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.

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.

Video games

Gaming as a motivation

Video games are the best muse I could ever ask for. When I’m unwell I turn to a certain to a certain calibre of game to keep my most pained moments as comfortable and enriching as I can.

I now use gaming not just to relax but to claw back some productivity from my body, to feel like the hours of downtime are time well spent. To ease my mind away from what I can’t do, and feel nourished by what I can.

A humbling experience

When I am unwell I am unable to do anything other sit or lie down and keep still. It’s a murderous lack of activity for an active mind. In truth gaming has become the most effortless activity I can manage when I am in pain. A small part of me is grateful for the moments of relief that indulging in gaming gives me.

On a wider note for all though, gaming indulgence isn’t a bad thing. Ruminating on what to play during a particularly difficult week of pain, the desire to play Shadow of the Colossus hit me.

There’s something about the grandeur of Shadow of the Colossus that makes you feel unworthy of its message. There’s a level of intimidating beauty on display here that makes it effortless to forget the pain surging through my body. The delicate animations of Agro, the blending of colour and light as Wanda rides over the landscape. The accumulation of sand and dust fizzing around you, with a haunting soundtrack which lingers on the brain weeks after you finished the game.

Games like Shadow of the Colossus are the reason I fell in love with gaming all those years ago. It has a central metaphor to the narrative that takes intelligence to unravel, a quiet but intensely clever puzzle element, a gentle landscape that lulls me away from all my troubles. The potent design of Shadow of the Colossus reminds me that it is perfect rationality for our hobby. The combination of some of game developments finest minds collaborating to make something truly humbling.

In Shadow’s vast and beautiful window on a masterfully created environment, I am reminded of what is genuinely special about our medium, how games can motivate and inspire this community more than any song, any artist, any film or play. Precisely because of how unique the experience of playing a game can be.

Wanda and Agro stand attentively by a bridge.A beautiful view by a tree

An extraordinary muse

Games are the gentle rhythm powering me through each day, by making the downtime and the pain delicately manageable. It has become my muse, my fine and unwavering inspiration to create, the motivation to finish a complicated project, to start work on improving something that has failed me for weeks. Ultimately video games are the positive experiences keeping my mind engaged and body free from pain.

It’s become more to me than a mere entertainment form, gaming is now the fuel for my mind, in both creative and rational spheres. I like to think I have an enriched mind as a result rather than the flat and absorbed brain that many equate to the sensation of an addiction.

No, gaming has culminated in hundreds of awe-inspiring experiences like Shadow of the Colossus to fuse itself indelibly to my personality and way of thinking. It has done so by comprising an appealing intellectual lubricant to my daily humdrum. I realised the extraordinary properties of video games all those years ago as a toddler, free from the bias that comes with adulthood. I’ve never forgotten how inspiring games can be, it just takes a truly remarkable game like this one to remind me of how I easily I fell in love all those years ago.

Video games

Let’s go back to independent games retail

Earlier this week Game Group went into administration. With around 600 Game and Gamestation stores here it is the largest specialist games retailer in the UK.

Despite this dark week for games retail I implored gamers on Twitter to support other independent game shops on the high street. Many supported this notion, but lots more pointed out they had no indies near them – that’s tragic – but I can’t help but feel we as consumers are partly to blame for this.

Our independent gaming history

We have a vibrant video game history in this country. It’s not as well documented as other countries, but despite that, important franchises and development houses were born here, often fresh from the bedroom development scene of the early 1980s.

We had that same patchwork of independent games retailers too, who were usually fans of gaming with business acumen who realised that there was a gap in the market the came with the proliferation of games and games systems. We were largely safe from the video games crash of 1983 precisely because the majority of our developers, publishers, and home computers were based here and nearly totally uncoupled from the American market.

So these independent gamers realised that high street shops like Woolworths, Boots* and WH Smith etc were not always best placed to sell games. Sure they could put them on shelves with prices, but their staff weren’t best equipped to answer questions about what was the best console port from arcade, or what games were best suited to a player based on what else they enjoyed.

Then in 1995 (when the first big US games retailer hit our shores in the form of Electronics Boutique) this idea of independent games shop sort of fell by the wayside. By the time all EBs became Game we’d all collectively coasted along with this new model of games specialists.

Coasting off a monopoly

Game (and with their uncontested acquisition of Gamestation in 2007) became the de-facto shop Britain thinks of when it comes to game shops. More importantly this retail chain has become the retail experience by which we were all judged by non-gamers in turn. If less gaming-savvy relatives or friends wanted to buy us a game for Christmas they’d go to Game, it seemed easier than researching the title involved themselves, going online, or popping into a independent shop.

Why? Because as my Twitter audience pointed out there simply aren’t many independent retailers on the high street anymore, and if there are, they’ve been totally dwarfed by the Game/Gamestation behemoth.

However we’ve partly perpetuated this by feeding back into the loop of Game equalling the only Game shop. In turn Game and Gamestations senior management relied too heavily on our laziness. They collectively focused less (at a senior management level at least, I have no issue with the bods on the retail floor) on the experience of games shopping, and fell more inline with the experience of the very high street shops that those savvy gaming businessmen swore all those years ago to deviate from.

Game and Gamestation became another ordinary shop in all but name, still defending their “game specialist” status, but bar a few notable examples of specialism (midnight launches, pre-orders) not really providing much that you couldn’t experience in any other store, and at a premium at that. The idea of game retail specialist became a complete fallacy because Game Group had totally watered the idea down. In the process of their dominance many independent shops couldn’t compete, gamers that didn’t like the new model or weren’t catered for by Game Group went online.

One area where most high street retailers fail in regards to games is the fact that many don’t even to continue to properly support our gaming history by providing easy access to retro titles, or even the “niche” titles that befit a games specialist. These titles now can’t be found anywhere else but online, fuelling the need for people with an ardent interest in games to go elsewhere.

Where the indies come in

This week has shown that one giant games retailer doesn’t always work in the best interest of it’s audience. I’d like to see more indie stores, tweaked and tailored to the unique needs of the local area, filled with gamers or at least people that properly respect gaming at every appreciable level. It might make for a better and more sustainable business model.

They should stock what gamers want (and that means all gamers) not just the audience that Game caters for now (with all the major franchises in tow, but minimal numbers of much else). Pre-owned retro stock shouldn’t just be a nice to have. Additionally game shops are on the high street have become far too focused on the last six to twelve months of gaming. Good indies cater as far back as their customer base wants, as well as offering pre-orders for all and any new games, not just major titles.

My most important requirement form a specialist games retailer is a helpful and respectful shopping experience with friendly staff that make people want to commit to shopping locally rather than going online or via a supermarket. We gamers often have more disposable income than other consumers and yet we’re still chasing the cheapest price when many other local retailers (particularly those stocking locally sourced food and crafts) are having a bit of a renaissance here. We’re starting (with other things we need at least) to go back to the idea of customer loyalty, and that’s genuine loyalty not shown with cards, but with footfall and returning business.

So why not with games? Independent shops won’t exist where they’re not supported, and while the Game Group situation may may survive in some form, we as consumer have a chance for a new and better model for games retail. Let’s not waste it.

* Yes, once upon a time, Boots did in fact sell video games. Boots is a very famous pharmacy chain in the UK.

Video games

The regional bias of voice acting

I have become so accustomed to Japanese character models and American voice acting that Xenoblade’s British voice acting cast came as quite a shock to me as a Brit (and no doubt to a great many American gamers who imported the game).

Xenoblade’s British streak hints at something lacking in more of our gaming experiences (in English at least). We’ve lost a lot of our world view. We’ve started to expect the characters in our games to sound a certain way. With all the same regional hallmarks.

Sounding distinctly foreign

Xenoblade’s British voice acting cast came as a welcome shock to me. It was wonderful to hear many of my native tones and accents pour of the screen. It was also strangely jarring. I grew up with games that didn’t speak, and those that did were a rare and impressive novelty. My immersion into game characters sounding a certain way came very slowly.

I read text heavy games such as Final Fantasy VII in my own style internally, I imagined Cloud and the other characters speaking in my native accent, in the same way that you imagine a character in a book looking or sounding in a way particular to your own instincts and background. That’s not to say that’s how any of those characters sounded, but that’s merely how I imagined them within the framework of what I knew.

Over time though this imaginative approach to gaming has been slowly eroded away by the inclusion of voice acting. While this is for the most part totally welcome it’s definitely affected the way that I now perceive games. I don’t even blink hearing lead characters with an American accent anymore, or even a Japanese audio track.

Yet hearing the Xenoblade characters for the first few minutes was very hard work – despite how brilliant the voice acting is. The British tones are how I hear Shulk and Reyn when I imagine them now – without question. I was merely taken aback by how ubiquitous American and Japanese voices have become in the gaming world, how rare and exciting it was to hear my own country in the audio track of this distinctly Japanese game.

I hadn’t realised this voice casting bias had happened until Xenoblade came along, and now I’ve realised it, it’s really made me question why more games aren’t voiced by people from another region.

Xenoblade’s not the only example of British voice acting of course, but it’s one of the first I’ve experienced, and certainly the first one to really make me sit up and think about this, precisely because of the polarity between how this games sounds and what I am used to. It’s marvellous.

A slow change in standards

Of course the quality of the voice acting in a game is an important factor too. A good voice acting cast will often make me forget about the original nationality of the voice actors. Mass Effect is a great example of this. The only reason I found Xenoblade so briefly jarring was because of the rarity of hearing my native accent in the context of a game.

Another difficulty with voice acting comes with the localisation and modernisation of older games that didn’t previously have an audio track for voices. A part of me still prefers to read game dialogue than to hear it, as I can take in the story at my own pace – perhaps faster or even slower than someone acting the part could allow.

It can also be extremely hard to hear characters you know intimately who were previously silent. I still can’t watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children with the English audio track. No one will ever sound or come close to sounding how I imagined those characters through our hundreds of hours together. The “sound” of that game has become something very personal to me, and it’s a difficult listen for someone else to retrospectively try to voice those characters.

That’s why a game like Xenoblade stands more of a chance at exposing the issue of the lack of variety of video game voice acting. The characters are new to us and stand a better chance of making their mark as to how those characters should sound to a Western audience.

The fact that it’s come to Europe first means the localisation has been done with a European audience in mind, with a voice cast to match, and that’s turning the tables to an American audience, forcing some gamers (perhaps sometimes uncomfortably) to realise what we on this side of the Atlantic have realised for some time. That voice acting may not always be pretty – that it can infuriate and not always be appropriate to your needs, or how you feel a character should sound.

Certainly not in Xenoblade’s case though, I think the voice cast have done a fabulous job, and I highly recommend any American gamers awaiting the NA release try it (rather than the Japanese voices) to see what I mean.