Tag Archives: Persona 3

Opinion – It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel bored

The world ends with lazy plot devices

Saving the world.  We’ve all done it.  Whether it’s from the clutches of an evil villain or from absolute destruction brought on by an evil meteor, saving the world is a regular part of video games.  Sadly, it’s also an incredibly unsatisfying part.  Oftentimes, the “save the world” ending feels like a tacked on obligation rather than a compelling feature of the narrative.  Even good games (Persona 3 comes to mind) can’t seem to make it work, yet developers always add it in.  Why?  Because it’s safe.

The end of a video game is the culmination of what a developer did, and didn’t do, throughout their game.  If they’ve created complex characters, a compelling narrative, and an interesting world, then the end of the game is the chance for the developer to bring it all together in a satisfying way.  If the story isn’t strong, then the developer must shove the story to a satisfying conclusion without the materials to make it really shine.  Either way, the end of the world mechanic serves the end game’s purpose.  It brings the game to a close.

Destroying the world should be viewed as a quick grab for the player’s emotions.  As most of the things the player cares about are in the world, threatening said world means that the odds are good that the developer is threatening something the player cares about.  Whether it’s puppies, children, or rainbows, the world ending…ending allows the player to invest some kind of emotion into the game by threatening everything and hoping something connections.  The problem is that it’s far too general.  People do care about the aforementioned things and more, but they’re very poor at caring about nonspecific variations of those things.  We would all help an old man struggling up some stairs, but we won’t donate 5 bucks to a charity helping Syrian refugees not die.  Still, even this minimal level of emotion establishes a floor to which the gamer’s emotional investment won’t drop below.  It ensures that every scrap of connection between the player and the game are marshalled to bring about the conclusion.  This is obviously appealing for games with weak stories that need all the help they can get.  If they threaten everything, then the player is sure to care about something, right?

The world ending approach also works for better constructed stories.  If the developers successfully build an emotional link between the player and their narrative, then the threat to everything is a more potent one.  Even then, it rarely has the same impact of the other plot points addressing the specific parts of the game that the players’ care about.  In Persona 3, the destruction of Earth felt hollow compared to the trials of the individual students.   Developer Atlus spent time developing the students as characters worth caring about and so players invested in those characters.  When the world is threatened, the concern is less about the billions dead and civilization’s ruin and more about how these individuals cope with the end.  The end of the world still establishes that safety baseline of emotion, but it contrasts poorly with the better fleshed out stories sprinkled throughout the rest of the game.

The only time saving the world matters is when the world/galaxy/universe matters.  When a developer takes the time to connect the player with the world they’re developing, then threatening that thing has more impact.  The player cares if it disappears because they care about the environment they’ve been inhabiting.  They aren’t viewing the world through generic concerns or other aspects of the narrative, but rather caring for the thing being threatened on its own merits.  Mass Effect does this brilliantly by involving the player in a richly developed universe with a myriad of stories.  Threatening the universe matters in Mass Effect because the universe matters.

If I could sum it up, I’d say that the ending of a game matters when it focuses on the things that the players invest in.  Saving the world is a narrative shotgun blast in hopes of hitting some of those things, but it can’t make up for a games worth of inattention.  If developers want their endings to have meaning, they have to lay the groundwork before the curtain call.

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Opinion – Final Boss Success

I must have been tempting fate.

Remember when I said the boss of Persona 3 met most of my criteria for a bad final boss fight?  It proved it this week.  After fighting for an hour and having a relatively easy time, the last boss reached 25% life and dropped a final attack that wiped out my party at nearly full health.  ISN’T THAT FUN???

Obviously, it’s not.

Having just gone through an example of a terrible final boss, I feel it’s time to identify what a good final boss looks like.  Final bosses are an awesome opportunity to put a satisfying ending on a game that the player may have invested tens of hours into.  It can be the ultimate moment of closure for an epic storyline.  In short, final boss fights have considerable potential.  Here are a few ways to take advantage of it:

Reflect the story of the game

Developers often feel the need to have a major boss battle as the conclusion to their game and there is something appealing about one final duel against all odds.  Unfortunately, that may not organically mesh with the game’s story.  Not all enemies are super-powered villains who destroy worlds and provide challenges to elite groups of warriors, yet some games try to jam them in anyway.  Consider the end of Wolfenstein: The New Order.  The final fight is against Totenkopf, a maniacal Nazi scientist.  To make Totenkopf a challenge for the player, they stick him in a giant mech suit reminiscent of mechaHitler from the first game.  Nothing up to this point suggests that Totenkopf has any great skill piloting a mech, nor that he wouldn’t be better off handing the controls to a trained henchmen, yet that is how he’s presented as the final boss.  Wolfenstein would have done better to play to Totenkopf’s established skills rather than invent a martial persona which clearly didn’t fit.  The end boss fight feels tacked on because it is out of character with the character as he’s been portrayed up until that point.  Of course, if a video game has set up the final boss as a destructive warrior, then it would do well to ensure he is one when the fighting starts.

Minimize frustration

Too often do developers confuse difficult with frustrating.  Bosses have a myriad of special attacks, absorb tons of damage, and always seem to have another form.  A good final boss fight shouldn’t have the player tearing out their hair.  Developers should minimize random elements that deny player skill and avoid overlong attacks or cutscenes.  If a developer insists on a long fight, then it ought to facilitate restarting that boss fight should the player fail.  Nothing destroys the mood of a final boss by having to restart a long sequence all over again.  In short, the fight should be a test of skill, not patience.

Build on the game

Most games have a signature mechanic or story that helps define the game within its genre.  Unfortunately, most games also have a final boss that ignores that element in favor of brute strength and endless repetition.  Persona 3’s final boss is a perfect example.  Until that point in the game, the player exploits enemy vulnerabilities to gain extra attacks and win fights.  The final boss, on the other hand, has no vulnerabilities.  The developer completely ignored the defining battle mechanic of the game in the service of avoiding an “easy” boss fight.  Instead, we get a boss that could fit into any RPG.  It would have been better if the developer could have used the skills the player already learned to create a unique and memorable boss.

It doesn’t have to be long or hard to be epic

The end fight of Saboteur has the player fighting their way to the top of the Eiffel tower in pursuit of a vile Nazi commander.  After killing the last guards, the player finds him waiting next to a ledge.  The game slows down and the player shoots the commander with the glittering city of Paris as the backdrop.  The fight wasn’t long, the battle wasn’t difficult, but the end imparted a sense of completion and grandeur that a thousand bloated fights couldn’t match.  Game endings can achieve superior conclusions without demanding time and skill from the player.  If the preceding game sets the whole event up, then sometimes a boss fight needs nothing more than a well-conceived shot to make a memorable end.   Give the player credit for all they’ve done up until this point and don’t demand more if you don’t need to.

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Opinion – This looks familiar: Replay edition

You can never go home again…unless you reload.

I am about to complete my second run through of Persona 3.  Staring down the barrel of a stupid final boss fight (it violates just about all of these rules), I’d like to look back at why I started on this path in the first place.  After all, the Persona 3 is a ridiculously long game and I’ve already beaten it once before.  The broad answer is that the game still gives me something that I want to experience.  The more specific answer is as follows.

Persona 3 has nothing to offer that it didn’t have the last time around.  The game is still very linear with the same enjoyable cast and collection of stories drawing from all walks of Japanese life.  As someone who tires quickly of the same experience, I usually find it difficult to go back to RPGs and relive the old storylines that I often remember.  Persona 3 gets around this by being big.  The huge narrative draw, the vignettes surrounding the main NPCs, are difficult to do in a single run through and therefore represent new content to explore.  The size of a game allows it to include content that most players will need to revisit if they hope to see it all.  Coupled with the high quality of the content I have seen, Persona 3 makes a compelling case to return to the game and see what I missed.

JRPGs is one of the worst genre subtypes for replayability, but there are some that specialize in it.  Strategy games, be they turn-based or real-time, are excellent at providing long term replayability.  They do this by eschewing linear, static content in favor of static gameplay elements that can be recombined in a plethora of ways.  Consider a game like Civilization V.  The civilizations, technology, terrain types and much more are carried across games unchanged, yet the game is infinitely replayable.  This is because it mixes its elements up to produce drastically different results in each playthrough.  A player may be a strong maritime power in one game and engage in cultural domination in the next.  They may rush towards economic techs to shore up a weak economy or ignore them in another game thanks to abundant gold resources.  The options are limitless.  Of course, this only works if powerful game elements are randomized.  If one method of success dominates the game, regardless of the situation, then it’s effectively a linear game.  This concept hurt Beyond Earth as the player just turtled to victory in every game.

A heavy skill game can also keep things fresh.   For a certain type of player, the ability to learn a game inside out and see that knowledge make them a better player provides plenty of reason to continue on.  The new part of the game comes from the player’s continual striving to master every aspect of the game.  While some players need only the basic game to continue on, many prefer to match themselves up against human opponents.  With the inclusions of leaderboards or match play, the player now has a metric by which they can measure themselves against.  Unless they’re in first place, there is always someone who’s better and represents another level of unattained success.  Furthermore, human opponents are more likely to craft new strategies that were not conceived of by the player or the developer.  Introducing competition provides a continual stream of new content.

The above tend to be the major motivators for me.  What drives you to play a game again?  What is your favorite game to replay?

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Opinion – Balancing for Goodness!

Back off, I’m right on the edge.

In my sickness enforced downtime, I spent a lot of time with the Playstation 2 classic, Persona 3: FES (It’s still awesome.  Go check it out).  I recently ran across the mid boss, Sleeping Tables, (Enemy names are still ridiculous.  Still go check it out.) who proceeded to annihilate my party.  After several attempts resulting in my quick and ignominious death, I consulted online guides who helpfully informed me that he was going to murder me.  Sleeping Tables is an example of a poorly balanced boss fight.  He does tons of damage, ignores previous strategies, and has no effective means of dying except luck for the players.  This got me thinking: what are some of the challenges in balancing difficulty?

The first and most difficult problem is player skill.  Players come from a wide variety of skill levels that don’t align on a single scale (good to bad), but reflect the player’s competencies at a number of tasks.  Some player’s may have excellent twitch skills while others are great at formulating strategies.  Double Fine’s recent release, Hack n’ Slash, relies on coding ability beyond the average gamer’s experience. When building a game, it’s hard to imagine what the typical gamer looks like in terms of jumping, dodging, attacking, puzzle solving and the tons of other tasks that games ask the player to perform.  This gets even more complicated when the developer tries to modify these skills along the previously mentioned sliding scale.  Inherent in the concept of an easy, medium, or hard mode is the notion that, what each mode changes, specifically addresses the skills of players.  If easy mode allows players to take more damage, then it might have zero effect on a player who dies to instant death jumping puzzles.  After all, absorbing ten extra bullets doesn’t save the player from falling into a chasm of doom.

Past decisions also matter in establishing difficulty.  Many games allow player decisions to carry across sections of gameplay.  In some of the grand RPGs, player actions may result in the death of a character or the developing of a certain skill tree.  If that character is then vital to defeating a boss or the skill tree is weak against an enemy, then the player is boxed in by their previous choices.  Developers must account for the many ways players play their games and be even more cautious with end game material that could require the player to replay the whole game if they made the “wrong” choice in the beginning.  This also effects the smaller decisions.  Standard FPS games, not known for carrying choices across the game, still have smaller decisions that can have major effects on player difficulty.  Everything from gun choice to positioning on a map can make a game harder or easier.  Getting pinned behind a wall make one fight unwinnable while taking a sniping position atop the rafters make the same fight a pathetic turkey shoot.

Size also matters.  The longer a game is, the more likely the developer is to include new elements that test the player’s skills and strategies in new ways.  This creates ever more scenarios that the developer will need to test to ensure the appropriate difficulty.  Size of the game also makes the difficulty harder to test.  In the original God of War, one of the final stages had the player climbing up a series of pillars with blades attached.  The pillars rotated and the goal was to both climb up and avoid the moving blades.  Unfortunately, the God of War developers ran out of time and were unable to test that section.  As a result, an impossibly hard challenge made its way in, much to the chagrin of many a God of War player who was staring enviously at the end.  Of course, the developer should have fully tested their game, but the size of the game makes it hard to check every aspect of it, particularly with limited resources.

Finally, developers and testers have a deeper knowledge of a game than the vast majority of their players.  Not only do they program every aspect of their creation, but they also play it to test out these changes.  This means that developers and testers are approaching their game with far more practice and knowledge than their players will have.  It’s hard to divorce yourself from your knowledge and easy to forget that an “easy” jump wasn’t so “easy” the first 20 times you tried it.  By the time a game ships, that jump has probably been tried thousands of time.

There are a ton of challenges when trying to balance a game.  It helps if the developer can a) get fresh eyes on near finished code and b) has a clear understanding of their target demographic.  Fresh eyes allow the developer to understand how a new player would approach a game without the benefit of many playthroughs.  Understanding the target demographic gives the developer an idea of who will play their game, and what level of skill they bring to the table.  Even then, it’s hard to get the difficulty just right.

….but Sleeping Tables is still going to die.

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Opinion – Adding depth to characters

How to make annoying characters less annoying

If there is one area that video games dominate the cultural landscape, it is the creation of flat, heroic characters whose story arc is effectively “was heroic and weak, now is heroic and strong with smoldering rage.”  I’ve already mentioned this in the form of Aveline de Grandpre, but it could easily apply to any other lead in a large number of main franchises.  What is most surprising is how easy it is to mitigate some of the damage of this archetype.  Giving characters range is not all that difficult, particularly given the low base from which most video games start.

The perfect example of this is the four main leads of Bravely Default.  This is a fantastic JRPG that I probably won’t review but that you should definitely play.  Seriously, it’s good stuff.  That being said, the characters are hardly original.  The game opens with Tiz and Agnes who represent the “young heroic lad who does his best” and “young heroic lass who doubts herself” character types that dominate the JRPG landscape.  These characters have been done to death, yet Bravely Default makes them tolerable.  It does so through the introduction of Edea and Ringabel who, combined, bring the only spark of personality to the group.  When I say spark, it really is just a tiny bit.  Both characters are hopelessly noble, but they each have a trait that gives them something extra.  Edea is headstrong while Ringabel is a horndog.  Of such things, dreams are made.

The traits I’ve cited aren’t a lot, but even these small additions improves the other characters.  Through Edea and Ringabel acting out their one trait, Tiz and Agnes are forced to react giving them a greater feeling of depth.  When Ringabel pushes Agnes to wear a skimpy outfit to win a beauty contest, Agnes’s nobility becomes prudishness.  When Edea tries to romantically link Tiz and Agnes, Tiz becomes a naïve innocent.  This helps humanize them and gives them characteristics that the player can emphasize with.  Your average gamer will never know the pain of losing their home or bravely soldiering on after great tragedy, but they can certainly relate to pushy friends and awkward romance.  Kept in their own world, Tiz and Agnes would remain isolated and bland.  Only when they interact with deeper characters do they develop actual relatable traits.

This is still not ideal.  The fact that I’m pushing for a semblance of humanity rather than two or, *gasp*, three actual human characteristics shows how far video games have to go.  When character development is done right, it shines.  Persona 3 & 4 are perfect examples of this.  Most of the characters, including the supporting cast, are multidimensional with relatable problems.  Highlights include a child whose parents are divorcing, a young man facing death, and a business mogul looking to leave a legacy.  Note that these are actual problems held by actual people who play these games.  If Bravely Default and other video games are looking to add depth to their characters, this is a good place to start.

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