top 5 essential Japanese RPG creators/developers instead of the actual games. The reason I chose developers, instead of the games themselves is simple: (lead) game designers end up establishing the stylistic trends of their games to a far greater degree the actual franchise name, story or company name. That means they are responsible for the most important decisions that end up molding the game: their narrative tone, gameplay approach, overall art direction and even the game’s purpose for existence. Unfortunately, games are still a very immature means of expression, and because of that, most people in the business have little recognition (apart some of the more mediatic developers). Many people still attribute specific game styles to companies like Square or Enix, when in fact, that has much more to do with specific developers. As such, these posts serve a double purpose: review the best J-RPG developers, including their style and substance, and show the world a bit more about who these guys really are.

And so, onto the countdown…

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Bioshock – “Behold… Rapture!”

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“Bioshock”, like most art, is shaped from an idea, a message, a concept; in this case, it’s Rapture, an underwater dystopia molded by objectivist ideals. In this Jules Verne scenario, 20.000 leagues under the sea, Andrew Ryan (a captain Nemo like politician), after being fed up with government oppression, decides to build an entire underwater nation, where every “man is entitled to the sweat of his brow”. In his own private utopia, justice, religion, morals, ethics and any social considerations are absent, in favor of free commerce and free will as Universal Law. The result, as you can no doubt guess, is nothing but disastrous. Though at first, thanks to the lack of ethical boundaries, science, commerce and art bloom, after some time, everything goes haywire. The result is an underwater ghost city, filled with the monsters of Andrew Ryan’s objectivist dreams: a plastic surgeon that makes Picasso paintings out of women, a sculptor that makes art by molding human flesh, and a capitalist entrepreneur that is willing destroy an entire society, if only to be entitled “to the sweat of his brow”. Rapture is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most consistent, thought-provoking universes ever to grace a videogame. Written by none other than Ken Levine (“Thief, the Dark Project”, design and story, and writer of “System Shock 2”), this metaphor of modern capitalist America and nightmare of Ideological proportions, rightfully belongs in the same pantheon of dystopian masterpieces such as “1984”, “Farenheit 451” “Brave New World”, “Metropolis”, “Gattaca”, “V for Vendetta”, etc.

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The plot itself revolves around the discovery of Rapture by an unknown man, after his plane crashed in the middle of the Ocean. Controlled by the player, he will uncover Rapture’s dark past, by listening to the audio-logs of its inhabitants and by facing Andrew Ryan’s objectivist monstrosities. In the end, his quest will decide the fate of Rapture, according to the moral choices the player picks during the game. And though they might seem simple at first, if they’re taken seriously, they can add a whole level of dramatic impact to the unveiling of the plot, making it much more meaningful. The narrative tends to move slowly and usually tries to establish certain moods, allowing the player to immerse in the chaotic nature of Rapture, while at the same time, learning about its convoluted history. Curiously, few cutscenes are used, which ends up being both a blessing and a curse. On one side, you aren’t obliged to sit through important plot details (which I admit, might be boring to some), but on the other side, much of the dramatic potential of the plot feels wasted (it’s not by accident that people are most often moved by cutscene driven / cinematic games).

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What manages to counterweight the absence of cutscenes, is the sheer amount of detail and information that lies hidden in the art and music of the game. Posters, sculptures, flyers, songs, all have something to say about the world of Rapture, and whether you want to or not, you’ll apprehend a lot of sensorial information that might be otherwise hard (or annoying) to convey. Of course, this wouldn’t be that interesting if the Art Design or Music weren’t as good as they are. The fact is that “Bioshock”, besides featuring one of the best narratives to grace a game, also features one of the best art designs ever to appear in one; and this is, by no means, a shallow compliment. The virtuous art deco transforms every corridor, wall and painting into a beautiful work of art. The contrast between the cold, stark colors of the ocean and the flashy neon of Rapture’s buildings is the perfect testament to the designers’ capability of creating interactive paintings; every light, shadow and texture blends perfectly in the background, feasting your eyes and mind. Even small details, like the camera’s POV, were tweaked to get a particular sense of immersion and dread, contributing, in no small part, to the way the game should “feel”. Accompanying the visuals, a classical and jazz soundtrack by Garry Schyman fills in the immersion gap; whether it’s the 1920’s euphoric swings, or the moody piano ballads, every bit of music adds another dimension the player’s experience, making it a powerful means of inducing fear, claustrophobia, or just delivering some piece of information about Rapture’s spirit.

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Now, usually, in my reviews of more artistic games, every compliment has been said by the time I get to the gameplay section, which is where I commonly start “bashing”. Guess what? “Bioshock” is also grandiose on that regard. It takes the first person shooter / rpg hybrid mechanics of “System Shock 2”, removes the unneeded complications, and empowers certain abilities, creating the perfect blend of open-ended first person shooter. The player has at his disposal a great number of weapons and abilities (which he can level up), each with a particular context of use, allowing the player to choose his particular fighting style. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but in “Bioshock”, everything feels tweaked and balanced, to the point of making complex mechanics inherently fun to use, while most games, either simplify them too much, thus discarding the tactical nature of choices (“Crysis”), or complicate them to the point of being too obtuse to be fun (“Deus Ex”). Furthermore, special abilities, which range from fireballs to electric shocks, have special uses when the environment’s context is right, thanks to a physics engine that defines water as electric-conducting and oil as inflammable, making special abilities all the more amusing. Perhaps the only (minor) flaw I can find in this game (that can’t be regarded as nitpicking) is the sometimes overly hectic nature of the action; for the most part of the game, there is someone (or something) trying to kill you. The reason this comes out as a flaw is simple: “Bioshock” is beautiful, immersive, and mysterious, warranting exploration and attention to detail in order to sink in all the wonders of the game, but it is hard to do so, when you’re constantly fighting for your life. A more paced gameplay would definitely emphasize the more interesting aspects of the game, even if it would end up losing some appeal for the more trigger-happy players.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking, what about all the rant the game got? From the players who thought it was too easy or the naysayers that labeled “Bioshock” as “System Shock 2” “lite”? To the first group I’d answer this, if the game’s too easy, then play it in a harder difficulty and don’t use some of the helps the game gives, I mean, nobody forces the player to use the (absurdly famous) vita chamber (I sure didn’t). To the second group, I’d say this, if you think “Bioshock” is a dumbed down version of “System Shock 2”, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this in the first place. “Bioshock” is so much more than “System Shock 2”, especially in its story and art dimensions, that I have be blunt: anyone who can’t see the difference, either is completely blind and deaf, or just plain dumb (pardon my English).

It’s not hard to understand why someone like me, who looks upon games as an art form, would love “Bioshock” in every possible way. It’s one of the few games that actually wants, from the get go, to be regarded as much more than just a toy, or just a “game”. Its aesthetics are beautiful, its message is strong, intelligent and emotionally provocative, and it is an entertaining game on many levels. It is, by my definition, the perfect example of a perfect game, and one of the best works of art I’ve seen in the past year.

Overall: 5/5

Planescape Torment – “Undying Art”

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Imagine a place of infinite possibilities, where metaphor is reality and reality metaphor, a universe where belief molds the physical realm and where a single thought can *actually* change things… Welcome to “Planescape”. It is hard to better describe the “Planescape” universe (actually, it’s a multiverse, but we’ll get to that), one of the famous “Dungeons and Dragons” realms. At first glance, it might seem like a weird, freaky, half concocted world that pales in comparison with its renowned sibling, “Forgotten Realms”, but that would be a mistake: “Planescape” is infinitely more complex, thought-provoking and original than the “Tolkienesque” high-fantasy spin-off of “Forgotten Realms”. Oh, and it makes the perfect background for a great RPG.

It starts off with a simple idea: what if anyone could change, with will power alone, the universe? How would *that* look like? What rules and laws, of social and physical nature would exist? How would balance be obtained? Who would rule such a world and how? As you can see, the premise alone opens a whole universe of philosophical questions, which is a sign of the inherent complexity of “Planescape”. Besides the well built background, the story that unveils during the course of “Torment”, written by Chris Avellone (of “Fallout 2”, “Icewind Dale” and “Sith Lords” fame), is equally profound and intellectually stimulating. Not only that, it contains some of the most unpredictable and memorable twists ever to grace a videogame. And I do mean memorable.

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The narrative starts in a mortuary, where the main character, the “Nameless One” lies unconscious and completely amnesiac. Unsure of why he lies in a mortuary he starts to delve to into the “Hive” (the center of the multiverse) in search for clues about his past. He learns that he is, by some unknown reason, Immortal, a curse which he cannot fathom escape, even after millennia of trying. He then embarks on a journey to revive his memories, in order to understand the “why” and the “how” of his undying condition. He will meet many adversaries and companions that will help him regain knowledge of the multiverse and of his previous “incarnations”: different personas molded by different memories of the same man. In the end of his quest, lies a question: “What could change the nature of a man?” The answer is the key to the game’s plot. To find it, you will learn about the whole of “Planescape”, its many planes of existence (hence the name “multiverse”), its societies, cultures, philosophies and religions, and you will challenge powers greater than any mortal, such as Angels, Gods, and even… Death.

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The script is superbly well written. Its dialogues are witty, complex, intellectually stimulating and also have a unique feel, thanks to the use of a language specifically conceived for the game that incorporates 17th century English (complete with proper slang). The literary dimension is used to its fullest: many actions, situations and memories are only described via text; it’s great text, mind you, that allows your imagination to capture the full magnificence of the game’s environments. However, it is a shame that certain scenes don’t make use of an audio-visual language, such as cut-scenes, or even some sort of controlled artwork slideshow coupled with soundtrack, in order to enhance the sensorial dimension of the game’s literary nature. Because of this, “Torment” is a bit like an interactive book, which might displease the more trigger-happy gamers. On the good side of things, the narrative is truly interactive. Whether you want to be evil, killing all those whose stand in your way, or if you wish to make up to all the evil the Nameless One’s previous incarnations have caused in the past, it’s your choice. Your character’s alignment (following D&D’s classic divisions: Chaotic or Lawful, Neutral, Good or Evil), is entirely determined by your actions in the game. Unfortunately, there aren’t different endings, just many different paths to achieve the same goals, which for a 1999 game was more than enough to warrant the revolutionary status (“KotOR”, “Torment’s” spiritual follower, would only surface in 2003).

Aesthetically it is also a marvelous game, even if it still uses “Baldur’s Gate” dated 2D (Infinity) Engine. Recreating the complexity of the “Planescape” was definitely a challenge for the Art Department, but it paid off: the environments are dark, gloomy and dirty, meshing dark fantasy visuals, an industrial-revolution twist and some “Burtonesque” imagery (flying skulls anyone?), all of which give the visuals that edgy and freaky dimension. However, when the player leaves the center of the multiverse, the scenarios seem to lose quality, lacking the overall attention to detail of the previous backgrounds. It’s a shame, because it makes the exploration of the multiverse less awe-inspiring then what you’d expect, considering the descriptions you’ll read throughout the game. The sound has an equally broad mix of flavors; from beautifully orchestrated synthesizer melodies, to tribal rhythms, every sound blends perfectly with the visuals, adding one more layer to the uniqueness of the “Planescape” setting.

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Notice how I haven’t even touched the matter of gameplay? Can you guess why? Yes, it’s because the RPG “action” elements in “Torment” aren’t exactly as memorable as the rest of the game. They are, for the most part, completely forgettable. Basically, it plays out as a simplistic clone of “Baldur’s Gate”, e.g. classical turn-based AD&D rule-oriented gameplay. It’s dull, uninteresting, and it isn’t even tactical or challenging… it does encourage grinding and looting, which I, myself, would regard as downright wrong. On the good side, the immensity of side-quests helps the gameplay stay somewhat fresh and keep pace, making action all the more secondary in comparison to the game’s other facets.

If you can forget about the slumber-inspiring gameplay (and believe me, you will), you’ll find out that “Torment” is so grandiose, profound and unique, that you’ll be left without words to describe it. Its stories, ideas and characters we’ll linger in your memory, challenging your heart and mind to fully understand the magnificence of the game’s experiences… making you want to go back to the “Planescape” universe time and time again. Whether Chris Avellone knew it or not, “Torment” was his undying attempt at immortality through art. It succeeded.

Overall: 5/5