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Video games

The conundrum of Shadow of the Eternals

I am a huge Eternal Darkness fan. I have written about it extensively, and it remains one of the most beloved titles in my collection – one I return to and replay frequently. I have an in-depth knowledge and intense admiration for a title that employed a unique storytelling method and remains a memorable and engaging title each time I play it. It was this narrative detail that I appreciated about Eternal Darkness most of all, combined with the rare inclusion of a intelligent and powerful female lead character.

But the announcement of Shadow of the Eternals feels like a direct challenge to me and to those of us that admire Eternal Darkness so highly. As if after all our years of bleating for any sort of followup, we are now challenged to put our money where our mouth is.

Now the day has finally arrived, it’s left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable though.

Eternal Darkness nostalgia as a tool

Any crowd-sourcing attempt to generate funds relies on an element of trust. This is evident in any equivalent Kickstarter project. I’ve been asked frequently upon the announcement of Shadow of the Eternals if I trust Precursor Games with my money. Fans of Eternal Darkness are left to wonder if proof of concepts and videos are enough given the history of the team and the complexity regarding Precursor’s creation.

While I agree the episodic format does suit the narrative structure of Shadow of the Eternals in some way, the project has probably been justified in this way in order to minimise the risk and cost of development, it’s not likely to be about the narrative structure at all, without wishing to be too negative. I’m not thrilled with many examples of episodic game content, but that’s just my personal preference talking.

What I’ve seen of the game so far seems to retread the path of Eternal Darkness homage too carefully. In its demo I recognise moments from Eternal Darkness in a way that almost disappoints. Concepts, sounds and scenes lifted straight from the original game rather than building on the ideas it inspired in any measurable way. Hints of moments that look exciting or promising, brushed away by another detail too close to what I know already.

This repetition contradicts my adoration for Eternal Darkness in some ways. Some people would be content with more of the same with its spiritual successor. I worry that Shadow of the Eternals will rely too heavily on the nostalgic content of Eternal Darkness rather than the potential of how the ideas it inspired could be expanded on further.

Can Shadow of the Eternals really capture what made Eternal Darkness so great?

It wasn’t so much of the psychological horror elements of Eternal Darkness that I really enjoyed (such as the much-lauded sanity effects) it was actually the unique story telling method. The idea of story as legacy, told in relay. It was all about messages and warnings passed through history from character to character. The moments that broke the fourth wall to use the player as the vessel for the narrative were also particularly dazzling.

This is why the premise of Shadow of the Eternals on paper is intriguing, even if it the idea has been a little tainted unintentionally. Interestingly, Nintendo still hold the original IP rights to Eternal Darkness, so it remains to be seen quite how much of the original title’s concepts can realistically be filtered through, and how much will have to be recreated from scratch, I imagine  it’ll pan out to be a game laden with a reliance on knowing references, and fit for purpose renaming conventions, but I only have what I’ve seen so far to go on.

This whole idea boils down to brand recognition, by name checking Eternal Darkness, Precursor Games have opened up their title to the intensity of fan fervour, by distancing themselves from their previous employer they alert the attentions of those same devotees who grow quietly suspicious of a good concept soured by a lack of explanation of how this all this came to be. A very tricky combination to conquer.

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Video games

A plea for more online cross region play

I am an advocate of local co-operative gaming. I’ve talked about how important it is numerous times before. Ironically it is this way to play multiplayer games that has undoubtedly led to the decisions surrounding Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s online play being region locked.

This is because the primary audience for Monster Hunter in Japan play plays completes most of their hunting sessions locally. I’d agree that is the optimum way to play that particular game, but not everyone gets that opportunity.

Online play was touted on the Wii U version as a bit of an afterthought, a concession to a Western audience who had become used to playing the series online since the popularity of Monster Hunter Tri (and the original Monster Hunter on the PS2 long before that).

My hopes were not high about Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate having region-free online play (particularly since Monster Hunter Tri didn’t), but it has led me to question the culture of region-locked online play when it’s considered an industry standard on any other hardware.

Supposed technical limitations

No reasons have been given about why cross-region play has been avoided for this version of Monster Hunter, but I suspect the following it’s due to a combination of connection speed and the culture of communication.

Monster Hunter is a game requiring precise movement and reaction, timing is indeed key, and particularly at higher levels can mean life or death. A good connection is important but certainly not the to the degree needed for a competitive FPS game. Contrary to some hunters I have spent an extensive amount of time playing Monster Hunter Portable 3rd with the Japanese Monster Hunter community, connection speed has seldom been a problem.

I propose then that this decision may have been made to make the issue of communication between different regions that much easier.

Not only would cross-region play need more robust servers able to make numerous connections from hundreds of different locations, but this sort of online play would need some communication tools. Auto translate features that a Japanese audience wouldn’t need and wouldn’t be considered for their local version.

Incorporating these features would mean localisation for several different languages needed to be inherent in all versions of the game, in order to allow people to collaborate easily. This is before looking at the issue of voice chat, which is increasingly common.

If auto translate and communication between regions is to be taken seriously, it needs to be considered from the ground up as part of a games inception. Sounds too much like hard work? I’d like to propose another option.

Waiting around after a completed hunt.All dressed up and ready to hunt.

How global play games can work without communication

Being a gamer in Europe, many of the games I have played online over the years have been with people I cannot understand. Be it in French, German, Spanish, Italian or Japanese. Has this hampered my gaming experience? If anything experiencing a game with a completely different audience has broadened it.

The closest sensation I can equate it to is playing Journey – when normal communication methods are removed, people find other ways to display or describe what they want to say. Be it singing notes in a pattern or drawing hearts in the snow.

Gamers generally in my experience don’t mind someone who cannot communicate or understand their language. This is overpowered by the intrinsic need to play. People only mind if you are competent at your chosen game, and if you make an effort to gesture to thank someone or praise them at the right time, and most of these concepts can be covered by in-game gestures, simple English or emoticons.

Play a game you love with someone else you cannot speak a word to and gamers find a way to use their own in-built knowledge of the game to make anyone who cannot speak their native tongue feel included.

Isn’t the entire point of the internet to connect people? Boxing us into historical gaming regions breaks up those of us who have connected with people outside of our own country. Perversely we find ourselves in situations where we can talk together entirely freely online, but cannot experience certain video games together.

A 3 player game in Phantasy Star Online.Buying items from the Final Fantasy XI auction house, with added auto translate.

Cross region collaborative games can work

I’ve spent a good amount of time experiencing the very best examples of cross-region and auto translate support. Phantasy Star Online is the yardstick by which all my other collaborative games are judged against and sadly for Capcom it managed cross-region support, collaborative play and auto-translate back in 2000 and on dial-up no less.

Crucially it’s symbol chat experience allowed people to create their own ways to celebrate or warn people by using cards and sounds to display concepts or help. Interestingly it also had optional region-based servers for people who preferred to play with people from their country, or in their own language.

For the most part though people mingled, for the short time the Dreamcast and later Gamecube versions were really alive it really felt like a universal game, a melting pot of language and play.

Final Fantasy XI took things a step further, as a party of six adventurers were always needed to complete missions or defeat monsters. Auto translate in this game was robust enough for you to have simple conversations with someone, highlighted to show you were using this option, and automatically translated into the language of all the other players around you. It was this system that allowed me to not only party, but understand and thank the numerous Japanese players I partied with over the years in the game.

Perhaps next time?

With Capcom working with Nintendo to host the online play for this game, either party could have made the decision to allow cross region play in Monster Hunter for the first time, they could have done this easily by setting aside a few ships specifically for multi region play, but for whatever reason they didn’t. I only hope this is a mistake they don’t make again.

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Video games

Sometimes gaming is too much like hard work

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t days where I detest video games. Days where the idea of playing something seems like too much like hard work. Lots of gamers like to pretend this feeling doesn’t happen, that gaming encourages overwhelming positive emotions and feelings every single day in a completely unending wave.

The days where this normally happens now are on days where I’m tired, swamped with commitments, and sometimes (just sometimes) an interactive medium seems too much like hard work. On days like this video games becomes another mountain to climb rather than an avenue to let me unwind.

It is very much a symptom of adulthood, not only finding the time to play games, but sometimes it goes as far as finding the energy to be inspired by them.

Days where I lack focus

I can’t dabble with games in the way I used to when I was a child. I’m simply unable to indulge in wiling away hours playing and experimenting in excited calm (like I used to). Often my gaming sessions now are very short and very focused, towards the end of the day when I am most tired and have the least patience.

As such the limited time I have to play games has a greater chance to frustrate me in some small way. The time limit renders me unable to make a great deal of progress with a game that needs more care, attention and time that I can perhaps provide that day.

I almost always turn the corner on feelings like this, but it’s important to talk about those days where no game seems to sate me. I’ve used Tombi as an example to illustrate this update. Not because it’s a bad game (it’s actually a favourite of mine). Although this month of gaming indifference has morphed it from a source of total joy and into one of frustration. As such it sums up the dangerous result of my temporary exhaustion with gaming nicely.

Tombi is a game I was highly excited to finally own a proper copy of, a games whose arrival I anticipated for years, whose genius has been partially ruined by my temporary (and perhaps) seasonal disinterest in games.

This feeling will pass and I’ll find a reason to get excited about gaming again (in a few weeks or less) but in the meantime I am pushing onwards through the game hoping the spark will leap back soon. I am certain it will because it is a game I have had the pleasure of playing at least once before.

Getting beaten up in the jungle.Attempting to bag a pig boss.

A tired frustration

It seems almost too easy to blame the games we play on days like this for our lack of focus and commitment. However we are equally responsible for the discontent, and the lack of focus. It’s also really easy for others to dismiss such feelings away by encouraging ourselves to try another game.

I personally find when I feel like this that I carry this feeling into every game I attempt to play. Turning even the most precious and appreciated game against me like some sort of horrible mirror.

So a vicious circle builds where I can’t progress past these feelings. I’m fearful to leave games on a bad moment as this makes it harder to return and try again. During these “push on through” moments, my precious gaming time instead becomes a frustrating exercise in time lost and lack of progression.

While I often have a reason to be frustrated about an aspect of my time with video games, I’m frequently reminded of how beguiling gaming is, how quickly it can change my mood, swing me back and forth between adoration and scorn. I take my (rare) moments of disinterest in gaming as one of the few negatives I identify with the pastime.

Part of this is down to the wealth of games we have now, a lack of time and patience from the pressures of adult life, but also how spoilt we can be as gamers. Demanding a good experience as if it were a right rather than a privilege.

I’ve talked about how chronic illness has forced me to use video games as a coping mechanism, now it seems apt to talk how it’s building a sense of resentment on the days where I am sick and video games provide no respite. There are days I resent games for not helping me to escape from illness. However I do feel guilty for expecting them to do this, as I start to use them to cover up my own poor health and inadequacies.

More often than not though these feelings are an indication that I need to take a break from gaming for a couple of weeks and come back to it bright-faced, because games will always excite me and this temporary loss of how they do, just serves to remind me.

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Video games

Revisiting old places – the art of location nostalgia

I recently completed my first playthrough of Borderlands 2. I steeped high praise on the first game and greatly anticipated its second outing. The moments I enjoyed the most from Borderlands 2 though were it’s knowing nods to the first title.

Both Borderlands 1 and 2 succeed in creating a very well-realised sense of place. Borderlands 2 builds on this idea, by creating memorable and heartfelt links back to the first games setting, allowing the player to go back and explore how the game world has changed.

I call the feeling this provokes, location nostalgia.

A memorable example

There’s something really special about returning to locations from previous games. Particularly where a significant amount of in-game time has passed. The times where this is most effective is when a number of real life years have passed also. Say the difference in time between the original game and its successor. The most memorable experience I have of this revolutionary location nostalgia is inadvertently discovering the ruins of Nupraptor’s Retreat in Soul Reaver.

Nupraptor's Retreat as featured in Blood Omen.The large, fallen skull in Soul Reaver.

The retreat itself is a very memorable building. Unmistakable to any old fans of the Legacy of Kain series. In Blood Omen Nupraptor resides in a huge skull resting at the top of a waterfall. It’s an awe-inspiring moment in the game, as you reach the jawbone of this massive skull (while playing as the vampire Kain) peering out of the enormous glass windows that are its eyes. You go there to seek revenge for Kain from one of the Guardians of the pillars who requested the murder that led to Kain’s damnation.

What makes this location even more impressive is finding the fallen ruins of this skull many hundreds of years later in the sequel – Soul Reaver. The skull has fallen from the resplendent perch it once sat at, and is the perfect metaphor for the decline of the world of Nosgoth under Kain’s rule. The malevolent rule that you perhaps encouraged through your playthrough of the first title.

Including Nupraptor’s retreat in Soul Reaver was a master stroke. A simple location device which had a broader and massive significance to those lucky enough to experience Blood Omen’s remarkable story at the time. It was just as impressive playing the game in reverse order – with Soul Reaver being the first Legacy of Kain game that many of us played. I remember the beautiful epiphany I had upon reaching Nupraptor’s Retreat in Blood Omen and realising what it would become. I had seen the future of this game world, seen the devastation my decisions in Blood Omen would reap upon the world, and upon the character of Raziel.

The view looking out towards the gate to Fyrestone.A closed up shop.

Examples in Borderlands 2

The location reuse in Borderlands 2 was far more subtle, but just as effective. Five years have passed in the game world, and three years since we had played the series for the first time. We’re reminded of what came before partly through interacting with the cast of the last game, but also from the settings of the games last quarter, where you return to the places where your original adventure began.

Borderlands 2 rewards those lucky to have experienced the first game fully by easing them back into the starting areas of the first game – including the Arid Badlands and Fyrestone. Veterans of the series can see how these areas have deteriorated or changed under Hyperion rule.

You see Piss Wash Gully where you first grabbed a vehicle, and did your first vehicle jump (now surrounded by a purple slag lake). You return to the site of the Fyrestone shops (now closed and abandoned). You return to T.K Baha’s house to find out more about his background (and find some secrets). You find the original town sign and gate where you defended the original Claptrap from your very first wave of enemies.

The jump at Piss Wash Gully.The entrance gate to Fyrestone.

It’s a wonderful, nostalgic moment in gaming for anyone who appreciated the first game hugely, and crucially it’s reverence is not completely lost on new audiences. You’re informed of the events of the previous games, by playful nods to 2.0 versions of the bosses that were fought there, or echo transmissions which explain the context of the location.

It’s a perfectly pitched moment, and a fitting conclusion to the narrative ties of the first game. It’s a swan song to both the adventure you’re having now (by its inclusion late in the game) and the adventure you had before. These are the hallmarks of really successful location design, they lodge in the memory and inspire a particular feeling. This feeling is improved by the future and successive nods to those past, great locations.

I’m always impressed by game designers that decide to use this technique, its a nice treat to your existing fanbase, and an encouragement to those new to the series to go back and better understand the references for themselves.

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Video games

A recent history of cross platform play

The latest version of a western Monster Hunter Game was announced recently to almost universal excitement. Monster Hunter fans have been waiting for a new game to get excited about for the best part of two years.

One of the concepts for Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate that’s getting people most excited though is the cross-compatiblity between the Wii U and 3DS versions of the game. While this isn’t a new premise, it’s something we’re seeing more and more of for multiplayer led games.

Cross compatibility and a strong Monster Hunter History

Two other games in the last two years have announced similar handheld gaming support for the console or PC based game. Tellingly the first to do this was Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s predecessor Monster Hunter Portable 3rd. It did so for many of the same reasons. To enable simple multiplayer access through the PS3 version of the game and to provide an HD mode to make the original game look and sound better.

For many it’s become the de-facto way to experience that game. While I love Monster Hunter I’m finding it harder to play it single player for long stretches with a handheld. Compatibility between a console and handheld version of the game allows you to experience the best of both worlds. Relaxing with the game at home for the bulk of your journey, and moving the savefile for your handheld version to so you can play the game on the go or experience local multiplayer easily.

While Monster Hunter Portable 3rd (and it’s HD equivalent) didn’t start this idea it provides gamers lucky enough to experience it, with probably the most seamless and easy-to-use online multiplayer experiences since in a Monster Hunter game so far. Crucially it may give some clues for how Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s implementation may work too.

Moving my Monster Hunter save file from my PSP to the PS3.Choosing between playing Monster Hunter Portable 3rd or starting up ad-hoc party.

Phantasy Star Online versus Monster Hunter

Sega announced that Phantasy Star Online 2 would have cross platform support between the PC and Vita versions. Phantasy Star Online is in many ways the predecessor to Monster Hunter, highlighting an audience of gamers that enjoy a real-time RPG multiplayer experience with cooperation at its core. This is evidenced by the fact that many PSO players took up Monster Hunter as a replacement to PSO and the concepts it pioneered.

PSO later found its stride again through it’s portable versions. However by then Monster Hunter had already exceeded it on handhelds through its strong emphasis on local, cooperative gaming. In essence Monster Hunter took up the mantle that PSO started. In a compelling chapter in the great multiplayer RPG story, it was the Phantasy Star Online series that announced cross-platform play for the masses through its Vita version of PSO 2, despite Monster Hunter implementing it first with Monster Hunter Portable 3rd.

It’s not too surprising that these two series are promoting a similar idea, since they share many of the same audiences. What is interesting is that both developers are using cross platform play as a marketing tool – another reason to buy a 3DS or Vita to support play on the go. This is beneficial to the developer as it also promotes the old mantra of console loyalty.

Because surprisingly, despite a rich history of cross-platform play, historically the idea hasn’t done very well outside of Japan, or is largely associated with niche or unsuccessful titles.

The title screen for MHP3s version of ad-hoc party.The lobby list for ad hoc party.

Other cross platform implementations

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate isn’t the first cross-platform implementation that Nintendo have supported. They tried their own version of it using the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance. This ranged from the odd game (such as Metroid Prime or Animal Crossing) having areas of the game that couldn’t be accessed without a GBA being connected to the Gamecube as another controller, it was also used successfully for map treatments and the display of secret information in games like Wind Waker.

The most extensive support for this system was saved for Zelda: Four Swords Adventures and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, where four player multiplayer for these games required each player to have a Gameboy advance plugged into the Gamecube using a special connector. The GBA then served as the controller for the game, showing the players inventory, map or gameplay screens related to them on their own personal screen. It was a neat way to sidestep the issues of local multiplayer RPGs, that often require a lot of information to be shown on one screen, or the other problem of two or more players being tied to the time it takes for another player to organise their equipment.

It was a rare and interesting way to experience these two titles for those that not only had the money and equipment to support this premise, but also the time and investment needed to encourage other friends to experience the game with them. For many though the barriers to entry were too high, and many people didn’t get to play these Gamecube titles as intended, and the technology itself became not much more than an old gaming curio.

This wasn’t the first foray into these sorts of console and handheld connectivity though. Famously both Sony and Sega dabbled with the idea of a memory card (or other peripheral) serving as a mini-game station that was related to the game you were playing. Many Dreamcast games supported this feature through the VMU, better implementations of this include on the original Sonic Adventure game which allowed you to manage and train your Chao outside of the game, then update your game data with the progress made by booting up the game again. Tellingly Sony’s Pocketstation for the original Playstation used a similar idea much earlier on, but never made it outside of Japan.

Different platforms playing together

So cross play has a long, and interesting history. Despite that the examples of its usages are rare, the various implementations were great to experience for those lucky enough to play the games during their limited life cycle.

Recently cross play has had a bit of a revolution. It was briefly left to games like Shadowrun and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time to continue the idea. However Portal 2 has also famously used this model with more notable success, allowing PC and PS3 gamers to play cooperatively with their friends through Steam access.

So Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate will be the most ambitious chapter in the cross compatible platform legacy. Many Monster Hunters look forward to seeing not only this implementation, but how it may determine the cross play future of this series and others.