Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dust and Forgotten Time

Dust: An Elysian Tail
System: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Developer: Humble Hearts
NA Release: August 2012

“For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” 
– Hebrews 8:12, The Bible (KJV)

“And stop worrying about who you are! You're Dust! You hear me? I don't care who you were, I don't even care if you used to work with that General guy, because you're DUST now!” 
– Fidget, Dust: An Elysian Tail

Amnesia, while sometimes considered cliché, can be a very effective mechanic in games. A playable character with little or no memories starts the game on a similar level as the player: aware of a certain potential as you figure out what the heck you're doing.

Games relying on the loss or manipulation of memories are tasked with weaving the factor into an effective plot to keep it from clunking along as an obvious gimmick. Some titles, such as BioShock, manage to do this quite well. Dust: An Elysian Tail does it so well that to consider it as a gimmick almost feels insulting. Not only is the theme told around the titular character compellingly developed, it made me think of memories and the past in a light I had never considered: that dispelling them can sometimes be a gift.

The past holds importance, of course. It is a well from which we can draw knowledge brought through experience and recall mistakes we intend not to experience again. However, it is also possible to carry so much of the past with us that it turns from a guide to a burden.

When Dust wakes up unable to recall who he was, his identities and decisions lie entirely in the present. His only personal resources are his observations of the world around him and how they resonate within his core—as much a shattered mystery as that is. His only other influences are the opinions of his two companions, a talking sword and a chatty, bat-winged fluffball named Fidget.

Using these points, Dust ultimately chooses a righteous path, helping a world he only knows needs someone with the skills he possesses. And yet, it becomes clear early on that there is some form of darkness residing in his past and part of who he was. Would he have been unable to choose to jump into good had he awoken with his knowledge? Technically, no. That's impossible. We have free will to make personal choices that can not be tangibly controlled by what has already happened.

But still, if he had remembered...

This is the haunting nature of the past. The same mistakes and regrets we strive to learn from are also the ones that try to seep into our identities in the present. They breed doubts, fears and hesitation into choices that could otherwise be plainly made. Is this enough to atone for what I've done? Will they take me seriously? Am I a hypocrite? How would failing affect the future me?

We take events we can not change and fetter them to ourselves at the only time we are able to have any effect on the world whatsoever. And as significant as it feels to us to lay our lives out this way, it's a fool's endeavor. I know I've spent enough time milling about pieces of my past, putting them together and imagining I know how my life would be now if I had made one choice over another and lamenting this non-existent path. Of course, my real present never changes this way. If anything, it just makes me overly cautious and paralyzed when it comes time to make my next choices.

It's a hard habit to break, however. Even after Dust blazes a trail across the world of Elysian Tail, throwing his own life in danger to save many others, coming into the full scope of what he did in the past brings him his moment of greatest uncertainty and an instant dive into the mire of redemption. How could he have expected to redeem himself so quickly, he asks himself, as if his new deeds have to bury his old sins before they can count. It takes Fidget to snap him out of his way of thinking, basically screaming at him that the only thing that matters now... is now.

In a world that weighs everything against itself, it may feel flippant or even wrong to abandon our pasts “unatoned” or “unresolved” in order to give the present the concentration it deserves, but as Dust demonstrates, we are needed when we can make real change. True repentance is not “making up” for past wrongs, but turning your back on them toward a new path. True forgiveness is not deciding someone has compensated for their offenses, but treating them as though they had never committed them in the first place.

As we move on, we will have regrets. We will fail even when we thought we did what we should have done. We will even willingly choose wrong. That's all part of our identities as human beings we will never escape. Learn what you can, then leave it and move on. While we may not awake in a beautiful meadow every time, we still have the same gift that was bestowed upon Dust. Every second that slips into the past resets our chance to choose the right thing and become a new person.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Katawa Shoujo and Comfort Zones

Katawa Shoujo
System: PC
Developer: Four Leaf Studios
NA Release: January 2012

I admit this one took a while to get to.

When I learned about the game from a superb article on Hardcore Gaming 101 I was immediately on board. "This sounds groundbreaking!" I thought. "I must experience it!"

I downloaded the game, which is free, but then it just sat on my computer. I would glance at it occasionally, but go on to play something else instead. It's apparently much easier to grab the gun than to pull the trigger, and my initial excitement to play the game had stagnated enough that other thoughts began to creep in, not the least of which was how was I going to describe this to people when they asked about it.

"Oh, I'm playing this visual-novel-slash-dating-sim, but the twist is it's set at a school for the disabled! Wait, I know that sounds kind of hinky, but it's being treated seriously and--well, yes, there are sex scenes, but I'm telling you that the anonymous people from 4chan who made this game have really thought it through and--look, it's getting hard to talk to you with how deep this hole is gotten. Just let me keep digging and I'll be right back up with you in a jiffy!"

Curiosity eventually won out, however, and I'm glad it did. For 27 ways to Tuesday this sort of concept could have gone wrong, Katawa Shoujo does a lot of things right.

Those of you who know me may be all, "Ooh, I bet he went for the bubbly looking one with pink hair!" Well, you'd be wrong. I considered many other factors when making my decision. Also, she's not a persuable character.
The main concern with producing a story where your main characters have disabilities--or really any other sort of "minority" status--is the level of focus on which to approach them. Treat subjects too delicately and it almost feels like a form of discrimination in itself. Be too militant and you risk chasing your audience away with the Shame Stick. The latter was another reason I was initially hesitant about this game. I've seen enough shows and movies where the "lesson" comes in the form of the main character making an ass of him or herself and realizing how awful they've been to see others in a certain light. It may be the way some people really do learn, but it makes me horribly uneasy as a viewer. Heck, I always hated it when the Trix Rabbit was made to feel bad for just wanting some stupid cereal. There's a level of "live and learn" we all have to go through in life and the mistakes we make, but they're not always so blatant and exposed.

Katawa Shoujo, thankfully, seems to understand this and offers what I thought to be a very down-to-earth approach to the subject matter. The "playable" character, Hisao, finds himself having to attend his senior year at Yamaku High School and comes into contact with the five potential love interests, as well as supporting characters. The disabilities of these characters, which range from blindness and deafness to not possessing certain limbs, are never ignored yet never seem to fully define them. A strong personality has been built for each girl and the condition each faces physically only seems to be one part of what defines them. In my first playthrough, I ended up going down Emi's story arc not because she had prosthetic legs, but because she had promised to help Hisao with a running program that would help the heart condition he faces.

Emi Ibarazaki: The Fastest Thing on No Legs. The fact that it's she who calls herself that and laughs while doing so is a very liberating theme of this story.
Giving Hisao a disability of his own also strengthens the story by giving him a sense of vulnerability that is rarer in primary characters. Because his arrhythmia was discovered only recently, he lacks the time the others have had to come to terms with their disabilities. There are naturally some nuances he needs to figure out at this special school (for example, when communicating with a deaf and mute person when you don't know sign language, do you look at them or their interpreter when you talk?), but one of the biggest initial revelations he has to make is that he doesn't have to worry so much about everyone else's disabilities. "It's only a big deal if you make it one," a teacher confides with him, and most everyone gets along just fine as they are. In fact, at times it feels other characters are more concerned with how Hisao is adjusting to the changes in his own life. It's a brilliantly empathic way of drawing the player into this world without feeling like they're treading in socially taboo territory.

And, well, speaking of taboo, I guess I should address the adult content. As I said before, there are sex scenes with nudity and acts and... positions. That you see. It's difficult to say just how "hardcore" these are as my sensibilities tend to lie more on the prudish side. Maybe they're like an illustrated Fifty Shades of Grey? Well, I'm guessing about that. I wouldn't really know, haha! You can turn them off if you wish, skipping them entirely, and if you feel they would bother you I heavily suggest you do so because the warm and fascinatingly written story is still very much worth the experience. I guess you could say the scenes do fit into the story relatively well, though, if you feel that sort of thing happens a lot. They're pretty jarring when they start to happen, at least to me, but I guess the fact I find them way more uncomfortable than the the theme of disabilities is a big plus, so, uh...

Gah, where's my shovel? Just give Katawa Shoujo a try, remember to turn off the adult scenes if you want to, and maybe I'll have reached China by the time you're done.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Offroad Extreme and Being Special

Offroad Extreme! Special Edition
System: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Data Design Interactive
NA Release: November 2007

[NOTE: This post is part of the first Review a Bad Game Day. Witness others endure the horrors of gaming's mistakes at]

Mr. Rogers made it a point to say that everyone is special, and I'm certainly not going to argue with the legend. I will posit, however, that “special” does not always mean a grand thing. The Titanic was a special voyage, Ed Wood was a special director and Offroad Extreme! Special Edition is certainly a special gaming experience.

Even the cars look depressed to be in this game.

From what I've been able to find, Offroad Extreme! is a “special edition” because it's a port of a 2004 PS2 game updated with Wii remote tilt controls—for some reason at the expense of the original button controls. This is highly unfortunate as the motion controls are outright horrendous and almost seem selectively sensitive, choosing not to overreact to your tilting only when you're heading straight toward a yawning chasm. It's difficult to see why they couldn't have included both control schemes, but I like to imagine the discussion went something like this:

LACKEYS: Boss, we really need to put the button controls back in the game.
BOSS: But the motion controls are what make it special!
LACKEYS: That is technically true, sir. But, well, the motion controls are terrible!
BOSS: You're not understanding me, here. If we return the button controls, we give players the option to use them, yes?
BOSS: And if the motion controls are bad, players will use the button controls instead, yes?
BOSS: But the motion controls are what make it special!

The sad part is that Offroad Extreme! feels so lazily constructed as to have so little merit to deserve the moniker “special”... that it somehow manages to go full circle and madly becomes “special” again. A few more ways in which the game shines:

  • Your rival cars sounding like bees in a dryer at the starting line, which is about the only time you'll ever hear them as they eventually leave you to your wiggly-driving stupor—oh, except for the one or three that always relentlessly slam into you at the beginning and pin you mindlessly to the wall. It's like the developers could make AI for these cars, so they just programmed a brick onto their accelerators.
  • The apparent love of using a rain effect over the dull, brown, N64-quality courses, even though you never actually see the rain hit the ground, the sky often looks blue and sparsely clouded, and it does not stop raining when you enter a cave.
  • The way the announcer tells you to “Start your engines!” with just enough of a threatening tone as though he knows you're thinking of running.

  • How the camera will reverse angle when you try to back up from yet another slam into the wall but wont always return to facing frontward when you hit the gas again, often turning the simplest of maneuvers into that underground tunnel cart scene from Austin Powers.
  • The collectable dollar signs that litter the tracks like a poor rapper's Geocities page and are all worth exactly one dollar. What did you get for fighting busted controls, crappy physics and broken cameras for three laps? $27! Extreme!
  • If you take too much damage, which is nigh guaranteed, your vehicle explodes into an cheaply overlayed fireball animation of Birdemic-caliber laughability—twice. I can't actually cite this one as a fault, though. I could never find myself able to change one poorly rendered piece of this glory.

It is bad enough to face the cheap, unplayable pile of shame that is Offroad Extreme! Special Edition, but it's especially egregious to know this was all part of the now defunct Data Design Interactive's (DDI) business model. Wanting to take advantage of the growing family and casual markets, the company squeezed out as many abominations of gaming as it could, sacrificing any semblance of quality in an apparent attempt to take advantage of novice gamers' ignorance. They even copied and pasted large swaths of code in what they called their GODS engine to speed the process, making their games figuratively inbred.

But do you know what the worst part of this sordid legacy is for me? It's not that DDI helped pox the reputation of the Wii as a shovelware system, nor even the fact a bunch of kids got screwed over on birthdays and Christmases by well-meaning family members who were suckered into buying malfunctioning dreck. Those are certainly bad, but what outright haunts me is that Mr. Rogers was right: everyone is special, dammit, and there could have been some specially talented designers working for DDI.

We laugh at and pan shovelware, and that's often healthy. But there could've been people just trying to find a foothold to get noticed who ended up strapped down by the paltry budgets and push-it-out-the-door timetables of a company that was in too much of a hurry to milk another buck out of an unsuspecting grandma to take the time to make sure IT STOPS RAINING IN CAVES. These people's time and talents could have been wasted, and now they have pangs of hesitation and regret every time they think of writing “Data Design Interactive” on their resumes.

It is my great hope that, if this rings true for anyone, they are working at a place where the true meaning of “special” is known and acknowledged.